It began with a joyride. A couple of teens stole a car and spent the better part of an afternoon joyriding through the green hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. When it was over—as if to put an exclamation mark on it—they pushed the car over the side of the peninsula cliffs. The car plunged 500 feet and crashed down on the rocky beach below. The following day an insurance adjuster arrived—and wrote off the car as a total loss. A day later some kids began dismantling the prized engine, removing the carburetor, intake manifold, and both cylinder heads. A day after that my two oldest brothers arrived on the scene—John and Rob. They removed what remained of the engine, flagged down a dump truck, and with a heavy tow rope tied to the back of the truck, dragged the engine up the cliff, and brought it to our spacious ranch house with the three-car garage, on the corner of Via La Selva and Via Las Vegas. Rob, who knew the guys who had removed the engine parts, managed to retrieve them. My two brothers, all of 17 and 19, had themselves a fairly new Oldsmobile V-8 engine, but with no car to put it in. John dreamed of building a super-lightweight sports car, but needed a chassis—and a body.
Another afternoon—a rainy afternoon, as fate would have—John was driving our father’s 47 Ford Coupe, with his friend Mike riding shotgun, and in the backseat my brothers Rob and David. They were heading down a steeply winding road toward the Palos Verdes Plaza. In the midst of a rainswept hairpin curve, the Ford slid sideways, jumped a curb, and came to rest on a down-sloping bank. The car lingered a moment, then leaned and rolled over and over, down the hill, coming to rest in a gully well below the road. John remembers everything happening in slow-motion. Rob remembers David landing on top of him. “I don’t believe it,” David shouted. “Get off of me,” Rob shouted back. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the car was a crumpled wreck, though still driveable.
I remember seeing the car parked in our wide driveway afterwards, with my Dad lying on his back in the front seat, with legs up-stretched futilely trying to push the roof back into shape. I also remember the day when the body was removed from the chassis and hauled off to a junkyard. What remained were the frame rails and suspension John needed as the basis of his dream car. It wasn’t long after that and a fiberglass sports car body was delivered to our door. The frame rails were chopped and shortened, resulting in a low-slung chassis reconfigured to accept the low-slung sports car body. The sports car body was gorgeous, a real beauty, created in nearby El Segundo. It bore a striking resemblance to the equally gorgeous Vignale-bodied 340 Ferrari America. We all had visions of riding in John’s sports car, with wind in our hair and sun smiling brightly, going nowhere fast.
The Olds engine was dismantled, the cylinders bored out, the connecting rods and large pistons balanced, and the valve intakes boosted by a new high-lift camshaft (the handiwork of Bonneville speed legend Lee Kolb). Topping it off was a polished Weiand manifold with three synchronized carburetors. The engine was reassembled with care, mated to an unbreakable Cadillac La Salle transmission, and fitted into the immaculately clean and artfully welded chassis rails. With the body in place, the car was essentially a precursor of the Cobra Ford, a super-lightweight sports car powered by a large-displacement American V8 engine. The only problem was John’s sports car was not yet finished. A number of parts still were needed: radiator, steering assembly, headlights and taillights, a seat, windshield, electrical wiring, and a myriad of fasteners. It would have to wait. In the fall, John enrolled at UCLA and began concentrating on his studies.
Fast-foward two years, and we’re in the family car, a father and his five car-crazed sons, headed to Riverside International Raceway. On the highway I keep seeing sleek sports cars on the backs of trailers, going in the same direction. Thinking of John’s sports car back home, still unfinished, I’m having visions of John competing against these very cars. How will he do? Beat ‘em, I dream. During the race, we see a rough double of John’s sports car leading the race, driven by local favorite Dan Gurney. The car is dubbed Ol’ Yaller, for it’s brushed-on yellow paint. It’s ugly, efficient, and fast as lightening. Like John’s car, it’s comprised of cast-off auto parts and powered by a big-bore American V8. This could be John’s car leading the race, I think naively. A groan from the crowd tells us Ol’ Yaller has expired somewhere out on the circuit. Gurney is seen walking back to the pits, helmet in hand. In a month he’ll be competing in the Monaco Grand Prix. Now leading is a flashy Birdcage Maserati, in the capable hands of a driver who’s been making a name for himself in Europe—a charismatic Texan named Carroll Shelby. In his white helmet and red bandana, Shelby looks oh-so-cool negotiating the esse curves, not 100 feet from where we’re camped out. Far ahead of the pack, he wins easily. What we don’t know is he’s suffering from a debilitating heart condition. This will be Shelby’s last race.
We also don’t know that he’s been meeting with a British sports car builder—AC Cars of Thames-Ditton, Surrey—and negotiating with the Ford Motor Company, hoping to bring these two companies together and create HIS dream machine, a super-lightweight sports car powered by an American V8 engine. The car, of course, is destined to become the legendary Cobra Ford. I like to think my brother had the idea first.
John never finished his dream sports car. After graduating from college, he bought an English Austin Healey—a rather tame machine—that fulfilled his desire of owning a sports car. Minus the souped-up Olds engine, John’s unfinished sports car was moved to 25 acres of farm land we owned in Leona Valley, presumably to be finished at a later date. It was placed in a low-lying area not visible from the highway. Then, gradually, it disappeared. First to go was the body, then tires and wheels, then the transmission, next the front and rear axles, and last of all the artful frame rails. Very sad. The engine, meanwhile, did not go to waste. It was fitted into Rob’s immaculate ’32 Ford Deuce Coupe. For awhile, in the High Desert towns that straddled Air Force Plant 42—Lancaster and Palmdale—Rob’s Deuce out-gunned a myriad of souped-up ’56 and ’57 Chevies, in scenes later mimicked in “American Graffiti.”
There is a postscript to the story. I too wanted to build a car, too, a Ford T-Bucket. Highly impractical, but cool looking. I also dreamed of becoming a race car driver. The dream of building the T-Bucket ended when I went to work to put myself through college. The dream of becoming a race car driver ended while joyriding—first in my parent’s Chevrolet Corvair, and second in the car that replaced it, a brand new ’66 Ford Mustang. About the Corvair: it had an engineering flaw that, if driven too fast while cornering, caused it to spin unexpectedly, even to roll over. A number of lawsuits against General Motors were pending at the time. I knew this but never considered it would happen to me. After all, I possessed driving talents that would make me world champion some day. Coming down the winding road between Leona Valley and Palmdale, I pushed the Corvair past the limit in a corner. Without warning, the small car whipped sideways and crossed over into the oncoming lane. I corrected the steering wheel only to feel the car whip back the other way. It happened very suddenly, too fast for me to panic. In fact, I felt reasonably calm once the car returned to my control. It was later that I realized how fortunate I had been. Had I been going a tad faster, the Corvair likely would have rolled over (as had happened to so many unfortunate people). Had a car been coming the other way, we would have collided. I still shudder thinking about it.
Had I learned anything? No. A year or so later, having traded the Corvair for a newly minted Mustang, and again coming down from Leona Valley, I was passed by a Corvette. My competitive juices aroused, I took up the chase. I should point out the critical difference between the Corvair and the Mustang. The Corvair was tail-heavy. When pushed it wanted to oversteer while cornering—the rear tires to lose grip suddenly. The Mustang was exactly the opposite. It was front-heavy. When pushed it wanted to understeer while cornering—the front tires to lose grip, only more gradually. And that’s exactly what happened. I entered a downswept curve too fast and the front tires gradually lost grip. I turned the steering wheel harder and harder but could not stop being pushed into the oncoming lane. Once again, no cars were coming, and I managed to exit the curve without incident. Only this time I was shaken, truly shaken.
Some time thereafter the dream of becoming a race driver morphed into the dream of writing a racing novel—“The Ragged Edge.” Driving on the ragged edge was something I had experienced firsthand, with harrowing results.
If you’ll indulge me a bit longer, I have one last motoring tale. It happened in 1992 while in Europe with brother John, traveling to all the old storied racing circuits, circuits I was going to write about in “The Ragged Edge.” We’d paid what amounted to $10 to have a go on one of the truly treacherous circuits of the 1960s, the Nurburgring—a.k.a., the Green Hell. Fourteen miles around, it’s a veritable roller coaster through the wooded hills of the Ardennes. I’m driving our small nimble blue rental car, not really pushing it, but not taking it easy, either. Visions of being a race car driver loom in my head once again. Having come down through a section known as the Fox Hole, we arrive at a series of hairpin curves. I enter the first of what appears to be a gradual right-hander. The curve tightens unexpectedly, the road tilts awkwardly, and suddenly I’m back in the Mustang, fighting a car that wants to steer headlong, into an earthen bank. Forget trying to somehow steer out of it. I’m in survival mode. I brake hard and pray. It’s an ugly moment but I get out of it. I exit the curve I had totally misjudged. At that moment, I realize that long ago I had made the right decision. I just wasn’t cut out to be a race car driver.
The Vignale-bodied 340 Ferrari America, circa 1951-53, yet timeless. . .
Pieces of the dream. Palos Verdes, California, summer, 1958
Click here to see one of the first Cobra Fords to roll out the door, actor Steve McQueen, and the man himself, Carroll Shelby. Venice, California, summer, 1962. (The picture should be the one at the very top-left.)