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Memory Lane: Thankful For The Car Culture

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With Thanksgiving weekend behind us and the holiday season in full swing, most of us can be thankful for those in our lives who have touched us over the years.

In my case, one such person is my brother.

In particular, we have shared both the joys of the car culture, and the hardships of a vehicle breaking down. Although, I don’t want to focus on the latter too much.

Two Wheels

My first experience driving was actually with a motorcycle since I was too young to be able to drive a car. It was a second hand 1967 Yamaha with a 2-stroke 100cc engine. It was red with a chrome gas tank. It had two carburetors. I had to charge the battery all the time because the alternator or generator or whatever charged the battery was toast and I could not afford to have the part replaced.

No matter, I loved my motorcycle. I put it through so many things and it kept on ticking.

My younger brother had a 1969 50cc Sears motorcycle that was made in Austria. We purchased it from an elderly gentleman who had decided that he was too old to be riding motorcycles. He had ordered it from a catalog. It was also red, but unlike mine, it was a 4-stroke and he didn’t have to put oil in his gas.

It ran great.

Even Trade

One day, an older kid from school wanted to ride my bike. In exchange, he would let me drive his car, which happened to be a Dodge Charger. I didn’t understand why, but I didn’t question it. I was intrigued. The Charger was pretty rough looking and could have easily passed off as Christine’s evil brother. She was the older sister; a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Or was it a 58? Thank you, Stephen King.

I had never driven a car before, so the thrill of driving the Charger was lost on me. My license only permitted me to drive motorcycles. I drove the car around the block a couple of times and parked it some three feet from the curb. I hadn’t adjusted to the size of that car compared to my motorcycle and I didn’t want to hit the sidewalk for fear of damaging the car itself.

But mainly, I didn’t know how to drive an automobile.

A 1968 Charger R/T donor car as experimented on by Elwood P. Engel, Chrysler’s then Vice President of Styling. The experiment? What would a Charger look like without a roof? Photo: Courtesy of Motorbooks, from the book Charger, Road Runner & Super Bee: Fifty Years of Chrysler B-Body Muscle by James Manning Michels.

Movie Nostalgia

I was reminded of that first car drive recently when I watched Bullitt with Steve McQueen. In real life, the Charger was much more powerful than the Mustang. During filming, they had to stop and wait for the Mustang to catch up. I’m not dissing the Mustang. My mechanic has a 1969 Mustang GT that he completely restored. It is black on black and all who walk by drool over it. But thanks to stunt drivers like Bill Hickman, who also contributed to movies like The French Connection and The Seven-ups among others, I wanted to be back behind the wheel of that Charger.

The same Bill Hickman who helped extricate James Dean from his 1955 Porsche Spyder 550 and held him in his arms as the movie star/racecar driver was dying.

Now, after many miles and many years of driving, I can really appreciate the Dodge Charger.

Superbird Fever

A few years later, the older kid traded his Dodge Charger for a Plymouth Superbird with the big wing to catch clean air and the spacecraft designed front end.  It was canary yellow and it had the logos on the wing and the unmistakable Road Runner sound whenever he pressed the horn.

I lost touch with him and wonder if he kept it. It would likely be worth a lot of money.

The iconic photo of Richard Petty standing beside his Petty blue #43 Superbird comes to mind. They say the Superbird came to existence to lure Petty back to Chrysler. All his wins aside, with that hat and that smile, you couldn’t help but cheer for the King. No doubt, Barrett-Jackson would like to see that car in one of their auctions.

A Superbird and a Charger Daytona, side by side. From the book Charger, Road Runner & Super Bee: Fifty Years of Chrysler B-Body Muscle by James Manning Michels , published by Motorbooks. Photo: Mike Mueller.

Faster Dreams

Although, I never lost my passion for motorcycles, I traded my two wheels for four. My last bike was an HD FXR. I found the R for “rubber mounted engine” made it a lot easier on the lower back when on a 1,000 mile trip.

My brother went on to explore open wheel racing with a Formula Ford. It was an entry level way of obtaining your racing license in hopes of catching a ride in Formula Atlantic and then on to Indy cars.

Or head to Europe in F3 and F1 if you had sponsors and lots of money. As for me, I liked speed, but not enough to get into racing. The obligatory trip to the Go-Kart track was fun, and for that matter so was the bumper cars at the fair.

My interest was more toward unassuming cars with big engines that could get up there quickly.

I found it amazing how people came up with all sorts of ways to personalize their rides. For example, I worked for a company owned by a father and his son. They were into Land Rovers and became excited every time they talked about their vehicles. They would extol the virtues of lift kits and differentials, and all the modifications they could make to their Rovers.

Racing Circuits

My brother’s racing career didn’t pan out, so he purchased different cars. He was into VWs for a while, then Honda Civics and modifying them to show his personality. He then bought an Eagle Talon and drove that until it fell apart. It must have had close to 300,000 miles on it, easily. He also owned a Renault 5 and a Toyota Celica. I was more into American cars, but we both enjoyed attending racing events whenever we could.

The first race we ever attended was within walking distance from our home. The town’s fairground was nearby and local riders had managed to get permission to use the site for motorcycle racing. It was simply an oval dirt track, if we can even call it that. Guys would race their street bikes on dirt. They were driving mostly American and British bikes at the time.

They wore no helmets. City council didn’t care about liability back then.

During a particular race, one rider’s bike caught fire. He was trying to steer it off the course, but had to drop it as the flames were getting bigger under the gas tank. The race kept on going as the bike was burning. It was the sixties, man.

Photo: WinnerMotors.

Weekend Warriors

We would go to race weekends that showcased Honda Civics, Formula Fords, TransAms, CanAms, and Formula Atlantic. One time, a pilot driving for the team co-owned by Paul Newman slammed head-on into a concrete wall. They had to stop the race and they took their time to pull the driver out of the mangled front end. We later learned that he had been flown to Switzerland and had to have his legs amputated. Dangerous business is racing.

Paul Newman was at the track and rushed to his driver’s side.

Stock car races were particularly fun at night, which included a demolition derby and stunts before the main event.  We would go to drag races. I remember one particular meet when the sun had come down and it was time for the jet cars. The “oohs” and “aahs” emanated from the crowd as the drivers hit the afterburner, producing an immense flame which was that much more visible in the dark. The wind was blowing in our direction, so we could feel the heat from those engines. Not as pleasant was the residue from the burnt out jet fuel as it drifted into the stands, but it was great fun just the same.

We also attended F1 races.

Car shows were interesting and we have attended a great many over the years.  Lowriders, the drivers, or lowriders the wonderful machines? The car culture list goes on and on: Slider racers, right hand drive imported cars, monster truck rallies, car rallies, and EV shows. And who doesn’t smile when coming upon a VW Camper Convoy, Westfalia or not.

So, this holiday season, I give thanks to my brother for sharing my passion for cars. Perhaps one day we will make it to Carmel and attend the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance? I also give thanks to all those who love their rides. In my world, if you’ve got wheels, you are in the club regardless of make or model, or what it looks like. That’s the true essence of the car culture.

Something to think about this holiday season.

Michael Bellamy is the author of our Memory Lane series. He enjoys driving his 1997 Lincoln Mark VIII LSC and his 2001 Ford F-150 7700.