Over the 134 Freeway, Burbank
Photo by Chris Collins
Tale of the White Snake, Part II
Continued from Part I
Whether or not social analysis matters in defining an era, there are always those events which cast indelible colors and shadings upon, at least, how we perceive the movement of the times we live in. And, perhaps, our place in them. The early 60s were a heady time; the Historical Jury is definitely not out on that. The race to the moon was in full orbital swing and guys like Ed Roth and Darryl Starbyrd were boldly reshaping our automotive fantasies. Under the auspices of heavyweight boxing, Muhammad Ali's one-two punch knocked the bejeezus out of one nation's sensibilities and the Nation of Islam came along to chant the mandatory 8-count. Then there were those damned Beatles and all those screaming little girls making the average American boy skip his normal Saturday afternoon at the barber shop. And, as a word, "Woodie" had earned at least two meanings. In short, our country had passed colorfully through puberty and, having successfully smacked down the bullies of the Second World War, was now boldly dancing at the bandstand of its teenage years. The era had birthed itself into the pure philosophy of Rock & Roll as a way of Life, it had a good beat, and the West Coast was strongly calling the tunes and pointing the cameras. So why not an ultra cool California sports car that redefined the very essence of the term "hot rod?"
Why not indeed?
Getting to the heart of the tale, one bright Saturday afternoon I managed to talk my father into making an excursion to the Shelby-American factory. I had been working on him for quite awhile and this day he finally had free and would indulge me. I don't remember the actual month but it was in the early part of 1964. Naturally, we cruised out there in the aforementioned Galaxie 500XL, 352 humming demurely under the hood. Though this was the car that was bringing home NASCAR trophies, albeit powered by Holman-Moody 427 V8s, ours was an unabashedly domesticated version. Maybe I was a little embarrassed to be pulling up in such an obvious family carriage but, really, that wasn't concern. And, poetically, our white Ford happened to match the color of the only car in the parking lot. I saw it from a distance as we neared and my heart immediately started its engine, hairs came to attention on the back of my neck and I couldn't wait to get the seatbelt loose. There it was... a gorgeous, simply appointed 289 Cobra roadster. White. Black top. Wire wheels. Yes!
At this time the 289 version was the only snake being offered for sale (at a healthy, but not impossible, $5995.00!). Aside from prototypes and dedicated racing machines, the now better known 427-engined revision was about a year away from being manufactured. But no matter, this was a damned formidable machine and the one that created the legend in the first place. Legends do well against a backdrop of silence and it was very quiet that day in the parking lot of the low-profile brick factory. I had been to Hot Rod and Custom Car events and enjoyed the noisy aspect of "The Show" but here there were no mirrors, no impossibly polished chrome, none of the googah that screams for attention. Just one seriously cool car; the real deal, and walking around it, examining it under the late afternoon sky, the air gave forth a deep breath that stifled anything I could possibly utter other than an appropriate "Wow!" or two. Still, whether or not it could be voiced, a thick air of inactivity made it feel like we had arrived on exactly the wrong day. Just my luck! And further, as we stood admiring the roadster sitting at the edge of the lot, a man wearing a brown suit suddenly emerged from the front door of the building and locked it behind him with an air of finality. This didn't give me much hope. But, upon noticing us, he advanced toward us in a friendly manner. I observed his loosened tie and something about his demeanor suggested that this was a man who really wasn't an executive.
In the ensuing conversation it was determined that the business had closed for the day and, being the last one left, it was his job to lock up. He said he was one of the team drivers and had been doing some non-driving business. That explained the suit. Maybe he perceived my acute sense of disappointment or maybe just identified with my enthusiasm for the product he promoted but, either way, he reckoned he had enough time to give us a quick tour of the facilities. Hooray! I was suddenly feeling better about the way the day was turning out.
We followed him back to the front door, he unlocked it, we entered, he re-locked it behind him. We were the only ones in the whole damn place. There was no showroom area (as if there really needed to be one?). You either knew about this car or you didn't. The front end of the building was full of small office spaces with piles of slightly organized boxes, papers, stuff, etc. Definitely no place for neat freaks or proper Englishmen. The plain white walls were unceremoniously festooned with posters and photos of cars not unlike my own bedroom, mostly Cobras and other Fords. This was a place to get things done. I could relate to the whole vibe of the place--a business where the seriousness of fun was serious indeed.
There was a lot of unremembered detail that passed in those minutes. Being a small organization, all of the S-A workers--drivers and mechanics alike--had secondary duties such as office drudgery and sales. It was the only way to keep things rolling... no pun intended... the automotive DIY ethic. Our more than gracious host kept things interesting, answered a number of questions and plied me with the coveted materials--decals, promotional photos, brochures, printed stuff, the works. It was damned exciting even just being in the financial section of the business. But it was nothing compared to being in the presence of snakes.
I had grown up a fan of old Little Rascals movies and one of my favorite episodes was when these kids had fashioned themselves a makeshift taxicab pushed by a donkey harnessed to the rear of the vehicle. The animal (oddly named "Algebra") was motivated by a feedbag of oats just ahead of it in what would normally be the trunk. Those kids knew the mathematics of motion. The lid on the feedbag mechanism was Rube Goldberg'ed to a "gas" pedal. If they wanted more speed they applied more feed. Need to stop? Just ease off and close the lid. It was simple elementary physics. Spanky, of course, was the driver, the kid cabby from hell, and skibble-headed Stymie sat beneath the hood making engine sounds to lend an air of realism to the operation. When his "Mammy" asked what he and the rest of de chillun were up to Stymie proudly answered, "We'ze got an AUTEE-MOBILE and I is the FLOATIN' POWER!"
There was no substitute for being in the engine room, at least under the hood and in the presence of forces that converted ideas to motion. Of all things that can be said about universal principles the transference of energy is primary. Never mind the roar of rushing attractions or the smell of combustible elements, this is where particles advance pushing relentless realities one against the other, pros vs. cons, a banked track of super-collision pitting gravity against centrifugal dynamics. In this arena a spinout is just a small distraction to momentum's sleight of hand, a mere temporary condition. Without resistant physical planes there can be no gravity and in the absence of this realm torque and power are but ideas stripped of meaning. This would sadly leave Archimedes' screw a mere abstraction and the wrench a laughable daydream.
By this time our host had invited us to the rear of the office area where he casually unlocked a door and the gateway opened. Dorothy may have gotten conked on the head in a tornado and Alice may have tripped down the rabbit hole but I just walked straight ahead through a passage that lead into a dimming nest of deep magic. Beyond that threshold a different kind of air seemed to pull me forward not unlike a gasoline-scented suction drawing me into a manifold, into the abyss of a powerful cylinder. Not to explode, but to incredibly consider the vortex.
There is a certain quality of light that infuses this time of day and illuminates the march toward night and darkness but Man persistently allows himself to be fooled by it. Our senses being the grandest tricks of nature, Hide and Seek is a game most successfully played when the elements of Time and Space are revealed in the light of silence. The trick here is that brightness slants lower across our designated firmament of time. As the day carries onward light reflects less and less upon the direct, exposed surfaces of midday and more upon the deep shadows that have thus far been hidden by the light itself. Let the rational among us disagree but it is the fool who believes that mystery does not constantly surround us. And, in the seeking, it is especially this fool who cannot recognize the depths within which those mysteries hide.
And there they were. Cobras! Two potent, sleeping rows of them in various states of assembly, some hoods up, some hoods down, a few hoists hovering above hoodless engine bays. They faced off across a concrete-floored aisle in an idle workshop where no tool stirred. Some engines and transmissions scattered about in a deceptively random array. If chaos and organization had an immutable order, this garage was a perfect example of the very concept. 'Twas years before computerized diagnostics. 'Twas a time when mechanics and drivers alike, like industrial midwives, relied upon their ears and sense of touch and that thing called "seat-of-the-pants" as the sole informants to all that was right or wrong with their cars. And here, belied by the stony precision with which these snakes were arranged within their pit, their lethalness was a force implied. This was the heart of the nest, where heartbreak itself was built, honed and sharpened like poisonous teeth. Let the charmer beware and let the tool wielder not be faint of heart when all that was hidden is found.
There is always the failure of words and words fail me only slightly less 45 years later. Time pretends to stand still but it doesn't, really. It did slow incredibly as to burn its fleeting essence deep into my giddy, awe-struck memory. Frame after frame of kinetic images frozen in the grand emotion of the sun's rays angling lower, ever lower through the building's casement windows. The menacing forms of these aluminum-shelled reptiles seemed to taunt all who would challenge them. At any moment one or all of them could mercilessly awaken and spring forward to bite and to kill, and woe betide the hapless victim in the reflection of the predator's eye. Of all this I was aware. Then, suddenly and magnificently, the white body of the original prototype vehicle revealed itself. Perhaps the rarest of all Shelby-American creations, it still brandished the seminal AC-styled logo atop its snout. No punning intended, but if it had been a literal snake... I'd have been literally dead by then. It had been sitting undetected immediately to my right and with that discovery I realized that the bucks--yes, the original plywood bucks!--for the Daytona coupe were just a few feet away from it!
Meanwhile, a room full of Cobras. Quietly waiting.
Bringing me back to a more mundane reality, our host suggested that he really needed to shut things down and get home. Unfortunately, I understood, yet I could have stayed there for a much longer time if not forever. But he needed to do one more thing, an important thing, before splitting the scene. "Wanna go for a ride?" he asked.
Still in a bit of a daze from it all, I mumbled, "Huh?"
"I need to put away that car out in the parking lot," he said.
This was the proverbial no-brainer. I don't remember exactly how I responded to this man's invitation but I think my dad interjected something and I think he smiled a bit as we were whisked away from the depths of the snake pit. Doors closed and locked, I had a firm grip on my souvenirs, and we were once again in the bright California sunlight standing next to the bright, white Cobra 289 roadster. Within seconds I was seated in the black leather passenger seat and belted in. The man in the deceptive brown suit settled into position behind the wheel and it suddenly became obvious that the spartan interior of this car was his true business office. A purposeful turn of the key brought the beast to throbbing, rumbling life and I was fully aware that there was not much distance between my ass and the vibrating exhaust pipe directly beneath me. To my right there was only a thin skin of lightweight metal shielding me from the elements. To my left, a short gearshift lever with a hand upon it, calmly evaluating the lumpy rpm's.
I was never one to raise my arms in the air whilst riding the roller coaster and I had no intention of such actions at this important moment. Such actions are reserved for amateurs and this, I knew, was one damned important roller coaster. Lore was that a most effective demonstration of this car's potential was for the S-A salesman/driver to place a crisp Ben Franklin note on the forward side of the windscreen, directly ahead of the prospective buyer in the passenger seat. If, at any point during that ride, the passenger was able to reach over the top of the glass and grab the bill, he could keep it. Dreams being free, Mr. Shelby apparently lost no money to flights of fancy.
After a minute the engine smoothed down to a solid idle and, as soon as the clutch let out and engaged reverse gear, I could just about tell what I was in for. Well, hell! I had read everything I could about the car and, sure, I relished every anticipatory second of this adventure even though we hadn't gotten close to the street yet! I wondered how astronauts felt before liftoff. Upon shifting into first gear I could sense every tight muscle that made this fire-breathing sled the beast it undoubtedly was. But still, I really wasn't prepared. Uh-uh. When we tautly traversed the edge of the driveway and injected ourselves onto the open blacktop, all previous reality fell away and, with an instantaneous rush of complete sticky traction, any doubts I could ever have had about being raised under the Blue Oval vanished rather quickly. was over, ignition had been executed, liftoff had commenced and the race was on.
Never once lighting up the rear tires, that first left turn threw me to the right and, just as quickly, pushed me rearward under the g-force of an acceleration that shot us toward the end of the short block. As if acting out a joke, a familiar red sign came running toward us maniacally and an intersection was following close behind and neither seemed intent upon stopping. But at the last possible second they both did as I was thrown forward against the restraining harness under the all-powerful grab of the big Girling disc brakes at each wheel. No rubber screeching, and then we were still. At that moment I realized that no, the gearshift lever had never moved and I don't think I had breathed. I had glanced at the speedometer during that flight while the rpm's wound up impossibly and the needle indicated 60 mph. And we never got out of first gear.
There was no one out on these streets. It wasn't residential and perhaps the nearest moving vehicle was half a mile away and the only structures blocking visibility were low wooden signs hawking acreage for sale. Another whipping left turn and we slammed into the long block--maybe a full quarter mile of straightaway--and this time the man in the brown suit shifted into second. Once again, a stop sign threw itself at us in a futile gesture of authority. Given the longer street, this time the acceleration was truly serious and it would have been crazy to even of trying to push myself forward to touch the windshield. With the engine wound out to the redline, and feeling like it could still wind out farther, I was a bit unnerved to see a defiant 100 mph showing on the speedo before the brakes instantaneously brought us to a matter-of-fact standstill. Not once was the gearshift lever pushed to third.
We threw ourselves onto another lusty short block and then the final straight where, for just a fleeting second, third gear edged us gently past the century mark and then, sadly, we made our reentry and slowed back to the parking lot where my dad and the family Galaxie waited. I disembarked, my legs a little shaky to hit the ground again, and watched the beast as it growled away to the rear of the brick factory and disappeared. The buoyant little machine had barely broken a sweat. A minute later our host walked back to bid us goodbye and I realized that I hadn't learned his name. He apologized for this oversight of formality and said, "I'm Bob. Bob Bondurant."
I may have tried to be cool and reserved at this point but more than likely my mouth dropped open and I stood there like an idiot, my mind racing with all the questions that it was too late to ask. There was really no more to be said at that point. I knew that he was one of Shelby's top team drivers along with guys like Dave McDonald, Ken Miles, Bob Holbert and the legendary Dan Gurney. I had not just been in the presence of a king, I had been given a ride on his magic carpet. These are the things boyhood dreams are made of and, at the risk of sappily quoting the Bard himself, the rest is silence.
Image sources: shelby american cobra/mustang guide; sports car graphic—september, 1984; road & track—april, 1985, and the following websites: 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8
Drawing by James Fotopoulos
From the desk of London correspondent Steve Beeho...
Jay Hinman has posted a 78 (or maybe even 77) San Francisco zine in pdf which is, er, very much of its time. (I mean that in a good way). Contributors included Peter Urban and James Stark.
Here's the 14th January 1978 edition of Billboard which was its "new wave" special. (The very same month that the Nervous Breakdown session was recorded, unless I'm very much mistaken). A strangely fascinating time capsule - I'm impressed that they were hip to Slash, the Germs etc and even spoke to Pat Garrett from Dangerhouse. And the suggestion that Dangerhouse's approach would revolutionise the packaging for 7"s proved to be spot-on!
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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
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