Part Two: Steve Smith
The National Zinc guy wasn’t happy with the #2 car. It wasn’t much of a street car, despite having an original, mildly-tuned V8 back under its hood. It still had its racing-number circles (which made it a cop magnet…even when it was standing still) and it still had a long, 3.55 rear-axle ratio (perfect for reaching its top speed, but making it nearly impossible to get a smooth start on a hill). Its original mufflers had been reinstalled, but it was still noisy and rattled and clunked like the old race-car it was. So he (the Zinc guy; I forget his name) put it up for sale…about the time I was preparing to leave New York City for California (in June of 1961), where I had a job with the publishers of Road & Track. For me, it was a choice between this clapped-out Vette or a very clean 1958 Porsche Carrera coupe. I decided against the Porsche because a) its highly-stressed—and highly expensive—roller-bearing crankshaft was prone to snap from a cold start, and b) the labor charge for changing its impossible-to-reach spark plugs (it had only four cylinders but eight spark plugs) was $600…and the platinum-tipped plugs themselves were extra. So I gave the National Zinc guy $3,800 in cash (and let him stay in my $96.42-a-month apartment in Greenwich Village until my unanticipated return a year or so later) and prepared to drive the ex-race car 3,000 miles—including much of the old Route 66—to California. (Honk if you’ve read Kerouac).
Before I left, I took it to Thompson Raceway, a road course in Northeastern Connecticut that I was familiar with, to see what she could do. What she could not do was stop. I didn’t know until much later—after I got to California—that the brakes were shot. The brake linings had been mostly worn away, and the friction surface was metal-to-metal…not conducive to short stopping distances. In my naiveté, I simply thought the massive pedal pressure necessary was because it was, after all, a race car (Phil Hill weight-trained when he was driving drum-braked Ferraris; he claimed the pedal pressure exceeded his own body weight). The beast (I took to calling her “Beastie” after this) could be brought to a halt, with much screeching and shuddering, only if I practically stood on the brakes with both feet.
The trip to California was my first cross-country trek. It took five days. After the second day, I was aching with pain. My right shoulder was killing me, and I spent an hour every night thereafter at each motel’s poolside working out the kinks. My butt was also sore. I could not imagine how Mssrs. Thompson and Windridge had managed to suffer the thinly-padded DC-3 seats. There was nothing anatomical about them: they were dead flat on the bottom and half-round on the top (not the shape of either my back or my butt). The stock steering wheel had been replaced by an Indy-type wheel, covered in rubber that got sticky within an hour. The brake pedal was hard as iron, but the clutch was almost as bad: the return spring was so strong that it would throw your knee back into your chest the instant you eased up on the pedal. I understood now why the National Zinc guy had wanted to get rid of it.
It was, however, great fun to drive. With its long gearing, it could go about 60 mph in first gear, and pass anybody traveling at any legal speed in second. On a dry road, it could hang on in the corners pretty well, but in the wet…even if it was just damp…it was a different story. It still had the same tires it had worn in the final laps that it had been driven at Le Mans. I also didn’t know it at the time, but Firestone racing tires (even the ones they used in the Indy 500) were actually rock-hard Firestone truck tires, hand-cut with special grooves. The grooves were immaterial by this time, because the tread had mostly worn away at Le Mans, leaving the tires virtually bald. One day, shortly after I arrived in California, I was in rush-hour traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway, going up a long hill out of Laguna Beach, when I noticed that a slight increase on the throttle pedal would result in the car getting slightly sideways. Bored, I experimented further. A little more throttle and the car would get even more sideways. I discovered I could control the angle easily, and could keep the car 20 or 30 degrees off its line of travel for long stretches. When I got to the top of the hill, I looked in the rear-view mirror. My antics had so scared the drivers behind me that the road was empty.
Another time, at night, I took Beastie out to a deserted road where the Road & Track crew conducted timed acceleration runs for the magazine. After making sure I was alone, I popped the clutch and stomped on the gas. The car went a couple hundred feet before making an ungodly “expensive noise.” The engine had blown. I walked a couple of miles to a farm house (Corona Del Mar was still mainly bean fields and orange groves in those days) and called my friend Shirley to come tow me home with her Volkswagen and an old hawser. It later turned out that one of the engine’s con rods had had a casting flaw. If Cunningham & Co. had ever tried to race with that engine, they wouldn’t have gotten very far.
Fast forward to a year later. I had been fired from my job at Bond Publishing and, after six months looking for another in California, I decided to give up and go home (to my parents’ house in Connecticut) with my tail between my legs. Problem was, I had already bought another car, a robin’s-egg blue 1958 Porsche Speedster (with a 1600 Normal engine, not the troublesome Carrera motor) and I still had Beastie. I was loathe to give up the Porsche, so I tried to sell Beastie. I put an ad in Road & Track’s famous classifieds, but found no takers (although I would be tracked down through this ad 20 years later). I tried to sell her to Chevrolet for their racing museum (but they had no museum…of any kind). I thought maybe she looked too much like a race car, so I paid Earl Scheib (“I’ll paint any car any color for $29.95!”) to paint her Royal Blue (but she looked terrible). Finally, in desperation, I traded her to a Porsche dealer, Vasek Polak, in Manhattan Beach, in exchange for $3,800 worth of race-preparing the Speedster (engine mods, different gears, limited-slip diff, altered suspension, disc brakes, roll-over bar, etc.) and figured I got off easy. Today, the Porsche would be worth maybe $150,000; my ex-Le Mans Corvette is worth at least ten times that.
I never saw Beastie again. Or at least, not for two decades. Vasek Polak had no use for American machinery, so he threw her out in the junk pile behind his work shop. A friend sent me a photo of her in the middle of this forlorn collection of forgotten race cars. Later, someone told me she had been made into a drag-racing car (oh, the humility!). Someone else told me she had been seen in the Bay Area in Northern California. Gradually, I forgot about her. Until one day in the early 1980s when I got a call from a Mike Pillsbury. He was a Corvette restorer and had tracked me down from the ad in Road & Track so many years before. He had re-discovered Beastie, he told me, and was embarking on a restoration project, and wanted to get as much information about her history as he could from me. “How…where…did you find her?” I asked, incredulous. It was one helluva story.