by geezer in Paris
Sat Jan 15th, 2011 at 03:11:52 PM EST
Long talk with Len convinced me to post a real bit of memoir. In part as an antidote to the flavor of the times, and as balance for some of the dark diaries I have done here before.
It was an incredibly beautiful car, and incredibly dangerous.
Low and broad, with a rounded feline shape and little useless ornament for the time, it was functional yet lovely. Suspension so stiff that you felt every wrinkle in the Ohio roads. Quick steering- if you coughed, you could take out a stop sign. And when you slid behind the wheel, you wore the car.
True love for me, but of course my dad hated it.
I remember the three of us standing in the snow at the back of the dealer's lot, shuffling our feet to keep warm as the red and black Corvette was unloaded from the carrier. The dealer insisted on delivering it to Tom's door. It took him three hours to drive thirty blocks, he put over a hundred miles on the car, and arrived with a wall to wall grin. As soon as it arrived we took our own rides, and the day was filled with joy. The new car scent, the sound and feel, the power- it was an intoxicating mix. Then it went straight into the garage where we taped brown paper over the coachwork, removed the hood, and tore it down to a pile of metal.
We had a plan.
The standard high-end Corvette 283 cubic inch V-8 had two Rochester 4-barrel carbs from the factory, and could benefit from Arkus Duntov's lovely high- overlap camshaft with solid lifters, a combination that made her grumble and gargle at idle, but just come alive at about 3,500 RPM. We bored it .090, took .040 off the heads, found some fly-cut pistons and a forged crank. With a beautiful port and polish job, good headers and a full balance job, it all added a thousand RPM and around another 100 hp on top of stock. To get that power on the road we changed to a Borg-Warner T-10 close ratio gearbox with Hurst shifter and 3.90 Positraction road hauler rear end with traction bars.
A bit heavy, with suspension outdated even then, the Corvette was still perfectly suited to Midwest highway combat, which was really what it was made for. Those were the days when traffic as we know it today happened on a few urban freeways, at rush hour. If you picked your time and location, the excellent Ohio roads were a relatively safe playground. We worked late, and two months later we drove the modified version the first time, and we knew the cat had become a real beast. Driving it was utterly addicting for all three of us. It is a miracle that we all survived the habit.
The original owner, Tom, had the savings to buy a brand new 1959 corvette, but not enough income to keep it. When the payments overwhelmed him and his dad refused to bail him out, he sold it to Richard, who met a similar fate and joined the Navy. I inherited the whole project, and it was still only 1961. Since I was fresh out of high school, young and dumb, I held two jobs to pay for the thing. I got up at 4 AM to go to the first one.
Start her up to warm the oil, dash back in the house for a bowl of cereal and then out the door and onto the icy seats, with the blended scent of warming leather and engine oil. The finest perfume on earth.
Lurching down Fishinger road, too slow for the cam, the engine begins to smooth out at the bridge. I swing north onto the Scioto River road. There's no traffic on the river road in the early morning, and, engine now warm, I do my wake-up routine. Foot in the fan, tires smoke; no more than two seconds in low, gear up at 6500, feather it, gear up again and still the rear end breaks loose for a second in third as the tires heat, but I do not let up, I just drift with it. I feel the grin creeping over my face, and nine seconds later, I'm sweeping around the first river bend at over one hundred miles per hour. With lots left in third and fourth gear still to go, I am pressed back in my seat, submerged in the car's feral music. The howl of the gearbox next to my knee, the high-end song of that lovely V-8, the animal aliveness of kinetic ecstasy echoes in my soul.
Then and now.
Freeway Texaco, and the graveyard shift. It's the dead of winter, and I work in the snow alone on the ramp till 9:30 a.m., then change in the restroom and rush off to my 10 a.m. calculus class at Ohio State University. My lovely redhead Anna meets me at Mendenhall Lab for a kiss, and brings coffee. Sitting next to the radiator in the ancient auditorium amid three hundred or so other undergraduate math students, it's a desperate, losing battle to stay awake. An hour later we trudge across the oval, me to my drafting class and she to her physics. At 4:30 I'm off to study, so tired I fall asleep instead.
Up at 4AM for work. On the icy winter ramp, in the stark gloom of the night lights I struggle to remain alert for the snaky, whiny sound of tires sliding on the packed snow; a sound that warns of the deadly danger of another highway hypnosis case sliding across the ramp toward the pumps.
Third quarter of the year at Ohio State, and I get the letter. Pick up the grades or you're out. I push myself harder, cut back the racing to one weekend a month. Still, I win a chance to go to the NHRA drag races at Indiannapolis, and we work on the car till we drop. Anna is a tower of strength, but she's growing fed up. "I'm a car widow, and we're not even married!" A tenth of a second off the winning time in our class, we lose at Indy.
I go to school over the summer to bring up my grades. ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) eats more time, I hate my classes, I finally flunk out. And sweet, brave Anna finds a safer companion to hang out with. Still the morning ritual, my refuge, revives me, embraces me, blesses my soul with a glimpse of real life. life at warp speed.
Twisted tight, 6800 in fourth, the speedo long buried past any reading, the car snake dances. Past her aerodynamic design limits, she becomes light in the rear. Life or death is a light touch, anticipation of the change in crosswind from a space between the trees, or the wake of the odd innocent driver, goggling as the red flash flickers by.
Past Hayn Run Road and almost at the zoo, I lift -gently- and let the engine drag her down. Ten curving miles in just over six minutes.
Never, never lift hard at real speed in the old Corvette body. The rear will just drift away, and you join the statistics.
Past the zoo, backing slowly down with the headers cooling past dull red, the whole car smells of burnt metal, brakes and hot rubber, with just a whiff of leather.