Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Four On The Floor


The First Cut Is The Deepest

In the Fall of 1972 my Dad and I had already been looking at cars for weeks… it seemed like forever to this newly-licensed 16-year-old working his first real job. There’d been several vehicle near-misses and each time Dad steered me clear of what would have been a disastrous choice. He did what he was supposed to do when his Son was looking for a first car: use caution. There were a few serious contenders:

An extremely rough ‘32 Ford pick-up stashed in a garage consisting of an engine mounted on a frame, a rusty chopped and channeled cab devoid of glass or anything resembling an interior, a steering wheel and pedals and a crate to sit on. Yes, it started and ran pretty good, but it screamed 'Money Pit' without ever leaving that garage. Dad was seriously concerned. PASS.

A sweet but scary-fast ’56 Chevy hardtop with a bored-out small block, lightened and lowered and ready to do the stop-light tango without hesitation. Can you say ‘ticket bait’?  PASS.

An INSANE ’65 Nova with a drag-prepped big-block, Lenco transmission, street-legal slicks, roll cage and aluminum dash. I drove it out on the street and floored it, whereupon it popped a small wheelie and I immediately pissed my pants. PASS.

A cool ’39 Ford pick-up with a Chevy small block, dumped front suspension, Cragers, primer Black, owned and driven by my Uncle who’d sell it to me if I could find the dough. I hesitated a couple of days too long and it was gone.  FORCED PASS.

Then one afternoon, Dad found it in a newspaper classified ad: 1957 Chevy 2-door Sedan, 283 small-block, 4:11 rear end, 4-speed, mags, Cal-Custom wood steering wheel, daily driver, $500. The ad said to see the man in Azusa, so Dad called and that’s what we did. Our agreement was that Dad would match my savings for the car dollar-for-dollar and I’d pay him back. We drove to a nondescript Azusa apartment complex, found the man and went out to look at the car.

Original Blue paint, slightly faded but waxed and shiny. New Black Naugahyde interior with a perfect dashboard and a Hurst 4-speed shifter mated to a Muncie transmission. Bench seats front and rear, the front bench customized to allow for the floor shifter. The car was a 210 model so it had every bit of chrome and shiny trim available, twin jet fighter hood ornaments, the classic ’57 tail fins with the gas cap hidden in the left rear tail fin. Shiny Cragars front and rear, a slightly lowered front end for that perfect high-school stance. After it passed the visual, I clambered into the back seat, Dad took the wheel and the owner sat up front with him and off we went for a test drive.

That sealed the deal. My $250 and Dad’s $250 got us the pink slip and keys, so with me trailing him in the Chevy Carryall, Dad drove away in My First Car.

Once we got home, I parked the truck and got in the passenger seat and Dad set to showing me exactly how to drive this bitchin’ car. Unlike the sedate test drive with the car’s previous owner inside, my Dad… former dry lake bed and drag racer, East L.A. vato, hard-core car nut… gave me a lesson on how to hustle this little beauty around. He buttered that shifter from one gear to the next, chirping the tires each time, grinning widely as if he was 16 again, almost forgetting that I was sitting next to him. He coached me on the clutch slip for smooth shifting, how to gauge the revs for the next upshift, warned me not to be stupid, drove back into our driveway and handed me the keys.

“Be careful, Son… don’t get yourself in trouble, but go have some fun tonite.”

How can I describe my first solo drive in my Very First Car? I had the bench seat moved all the way forward so I could hold the right side of the steering wheel with my left hand while resting my elbow on the other side, which gave me plenty of grip so I could concentrate on shifting with my right hand, just like Dad. I felt like I’d been driving that car forever instead of only 30 minutes. I cruised the twilight streets of La Puente, listening to the glass packs rumble that sweet small-block song, rising and falling with every upshift and downshift. The street lights flickered off the curves of that sexy hood, the twin hood ornaments aiming the way. It was fucking heaven.

I drove over to my Scouting comrade Bob's house to show him my new ride and off we went into the night, me trying to shift and chirp the tires like Dad did but only being partially successful, Bob seething with envy at my good fortune.  I stupidly decided to drive to a local hangout of a rival high school to show off, but when I tried to burn out in front of a group of girls I dumped the clutch too fast and stalled out the engine, causing a goodly amount of derisive laughter from the crowd. I restarted the car and through sheer luck got the timing right and did a decent burnout, leaving a thick cloud of tire smoke behind.

The rest of that evening was a blur of cruising, posing, slap-shifting and laughing like hyenas. As a high-school Junior, it just could not have been any better, and I knew it.

Cruising Whittier Boulevard

It's a high-school Saturday night and I'm driving my '57 through La Habra Heights towards the promise of another evening filled with cruising, pseudo-street racing and posturing in Whittier, California. 

Stirring the 4-speed, up-and-down shifting as the dark and narrow two-lane road rises and falls and bends back and forth, the sound of the glass pack exhaust barking and rumbling and echoing off the hillsides. At the bottom of the hill I stop at the intersection, turn right and splash into the early cruising evening on Whittier Boulevard.

The speed limit isn't an issue for now, because a languid 25 miles-per-hour allows for the maximum-impact 'see and be seen' reason for this rolling revue. After just a few minutes, I turn into the Bob's Big Boy parking lot, land into a spot adjacent to the street, the lot's surface a few feet higher than the street level to afford an excellent vantage point over the vehicular dance.

I sit on my car's bumper and watch the parade of cars rumbling or racing or cruising by. Every make/model/year of car is on display, heavily modified to bone-stock, sharing the same two lanes going in each direction. Hot girls showing off in their boyfriend's Little Red '71 Corvette. A teen with long greasy hair rolling a primer Gray '55 Chevy hardtop with a straight front axle, blown big block, massive street slicks and nothing to lose. A huge Black Mercury station wagon filled with high school girls, obviously out looking for guys, laughing and shouting and waving at everyone they see.



I watch them all from my chrome perch, feeling antsy, ready to get out there and mash it up. I jump into the car, snap in a cassette of bitchin' music I recorded off the radio and melt onto the street and into the parade, just another fast float.

The Stop Light Tango begins.

I roll along at cruising speed, the night lights dancing off the hood of my Metallic Bronze sled, waxed and shining like a rocket ship to Mars. I stop at the red light, hearing my lovely small block burbling away along with Steely Dan, waiting to see if someone sidles up next to me and wants to go.  Light turns green, no takers so I slip the clutch and take off slowly at first, then faster until the revs start to make the exhaust bark before I grab 2nd gear and do it again until my progress is halted by another red light.

This time a challenger lines up next to me, a sweet '65 Mustang Coupe with no hood, headers and chromed valve covers, dumped in front and a driver who wants to RUN. We look at each other, slight nod in agreement, turn our heads straight ahead and wait for the green, making sure there's no cops in front or behind.

GREEN!

I catch him flat-footed, dropping the clutch and lurching ahead, the engine revving faster and faster.

BANG the shifter into 2nd gear, chirping the tires and pulling away from him as he struggles to gain some traction, while I get faster and pull away.

It's over before I can grab 3rd gear... I ease off the throttle before I have to hit the brakes for the next light, the exhaust rapping down loudly, letting him catch me so we can trade looks and smile and silently say 'Later on, dude... we will run again.'

Another red light finds me waiting... waiting... and soon enough a new challenger arrives, much more serious this time. A Blue '67 SS396 Chevelle with chome side pipes, massive tires in the rear forcing him to jack up the rear end for clearance, an obvious runner with a loping cam profile that causes his engine to pulse the ground.

We sit at the light, waiting for the green and I think that maybe he's got more than me at his disposal, but I'm no pussy and my car looks better than his and FUCK THIS GUY. Right before we get the light, we both rev engines in anticipation, who cares if any cops are around because it's Saturday night on Whittier Boulevard and we are gonna GO.

GREEN!

We both drop clutches on cue and take off at the same time, but his big block has more pull than my small block so he lurches ahead while we're still in 1st gear.  I grab 2nd and catch him up, but once he grabs 2nd his cubic inches allow him to pull ahead, but not by much. Almost in slow-motion, I can hear my engine straining in 2nd and his is too, it's a timed sonata of unleashed horsepower.

But it's all for naught, he gets the edge and begins to pull away by two car lengths before we shut down to make the next red light. As I pull up, he looks over and smirks, I smile and silently mouth 'FUCK YOU' and he laughs and I laugh and we rev our engines at each other until the light turns green and he burns out in a flash. I slip the clutch and slowly pull away, thinking 'Hell, he barely beat me with all that muscle, he aint' so hot.'

And so it goes, one hour melting into the next, the evening flashing by like so many fireworks. At one red light, a car filled with girls pulls up next to me and the one with long black hair in the front seat says 'Hey... that's a bitchin' car!' My head swells, my face grins crazy and right on cue, the light turns green and I drop the clutch and do a perfect burnout, still boiling the tires while grabbing 2nd gear, the girls left behind and probably (maybe?) suitably impressed. How did I time that so well?  Fucking lucky, baby.

By midnight, the boulevard is rocking, the traffic is getting heavy and cops are everywhere. The parking lot at Scotty's Burgers, a choice hangout across from Bob's, is overflowing with hot cars and hot boys and girls all doing the dance, posing and preening and making eyes and sometimes a girl goes for a ride in someone else's hot rod. The promise of something new, dreams fulfilled, riding shotgun in a serious piece of machinery, looking out and ahead while the driver, filled with chutzpah, does his very best Bob Falfa imitation.



By now I've been asphalt dancing over 4 hours and the boulevard is too crowded for any serious running, so I decide to head for home. The evening was a success, got my ass kicked a few times but had several excellent runs and lots of eyeballs on my ride and a serious ego boost for me (DUH!), always fulfilled with my beautiful '57 Chevy. Mission Accomplished.

I head East and away from Cruising Central, turn left into and over the hills and down to La Puente, my mind still racing from the night's escapades. I should have kept talking to that cute redhead in the lot at Bob's, maybe she would have cruised with me. I wonder how that Camaro with the blown transmission got home, I heard him miss 2nd gear and then BLOOEY, too bad for him. DAMN, I almost had that Chevelle, fuck that guy's big block!

Before hitting the homestead, I make a quick run to Jack-in-the Box on Amar Avenue for my traditional post-cruising meal: two Breakfast Jacks, onion rings, choco shake and a hot apple pie. Sitting in my car, wolfing down the hot food and watching the cool nighthawks all around me, Led Zeppelin blasting on the stereo... I know these are the nights (and days) to cherish, because soon enough it will all be only a memory.

I love cruising Whittier Boulevard.

Slipping Into Darkness

The Summer of 1974 saw me graduated from high school and working as an usher at the El Monte Theater in the (outdoor) Tyler Mall, still cruising around and having things in my '57 Chevy. Being the paranoid type I always parked it out on the street just down a ways from the theater entrance so I could keep an eye on it. I mean... El Monte, right?

One night I walked outside before the movie's intermission, sucking on a Coke and breathing in some fresh air.  I glanced over at my car like always but... something wasn't right. As I stared at the car about 100 feet away, I saw someone's arm reaching inside the driver-side broken wind wing, obviously trying to open the car without being seen.

I ran towards my car shouting 'HEY FUCKER GET AWAY FROM MY CAR!!!' The would-be thief pulled his arm out and took off across the street, beating it between two buildings by the time I got to the car and saw the broken glass on the street next to it. I was so MAD, some dude trying to kype my ride right out there on the street! I moved the car closer to the entrance and kept going outside for the rest of the night to make sure it was safe.

The next night, my car was stolen right from in front of the theater.

I was heartbroken. THEY STOLE MY CAR!!!!!

That night my Dad and I went to the police station and reported my stolen car, then went home. The next afternoon, we got a phone call that they'd found my car and had towed it to the police yard so I could claim it. I had to wait until the following day to claim my car and drive it home, but that wasn't what happened.

Dad and I went into the El Monte Police tow yard and there, way out back by the fence, my car sat on blocks, all four wheels and tires having been stolen... my bitchin' Cragars and Goodyears, all gone. As we got closer, I saw the windshield had been smashed, the side windows were broken, the stereo was gone and they'd taken something and banged up the previously pristine dashboard. 

Most of the interior was intact but all the chrome parts had been stripped off the engine and, to add insult to injury, they'd obviously driven the car in a reckless manner because the shock mounts in the trunk had been broken and the sheet metal support in the trunk floor was torn and hanging down. They really did a number on my sled.

A few days later, after we'd had the car towed home, Dad and I worked to get the car back in running condition so I could stop borrowing his car for work. I had to call the Police Department for something and was told they'd found out that my car had been part of a group of a dozen classic Chevy's that had been stolen from the El Monte area on the same night, so it was a gang of car thieves targeting specific cars! 

Thanks to a lot of work by Dad and me and parts from Pep Boys and Western Auto, we got the '57 back in running condition and I was rolling again, but... it wasn't the same, and never would be.  It took a month to find a replacement floor to have welded in the trunk to support the loose shock mounts, and I could never replace all the really cool interior and engine bits that had been stolen. They took my Senior tassel and key that had been hanging on the rear view mirror, and the suspension had been badly abused so the car never rode the same again.

I fell out of love with my first car.

I don't remember when I finally sold it, but I know it wasn't a traumatic experience because it wasn't the same car I'd grown to love but a mere shadow of its former awesomeness. That's was probably an unfair mindset, but that's how I felt, so letting it go wasn't that hard.

All the cruising, all the dates, all the street racing, all the crazy shit we did on Hacienda Blvd... all of that fell away when the car was gone.

And then I grew up, but that's another story.



Lead image, gracias de La Puente High School Photography 101 - Roberto Macias, photographer; Whittier Blvd. and Bob Falfa images, gracias de Google images; 'American Graffiti' video, muchismas gracias de youtube.com; Muchismas Gracias de Mi Padre por El '57 Chebby de La Puente!

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