I got my drivers license in 1976. I keep reading that many of today’s youth are ambivalent about driving. But that was not me.
I think I was born crazy about cars. I could identify many of them from a very young age and would play inside of parked cars every chance I got. When I reached the age of fifteen and was eligible for a learner’s permit, there was no holding me back. I would have crawled across an acre of broken glass to get that permit, and the license that came thereafter.
I immediately began pestering my parents for their permission to buy a car. I knew that they were not about to actually buy me one, and was quite happy to use the money I had been saving from my youth. Every dollar from every birthday card or lawn mowing job that made it into the bank may as well have been labeled “car fund”.
Alas, I did not get that car for awhile. My mother worked at a job which allowed her to take a bus to and from work, so her car was freely available much of the time. Never was I ever so happy for her to find another job as on that day when she announced that she would have to start driving to work. “I guess you can get that car now.”
At that point I did not have much in the way of actual nuts and bolts experience. I went out car shopping with a close friend and we found one. A 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible. Not only was it a convertible, but it was clearly a high performance one as well, given that “390” badge on the fender.
I had seen a lot of Fords over the years with the “390” badge and knew that it must have been something to boast about. I eventually learned that all Ford 390s (for the number of cubic inches) were not created equal. My car had the low-power version that took regular gas and was tuned for economical cruising and not for performance. And I later learned that even the performance-oriented 390s were a little on the doggish side, but I knew none of that then. I had myself a 390-powered Ford and that was all that mattered.
My job through most of high school was at the Fort Wayne Public Library. It was not very exciting, but the tradeoff was that I didn’t make much money. Oh wait – that wasn’t much of a tradeoff at all. OK, it was better than my first job at the Burger King where I spent the first three weeks of employed life. Better pay, no grease and no goofy uniform was a definite reason to go to work shelving books.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with amateur drag racing? Just this. The library was downtown and my route took me several blocks on Washington Street. Washington Street was a one-way thoroughfare with traffic lights at each block that were timed so that if you caught one at the right time and kept to the speed limit you were likely to hit the lights green after green for most of the way. But if you went too fast you would get stopped at every single one.
One particular day I was heading in a little after four p.m. About six or seven blocks from my parking lot I decided that I needed to get into the left lane. I looked to my left and there was a plain-looking metallic blue Gremlin there. Most people have forgotten the Gremlin by now, but it was not a car that got much respect even then. It was the low-end car made by the long-defunct American Motors Company.
I sized up the Gremlin stopped to my immediate left. I knew my cars and a Gremlin would be no trouble for my 390. But then I saw the little “304” badge on the front fender. Hmmm, I thought. A V8 Gremlin. Well that’s OK, 390 is way more than 304.
The light turned green and I did what any red-blooded seventeen year old would have done – I jammed my gas pedal to the floor. The guy in the Gremlin must have seen me eying his car because he clearly did the same thing. As we came to the next red light we were still in our original lanes.
OK, I thought, “I must have hesitated a touch. So all I need to do is put my cat-like seventeen-year-old reflexes to work. Nail it at the right time and the Gremlin will be sucking my exhaust fumes.” The light turned green and I was ready for him. But he was ready for me too.
Over the course of five or six blocks a pattern developed. The lighter Gremlin would leap out ahead while my much heavier Ford worked to catch up. But then the Gremlin had to manually shift to second gear, allowing my Ford to close the gap and get a nose ahead.
And so we went, block after block. Youthful testosterone must have been spraying from the open windows of both of those cars. Neither of us was willing to concede to the other, like a couple of rams butting heads in a mountain meadow. Hey, just because I worked in a library did not mean that my name was Myron Milquetoast. I had a 390 and was not afraid to use it.
Adult me would have put getting into my lane at a higher priority than vanquishing the (other?) jerk in the Gremlin. My method (still) is to hit the gas and see if I leap out in front. If I do, problem solved and I zip into my desired lane. If, however, the other driver senses a contest, all I need to do is stab the brake and slip in behind. This works 99% of the time. Incidentally, my modern minivan is far faster than my 390 ever was. But this was not how my mind worked at seventeen.
I finally realized that my parking lot was quickly approaching and that I was no closer to that left lane than I had been at the outset of this little sporting event. I made the tough decision to break off from our grudge match. The light turned green, he blasted forward and I eased into the lane behind him. Breathing his exhaust fumes. Which was not fun.
I learned several lessons that day. First, a 304-powered Gremlin earned my respect. A car that is lighter doesn’t need as much engine. This shouldn’t have been new to me, but it kind of was. The second was that my 390 was no race car. It didn’t embarrass me (much) but it didn’t win that race, either.
The main lesson was that I should not let adrenaline derail what I needed to do. I was, fortunately, not one of those guys who would let the grudge match overcome reason – even at seventeen. So, when the time came to break off from this contest, I did so and got to work.
Finally I realized immediately that I was really lucky that day – there was nary a squad car in sight. Had John Law been at one of those cross-streets I would have learned a very different (and much more expensive) lesson. But the statute of limitations for my Fast & Furious offenses of 1977 expired some years ago so I can come clean. As 1970’s-style street racing experiences go, mine could have gone better. But it could have gone much worse, too.
Opening photo – crop from the vintage package art from Hot Wheels drag racing set offered for sale on Amazon
1967 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible – photo by the author
1967 Ford “390” badge – offered for sale on eBay
1972 AMC Gremlin – photo from cargurus.com
AMC “304” badge – wikimedia
Police car – random photo found on the internet so long ago I no longer remember where.