[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden of Richardson, Texas, regales us again with tales of his wayward youth spent in fast cars. This week he recalls street racing against a 409-powered Chevrolet.]
The baby-blue 1940 Ford convertible with top down, engine straining, was doing 90 miles per hour. Wearing no seat belt and sweating, I suddenly imagined myself flying like a cannonball from the rear seat and landing head first on the pavement.
We were side-by-side, but losing, to a 1961 Pontiac Bonneville on a dark stretch of dangerous three-lane highway called “Seven Bridges Road” near Springfield, New Jersey. Heading straight at us as we rocketed forward in the middle lane were the high beams of an oncoming car.
Heart pumping like crazy, I was eternally grateful when the Ford’s driver, a high school buddy, slowed and pulled behind the Pontiac…just in time. His car, named “Blue Moon” after the hit rock-and-roll song that year, was fast—it had a 1955 Corvette engine—but no match for the big-block Bonneville.
The wild summer of ’62
That’s the way things went that summer of 1962. Fast and furious…punctuated by beer drinking, drag racing, cute girls at the New Jersey shore, and dirty hands from hours working on hotrods. Grease under fingernails was a boy’s badge of honor. My friends and I were 18, high school graduates, and feeling our oats.
Hotrods were hotrods back then and the word “ratrod” didn’t exist. But another friend, Barry, had a 1934 Ford five-window coupe, hand-sprayed in different shades of primer, deserving of that title. Devoid of fenders and bumpers, top chopped four inches and interior stripped of headliner, seats and window cranks, the car was a missile on wheels.
Sitting prominently in front was a 1953 Cadillac 331-inch V-8—bored to 365 inches—sporting chrome valve covers and three two-barrel carburetors. A three-foot-long metal gearshift rod jutting from the floor connected to a three-speed La Salle top-loader transmission sitting between two seat cushions.
There were a few gauges—speedometer, oil and generator—on the dash. Simple switches controlled headlights and a single windshield wiper motor. Although the car had shocks and springs, skinny tires transmitted every road noise they encountered through the metal floorboard. At least our butts had an inch of foam rubber to sit on.
There was an alley behind Barry’s house and I’d join him and others in his driveway at night for beer drinking, car building and storytelling. A spotlight on the garage wall kept us talking, laughing and working into the wee hours of the morning. I’m sure neighbors trying to sleep hated our guts.
When it came to cars, Barry was a mechanical genius. Using no special tools, he single-handedly took apart the Caddy engine and rebuilt it without consulting a repair manual. And when he started it the first time, it roared to life and settled down into a whisper-quiet idle. I was in awe of the handsome engine, which had dual exhausts, tiny chrome air cleaners and produced around 300 horsepower…more than enough to turn a 1,200-pound car into a rocket.
It took most of the spring, but by late May the Ford was ready for its maiden run. Nothing in all my years of motoring compared to that ride. Everything—sights, sounds and sensations—was in bold relief. The Caddy engine boomed through mufflers directly under our butts, La Salle gears whined with metal-on-metal machinations (Barry added 140-weight gear oil to silence the synchronizers), mechanical brakes squealed like tortured pigs and exposed, fender-less tires—spinning at eye level only a few feet away—roared louder as our speed increased.
The world and highway presented themselves while looking out a five-inch-tall windshield…an act requiring bending heads low and lifting eyeballs high. Forget about rear visibility. The Ford had no rearview mirror. But it didn’t matter because the back window was even smaller than the front windshield.
It was all about raw power and spectacular acceleration. And it only took a few miles of driving to attract policemen in a squad car, who pulled us over for an inspection. They seemed more concerned with the car’s design and mechanical functions than our high-speed, stupid antics. Looking hard at every aspect of the car, it was obvious they didn’t like what they saw. Their goal was to get the car off the road.
There were tense discussions over the car’s lack of fenders. But realizing nothing violated the law, they turned to their last resort. Taking out a tape, an officer measured the single rear taillight and, much to his satisfaction, determined it was too close to the pavement. Although a minor violation, it resulted in the car being impounded.
Off to the police pound we drove, where the car took up residency until Barry could tow it home. A few weeks later, he fixed the Ford’s taillight “deficiency” and it was street-worthy again. I couldn’t wait to see how fast the car was…and I would soon find out.
The 409 in my future
One of the fastest cars in ’62 was the 409-cubic-inch Chevy with two four-barrel carbs and four-speed floor shift. The car was famous from the start. So much so the Beach Boys sang its praises in their hit song “409,” a silly—but chart-topping—single that assaulted teen ears with clever lyrics such as “Giddy-up, Giddy-up 409…she’s real fine my 409.”
I was a small-block Chevy V-8 fan. But it was a new ball game when the 348-inch big-block V-8 showed up in 1958. Disappointment set in, however, when riding in a friend’s Impala convertible with automatic transmission. Although the car’s 348-inch V-8 put out 250 horsepower, it couldn’t keep up with a ’57 Chevy with small-block 283-inch V-8 and four-speed.
More cubic inches were needed. Then, late in 1961, GM got serious and introduced an expanded version of the 348, the famed 409-inch big-block. It had all the right stuff, too, with increased compression and two four-barrel carbs. And it didn’t disappoint when installed with a four-speed in Chevy’s lightest sedans. A version called “Old Reliable,” built by race team Strickler & Jenkins, was running the quarter mile in 13.20s and at 110 MPH.
The first 409 Chevy I saw, a black Impala, galloped up one summer night at the Adventure Car Hop on Rt. 22 in Union, New Jersey. The driver, a guy with sideburns and a tight-lipped sneer, made it obvious he wanted to race Barry’s Ford. Such duels were signaled by hard, deadly stares between “combatants,” followed by loud throttle blips creating 5,000-RPM engine repercussions through glasspack mufflers.
The Adventure Car Hop was the perfect arena. Every Saturday night it crawled with young men, blood boiling and brains saturated with testosterone, looking for girls and challenges. They tooled through the parking lot, exhausts rapping, while occasionally doing 10-foot burn-outs. A cacophony of ear-splitting rock-and-roll—from Chuck Berry to Little Richard—poured from open windows, along with cigarette smoke and perfume, and filled the night air.
Prior to spotting the 409, Barry and I had our egos stoked by guys and their girlfriends who yelled praises for the Ford. The parade of hotrods crossing our path was endless and provoked discussions, debates and arguments. So many important, unanswered questions: Which car was fastest, had the most horsepower or could burn rubber the longest?
You knew immediately when a race was about to happen. Hastily downing burgers and shakes, removing window trays and starting engines, billows of blue smoke fouling the air, car after car rapidly departed the lot in full pursuit of the “contestants.” You had to be quick to see the race. Usually, all I saw was a long line of taillights and the victor, first to return on the opposite side of the highway, heading back to the Adventure.
Just as we were about to leave, the 409 Chevy pulled alongside Barry’s Ford at a turn-around. The stage was set. But fast-paced Friday night traffic fueled by drivers anxious to pull in for their burger-and-shake fix, made it impossible to move out. Barry, a dark-haired version of John Milner in “American Graffiti,” was ready. Gears clashed with a loud, angry grinding mash of steel on steel as he shifted the old La Salle tranny into first.
Finally, there was a break in traffic and both cars lurched forward with wheels spinning, valves and pistons pounding. My head snapped back as the Caddy V-8 quickly reached redline.
Looking to the side, I was amazed to see we were ahead by more than a car’s length. Engine heat poured through holes in the thin firewall, which had no insulation. The raucous exhaust of both cars made conversation impossible. It appeared we were beating—handily—the car legend called “409.”
Then tragedy struck. As Barry threw a speed shift, the La Salle tranny jammed between first and second gears. It had happened before and was the result of worn synchronizers.
“No, this can’t be happening,” my brain screamed. In dismay, we watched the 409 streak ahead and disappear into night traffic. My sense of justice was violated. I was pissed. We could have won…and we should have.
Oh, well, you should see faces—and hear laughter—when I tell this story to owners of 409 Chevys and ’34 Ford hotrods at car shows.
“The Chevy would have won anyway,” the 409 owners usually tell me.
“It’s too bad your friend didn’t have a decent tranny behind that Caddy V-8…he would have won hands down,” the ’34 Ford owners argue in rebuttal.
I know the ’34 Ford would have won… but I’ve learned to keep my opinions to myself (except now, of course).
As I think about that ratrod ’34 Ford and the wild summer of ’62, I’m just grateful my friends and I survived and can share great car memories. “Giddy-up 409.”
Barry sold the ’34 Ford at summer’s end, but not before removing the Caddy V-8 and transplanting it into another car…a cherry 1953 Studebaker that originally had an automatic and 85-hp inline six.
Mated to a three-speed manual transmission, the V-8 made the “Studillac” (pictured above) as fast as the ’34 Ford. As proof of the engine’s longevity, it still runs strong today and powers a ’32 Chrysler owned by Barry’s brother, Justin (pictured below).