Photo by Genghis
MARY, MARY, NOT CONTRARY: My ’64 Vette’s replacement.
DENNIS FANNING ON FACEBOOK:
“Scott, any pictures of the ’64 Vette? By the way the memoirs are really from the gut. I hope this is a work in progress. and there is more to come. I don’t know a knucklehead from a shovelhead but I enjoy the culture.”
Dennis Fanning is a very old friend of mine, who I haven’t seen for over 40 years. We recently reconnected via Facebook, which I consider an almost miraculous social tool. Some of you will remember my mentioning Dennis in an article I wrote some years ago, titled “Loyal Flush” (CLICK HERE). After we last saw each other, Dennis went on to join the NYPD. He is now retired. Dennis’ brother Jack, who I remember well, died a hero firefighter on 9/11. Dennis is new to Going The Distance so he doesn’t know that not only will I go the distance with my Harley motorcycle, but that I will also go the distance with Going The Distance. After all, that is the core message of my writing. I promise you, this vestige of Iron Horse magazine will never go away. I am a survivor of cruel and unusual attrition (and that’s what the demise of Iron Horse was to me) and what’s more, I’m stubborn. Some euphemistically call this “perserverence.” I merely call it what it is. My writing is not some sort of virtuous act. I simply get used to doing certain things in life. I am a creature of habit, and since I love to write, this is a good habit. There is an inherent freedom to writing on the ‘net, which I never enjoyed while writing for magazines. When I wrote as a magazine columnist, the focus was very narrow, having by necessity, to be confined to the subject matter that the particular periodical specialized in. On the internet however, with no editor overseeing the content, my writing can and does wander afield. Some of you bikers may consider this a bad thing, while I hope that most of you will find what I have to say interesting enough, to render it a good thing in your estimation.
For some bizarre reason, I don’t have a single photo of the ’64 Vette.
One thing I had in common with Dennis and our friend Willie Ng, was the love of cars. Dennis owned a Triumph GT6 coupe sports car followed by a ’66 Austin-Healy 3000. The GT6 is a six cylinder hardtop based on Triumph’s popular Spitfre convertible platform. This was the car mentioned in “Loyal Flush.” Willie drove a late ’60s small-block Camaro. I tried to convince Willie to get a Vette, but he was intent on, and loved his Chevy muscle car. One thing the three of us were into, was car racing. I split the difference between sports cars and muscle cars , driving my ’64 Corvette Sting Ray, an American sports car with American muscle. However, I was still so underdeveloped as a Motorvatin’ Maven, that I never named my Vette. This was a tradition that began with my ’68 Harley Sportster, “Sally The Bitch.” I firmly believe that all vehicles are of the female persuasion, and they all have distinct personalities. What’s more, I believe that all righteous vehicles have souls, and therefore warrant a name. Since my ’64 Sting Ray went unnamed, I hereby christen her Unnamed Vette.
I’ll never forget buying my ’64 Sting Ray. By the time I had the three grand this used Vette cost me, I amazed myself at my persistence in having saved this money since the age of 13, toward this final goal of buying a used Corvette. This occurred in ’66 when I was 19. This money accrued from an off the books, after-school part-time job. There’s that stubborness factor again, rearing its peserverence head. On the day I went to make the purchase of my Dream Car, my father drove me to the used car lot on Queens Boulevard, in his ’64 Chevelle Malibu SS. This little beauty of a convertible was powered by the 220 horse 283, a ramrod little motor with a quad carb, had dual exhausts and was painted this great color called Goldwood Yellow. This wasn’t your typical bright taxi cab yellow that screamed like an irate banshee, but a subtle yellow that could’ve been the inspiration for Donovan’s song.
I’m just mad about Saffron
Saffron’s mad about me
I’m just mad about Saffron
She’s just mad about me
They call me mellow yellow
They call me mellow yellow
They call me mellow yellow
It took a fair amount of persuasion on my part to convince Dad to buy this Malibu SS, because he was a Buick Man before that, but that is a story for another time. Queens Boulevard is a hectic and bustling thoroughfare, that traverses the entire length of Queens. It begins at the mouth of the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan, and at more than 7 miles long, is one of the longest roads in Queens. It is a twelve lane road for the most part, expanding to sixteen lanes in some sections. It is infamous for the number of pedestrian deaths resulting from cars hitting older people who can’t cross the ultrawide boulevard fast enough, before the traffic lights turn from green to red for these unfortunate elders. The dangerous nature of Queens Boulevard has earned it the nicknames of “The Boulevard Of Death” and “The Boulevard Of Broken Bones” over the years. This forced the city to post signs saying, “A Pedestrian Was Killed Crossing Here” at various intervals of this killer street.
Queens Boulevard is also known as a vast commercial strip, hosting businesses of all kinds including rug stores, furniture outlets, department stores, car washes, gas stations, car dealerships, car accessory shops, speed shops and used car lots. It was at one of these used car lots that I found my ’64 Corvette. Preceding the day that Dad brought me to finalize the purchase of my Vette, I saw her in all of her arrest-me-red and black glory: A pristine convertible, she was a 1964 Sting Ray with a red body and black interior, with a black soft top. It did not have the detachabale hardtop. The paint was flawless, like new. The cockpit reminded of an airplane’s operating center, with bucket seats and a dashboard that featured dual matching alcoves, one on the driver’s side and one on the passenger side. Both alcoves had flared archway hoods, resembling more subtly angled McDonald’s golden arches, but in black.
The dash alcove in front of the passenger seat housed a glove compartment, with a large brushed aluminum cover with “Sting Ray” embossed on it. The driver’s side alcove held a complement of gauges, that resembled a plane’s gauge set, including tach, speedo and all the concomitant gauges associated with a serious sports car. No idiots lights fer this baby. A clock and radio sat between the two alcoves. Behind the clock and radio sat proudly, the chromed stick shift with a large round knob as its crown. A t-bar control sat midway, which allowed the four speed trannny to be shifted into reverse.
This beautiful Vette was equipped with the 327 cubic inch, 365 horsepower mill, with finned aluminum valves covers that read “Corvette” in a flowing, handwritten script. They featured highly pronounced raised lines of aluminum on each side of the words. This was the second most powerful of the engines available for the Vette that year. In 1964, the base motor was the 250 hp version. The optioned motors were rated at 300 hp, 365 hp and 375 hp. The 365 and 375 horse mills had solid lifters, while the base mill and the 300 horse mill had hydraulic lifters. The extra ten horses of the 375 horse version, was attributable to fuel injection. My Vette had a four-barrel Holley carburetor. The first thing I noticed besides the substantial exhaust note of the motor when I first went to see this car, was the loping idle and loud clatter of the soild lifters. I admit it, the mysteriously loping idle resulting from the hotter cam, and the clickety-clack of the solid lifters, got me excited. After the salesman took me for a thrilling test ride down quiet Queens side streets, with the mechanical sounds of the car reverberating in contrast, I put down a deposit of this beauty.
On the day my father took me to pick up my Unnamed Vette, I drove the Malibu SS home, while my father drove my Vette. This was because I didn’t yet know how to drive a stick shift. I’d learned on a Buick Super with an automatic. At this point of my life, I was still a college kid and lived at home with Mom and Pop. My father had a garage in an alleyway one block over from our block for his Chevelle. Alleys in Jackson Heights are highly unusual. If you think of blocks in Jackson Heights as rectangles, then picture the alleyways extended down almost the entire length of these rectangular blocks, running through the middle of these rectangles.
The alleyway where my father’s one car garage was, was between the side streets of 86th and 87th Streets, and between Northern Boulevard and the next avenue over, along the length of the block’s rectangle. The alley’s entrance was actually on the side street of 87th Street, then made a sharp right turn and then ran the entire rest of the block until it terminated at another entrance on 32nd Avenue. An aerial view would’ve shown a giant letter “L” bisecting almost the entire block. It didn’t begin on Northern Boulevard proper, because the buildings that faced Northern Boulevard occupied this space and got in the way. The front of these apartment houses faced Northern Boulevard, and the back of these buildings faced the alleyway. The entrance from the side street ran parallel to the backyards of these apartment buildings before it turned right. Like all buildings in Jackson Heights, these are limited by zoning laws to three stories.
Pop’s garage was rented from the owner of the house right across from the garage. Here’s the deal: On one side of the alleyway sat the row of garages. On the other side of the alley, sat a row of houses. The back of each house sat facing it’s companion garage across the alley. Some of these garages owned by these homeowners, were available for rent if the homeowners didn’t own cars.
I rented a one car garage a few garage doors away from the Chevelle’s garage, and it was rented to me by the family of a friend of mine, the McCaffreys. I called my friend McCaffrey, dispensing with his first name. I don’t know why, but I’d known this kid since elementary school, but never called him by his first name. Just “McCaffrey.” I can’t even remember his first name. McCaffrey wouldn’t make it much farther than that in life. He died from a freak acccident when he fell from his sixteen speed Peugeot bike and hit his head on the ground, when he was in his early 20s. R.I.P. McCaffrey. McCaffrey was one of the first in Jackson Heights to have long hair, and he sold small quantities of grass to people.
Unnamed Vette had so much torque, that I could release the clutch into first gear without stepping on the gas pedal with a cold engine on full choke in the alleyway, and the engine would not stall. Unnamed Vette would then peppily glide down the length of the alley to 32nd Avenue without me touching the gas pedal. This was a stout motor. As I recall, it took me a couple of lessons from my father to learn to smoothly coordinate the release the clutch with the feeding in of gas on takeoffs. One of my father’s jobs before he opened his own businesses, was to drive a truck, and this gave him experience with manual transmissions. Also, two cars that he owned before the Malibu SS, were a 30s Caddy and a ’38 Buick, which had manual trannies. I believe that he also owned a Packard in this era, but I’m not sure how accurate this memory is. Because the Vette had non-power steering, non-power brakes and the stick, my father announced to me about my Unnamed Vette, “This drives like a truck!”
Pop was impressed with her acceleration and cornering, though. One of my fondest memories was when using one of my stick shifting lessons as an excuse, Pop took my Unnamed Vette into a slow 25 mph curve on the transition road from the Whitestone Expressway to the Cross Island Parkway, at a screaming (and it almost made me scream) 50 miles per hour, with the tires squealing, but the car sticking like she was on rails. Pop was having fun. Ah Pop, we weren’t so different, after all. Pop could barely contain his glee, with a grin a mile wide as he floored Unnamed Vette as the slow curve straightened out onto the parkway proper.
I made some body modifications to Unnamed Vette. I molded an air scoop onto her hood, after cutting an opening in the hood above the carb’s air filter, to increase the intake of fresh air to the engine compartment. This was a large teardrop shaped hood scoop that was popular back in the day, with two oblong openings at the round end of the scoop. This hood scoop was meant to be mounted with the tapered end facing forward, and the rounded end with the oblong vents facing the windshield. However, I mounted it backwards, with the openings facing forward, so that whatever air that was received with the car moving foward, got rammed into the engine compartment. This wasn’t engineering based on scientific acumen, but what the hell did I know? This was an imposing hood scoop, being five inches high. After molding it flush with bondo, I took the hood to Williams Chevrolet on Northern Boulevard and 93rd Street, and had the body guy there repaint the hood. This guy by the way, rode a Harley Sportster.
Some of my favorite racecars of the day were the Corvette Grand Sports, which were also known as the Lightweight Corvettes. These were total racecars built in a limited number by Chevrolet. These cars were lent to racing teams by way of Chevy’s backdoor, because General Motors had a no-racing edict in place by the time these magnificent cars were fully engineered and reached completion. With tubular space frames and lighter bodies, the Grand Sports weighed 2,000 pounds. This was a thousand pounds less than a stock Vette, even they looked virtually stock. Chevy only built five of these cars, and surviving Grand Sports today will sell for millions of dollars. Grand Sports had open vents just in back of the front wheel wells, for better venting of engine gases and brake heat. The stock ’64 Vette had fake vents at these places. I emulated the real vents found on the Lightweight Vettes, by cutting identical openings on Unnamed Vette. Hey, she was halfway to being a Grand Sport. All that was left to do was for her to lose 1,200 pounds and gain a 600 horsepower motor!
I had a speed shop weld dumpers on the exhausts about a yard aft of the headers, which made Unnamed Vette audible from a mile away. After deciding later on that this unmuffled exhaust was gettin’ me too much police attention, I closed ’em off and installed straight-through glasspacks, which was a nice compromise. I also had Mickey Thompson mag wheels installed. With her mods making her look and sound fiercely righteous, I have pleasant memories of driving Unnamed Vette to New York’s National Speedway in Center Moriches, Long Island, to watch the drags, and to the Bridgehamption race circuit in Sag Harbor, New York (outer Long Island) to watch the sports car races. Once one got past the congested NYC portions of the Long Island Expressway, the drive became enjoyable, with plenty of country greenery to look at, and a righteously musical exhaust song to settle the savage beast within. This has the same salving effect as listening to a thrumming Harley motor doing its thing at 70 on the highway.
All things change with time. National Speedway is no more ( it closed in 1980), and the historic Bridgehampton racetrack, is now a fancy golf course for the well-to-do. This was a track that featured terrific topography with sand dunes. The Bridgehampton track closed permanently in 1998, after affluent locals complained incessantly about the loud noise from racecars (or maybe they heard Unnamed Vette). Town laws were passed that limited noise, and the site was turned into a giant sand trap for the docile. I got see the Lightweight Corvettes and Jim Hall’s famous Chevy Chapparal racecars at Bridgehampton. Chevies rule, baby!
OCTOBER 1, 1967:
Dennis and I are driving to Watkins Glen, for the United States Grand Prix. I’m excited, because I’ll get to see my all-time (even now) favorite driver, of any racing series, Jimmy Clark drive in person. This was the Formula One World Champion, who became my hero when he brought his spindly little rear-engined Lotus F1 car to Indianapolis, and beat all the front-engined dinosaur roadsters in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. Clark’s Formula One car heralded the beginning of the era of rear-engine Indycars, after Jimmy proved the vast superiority of these smaller and faster racecars. Man, I was stoked. I can’t remember Dennis’ favorite driver on that day. On April 7, 1968, the racing world lost one of its greatest drivers when Jimmy Clark died when he crashed in an insignificant Formula Two race. Like all great drivers of that era (another example: Mario Andretti), Clark just loved to drive and he competed in any race of any series when he had the chance.
This was going to an exciting day. We decided to go in Unnamed Vette, to make the four and a half hour drive to the Glen. October 1, 1967 was a gloriously sunny day, with blue skies clear as a bell and feeling twice as good. The first four hours were a breeze and a real pleasure to drive, with no traffic tieups and nice roads on the way up. As we approached the Glen though, the nice highways narrowed to what I remember as a two lane, one lane each way twisty mountain road that led to the track. Here’s where it became difficult, and driving joy became driving chore. I have a crystal clear memory of Dennis and me approaching, and then passing through some toll booths in Unnamed Vette, before the drive became narrowed. The toll station was like a borderline separating ease and difficulty.
I encountered a series of slow moving cars on this twisty road. I had to keep changing Unnamed Vette from first to second gear, and from second to first gear because the cars ahead of us were going at a snail’s pace. It was also difficult to pass, as there were blind turns with a considerable amount of traffic going in the opposite direction, in the other lane. As soon as I passed one Old Lady From Pasadena, another materialized at slow speed to take her place. This became an ordeal. There was an abundance of gear shifting on this twisty road, as the speeds varied between slow and slower.
Here’s what made this so hard: Unnamed Vette at that time had a heavy-duty racing clutch, with an unbelievable amount of spring pressure conveyed to the pedal. Man, my clutch left leg was gettin’ a workout, with cramps on the horizon. It was like doing one-legged squats, for a one legged-man training for an asskicking contest! This trip convinced me to put the stock clutch back in, and what a pleasure that lighter clutch was to use by comparison. I actually remember this part of the day better than the race, because it was grueling to get past this portion of the trip before getting to the racetrack. What was supposed to be a four and a half hour trip, was uglified into a six hour drive. While Dennis walked into the racetrack venue, I limped in.
The Struggle On The Twisty Road Mountain Road was the most memorable event of the day for me, overshadowing the race itself. I do recall that Jimmy Clark won the race in his Lotus (which I was happy about—but I don’t remember much of anything else about the race), and that the trip back to Queens wasn’t as arduous. But The Struggle bummed me out, and made me tired when I reached the Glen. I don’t remember what kind of mood Dennis was in, but then again, he wasn’t driving. However, It couldn’t been pleasant to be a passenger in a car with a driver who was stressed and uptight. On the plus side, Unnamed Vette ran like a top, and I did enjoy driving her powerful and beauteous self, when the traffic wasn’t bad. Isn’t that all we can ask from our vehicles, whether two-wheeled or four-wheeled? Just like I sometimes miss Sally The Bitch, my old Harley Sportster, there are times I miss Unnamed Vette. At times like that, I wonder where she is, and whose hands are all over her steering wheel, and whose sweaty right palm is fondling her shift knob. Later.