Hot Rodding - The Glory Years

Publish date:

Old Cars Weekly archive – June 12, 2008 issue


Story by Chuck Klein

 This 1960 Chevrolet Corvette was similar to the vehicle with which Chuck Klein had many adventures.

This 1960 Chevrolet Corvette was similar to the vehicle with which Chuck Klein had many adventures.

Cresting the hill, almost side by side and at a little over 100 mph, the powerfulMarchal headlamps illuminated the reflective decals on the side of a city police car waiting for the light at Langdon Road.

I could see by the condition of the walk-wait signal that the light was about to change to red for our northbound cars. It was too late now. At about 70, we went through the red light together, Howard in his 270-hp+ Chevy and me in my hopped-up ’Vette. The cop didn’t waste any time in turning on his “bubble gum machine” and pulling around the line of cars waiting with him. Howard stopped in front of the high school, but I kept right on going, while flipping the switches I had installed to turn off my tail and brake lights.

It was late on a 1960 summer night when I saw my buddy Howard’s ’57 Chevy in the lot at the local White Castle Drive-in. Rumors had spread among our crowd that he had hopped-up his engine. All that was obvious were two-fours, anything else had to be hidden in the engine. “Anything” could include an Isky five-cycle cam and maybe oversized pistons, just for starters. The usual bravado about whose car was fastest led to the inevitable challenge of: “Do you want to talk or race?”

My ’60 Corvette, to which I had added three Rochester two-barrel carburetors on straight linkage plus additional enhancements, put out about 300 raw horsepower.

The only external change to the car was the addition of French Marchal head lamps to replace the outboard standard sealed beam lights.

Though it wasn’t set up for drag racing, it turned a respectable 99.3 mph in the quarter-mile.

Rules agreed to, we pulled onto Reading Road, a four-lane residential street in the northern part of Cincinnati. Just past Elizabeth Place we leveled offat 25 miles per hour.

I rolled down my window to hear the count, as Howard’s passenger shouted above the din, “One...two...three!”

At the sound of the magic number, I stabbed the throttle and hit the high beam switch.

The sudden acceleration slammed me to the seat back as I fixed one eye on the tach and put my full attention into hearing the engine. I got the jump on him, the three-twos and a lower first gear ratio, having the advantage on the low end.

The recent tune-up had not been in vain. In second gear of my close-ratio four-speed transmission (he had a three-speed) my lead increased.

Once into third and as we neared the top of the hill, just before Langdon Road, he began to close the distance — his two-fours and whatever else he had, now had the edge.

In order to avoid the officer, I turned right and drove on a side street until I got back to Langdon Road. Approaching the intersection, and seeingthere was no other traffic, I forced the ’Vette into a four-wheel drift.

The ’Vette, rigged for road racing with a quick-steering adapter, heavy-duty shocks and metallic brake linings, slid around the bend in perfect control — smoke billowing from the wheel wells as I poured the coal to her. From there I wound my way through the suburbs.

The last time I saw the cop, with his economy equipped six-banger, he was about a half-mile behind me and losing ground. I wasn’t worried about a road block because the city and the villages were on different radio frequencies.

Once at home, I put the ’Vette in the garage and found a key to my sister’s car, which we took back to White Castle.

Howard was waiting for us, grinning from ear to ear. He explained how John-law pulled next to him, told him to wait, and took off after me.

As soon as the cop was out of sight, Howard merely turned around and drove back to the drive-in.

The cop, obviously a rookie, had failed to copy his license plate number or even get a good look at Howard.

Another adventure a few years later when I was in college revolved around a neighbor girl, Suzie, I had avoided during high school. I had hung out with a wilder crowd and was embarrassed to ask her out.

Now that I was a college man I worked up the courage and talked her into a date.

Temperature-wise, it was a perfect evening. I had the top down and soft music playing from a 45-rpm record player. Slowly, to enjoy the music and not disturb her with the loud exhaust, we drove to a restaurant, turning every head we passed.

Though Corvettes weren’t common and car aficionados would always look, everyone noticed a beautiful blonde.

In September, she headed for the University of Colorado at Boulder and our courtship continued via mail.

In mid-January, exams over and during a conversation with my friend and fellow car club member, Chuck “Kookie” Koch, I suggested we run out to Boulder.

We followed state and federal highways (no expressways open then) through downtown Indianapolis and the heart of all other cities, stopping only for gas.

Between towns, traffic was usually thin. We were able to hold to a cruising speed of 90 mph — a pace that precluded the reading of Burma-Shave signs. At 90 mph, wind, engine and exhaust noise made all but shouted conversation impossible.

In other words, it was a comfortable pace that produced more than 14 miles per gallon. On the downside, the car did not have A/C, power windows, power brakes, power steering, steel belted radial tires and the manual heavy-duty clutch couldn’t be held in at a traffic light for more than 10 seconds before your leg began to shake.

Somewhere in eastern Kansas, in a dense fog and around 5 a.m., a rear wheel came off. Kookie was driving and did a great job of keeping the ’Vette on the road.

There was no damage to the car, but, due to the thick fog, we never found the wheel and tire.

We took a lug nut from each of the other wheels and used those three nuts to hold on the spare tire.

Limping into the next town we found a Chevrolet dealer, and after a two hour wait for them to open, we were on our way again.

In western Kansas, running the usual 90 per, a semi-truck emerged about a half mile ahead.

Maintaining the present speed it appeared we would pass the truck in the middle of an intersection.

The land was flat and the intersecting road was clear, so I just held her steady at 4000 rpm.

About halfway around the semi, over the double yellow line and at the intersection, I noticed a state trooper on the truck’s front bumper!

I opened her up while Kookie scanned the map. Accelerating past 125 mph, my co-pilot shouted we only had one small town and then about 10 miles to Colorado.

We were going to chance that there weren’t any other cops between us and the border. I could see in my mirror the distance between the truck and police car increasing — his red light now on — he was coming after us.

Approaching the small town, down-shifting and braking hard — fire shooting from the open lake-pipes (three-inch galvanized pipe welded to the header pipe) — people stopped with dropped jaws and stared.

I got down to under 60 in second gear to negotiate a hard left turn then got a piece of third before having to shut down for a 90-degree bend in the heart of town. Once through the business section, I redlined in third gear (about 107 mph) before leveling off again at 90.

The state trooper was no where in sight.

Inside Colorado, with Denver in view, we came around a bend in the road and there sat two state troopers.

Both pulled out after us. We got out of their sight over a small hill and slammed to a stop. Having anticipated this from previous high speed runs, Kookie and I were both wearing like-colored shirts. When the officers finally pulled up behind us, we were standing outside the car studying a road map. They couldn’t give us a ticket, because they were unable to determine who was driving. However, they let us know that Kansas had telephoned that we were coming and they were going to follow us all the way through their state if necessary. They stayed with us until we arrived in Boulder.

At the university, we found a motel and called Suzie. The next day, Suzie, a friend of hers, Kookie and myself went to see the mountains where we took pictures and enjoyed the day.

The trip home was uneventful except for the final leg in Indiana where we picked up a cop. But it was night. When out of his sight for an instant, I tripped the switch I had installed to cancel the left tail light.

After a few miles, the officer — who had been following two tail lights — must have figured we turned off and he gave up the chase.

The trip out took almost 24 hours due to losing the tire. Coming back, we covered the 1,190 miles in 19 hours, 5 minutes — a 63 mph average — all on two-lane roads with no side-lines and narrow, if any, shoulders.

I’ve never been sure the trip wasn’t more about the opportunity to road race than it was to see my girl.

The Corvette? In the summer of 1962, before I burned the valves experimenting with nitromethane and sold it to an unsuspecting dealer, I made one last run.

They had just opened the six-lane interstate between Cincinnati and Dayton and 12 of us — all in Corvettes — four rows of three — broke in the new road. With 10 Vettes to block cops, two at a time would line up, and from a roll, run flat out.

I was up against a 270-hp ’59, with a 3.55 axle and I beat him from 70 to about 120 mph, then his higher rear-end ratio allowed him to come on by.

Yeah, I know, we were crazy back then. But traffic was light, cops friendlier, radar not perfected and we were lucky.

Lucky to survive and lucky to have lived during this era.


How hot rodding came to be

Hot Rod: Performance enhancing a factory vehicle to increase its horsepower, acceleration and speed.

Though hot rodding began in the 1930s the effects of the Great Depression and World War II greatly suppressed its numbers. The glory years, which really didn’t get started until the 1950scarried on into the early ’60s. Hot rodding, especially street racing, became more prevalent due to an improved economy that had hindered the cash-strapped/gasoline-rationed past generation. Sans sanctioned drag strips, racing on the streets and highways were the only option for this new generation ofpioneer hot rodders. In addition, lagging police technology fueled this open road mentality that made “getting caught” a remote probability.

More powerful Detroit-built cars were often theresult of hot rodder innovations such as multiple carburetors, hi-performance cams and machining techniques that pushed the limits of factory production. Most of these mechanical changes were discovered by trial and error, but when they worked the “Big Three” (Ford, Chrysler, GM) took notice. Many of these “trials” really improved performances. “Errors” occurred when, say for example, one hot rodder learned that someone had successfully shaved .100 in. off his flywheel to which this hot rodder would think: if .100 in. is good for more speed, then .125 in. would be better. Sometimes these innovations worked and sometimes they caused the modified part to come apart at high speed. Additionally, hopping-up an engine put increased strains on other parts of the car – strains not envisioned or engineered for by the factory. One enthusiastic rodder installed a full-race Mercury Flathead engine into his otherwise stock 1949 Ford. This engine included porting and polishing, oversize bored block, a new crankshaft to increase the stroke, a racing camshaft, six Stromberg 97 carburetors, hi-compression heads and a few other goodies. He had a lot of added horsepower, but he never made it to the end of the quarter-mile drag strip. Every time he ran some stock part, such as a universal joint, rear axle, clutch or transmission, would break.

The “Big Three,” sometimes learning from the hot rodders’ innovations, began offering factory options such as hot cams, multi-carb set-ups and engineered drive trains to handle this increase in engine power. By the mid-1960s, hot-rodding, as the innovators had lived it, was passe´. No longer was it possible to win a race just because you could hop-up or do a better tune-up than the other guy. The advent of the “muscle car” era marked the beginning of the whoever-has-the-most-money wins the race. Sanctioned, produced and funded factory vehicles made drag racing an expensive and technologically intense venture.

Drag racing, at first, was a hobby whereas the hot rodder needed his rod for everyday transportation and thus couldn’t have a “full-race” engine or a show-quality finish. Fact was these modified and customized vehicles were usually never completely finished. Most exhibited primer paint and lacked upgraded interiors and spit-shined/chrome-plated engines — in direct contrast to hot rods of today. This was mostly due, not to limitations of time and money,but usually because of life changes such as marriage and children, and all that comes with it. Sure, Hot Rod Magazine displayed a finished rod on its cover every month, but those were more of the exception than the rule.

In the glory years, drag strips were few in number and fought against by local politicians. However, once city fathers were convinced that hot rod clubs, serious about legal racing, would punish club members who were caught racing on the streets, drag strips became more prevalent. In most communities, hot rod clubs would ban together to form an association and then seek a sympathetic police officer to help convince the political powers to authorize the building of a drag strip.

By the mid-’60s, the other factor, police technology, also contributed to fewer street races.

At the same time that political subdivisions were considering allowing sanctioned drag strips, they were also equipping their police departments with “interceptor” scout cars. These interceptors were mostly just unmarked, V-8-powered sedans with heavy-duty brakes and dash or grille-mounted red lights. Radio communication and radar improvements also put a serious damper on those who did their racing on the street.

By the 1980s, many former hot-rodders were settled in their careers, had a spare garage bay and began building modern street rods, drag-racing-only vehicles and show-only customs. Though these “finished” cars are what the owner had dreamed of in his early years, it wasn’t the same.

Chuck Klein is the author of Circa 1957 and The Way it Was, Nostalgic Tales of Hot Rods and Romance. Details about him and his books:

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