Brock Yates passed away a few weeks ago. If by chance the name is not familiar, he had a long career as a writer and editor for Car & Driver magazine, and wrote over a dozen books on cars, auto racing, and the automotive industry. His most infamous “accomplishment”, however, may be as the chief instigator of the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a recurring stunt which led him to write the screenplays for the movies Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run.
When I was a senior in high school, the March 1972 copy of Car & Driver magazine arrived home. In it was the story of the running of the first Cannonball race, which was held in November 1971. As an impressionable young lad who was car-crazy and had traveled no farther from my Staten Island home than the Catskills of upstate NY, the idea of hopping into a car, any car, and racing from New York to California absolutely infatuated me. I brought the magazine to school, showed it to the few buddies whom I thought might be interested, and read and re-read the story on my bus-subway-and-ferry commute. To this day, it is perhaps my favorite article ever published in a magazine.
Yates, with co-driver Dan Gurney (talk about a ringer), won in a Ferrari Daytona, making the trip in under 36 hours at an average speed of 80 miles per hour. (Favorite quote: “Masterful driving by Gurney negotiates the extremely dangerous stretches of Route 89 through the Prescott National Forest and the Cliffside highway at Yarnell with relative ease. Yates proves ‘Ban don’t wear off’.”) The other entrants were almost as interesting, and included a Cadillac, an AMX, and several full-size vans. Reading the story again reminds one of both Yates’ determination to change the world, and his own naiveté in thinking that this was the way to do it. (In his C&D columns, he frequently argued that driving was a quicker way to cover long distances than flying.)
September of 1977 was a month of new beginnings: I began my first post-college job, working in NYC for the U.S. Department of Labor, and purchased my first new automobile, a 1977 VW Rabbit. Commuting from Staten Island to Manhattan, though, did not involve driving. As it is for the vast majority of New Yorkers, public transport was the way to go. In my case, the one-way journey was a 90-minute ride on bus, ferry, and subway, giving me plenty of time to read.
One day at lunchtime, I wandered into a bookstore. On the bargain table sat a book entitled “Ken Purdy’s Book of Automobiles”. While I had never read anything by Mr. Purdy, I knew the name because David E. Davis, editor of Car and Drivermagazine, had extolled the virtues of Ken Purdy’s writing in numerous columns. Perhaps best of all, the book was marked down from $9.95 to $1.99. I bought it.
This was not a book of new material; rather, it was a compendium of previously published short stories and articles. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ken Purdy had died in 1972.) Nevertheless, it was all new to me. The brevity of each chapter made it an easy read; I devoured the book in a matter of days. As soon as I finished it I had an epiphany: automobiles were something that I could enjoy as a hobby! No matter what daytime job I had, car collecting would allow me to indulge in my true passion. I decided to consider buying a collectible car, and that is when I remembered the Manna family.
Lou Manna was a college friend whom I had met through mutual friends. Unlike most of us in the dorms whose homes were several hours away, Lou’s home was about a 15 minute drive from campus. One day, Lou invited me to have Sunday dinner with his parents. This starving college kid said ‘yes’ before the invite was finished.
Mrs. Manna cooked a wonderful Italian meal, and I probably got some leftovers to help get me through the week. Mr. Manna (Louis Sr.), it turned out, was a bit of a car enthusiast. He drove a Fiat 128, and his wife drove a 1957 Ford Skyliner (retractable hardtop convertible), which the family had owned since new.
Mr. Manna Sr. told me that he always had convertibles. After the war, he bought a new 1948 Ford convertible. But he said he always hated dealing with soft tops which were noisy, leaked, required replacement, and didn’t offer enough security. When Ford announced mid-way through the 1957 model year that they were introducing a convertible with a steel roof, Mr. Manna told me he was hooked, and he purchased one. The car they bought was black with a white top and red interior. I thanked them for the meal, and did not think much more about the Skyliner.
After college, I had not seen much of Lou, but in November of 1977, I reached out to my college buddy, and as luck would have it, his parents had realized that it was time to let the car go. They told me that the asking price was $1,000; my offer of $900 was accepted. The car had 140,000 miles on it, the rear quarters were rusty, but the vehicle was in otherwise decent original condition.
I took the Long Island Rail Road out to Kings Park, and drove the big Ford home to Staten Island. Mrs. Manna was so upset at her car’s departure that she cried, and went back into the house rather than watch the car leave her driveway for the last time. Even though the car was “only” 20 years old, it drove like an old car. My Rabbit with rack and pinion steering was a model of directional accuracy and stability. This Ford had so much freeplay that I could rotate that big wheel 90 degrees left and right before my inputs had any influence on vehicular direction. The Belt Parkway was a quite the challenge that night, but we safely made it.
Now that the car was home, I really didn’t know what to do with it! The Ford sat semi-enclosed in a carport my father had built next to our 2-car garage. I didn’t bother registering or insuring the car, as I had no intention of driving it that much. Fast forward to the summer of 1978, when I left my cushy Manhattan office job to begin employment as an apprentice auto technician, and my tool collection and confidence both grew. It was time to overhaul the Ford’s engine.
This was my first engine rebuild. I purchased the factory service manual, and with a rented cherry picker and borrowed engine stand, yanked the block with the vehicle in the carport. The cylinder heads and ancillaries were removed, and I had the nerve to put the bare block into the back of the Rabbit so that I could drive it to a machine shop.
The cylinders were bored 0.030” over, which necessitated eight new pistons. The heads were sent out for a complete valve job. In addition to the machine shop’s parts and labor costs, I spent money for new gaskets, motor mounts, water pump, and camshaft. It felt like every spare cent I earned was going into this engine rebuild, which likely was close to the truth.
The rebuild came together, the engine was reinstalled, and the Ford was roadworthy again, but still not legally so. The interior needed to be reupholstered, the tires and brakes were poor, and there was the matter of the rusty rear quarters. But other changes were coming first.
In January of 1980, I moved out of my parent’s house and into an apartment in Somerville NJ, a mile from the dealership where I worked. The Ford stayed on Staten Island, at least until 1982, when my father retired and my folks decided to sell the house and move to a retirement community.
The Skyliner was moved into a public storage garage, really a converted chicken coop, in Readington NJ. The rent at “Van’s Storage” was $18 a month, and the owner said that there were strict rules against working on the cars on site. My Ford was on the 2nd floor of a two-story cinder block building, nestled among 50 other collector cars in various states of disrepair. The storage facility also had trucks, school buses, and loads of printed material stored among the classic and not-so-classic old cars.
The years were rolling by, and no work was being performed on the Ford. It had ceased to become a priority. With no garage access, I had no place to work on it. In the back of my mind, this was a “one day I’ll get to it” project, with the reality that “one day” could be a long way off.
One evening in the summer of 1984, enjoying a quiet weeknight in my apartment, the phone rang. It was “Van” of Van’s Storage. The voice said “I have bad news. We’ve had a fire out here. Everything’s in bad shape. You need to come out and see what you can salvage of your car.” I was upset, but not that upset, thinking I could rebuild the car or at worst, sell off the car for parts.
I waited until the weekend to drive out to the site. Four days after the phone call, the pile of ashes was still smoldering. The building was gone, and so were all 50 cars. Amazingly, I could spot my Ford. The fact that it was on the 2nd floor meant that as the building collapsed, my car was on top. But I was horrified at what fire can do: the glass, engine, wiring, and much of the sheet metal were consumed. The only component potentially salvageable was the rear bumper. It was all I could do to snap a few photographs and walk away.
As reality sank in, I was angry only at myself for my own immaturity: I never had bothered with insurance on the Ford. The fire was investigated by the local Police Department, and was ruled accidental. Van’s was not responsible; in fact, the rental agreement I signed absolved Van’s of any responsibility for theft, fire, etc. My total monetary investment in the Skyliner was about $4,000, now literally all up in smoke. At the age of 30, I felt foolish for fancying myself a “car restorer”.
This was a tough way to learn some difficult lessons. One lesson was to ensure that my first order of business needed to be attending to my legal and financial obligations. Insurance exists for a reason. There was the more subtle lesson that letting a restoration project “sit” for years is not a workable approach. If I wanted to succeed in the restoration of collector cars, I’d need to do better. Losing the Ford was a wake-up call. I’d like to think it helped me as I moved forward with my other projects in this hobby.
Upon my return home from the 3-week adventure which we nicknamed “Coast-to-coast in the Swedish car”, a letter was awaiting me. The U.S. Department of Labor was offering me an interview to be considered for employment in their Bureau of Labor Statistics. I interviewed, was accepted, and was told I could start in mid-September. Elated at the prospect of full-time employment, I especially looked forward to a full-time paycheck! Since I was still without wheels of my own, having sold my Vega to my brother several months prior, my thoughts turned to consideration of finally owning a new car.
The car magazines which I voraciously devoured had said generally good things about Volkswagen’s newest economy car, the Rabbit. The vehicle (called the Golf in the rest of the world) was introduced in North America as a 1975 model. During its first two years on sale here, one of the few issues concerned its troublesome carburetor. In 1977, VW ditched the carb, switched to Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, and likewise jettisoned the catalytic converter in the process. There were other attractive features: front wheel drive, hatchback roominess, and great fuel economy. I test drove several models at my local dealer, Staten Island Small Cars. Frankly, I don’t believe I even considered anything else. At least there’s no recollection of test-driving anything but Rabbits.
It was now September of 1977, and the new ‘78s were on their way. The buff books had informed me that for 1978, VW was reducing the engine size from 1.6L to 1.5L, with a horsepower drop from 78 to 71. Determined to find the “best” ’77 I could, I bounced around VW dealers in Brooklyn, Queens, and NJ, but ended up back at the Staten Island store.
My salesman was Arthur McKeever, an interesting guy, and difficult to forget once you met him, as Mr. McKeever had no right arm. He shook hands with his left, and could shock you with his ability to drive a stick shift. As we climbed into his red demo, I reached for the seat belt. He said “oh, you don’t need to put that on”. I put on the belt, as I had been wearing one since the Mustang wreck six years prior. The Rabbit was quite peppy, and while the shift action didn’t have quite the precision of a RWD car, it wasn’t bad at all. My mom’s ’76 Honda Accord had tons of torque steer; by comparison, the Rabbit had almost none.
He had three 1977 2-doors remaining (the 4-door model was not sporty enough for me, and so was a deal-breaker). One was his red demo, but I didn’t think the car looked good in red. The yellow car was attractive, but the priciest of the choices. The white car was an anomaly: a base model Rabbit, when every other car I looked at was the “Custom”. The base model had these features compared to the Custom: 145-13 bias-ply tires instead of radials; houndstooth cloth upholstery instead of leatherette; vinyl flooring instead of carpeting; non-opening vent windows instead of opening ones; and a manual rod for the hatch instead of a gas strut. But the sticker price of $3599 was very attractive.
A deal was struck for the white car, which looked good with its black-and-white interior. My dad had to co-sign the bank loan, but he knew I was good for it. Taking delivery of my first new automobile still ranks up there with one of the great car-related thrills of my life.
Three weeks into the ownership, I ordered a set of Pirelli CN-36 radial tires in size 175/70-13. They truly transformed the car, and lasted 56,000 miles! I also was an early adapter of Cibie euro-style headlights with replaceable H4 bulbs, which did amazing things for night-time visibility. Both the tires and the lights were purchased from Euro-Tire, which advertised heavily in Car and Drivermagazine. I put my own sound system in the car, and repainted the bumpers, but did little else other than maintain it and drive it.
The Rabbit served as my daily driver for over four years, from September of 1977 until December of 1981. I put about 112,000 miles on it, almost all of it trouble-free. The car started to use oil, a known issue with the valve stem seals, but oil was cheap enough that I just kept checking and adding it. There was also the start of some rust at the base of the A-pillars. My overall experience was so positive that I replaced this VW with another new VW. We’ll get to that story at another time.