1957 was the epitome of the ‘50s car era, and a turning
point for car lovers of the nation. It was indeed a FORDified nation, because
the Ford Motor Company was king of the hill when it came to horsepower. Ford
came out with the V-8 engine as far back as the mid-thirties, and if you wanted speed and power, you bought a Ford. There was no argument, no question, and no alternative. It
was a fact of life so true that it rivaled the truth of the sun coming up in the east every morning. Any knowledgeable person, any true lover of thoroughbred cars, knew there was nothing American-made that
could out run a Ford, especially those Fords with multiple carburetors and overdrive standard shift transmissions, and high
performance camshafts. No other carmaker even came to mind to the lovers of speed
and racing of cars.
Except for a few.
In 1955, Chevrolet unceremoniously introduced a new V-8. Little did Ford
lovers know that the engine in this car was a new concept in V-8’s. It
had a higher compression and shorter piston stroke. It was a little devil that
wrapped up the RPMs much faster than the long-stroke Ford engine, and the difference was that the Chevy could make it through
the new popular quarter mile race a little faster than the stalwart Ford engines. But
the truth of the matter is that there were fewer Chevys sold because of the two previous decades of Ford dominance, so when
the quick little Chevys came out, it was still almost a secret, because the public just believed nothing could outrun the
In 1957, automakers dazzled the world with the souped-up
and finned models. It was the star wars of cars.
That year, my car-loving parents gifted my older brother with a red four-door hardtop Bellaire Chevy. It was bought in Abilene, and if big brother can be believed, he drove it wide open all the way back to
Something must have told the soul of that car that it was
in the hands of a speed demon, someone who “could spin the wheels of a wheel-barrow,” as the father of a friend
of mine once described him. The beautiful little car was indeed a willing participant
in the control of the speed demon, and for some reason, be it the driving ability of the new owner, or a freak of automobile
nature, nothing in its class could beat it. It left a legacy as an amazingly
fast car that was never modified while my brother owned it. It ran many races,
and had there been a hall of fame for stock cars of that year in that area, that car would have been the first inductee.
I think the beginning of its notoriety began when my brother
and I took it to Stanley’s Muffler Shop, just off East Eighth Street. The
little concrete block building is still there, and back then it was brand new. Even
today, when I find myself going back to Odessa, I will inevitably drive down East Eighth Street, and my eyes will automatically
track to that little building. My mind will drift back to that day when I accompanied
the speed demon and his machine to that muffler shop to buy a twin exhaust system and dual glass-pack mufflers for his new
thoroughbred ‘57 Chevy.
We had not been there long, and the car was up on the rack,
when a turquoise and white, two door hardtop 1956 Ford Crown Victoria rumbled up to the shop. It was a thing of beauty. It was lowered in the rear. A beautiful
sound came from the chromed tipped twin exhausts. It had custom hubcaps and fender
skirts. We had seen it roaming the streets of town before, and we always gazed
jealously at it. It was a car to be coveted, because there was no doubt it was
a racing car as it emitted the sound of a high lift camshaft when idling at stoplights.
It was a true attention getter.
Now here it was, right before us, at Stanley’s Muffler
Shop. Out stepped a guy, the owner, and a former classmate of my brother’s. Furthermore, he had a sister I was once sweet on for a few days in elementary school. So we knew him, and so did Stanley, the owner of the shop. In fact, it was Stanley who had installed some of its speed equipment, and he was overtly proud of the
fact and said so in so many words. In fact, Stanley began talking about how fast
he could make cars go, just by doing minor things to it.
Speed-demon Butch’s ears perked, as did mine. Something was said about a different set of spark plugs, and a carburetor adjustment,
and possibly other things. I was a rapt eighth grade listener, fascinated with
Stanley’s secrets of making cars go faster. Then the confident shop owner,
master car tuner, made the speed demon an offer, an offer he could not refuse. He,
Stanley, guaranteed my brother that he could tune up the Chevy to the point that it could stay within two car lengths of the
souped-up Ford in a quarter mile race. Now that was something to consider.
Talk ensued as the new muffler installation was being wrapped
up on the Chevy. It was decided that the best way to see how much work was to
be done to the Chevy depended upon how badly the Ford beat it in a drag race. After
all, there had to be a starting point. By this time noon was approaching, and
the muffler man confidently announced that he would shut down the shop for the lunch hour and ride in the Ford with its owner
out to a stretch of infamous pavement south and east of town, past the new oil refineries, where males of like ilk had painted
lines on the highway to mark a quarter of a mile, the distance of a drag race. I
rode in the Chevy with my brother.
Upon arrival at the improvised drag strip, the passengers
got out. Stanley The Muffler Man confidently stood by while the two drivers
maneuvered their machines up to the starting line, where Stanley took his place as the race starter. He stood between the two cars, out in front of them, while the drivers finished the questionable clearing
of their exhaust systems by racing their engines.
In a way, it reminded me of horses snorting and pawing
at the ground, waiting in their chutes at a race, knowing the game. Next, Stanley
pointed with his right hand at the Ford, and with his left at the Chevy. There
was a dramatic pause as the drivers tensed. Suddenly the muffler man quickly
raised both hands and arms skyward. The race began.
There was smoke and squealing from the tires. Four exhaust pipes roared in response to the drivers’ demands on the mighty V-8s. The race was on, and something was obvious right away: Either the Ford was sick, or the red Chevy was a
scalded jackrabbit, because it jumped out in front, leaving a shocked muffler man and an excited eighth grader in the dust
and smoke and noise. In just a few seconds it was all over, and it was not very
An unbelieving muffler man was shaken and muttered about
something being really wrong. As the two thoroughbreds braked and slowed and
stopped and turned around to begin their slow trip back to the starting line, I wondered what would happen next.
Stanley wanted another try.
In fact, he insisted on driving the souped-up Ford himself, implying that its owner just did not know how to coax the
maximum effort from it. This time the Ford’s owner became the starter, and the worried muffler man was at the wheel
of the Ford.
Yours truly gaped at the scene, scared that the muffler
man was indeed right, and this race would reverse the outcome of the first one, showing us kids what the truth really was. The starter pointed right, then he pointed left, and then he jerked his arms upward
to start the race. Smoke, noise, roar, it all started over, but again the scalded
jackrabbit Chevy left the Ford in the dust. Race over.
I have never forgotten what happened next. The two cars returned to the area where the spectators were waiting and pulled over on the side of the
road. The Ford’s hood was raised, and two baffled males stared unbelievingly
at the workings under the hood, questioning, blaming, wondering, and speculating about what was really wrong. Such was the belief in the fabled Fords.
The possibility of a Chevy, a stock-from-the-factory Chevy,
no less, waxing the butt of a souped-up Ford was not even thinkable.
Finally, we all loaded up to get the muffler man back to
his business, since the lunch hour was fading fast. Back at the shop, we paid
the bill and made some small talk, and I am not sure if anything was said about future tune-ups or not. Finally, my speed demon brother and I left, full of the knowledge that the little red Chevrolet was something
special, and the future held some real possibilities when it came to the subject of racing.
It was exciting to own such a car. I now wish it had never been sold at all. I wish it was stabled
in my garage, restored and rebuilt and held in high esteem forever. But alas,
1958 came, and the little racehorse was transferred to another owner in lieu of a brand new white 1958 Chevy Impala convertible.
And it too
could be made to go fast.