Speed Kills? Yeah, Whatever
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s all about the ground-pounding, nitro-burning action, Jackson.
By Eugene S. Robinson
In 1967, at 5 years old, I’d stand on a porch in New Rochelle with my friends and watch the muscle cars cresting the hill off and to the left of where their houses stood. We’d run to the railing, catch the eyes of the drivers and holler at the top of our lungs, “BURN RUBBER!” And the car, shifting to the driver’s accelerator stomp, would swerve into a smoke-filled scream of sheer horsepower, leaving black streaks 20 yards long behind it, and we’d marvel as car and driver disappeared off into greater Westchester.
There was no greater street theater in 1967 that didn’t involve fires and riots, at least for me, and years later, when I finally had enough cash on hand to consider upgrading from a 1962 Ford Econoline Super Van to a car, I stood in a dealership on El Camino Real in Northern California. Rows on rows of new cars spread out in front of me. All the same, outside of color variations, all beetled and plastic and boring as all get out. And I couldn’t do it.
The next mechanic was good. But for reasons unclear to me had to escape into Canada.
What I could do … what I did do? I wandered to the outskirts of Gilroy, California, and found a wild boar hunter who had a car and needed some cash. “I was going to turn it into a drag racer,” he said, gesticulating at where he was carving out space in the trunk for big drag tires. Carving with a welding torch. A 1965 Chevy Chevelle Malibu. A living work of art. Twelve hundred dollars later, I was rescuing it onto the back of a flatbed truck. Twelve hundred dollars. The car equivalent of getting your first dose of crack for free.
Thus began my odyssey and deep love affair with the Chevelle, a midsize Chevy muscle car. Muscle cars, a product of Detroit’s mid-decade horsepower madness, high performance, cheap gas (because they use a lot of it) and America’s need for speed, had their heyday in the ’60s, when I first spotted them. And despite the fact that ignoring the last several decades of automotive engineering is probably largely inadvisable if you like living, it’s precisely my love of living that drove me to this car. It sold for about $1,500 in 1965; my $1,200 got me the car and its 350-horsepower engine, which I would soon discard.
Which is precisely when the story gets crazy. Or scary. Or crazy scary.
“I’m not going to do it.” The speaker was Greg Davis, a race car fabricator at Dinan and former owner of a custom car shop, X-Fab. He’d help with the heavy lifting but apparently wouldn’t help with the scary crazy lifting. “I’m not going to supercharge a 502-horsepower engine that’s currently kicking out about 565 horsepower. I like your kids too much.”
“What about nitrous then?” This was like suggesting heroin for a headache since nitrous is that compressed gas additive that Mad Max used to get out of trouble twice as fast as he got into it.
Well, a good man always knows his limits, and though I’m far from that, Davis was — and remained so until the car caused him to tap out. “I … I can’t do it.” The explanation was garbled, but the point was clear: He had someone else to help me with the colossal chore of turning an antique into something actual and functioning. The next mechanic was good. Knew his stuff. But had to, for reasons unclear to me, flee the police and escape into Canada. We were six years in at this point, the car now a punchline for people who had guessed that I had lost my mind in the wilderness of Chevy catalogs and arcana and believed that there was, in fact, no car to speak of.
Tom Chilcote changed all that, and the next five years were a burst of car construction designed to, like the Six Million Dollar Man, make the car better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster. Roll bars to keep me from getting crushed, custom radiator to keep things cool and a hundred other decisions. Then bad news: Tom had gotten sick and been given not too many months to live. But rather than relinquish the car, he and his son pushed it as long as they could, and when he passed, his son begged off of working on it more or again. The car was bound too tightly to the memory of his father.
Enter Bill Pappas and the reality of Bill Pappas, muscle-car maniac: No idea was too crazy to not say yes to. Nitrous and supercharging were still off the menu, but just about everything else was A-OK. “I love that car,” Pappas said from his San Bruno, California, redoubt. “We’re bonded through that car. For, like, ever.” He promised it to me by my birthday five years running and around August 28 of this year, he finally handed me the keys.
“You need to be careful.”
“No. Really careful. Really, really, really careful. It’ll rip your head off. It’s that fast,” Pappas said. And we stood there for a minute, respectfully silent, before I got in, 16 years right on time, and when I got it out onto the freeway and opened it up, foot to the metal pedal and metal pedal toward the floor, my head hit the purple inlay headrest and the car, all wild animal of it, rocked underneath me and all was right with the world.
Burned rubber? Worth every inch of it.