Van Orden Vettes
In 1959 in a brand new subdivision in Woodland Hills, California, there lived 5 families with 15 kids who all met as mid to late teenagers. The boys hooked up with the girls….whoa, those girls, wagh! After a short time all but two of us advanced from causing trouble and “playing pranks on the neighborhood” to buying fuel injected 4 speed posi-traction C-1 vettes. Over the years they included 2-‘57s, one ’58, one ’60, one’61 and one ’62. Being the “youth” of the group I had to contend with my 1953 Mercury Monterey with 3 on the tree, but only I had auto shop. My Taft High School auto shop instructor, Mr. Thomas James appointed me shop foreman. Mr. James had a 1959 (new) Pontiac Bonneville with TriPower and he must have enjoyed me bringing in my Big Brother Blair’s (BBB) ’58 and Tom High’s ’60 to work on. This was a win-win situation for me, to offset my being the big loser on Hatteras with only a flat head to roar around with. Except for Pam, my girlfriend who was more beautiful and curvaceous than - dare I say?- Corvettes, and all the gang was jealous of her love for me. Everything of those days is gone, except for the on going friendships with most of the “gang”, including Pam.
One day soon after BBB got his Fi Vette, after he’d been nursing his scary and expensive sports car around, I saw him driving crazy: square corners, speeding, slamming gears. He had changed. All of a sudden it was time for street ‘n drag races. Tom High, Larry Sheldon, Don Voorhees, Dennis Turco, and BBB all have their versions of this story and here’s mine.
Street stuff: Many a Friday or Saturday night, after working the crowded Bob’s Big Boy on Van Nuys Boulevard, with “he said his was faster than yours”,….and “Bill over there said you can’t power shift, but Jim could beat Tom’s Vette if he would loan it to me”. “Oh yeah, I’ll bet $10.00, he can’t….” we poured out of Bob’s joint. A lot of us went up on the Ventura Freeway with the racers in front, slowed all traffic down to a halt, gave the “1,2,3”, and off they went. Cops came, we all split up, and only one or two got caught. No big deal.
Nuther time, borrowed Tom’s ’60 and raced BBB’s ’58 (283 hp vs. 315 hp) on a side street. I beat Blair with Tom’s. Tom, thereafter, designated me as his race driver (and shop mechanic). Blair actually glanced off the curb doing about 100 mph during the race, because the curb “moved’ out in a slight bend of the road.
Nuther time #2: I was driving Tom’s ’60 with my younger brother Kerry sitting in between Tom and I. We were at a stoplight at Winnetka aka “Big Noise from …….” and Ventura Boulevard waiting for the green (what we called the race “go” light). I saw my Pam with her mother, honked, race light came on and off I went. By the time the cop coming the other way saw me, I was doing “about 90”, he said. He U-turned and finally got me to pull over 2 miles away. I decided to turn into the gas station I worked at. While the cop was waiting to hear back and see if I had “stolen” the Vette, kidnapped my little brother, and whether there were any outstanding warrants, my boss, my dad’s friend, came out and “set the story right”, that I was well known as a good guy, etc. that seemed to do it, he let me off.
Nuther time #3: Blair and Tom again at a standing stop, dragging again and again out on the road next to an elementary school. Okay, it was Saturday, but a home owner was spotted coming our way with a baseball bat. We spectators jumped in the Vettes. Blair’s wouldn’t start! Closer ‘n closer Bat Man came!! There was terror in our hearts. Engine started, our “courage returned”, Bat Man got close enough to see the dirt under my finger nail that I presented to him. So, we just looked for a new street. Wasn’t that the lesson to be learned?
Nuther time #4: Topanga Canyon, night time, a multi-car race to the ocean. This WAS death defying. There were wins, losses, and skids off the road. I don’t remember any one going to the bottom of the canyon though. Tom drove his father’s ’59 Chevy BelAir V8 and we spun out. Tom never had a knack for driving, but a good friend he was and is. Later Blair (BBB) bought that ’59 Bat Wing and still later I bought one (Fifty years later it’s my very special award winning car “Bonnie Blue BelAir”). One night while the family was eating we got a phone call from a neighbor that someone was stealing Blair’s Bat Wing BelAir. Blair and I ran out to see it moving backwards down our steep driveway. As we ran towards it, a guy jumped out and took off. Blair “thanked” him for trying to stop and save the car from rolling. I knew better, chased him, nailed him, punched him to the ground. Blair and I held him until the police carted him off, while down he muttered something about the war.
Nuther time #5: The race I remember….Riverside. I was with Blair when he went through the traps alone. On the second or third run, the flywheel let go, no injury, busted bell housing and a call to Larry Thompson to come to the rescue. He did and pulled us with a ROPE on the freeway about 45 miles to Woodland Hills! The gang had loyalty and friendship! Except when it came to some one else’s girlfriend. Yep, Pam. When Pam married turncoat Dennis aka “Dork-For-Mind” (with the “62 Fi), I was so heartsick that, along with Tom and Larry Sheldon, I joined the Navy.
Nuther time #6: My big race! I asked Blair if I could take his ’58 to San Fernando Raceway and run it. He said yes, but if I broke it, I paid for it. So, with Tom in his ’61 (315 hp Fi), we went on May 24, 1964. Since Tom had previously won trophies, he agreed I needed one. We worked together to seek out other Vettes in our stock class that day, taking notes on their speed runs and potential protest points without them knowing who we were. Since Tom’s ’60 was faster than Blair’s we “arranged” for him to beat the ones I couldn’t. I would eliminate those I could. Then, when it came down to just us, he would “lift the pedal” and wallah, I would get my trophy! Well, there was one hitch, called a COBRA. Otherwise, it was just as Tom and I have planned. I remember like yesterday, side by side, going through the gears. He was on my right side, slowly pulling to a half car ahead. I began shouting…not that he could hear it! “You b____d, you s __o___b”. Finally nearing the end of the quarter mile I saw the front of his Vette drop and I was across the line first (@100.33 mph-w/14.27). I remember Tom & I up in the tower arguing with the official about the Cobra. We won that argument too. And, I have the trophy in my hands today.
Blair and his Vette created a life long life style. He bought it in 1961. It was a 4 speed, Fi, 411 posi, double delete (no heater, no radio), with two tops. He paid $1,900. It was white with a black interior. It was stolen one night at Pearce College, by another area street gang (okay, neighborhood car “enthusiasts”). It was found without Fi, 4 speed or seats. This was not a common thing, but is an example of individual racing sponsored by State Farm Insurance Company. You know, you have a friend steal parts, ie carbs, trannie, rear ends. Then go with the insurance money and buy what you needed or wanted. So Blair (who did not arrange the theft – in this case), with his insurance money, had a Chevy dealer on Ventura Boulevard replace the 1958 Fi Model 7014800R with an improved 1962 model Fi 7017320 and trannie. He had real red leather seat cushions made. While at the dealers’, waiting for the trannie, someone (mechanic? janitor?) stole the new Fi. After awhile the Vette finally came home and Blair got it painted black with red cove. Since Blair was smarter than I, he drove it to UCLA for awhile and then sold it. As with ALL who sell their early Vettes, he regretted it. So much so, that 23 years later in 1988, he bought another ’58 Vette. He tried to find out what happened to Vette 1. He did. The guy who bought it, promptly got into an accident, totaled it, pulled the engine and put it into a pickup, threw the rest of the car in the trash can, and then sold the pickup.
I remember Don Voorhees, first on the block with a Vette (’57 duel quad) would pull up to us and say “Moop – Moop” real low and slow. This guy was cooler than James Dean! With all of his actions and cars, he was our “role model”. The one who started it all and from 1959 to this day, he remains the “source”. He got another ’57 Vette, this time a Fi, then later bought a black ’59 El Camino, 348 Tripower 4 speed, of course. He always had the best first.
Nuther time #7: One night Tom had borrowed the El Camino. I was riding shot gun when we got into a race (just some loser with something not quite as good). While flying down Chandler Boulevard, someone pulled out from the side street. Poor guy, he (or she, the blur), didn’t realize we were in our 90+ mph zone. I thought I was going to die! Luck was with us, no one was hurt.
Shift to 1988, you know, after the “family thing” in Reno, Nevada, Blair got the nostalgia thing, bought another ’58 Vette. Rebuilt it, yes, Fi, 4 speed, double delete, quick steering, fast clutch, 4:11 posi, etc. And I was with him at the Pomona Swap Meet when I told him I was thinking of a ‘55-‘57 T-Bird or that great 1923 Chandler over there. He said, “I’ll see you at the red light”. My brain kicked in and I said, “not again”, went back to Tucson and within 3 weeks, bought a ’59, dual quad, 4 speed and took it to the ground to build it back up. After 5 years or so of flying to Reno and riding with BBB non-stop back to the annual Superbash Tucson Corvette Club’s event, he moved down to Tucson. We have raced our Vettes on the quarter mile, flying mile (freeway) and auto cross. We both win and lose, sometimes that includes transmissions, etc. But one time after 37 years I had my own straight axle and beat “him” in his ’58 Vette and I have the picture to prove it.