Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Big Race


The Big Race

By Ken Neal
May 2013

        After Pearl Harbor, American automakers quit making cars and turned to airplanes, tanks and other war machines. A few 1942 model autos were built after the fall introduction in 1941, but mostly the American civil population had to make do with the vehicles they had at the outbreak of war.
When production resumed following the end of the war in August 1945, the 1946 models were basically 1942 designs with cosmetic changes, things like grills, bumpers, etc.
      Our 1939 Chevy had served us well during the war but of course dad was dying to have another car. He went to work for American Airlines in January 1946 and so had a steady job. He set his sights on a new Chevy. 
These were the days of the Big Three in Detroit, about the only place where autos were produced, given the war devastation in Japan and Europe. Detroit had a virtual monopoly on auto making. The 1948 Chevrolets were hardly changed from the 1942 models. The same was true for other General Motors products, as well as Ford and Chrysler offerings.
       The big competition was between Ford and Chevy. Ford continued to rely on its famous flathead V-8 engine, developed in 1932 by Henry Ford himself. Chevrolet’s engine was the Stove Bolt Six, an overhead valve engine first introduced in 1929. The Ford V-8 survived until 1955. Chevy’s Stove Bolt lasted until 1963.
      The hot argument between auto enthusiasts was the Ford/Chevy comparison.
Typically, Ford contended the Ford was faster, which they usually were. Chevrolet fans usually would fall back on the claim that the famous Fisher body of Chevrolet was sturdier and more stylish. Chevy fans claimed the Ford’s single leaf springing was old-fashioned and rough riding.
My father, an auto mechanic in his early years, liked Chevrolets because the engine was easy to maintain and major overhauls were much easier on the Chevies.
Ford, for example, until 1949 had distributors low in the front of the engine. The crankshaft turned the distributor. The design required removal of the entire distributor and calibration by Ford agencies.
        Chevrolet, other the other hand, had a conventional distributor. Distributor points and condensers, which wore quickly, could be changed easily. According to my father and other car buffs, Ford had a superior carburetor, a two-barrel Holly. Chevrolet, until 1949, had a Carter carburetor that was notoriously “cold-natured” and difficult to keep in tune.
These carburetor and distributor facts are important to my main topic, the Great Race at American Airlines. I can’t remember the exact date. It could have been in 1948, since the new Chevies came out in the fall. I remember our vacation of 1949 vividly, though. We heard the heavyweight championship fight between Joe Louis and Joe Walcott on the '48 Chevy radio.
The Ford-Chevy debates were a constant at the AA overhaul base. By this time, Dad had established a reputation as a Chevrolet mechanic and in his spare time was doing semi-major overhauls on the Stove Bolt Sixes. I will write a separate account of Neal’s garage activities in Sand Springs. 
      The “boys” at American cooked up a race. When AA moved to Tulsa from New York in 1946, many mechanics and supervisors transferred to Tulsa. Most of them were natives of the New York area, including my dad’s foreman at the time, one Joe Hadka. Joe had a nearly new 1947 Ford. He bragged about how fast it was, even bringing in a photograph showing the Ford speedometer at 100.
I am not sure of what led up to the race, but Dad found himself challenged. He was no novice to racing. He had started racing autos (on the streets and highways) years before. He “souped up” a Model T by installing a Frontenac head that converted the T to overhead valves. He used the old T to outrun a new Model A from Tulsa to Keystone in the early 1930s. That’s another story.
      Pop was convinced that Ford speedometers were purposely calibrated to show the car going faster than it was actually. Still, the photo of the Ford speedometer was a bit disconcerting. It was a fact that a Ford properly tuned would probably outrun most Chevrolets because Chevies usually were held back by infrequent distributor tuning and those loggy old Carters. Chevrolet starting making their own carburetors in 1949, by the way, replacing the Carters. 
       Once the race was agreed to, the “boys” staged a production. The arguments and smart cracks occupied the bulletin board and the individual arguments abounded, always with a little “horsing around.”
A day was set. It seems to me it was in the summer, but it could have just been a warm fall or spring day. A race route was determined. The cars would start from the Traffic Circle at Admiral Place, run north on Mingo Road for two or three miles to finish near the AA facility on Mingo.
Men were designated to stop traffic at the intersecting streets for safety reasons.
I suspect a bit of gambling went on, although I must say Dad was not so confident that he bet any money on the race. 
I was 13 or so and of course a Chevrolet man just like my dad. I knew a bit about those old Chevies from helping him, and I was very proud of our Chevy torpedo sedan. It was a black beauty that Dad and I kept gleaming. It had a set of red custom seat covers that were de rigueur of the day. Similarly, it had a Fulton sunshade over the front window. Now, there were other sunshades, but Fultons were the most stylish and popular.
      Dad “tuned” the Chevy, setting the engine timing a bit fast and making sure the Carter carburetor was properly adjusted, new points and condenser and new spark plugs. He put 40 pounds of air in the tires that usually carried about 28 pounds per square inch. There was one thing more. We took the Fulton sunshade off to eliminate as much wind drag as possible.
       There was a mile stretch of concrete pavement west of Sand Springs on what we called the Wekiwa Road. It was not heavily traveled and so became kind of a testing strip for us. I went with Pop to “preflight” the Chevy. It made 85 miles an hour in that mile. The engine was running great.
Pop was on an afternoon shift that I think started at 2 p.m. I am not sure what time the race was to start but before the afternoon shift, of course. I badly wanted to go, but would not have had a way home afterward, so I had to stay home.
      Dad won, and as he had promised, he called me to tell me so.
Later, I heard all about it.
The “boys” had set the rules. The race started from a dead stop, continuing the approximately 2 miles on Mingo. The Chevrolet had a vacuum advance on the shifter of the three-speed transmission. Most people had a little trouble because the vacuum booster could be a little slow if one didn’t know how to use it. But pop knew how to use it and use it fast.
“I got him in low, increased the lead when we went to second and pulled ahead by the time we were in high,” he said. There is an underpass at a railroad track on Mingo. I guess it was about midway of the race. 
“When we went under the railroad the speedometer was showing 92,” Pop said. Sure enough, the Ford was registering that 100. Joe Hadka wanted to rerun the race. He was sure he had just been outdriven, which he had.
“We ran two more times and I beat him both times,” Pop beamed.
Joe Hadka never held that race against pop, although he was dad’s superior. In fact, he was pleased to have Dad in his department. I must say that Dad quickly established himself as perhaps the best mechanic on the base. He hired in as a Junior Mechanic, quickly passed tests to become a Mechanic, Senior Mechanic and Inspector. As Inspector, he was one of the top quality control guys at AA the last 20 years of his career. 
The Great Race of course established his reputation as the “go to” guy on cars and we got all the old Chevies we wanted to overhaul. The day after the race this notice appeared on the bulletin board:
                                 FOR SALE:
                                ONE 1947 FORD
                                ONE FULTON SUN SHADE

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