As a 16 year old boy, I made sure to buy the most recent Hot Rod magazine once it came off the press. This was to me an auto version of Playboy; those hot cars that I would dream about yet never come to own. Blown engines, dual quad carbs, hood scoops and Hoosier racing slicks. I lived in the country, far from the downtown area where the cool cars cruised up and down the boulevard on Saturday night. No, I lived in the area of Ramblers and Studebakers. I had to somehow get a car, any car. I had my drivers license, but no car. My parents had a station wagon and a VW. How would I get a project car that I could work on? I didn’t even have any experience working with cars. How could I learn? I know, I could go find a job at a gas station and learn there. Back in the day, they were called “service stations” because they actually serviced cars, not just sold gas that they didn’t pump. I set out to find a job at a service station. I walked all over the neighboring town and applied until I found a job at a Union 76 service station. It had 2 bays and 2 gas pumps. The owner was more than glad to find an eager young guy to pump gas and push a broom. I set out to make the inside of the service station office as clean as a whistle. The owner didn’t know what to say after I spent all day cleaning his front customer area office. “I have never seen this place so clean!” he exclaimed. His long time employee didn’t look on me so kindly as I was showing him up. After a few weeks of pumping gas and selling oil, I made it known that I wanted to buy a project car, one that I could take to the local 1/4 mile drag strip. Johnny, the long time employee that I had shown up heard that I was looking for a car and he figured that he could unload his 1964 Chevy BelAire wagon on me. “So, you are looking for a project car, huh?” he asked. “Yep, I want to hop it up to race at Suffolk dragstrip.” I said with more excitement than Johnny had seen in awhile. “Well, I have this great Chevy that would make a great project car, it’s right over here.” he said. We walked over to his faded green Chevy BelAire station wagon with a big dent in the rear side panel.
“Here it is. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it could look really nice.” he said with a wry grin. “I don’t know, it looks awful big.” I complained. “I tell you what, I will sell it to you for $350 and you can make payments to me. $50 down and it is yours!” he grinned. I thought for a few moments and started to dream of what I could make it look like, jacked up in the back, big racing slicks with painted flames down the side. I could even chop it and make it look really cool. “Ok, you’ve got a deal.” I said as Johnny shook my hand and smirked under his breath. All I could do was to dream of what this car was going to look like. I called my mom and said, “I don’t need a ride home, I bought a car!” “You did what???” she asked. “Yeah, Johnny here at the service station sold me his 1964 Chevy. I got a really good deal.” I explained. “Well, I hope so. Are you sure you can drive it home.” she asked. “Sure, it’s in really good shape.” I said, not having a clue about the engine. After work, Johnny handed me the keys and the title mumbling something about keeping a check on the oil. I took the keys to my new chariot and opened the door, after tugging on it to get it to open. I slammed the door, put the key in the ignition and cranked it over. After a couple of tries it came to life. It didn’t sound too powerful. I pulled out of the service station parking lot and onto the main drag heading home. Heading onto the highway, I thought that I would see what she could do. I floored it and the car sluggishly bucked, like an old horse not used to getting spurs in its flank, but finally it accelerated. It didn’t exactly throw me in the back of my seat, as a matter of fact, the transmission slipped into 3rd gear rather slowly and the old Chevy settled down to a quiet hum. I backed off when I hit 70, not wanting to buy a ticket as well as a car that day. At 6PM I pulled in front of my parents house. I parked the car and turned off the key, but the engine didn’t want to stop, it just kind of kept going, knocking and then stopping, then starting, knocking and stopping. Eventually it stopped this whole nonsense and cut off. I scratched my head as I went in to the house. “Come out and see my new car!” I said to my dad with extreme pride and joy. “Ok, what did you buy?” he asked. “Look, isn’t it a beaut!” I said as I posed with the car as if it were a brand new car off the showroom floor. “What the heck did you buy Gill?” my dad asked. “It’s a 1964 Chevy BelAire wagon.” I said with pride. “Did you check it out before you bought it?” he asked. “Sure I did.” I said as I realized that I hadn’t done any such thing. “Well, let’s look under the hood.” my dad said. I went into the car, pulled the engine hood release, went back to the front of the car and lifted the hood for the very first time. What I saw made my heart sink. I had a stinkin’ straight line 6 cylinder engine with a lousy 2 barrel carburetor. “Well, not much of an engine in there, but that’s good. You shouldn’t get hurt with those few ponies pulling this heavy hunk of metal.” he said with a grin. He shook his head and headed back into the house. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t bothered to even look under the hood. How was I going to hop up a 6 cylinder engine? Also, how was I going to race with an automatic 3 speed tranny? Now that I was home, I looked the car over really well. A huge dent in the rear side panel, carpet that was so thin that you could see the floorboard, a radio that was only AM and a drivers side door that made a loud creak and barely opened. What a piece of crap. I crawled under the car and noticed that the tires were almost bald and that the inspection sticker would expire at the end of the month. What was I going to do? I slammed the door and went into the house to pout.
The next day, I drove my wagon back to the service station that I worked at. I found Johnny under the hood of a car that needed a new alternator. “Hey, that car you sold me only has a 6 cylinder in it.” I complained. “Yeah, I know. What’s your problem?” he retorted. “I thought that it had an 8 cylinder engine in it, not a stupid 6 cylinder.” I said. “Well, you didn’t ask. It’s yours now!” he smiled and returned to his work. I walked away with my hands in my pockets, dejected, realizing that I had been taken and it was my own fault for not asking more questions BEFORE I bought the wagon.
This wasn’t going to get me down. I tried to figure ways to make this clunky station wagon a hot rod. I went to my boss and asked if he would sponsor my car so that I could take it to the 1/4 mile racetrack. He laughed and said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Sponsor that piece of crap? No way! You need a two door light weight car with a nice V8 in it.” he said. I knew that he was right. Nobody would sponsor a station wagon and especially a station wagon with a 6 cylinder in it. I hung my head low and started sweeping the garage bays. Boy, was I stupid or what. Not to mention that I also had an automatic transmission. Nobody raced with an automatic transmission.
I drove it to school the next day, but no heads turned in my direction to check out my new ride. I think they purposely didn’t look to save me the embarrassment. I went to my classes and tried to forgot what was waiting for me in the parking lot. Over the next few weeks I started thinking, I wonder if my boss would think about sponsoring me if I had a manual transmission in my car? Maybe it would have more get up and go rather than sliding through the gears as it did now. I went and talked to the junk man next door. He said that he had an old Chevy pickup in the back with a 3 speed manual tranny. He said that it should bolt up to the engine. He said, if you can get it out, you can have it. Armed with wrenches and rags, I crawled under the truck and with plenty of knuckles busted finally wrenched free the transmission, flywheel, disc and pressure plate from the old truck. “Well, it’s yours!” he said rather surprised that I had freed it from the truck way back in the junk yard. Wow, a 3 speed tranny. All I had to do was to swap the automatic transmission for the manual. I mean, how hard could it be?
I convinced my buddy Craig who didn’t know a wrench from a wench to meet me at the gas station after work to pull out the automatic tranny. My boss, before leaving for the night said, “Make sure you have this bay free so that we can work on paying customer’s cars.” I told him no problem as he drove away from the station. “Well, let’s get to work!” I told Craig as I scratched my head trying to figure out where to start. We drove the wagon onto the lift and raised it so that we could get underneath of it to see what was holding in the transmission. Back in those days, all we had were trusty Chilton manuals. I broke out the manual for my car and went step by step trying to figure out all of the bolts and linkage that connected the tranny to the engine. Time was NOT on our side. It was now 3 AM and we still did not have the transmission out. My boss was going to kill me if I didn’t have his bay free. At 4AM Craig and I both crashed in the office on a couple of old plastic chairs. We were exhausted and caught a little sleep. By 5AM I woke up with a start realizing we didn’t have much time to finish. What in the world was holding that transmission to the engine? Finally, I realized that there were bolts that held the torque converter to the flywheel and that these bolts were keeping the tranny from working loose. I had a small hole to insert a socket into and slowly turn the engine over to remove each bolt. At 7AM, we had all of the bolts loose and the transmission fell with a clunk onto the jackstand. My boss was pulling up to the station and his face turned beet red as it did when he wasn’t happy. “I told you to have this bay free!” he yelled. “Get that damn car off of my lift.” I looked at him rather helpless and he finally figured out that we really didn’t know how to get the transmission off of the jack as it was hoisted high in the air and it wasn’t the kind of jack that would lower enough to clear the bottom of the chassis. “Here, let me help you get this thing out of here.” he said. With a few of us holding the transmission, he removed the jack stand and then we were able to carry it off to the side. “Now lower that car and push it out of my garage!” he yelled as we pushed the car to the side of the parking lot. Transmission fluid and grease were all over the floor. What a mess we made. I got busy cleaning it up and asked my mom to pick me up so that I could go home and sleep. I took a quick shower when I got home and fell on the bed into a deep sleep.
Now the hard part began; how to install the new 3 speed manual transmission into the car. I talked to the mechanic next door to get some pointers. You need to install a different flywheel, buy a clutch disc and pressure plate along with a throw-out bearing. It sounded like Greek to me, but with a little time spent in the Chilton’s Manual, I had a plan. I called my buddy Craig again, but this time he refused to answer my calls. I was on my own.
The next week, somehow I promised my boss that if he would let me use his bay again, I would have it free by 7AM. I guess he saw that puppy dog look in my eyes and relented. Fortunately a manual transmission is much lighter than an automatic tranny. I had purchased the necessary parts a week earlier. Changing out the flywheel, installing the pressure plate and clutch disc was actually pretty easy. Sliding the manual transmission up into the chassis and bolting it to the engine was much easier as well. By 5AM I had everything in place. The only issue was that I didn’t have a gear shift. By 7AM the next day, I had moved the car out of the bay and muscled it to the side of the parking lot. “Thank God that piece of junk is out of my bay!” my boss exclaimed as he drove up. I was relieved that I had been able to do the job by myself. I had to go to work, so no sleep for me today. I barely made it through the day and had to get a ride home once more.
A few days later, figuring that I had redeemed myself, I asked my boss “Can I use the garage again? I want to install a gear shift.” “Hell no!” he yelled. “Twice is enough. You figure out where you can work on that thing.” he pointed to my car in disgust. Where was I going to work on it? I had to have a lift. After searching around, I found that there was a new place that used to be a gas station. They were leasing out bays by the hour, as well as loaner tools. I reserved an evening and had the wrecker driver tow my car to the bay down the street. It was going to be another long night. I had purchased a Hurst Master Shifter with a spring loaded 2nd gear that threw the lever into 3rd with just a touch of a finger. It was chrome and beautiful, but there was much work to do to install it.
It was Friday evening. I had my bay reserved and I got to work. First, I had to drill a hole through the floor of the car where the gear shift would go. This was harder than I thought as I didn’t exactly have sheet metal tools. I had to drill almost 100 holes to make a square hold for the gear shift, but after an hour, I finally had a hole larger enough. Reading the instructions, I figured out how to install and adjust the linkage to the transmission. I had to test it out so that the throw of the shifter would engage the levers on the transmission in just the exact spot so that the gears would work. By 4AM, I had my Hurst Master Shifter totally installed, ready for action. I was so proud of getting to this point. I thought I had it all figured out, but then quickly realized, where was the clutch pedal. I had a 3 speed tranny, a shiny new gear shift and no clutch pedal. “Time over!” the manager said as I realized that I was going to have a hard time getting it out of the bay. I put it in reverse and hit the ignition just enough to move the car in gear, but not start it. I bumped it over and over until it was out of the bay. I wonder if……hmmmm. If I could start it in 1st gear, I could actually drive it home. I put it in first gear and made sure that nobody was around. I turned the ignition and the old 6 cylinder came to life after sitting for more than 2 weeks. It lurched forward, unstoppable and I hit the gas, just enough to keep it moving. I drove it for about a mile in first gear and then had the nerve or stupidity to pull it out of first and grind the gears into second without a clutch. What a God awful noise it made, but I was heading home. After about 15 minutes, I pulled into our driveway killing the engine and slamming on the brakes to keep from running into the garage door and taking out the laundry room. I was home. What a relief, but how was I going to install a clutch pedal??
I figured that if I could swap out the transmission and the shifter, then I could figure out how to install a clutch pedal. I went to the mechanic at the junk yard next door and asked him how to install a clutch pedal. He explained, “Well, first you have to get a clutch pedal from one of my wrecks in the back lot and install it on your car. It’s not that hard, because you just take the whole assembly out and install one with a clutch pedal in it.
The hard thing is going to be installing the bracket on the frame in the engine compartment. Yours didn’t come with the bracket that is welded to the frame to allow for a clutch pedal.” He pulled off his hat and scratched his head thinking of how I was going to pull that one off. Well, I would just have to think of that one when I got there. I agreed to buy the necessary clutch linkage and pedals from a junker in his back lot. Taking all of the parts to my car that night, I removed the brake pedal and installed the clutch pedal and brake combo unit along with the linkage. Surprisingly, it bolted right up. I next installed the clutch spring that put resistance on the clutch pedal; because the other end wasn’t pushing against the fork in the pressure plate that disengages the clutch disc, the pedal just stayed to the floor, despite the big return spring that was supposed to pull it back. I crawled under the clutch area and took a look to see what was holding it down. I pulled lightly on the clutch pedal and suddenly it shot back up with amazing force hitting me squarely in the jaw with as much force as a heavyweight boxer. I started to see stars and realized that the clutch spring had done it’s job by bringing the clutch pedal back to where it should be, except my face had been in the way. I stumbled out of the car and rubbed my aching jaw. That was going to leave a mark! All I had to do now was to somehow find a bracket and have it welded on the frame of the car.
Searching around the junk yard, the same car that I had pulled the transmission, clutch pedal and linkage had the clutch pedal bracket on it’s frame.
I begged the mechanic that had been giving me tips the whole time to cut it off of the frame and weld it on mine. He finally relented and by 7PM, had welded it to my frame. I now was able to install the linkage and I had a working clutch pedal. I could finally shift gears without grinding them. After work, I was able to drive my 3 speed station wagon home happily shifting gears with my Hurst Master Shifter.
Before I even had a chance to drive it to school I immediately thought of one last project to do on my beloved BelAire wagon. My next project was to change out the differential with a 4:11 racing rear end. It would allow me to run a 1/4 mile quicker. For this, there were no junked cars with these special gears. I had to save up money to order one from the local Chevy dealership. Finally, after several weeks I had enough money saved to order it. After a week, I received a call that it had arrived at the dealers parts department.
This was going to be another project that I had no idea what to do. I jacked up my car, crawled underneath and just started taking things apart. I dropped the drive shaft and unbolted the hogs head after spilling 90W gear lube all over my face. I yanked the hogs head out and dragged it from under the car. There were two gears, a pinion gear and a ring gear. It looked easy enough to me. By now, I had started to work at a gas station where the owners had a drag racing car that ran a quick 1/4 mile in a class called “E Gas”. It was a modified 67 Corvette. When they warmed it up before race day on Sunday, you could hear it from a mile away. I had hoped to gain more motor experience by starting to work with them. After school, I told them what I had bought and that I was going to change out the rear end gears. They told me, “You better make sure that you blue lead the gears and make sure to use the necessary shims to set it up properly or you will wear it out.” Blue lead? Shims? What the heck were they talking about. Didn’t you just swap out the gears? Well, I just swapped out the gears, couldn’t find blue lead or shims. I turned it over by hand and it looked and sounded good to me, so I just slapped it back in the car, reinstalled the drive shaft and hoped for the best! I was finally done. I was stoked! All of this hard work was going to pay off. I called all of my buddies to tell them that I finally had a working car again and that I was going to pick them all up. What a great feeling I was going to have, carrying all of my buddies to school in my modified wagon. Sleep would come hard tonight. I was so excited about tomorrow.
I woke up promptly at 7AM and dressed quickly, wanting to give myself enough time to pick up my friends before heading to school. After breakfast, I jumped in my wagon, pushed in the clutch pedal, shifted the gearshift into neutral and cranked her up. Popping it into reverse, I slowly let out the clutch pedal. The disc plate engaged with the flywheel and the car began to move as all parts worked perfectly. I turned around in the cul de sac and headed towards my first friend, Billy. After picking up Billy, I headed for Craig’s house to pick him up. Craig jumped in the car and both Billy and Craig were happy for me that I had finally finished my project car. Craig had helped me pull out the automatic transmission from the car and knew how much work I had put into the conversion. Billy was just glad that he had a ride to school. I didn’t try and show off. I just wanted to make sure that everything was working and it was. After a few miles, I was almost passing the new gas station that I had started to work at when I heard this pinging noise. At first it wasn’t very loud, but slowly it got louder and louder. After a few minutes it sounded like a school bell ringing. I started to lose power. I had just enough momentum to pull into the gas station that I had just started working at. When I parked it, I heard a loud clunk. My boss came out and said, “What’s all that noise coming from your car?” I looked at him in disbelief and told him, “I have no clue. I just finished a 2 month project to get my car back on the road.” He was fully aware of all of the work I had done. He got down on his knees and looked under the car. “Oh, that’s not good.” he said. I crawled underneath and there was oil all over the pavement under the engine. “I’m sorry to say, but you have thrown a rod. Your engine is toast. See that big piece of metal sticking out of the oil pan? That’s a rod.” he said as if giving bad news to a patient. All of my hard work had ended in this. I hadn’t even made it to school. I had only picked up my 2 buddies and was heading past my house, nowhere near school and now I would have to call my parents to take all of us to school. My head was hanging so low, I could almost lick my shoes. Why had the engine waited until I had finished all of this work before it gave up the ghost? What was I going to do? This was terrible.
My dad picked us up and took us to school. This was going to be a long day for sure. I couldn’t believe I was having to bum a ride to school. During lunch I sat at a table with a motorhead called “Frog”. He had thick glasses and was short and stocky. I guess this is why people called him Frog. I told him of my dilemma, how I had spent all of this time converting my wagon from an automatic transmission to a 3 speed manual. He just shook his head feeling sorry for me. After awhile, his eyes brightened, “Hey, I happen to have a ’59 Chevy 283 cu. in. engine in an old wagon that I was going to toss. I’ll let you have it for $50.” he said. Wow, a V8 engine. I was excited! I could afford $50 and I would finally have a V8, not a stinking 6 cylinder with a thrown rod. Maybe my boss would sponsor me if I had a V8! I told him that I would get the $50 and buy his motor. My head was spinning. Wow, a real V8 engine.
A couple of weeks later, I finally scraped together the money and went to pick up my motor. Frog helped me load it in the back of my wagon. “Oh, there’s just one thing, the engine mounts for a ’59 motor are in a different location than a ’64 motor. On a ’59, the motor mounts are on the front corners of the motor and yours are on the side. Guess you’ll have to fabricate something to make it fit.” Frog said as he was slipping my hard earned $50 into his back jeans pocket. “Uh, ok.” I said, not knowing what I was going to do. I drove home with the heavy engine in the back of my mom’s wagon, trying not to let it slide around or slam through the tailgate onto the highway.
“Well, I bought an 8 cylinder.” I said as I walked into the house. “You did what?” my mom asked. “A friend of mine at school had an 8 cylinder engine that he sold me so that I could put it into my wagon.” I grinned. “So I bought it! It was only $50.” Such a deal I couldn’t pass up. I couldn’t wait to install this beast of an engine in my wagon. I could just hear it roar.
In shop class, my teacher and I fabricated 1/2″ plate steel plates to allow us to install the ’59 engine into my later year car. These plates were going to convert the side mounted motor mounts on my frame to the front motor mounts of the ’59 engine. I got them all ready to install, but I had never swapped out an engine. I didn’t have a motor lift nor did I have any more money to put into my project car. The engine sat in my parents garage on the floor and my car sat in front of our house for months and months and months. Finally my parents said, “You need to either fix your car or get it towed to the junkyard.” Towed to the junkyard? I couldn’t believe what they were saying. All of this work and money and they wanted me to just push it to the curb. What was I going to do? I had run out of steam, know how and money. After a few more months, they gave me the ultimatum, either I call the junk yard or they were going to call them. A week later, I made the dreadful call. “I have a 1964 Chevy wagon that I need to junk. Can you pick it up?” I said sadly to the junk yard owner. “Sure kid, no charge, just have the title in the car.” he said.
When I arrived from school that next day, my wagon was gone. It had gone to that great scrapyard in the sky. All of my work was history. It was a sad day. My parents must have felt bad, because a few weeks later, they gave me my dad’s old VW as a graduation present. I really appreciated it and had another car to figure out how to create a dune buggy out of. “If I chopped the fenders and installed some larger tires on it, I could create a really cool car.” I thought. I wonder if I could install a larger engine in it. I fell asleep that night, forgetting about my old wagon and beginning to dream of my new project. The wagon had been replaced by a new car. How quickly we forget.