More Q&A with Kit Foster: March 3, 2009

Questions and answers on 1950 Pontiac L-head engines; 1977 Camaro Rally Sport transmission and shift knobs; Tom McCahill's 1955 T-bird; and Vibrasonic reverb unit for a radio.
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To submit questions to this column: E-mail or mail to: Q&A, c/o Ron Kowalke, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990-0001

Q. It seems to me that in my youth in the 1950s Pontiac made both a straight six and a straight eight. These were flathead powerplants with valves below the cylinder head, perhaps referred to as an L-head engine. Clifford Herold, Jr., Howell, Mich.

A. You remember correctly, and that would also be the case if your youth had occurred in the 1930s or ’40s. The Pontiac began life as a six in 1926. Initially it was a lower-priced “companion” make to Oakland. Pontiac was so successful that for 1932 it supplanted Oakland entirely, although the last Oakland model, a V-8, was carried over with the Pontiac nameplate. Then in 1933, all Pontiacs became straight eights. The six returned in 1935, and from then until 1954, both sixes and eights were offered, all in L-head configuration. The first overhead-valve Pontiacs were the 1955 models, all with V-8 engines. The 1954 Pontiac shares with that year’s Packard the distinction of being the last American production straight eight.

Q. In late spring of 1977, I ordered a new Camaro Rally Sport with a four-speed. It was built on June 22, 1977. When it was two years old, I tried to order a new shift knob from the dealer. The parts manager couldn’t locate this part in any parts manual. The manual showed only shift balls with reverse to the left and up. My car had reverse to the left and down. The reverse position says “Lift R” on it and is black background with white letters and numbers. I’ve never seen another ’77 Camaro with this shift pattern. What make transmission did this car have, and was it a leftover from a parts stockpile? Jack Geisler, Jr., Ocean City, N.J.

A. Over to you, Camaro specialists. This one is outside of my expertise.

Q. I have a low-number 1965 Thunderbird convertible, #100032. I’m looking for info on what the VIN for the first ’65 convertible was. Can you direct me? Jim Randolph, via e-mail
Q. Back in the 1960s, I subscribed to Mechanix Illustrated and read “Uncle Tom” McCahill’s articles religiously. He once explained that he took delivery of the first 1955 Thunderbird off the assembly line. I remember for certain it was black. I recently received an auction brochure showing a black ’55 Thunderbird, serial number 1. Would this be Tom McCahill’s T-bird? If not, does anyone know the whereabouts of Uncle Tom’s T-bird? Andy Unrine, via e-mail

A. I’ll answer these two related questions together. I’ve mentioned before that cars do not necessarily come off the assembly line in VIN order. That applies to these Thunderbirds, too. Numbers are assigned more or less sequentially as the cars are scheduled for production. There are many reasons the order may be shuffled before the cars actually emerge from the line, including production efficiency, parts supply or cars needing correction. There’s more information on Thunderbird VINs at the Thunderbird Registry pages on the internet,, including the above caveat about apparent order. Interestingly, both the T-birds mentioned in the questions above have VINs lower than those shown on the registry pages, which identify 100005 as lowest for 1955 and 100039 for ’65, the latter a convertible. Further, the Classic Thunderbird Club International ( identifies the first production ’55 T-bird as P5FH-100005. It’s black. This may be the car you refer to as “serial number 1.” CTCI doesn’t mention Tom McCahill.

Q. Some time back a question was asked concerning a Vibrasonic reverb unit for a radio. I had one in my 1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 and loved it. Recently I was given a Motorola Vibrasonic unit, Model KM203R, serial number 4966. It has a ground wire (green), a hot wire (black), a pair of gray wires and a pair of brown wires that I assume go between the radio and the speakers. I don’t know which pair go to what. Can this unit be used with a modern solid state AM/FM radio, and if so, how should it be wired? Jerry Wagner, Jarrettsville, Md.

A. I believe the brown wires go to the rear speaker, the gray pair to the radio. The Vibrasonic is a single-channel unit, so you won’t get stereo. In fact, I don’t think it will work with a stereo radio, unless you use one unit per side, which might produce some odd effects. Also, check the audio output power of the radio. Modern units may put out more than the Vibrasonic was designed to handle. The information I have on ’60s car radios does not specify output power. These early reverb units were essentially a mechanical delay line, resembling a spring, that created an echo effect. Today, the “concert hall effect” is synthesized electronically.

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