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Hot rod Stovebolts and other Chevrolet six-cylinder memories

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The venerable Chevrolet “stovebolt” six-cylinder engine first showed up in 1929. Photo by Jeff Koch.

[Editor’s Note: Another Jim Van Orden story for this week, regaling us with his encounters with Chevrolet’s various straight-six engines.]

It was the ultimate “sleeper.” No one suspected the car was fast.

Only 17 and feeling my oats, I drove the old Chevy like a maniac and enjoyed surprising V-8 drivers at stoplights. Shifting into first and revving the 235-cubic-inch, 135-horsepower “stovebolt” six, I’d pop the clutch and leave them in the dust.

This got me in trouble with the boss, a hard-working Swede who ran the hometown meat market. I daily cleaned his butcher blocks and delivered steaks in a 1957 Chevy 150 two-door commercial sedan.

The plain-Jane car, sporting only front bucket seats and a wood rear floor, was really a station wagon without side windows. Heavy-duty springs and shocks reminded you it was built for work, not fun.

But two factors made it fun to drive: a very low differential gear and stovebolt six developing max-torque at low rpm. This baby could haul meat faster than Porky Pig ran from the big bad wolf. It didn’t take much to spin rear tires. Most races were over before shifting into second.

Then one day the gear linkage failed when speed-shifting. It wasn’t easy explaining to the boss what happened. I was grateful he didn’t fire me.

The plain-Jane ’57 Chevy 150 sedan delivery vehicle I drove had low gears and torquey stovebolt six that made it fast off the line. Image courtesy Alden Jewell.

I really liked the stovebolt six. It revved like Chevy’s small-block V-8 and got decent gas mileage. It took some growing up to learn why it was called a “stovebolt.” As I discovered, the engine used slotted bolts like those on 1920s-30s wood-burning stoves to secure components.

The fastest stovebolt in my life showed about the time I turned 18. “Martha,” a brown-and-white ’53 Chevy convertible owned by a friend, Justin, had been transformed from an underdog into a roaring beast.

Ripping out the stock stovebolt, he replaced it with a bored-out “Jimmy” GMC truck engine mated to a three-speed manual transmission. An Iskenderian racing cam made the stovebolt vibrate angrily.

But what made the engine rage with power was its intake manifold. Three two-barrel carbs with chrome air cleaners were reminiscent of the ’53 Vette’s three one-barrel set-up. “Martha” was genuinely fast…V8 fast…and demonstrated the stovebolt’s potential for power and speed.

Justin’s ’53 Chevy convertible with “Jimmy” GMC stovebolt had three two-barrel carbs. The set-up was similar to—but better than—the three one-barrel carbs on the ’53 Vette. Photo courtesy RM Sotheby’s.

Dad’s stovebolts were slow
Dad stoked my interest in stovebolts early in life. He owned four six-cylinder Chevrolets and constantly sang praises for their dependability and economy.

Unfortunately, Dad’s Chevys were slow…like his first stovebolt, a black, 1948 four-door, which strained on steep grades. The 216-cubic-inch, 90-horsepower engine made memorable sounds. Valve lifters tapped loudly and grew more raucous as rpm’s increased. A whiney, high-pitched three-speed transmission was music to seven-year-old ears.

I was excited when he replaced “Cleopatra,” as Mom called it, with a two-door, black and stripped-down 1950 Chevy. It had the same engine and three-speed as the ’48 model, but its design was more stylish. It also had something I appreciated in the ’48 Chevy: an enormous back seat allowed me to spread out and sleep.

Dad wanted more power in 1955 and bought a ’53 Chevy—black with standard shift—with the 235-cubic-inch, 108-horsepower stovebolt. Like previous Chevys, it was the most basic model available.

“Why didn’t you buy a ’55 Chevy with the small-block V-8?” I asked.

“Gasoline is getting more expensive, Jim, and the six gets better mileage.”

Dad’s 1948 Chevrolet had a 216-cubic-inch “stovebolt” six. The car wasn’t fast, but it had plenty of backseat room to spread out and sleep. Image courtesy

As the 1950s merged into the ‘60s and my high school days ended, Dad bought his final stovebolt, a turquoise ‘61 Chevrolet Biscayne. The car was larger and heavier than previous Chevys. Despite having the more powerful 235-cubic-inch, 135-horsepower engine, it was slow because it had the tepid PowerGlide transmission.

Stovebolts and school buses
Boys quickly become men, marry and leave their parents. My bride, Grace, and I headed to Chicago after our 1966 wedding. She took a job with Illinois Bell and I studied at Northwestern University. To supplement our income, I got work as a school bus driver.

My rickety bus was a 1948 GMC with—you guessed it—stovebolt six. Its four-speed transmission connected to a four-foot shift rod that shook more than Minsky’s strippers. A worn out clutch guaranteed every shift ground gears.

The stovebolt had so few ponies the bus could barely achieve 50. Exhaust smoke billowed from a loud tailpipe and a burned oil smell permeated the interior. Brakes squealed and a worn out suspension allowed the vehicle to lean dangerously.

Grace pushed me out of bed each morning and I walked to a garage housing ancient GMC buses. Transporting up to 30 students and driving more than 100 miles daily, I quickly learned Chicago’s mean streets.

“Help, help…I can’t breathe!”

Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a boy, arms and hands flailing, being choked by a bully holding a thin rope.

“Let go of that rope!” I yelled.

Wipers pumping furiously, heavy snow on the windshield made it impossible to see. The vehicle’s heater was on full power, but ice was too thick to melt. I was driving blind.

Horns blasted as I swerved across Chicago’s Riverside Drive in rush hour traffic. My passengers joined the choked boy in a chorus of screams. Just as I reached the shoulder, the stovebolt died and the vehicle stopped, slamming into a snowdrift created by snowplows.

I ran to the back of the bus and separated the boys. The “choke-ee” was pale but breathing; the “choker” still had murder in his eyes. I calmed the children by telling them help was on the way. What a lie. It was 1966 and there were no cell phones. No hazard flashers on the bus, either…just an emergency number on the visor.

Stepping out into foot-deep snow, I looked for a payphone. Luck was on my side as one showed up 100 yards away. I even had loose change, but fingers barely worked as I slipped a quarter into the slot and dialed the emergency number.

“The number you dialed has been disconnected” sang a cheery recording.

I tried the number again…and got the same message. Then I called Grace, who contacted the bus company. A supervisor told her he would send a tow truck.

We waited two hours because the truck got stuck in traffic. What do you do with shivering children during a blizzard? We marched the aisle, sang and did jumping jacks to stay warm. A strange thing happened, too. The “choker” and “choke-ee” got along and became friends.

Uncle Arlington’s hotrod stovebolt
Fast forward to 1968. Grace and I now lived in Austin, Texas, where I studied at the University of Texas.

Flying to Dallas on vacation, we were met at Love Field Airport by my aunt and uncle, Arlington and Elsie Fry Barger, who drove up in their new 1968 Camaro.

Uncle Arlington’s 1968 Camaro sported a Muncie four-speed floor shift and “stovebolt” six. He and Aunt Elsie enjoyed its power. Photo by the author.

It was the Camaro’s second year of production and I had never seen one up close. The car was impressive and I wondered if Arlington would show off its capabilities.

No sooner had we hit the road than he floored it and shifted the Muncie four-speed with authority. The car had brisk acceleration. I noticed there were no V-8 symbols on the fenders.

“What’s under the hood?” I asked. He told me it was the 250-cubic-inch, 150-hp six. Although it looked similar, it wasn’t the old stovebolt I remembered. GM was now producing a new generation of sixes. I wondered why he hadn’t bought the V-8?

“My job requires highway travel and good gas mileage,” he said. “Besides, the six has almost as much low-end torque as the V-8.” Judging by the Camaro’s quick acceleration, I thought he might be right.

Sadly, 27 years later, Arlington asked me to sell his prized Camaro when he was diagnosed with terminal lung disease.

“Get a good price…I need cash for your aunt,” he told me. Acting swiftly, I put an ad and photo in Hemmings and wondered if anyone wanted a six-cylinder Camaro?

Amazingly, more than 100 calls came in within two days. A Georgia doctor said “Don’t sell that car. I’ll give you 25 percent more than anyone else and be there tomorrow with my trailer.”

I told him I’d hold the car only if he arrived when promised. He showed up the next day and gave Arlington a check for $5,000, which we thought was generous.

In recent years, I’ve told this story to Camaro owners and they’ve said I should have held out for more. Turns out, not many Camaros were made with the four-speed and six. In fact, most Camaro owners said they had never seen one.

I was proud to have driven Arlington’s Camaro. It truly was a “hotrod six.”

Stovebolting to LBJ’s ranch
Our last year in Austin was 1969, a tumultuous time in America marked by race riots and war protests. We were lucky to hold jobs at the Y.M.C.A. Although our pay was meager, the work—Grace as front-office secretary and I as a swimming instructor—put food on the table.

The summer heat was brutal. I felt badly for Grace, who toiled in the non-air conditioned building. My office was a cool Lake Austin dock…as well as the hot driver’s seat of a stovebolt-powered 1956 GMC school bus.

“Guess what?” Grace said one afternoon after I returned with campers from the lake. “I got permission for you to take the boys to the LBJ ranch.”

In a bold initiative, she wrote to President Lyndon Baines Johnson and received a warm invitation for campers to tour the “Summer White House.” A week later, I drove 30 boys in the dilapidated bus, stovebolt straining as we traversed the beautiful Texas “Hill Country,” on a 75-mile journey southwest to Johnson City.

We pulled off the highway and followed a gravel road flanking the Pedernales River. Ahead was a compound made up of barns, graveyard and, surrounded by walnut trees, the white house where LBJ and his wife, Ladybird, resided.

Photo courtesy LBJ Library.

Exhausted and sweaty, we lined up for photos below a white-rail fence on the front lawn. Heavy footsteps got my attention. LBJ stood there dressed in khaki shirt and pants. Waving, he boomed “Howdy, welcome to the ranch!”…and glared at me when I gave him a firm handshake.

“Easy, boy…Easy, boy!” he yelled, and I relinquished my grip. “You see this hand?” he exclaimed, holding it high and spreading fingers. “I had an operation to remove warts. It hurts to shake too hard.”

As he continued, two men in black suits, concerned over his upset, emerged from the front door. Waving them off, LBJ continued: “Boys, I want to tell you a story.”

Looking tired, he talked about the “Perd-nales” River and Johnsons who preceded him. The story was disjointed. The boys were restless as they stood in the sweltering sun. I wondered if LBJ was going to faint.

“I’ll take over now, Baines.” Striding swiftly toward her husband, Ladybird came to his side and, pulling his shirt, said “Why don’t you go inside and have a glass of lemonade.” Without saying a word, he waved and ambled to the door, black-suited men following in his wake.

Ladybird picked up on LBJ’s story. The boys were spell-bound…she was an excellent story-teller. When it was over, we walked with her to the cemetery and she pointed to tombstones of family members identified in her story.

Looking in the mirror, boys seated and exhausted, I saw Ladybird waving as I drove away from the compound. Our visit and LBJ’s presidency were over. And so were my stovebolt days.