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“MARY”: My current Vette.
For some bizarre reason, I don’t have a single photo of my old ’64 Vette that I owned in the late 1960s.
Starting with my 1968 Harley Sportster that I bought new that year, I’ve always named my vehicles. Because of the cantankerous nature of that ’68 Sportster, I named her “Sally The Bitch.” However, I was still so underdeveloped as a Motorvatin’ Maven before then, that I never named my ’64 Vette that I bought used in 1966. 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 retroactively christen her, “Unnamed Vette.”
I’ll never forget buying my ’64 Sting Ray. 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, 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 1966 song, “Mellow Yellow.”
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 ultra-wide 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 detachable 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.
This 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 solid 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 the 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 house for his Chevelle. Alleyways 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 use them.
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, which was Pat. I don’t know why, but I’d known this kid since elementary school, but never called him by his first name. Just “McCaffrey.” McCaffrey wouldn’t make it much farther than that in life. He died from a freak accident 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 pot and LSD to people (including me).
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.
It took me a couple of lessons from my father for me 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 1930s Caddy and a 1938 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 forward, 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 race cars of the day were the Corvette Grand Sports, which were also known as the “Lightweight Corvettes.” These were total race cars built in a limited number by Chevrolet. They only weighed 2,000 pounds as compared to the 3,200 plus pounds of street Corvettes. 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! Ha!
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 glass packs, which was a nice compromise.
I also put Mickey Thompson mag wheels on her. 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 Bridgehampton 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 race cars (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 Chaparral race cars at Bridgehampton. Chevies rule, baby!
OCTOBER 1, 1967:
I’m 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-engine Lotus F1 car to Indianapolis, and beat all the front-engine 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 race cars. Man, I was stoked.
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. It would be a 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 tie-ups and nice roads on the way up. As I 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 approaching and then passing through some toll booths in Unnamed Vette, before the drive became narrowed. The toll stations were like a borderline separating ease and difficulty. Starting at the toll booths, the road became a narrow two-way mountain road, with just one lane going each way. I encountered a series of slow moving cars on this twisty road. I had to keep shifting 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 ass-kicking 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. When I got to the race track , 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 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?