In the case of the Low-Buck Special, it was definitely time to hang it up. Maybe past time. So that’s what Bill and I did. First, we went “halfsies” to buy it back from Sam Strube for an aptly low-buck price (which he had also done from long-time caretaker Sidney Allen, who had it in his Longview, TX, hot rod collection since he bought it from me for $7500 in 1985, from an ad in the back of Hot Rod magazine. For more on that, see my book Lost Hot Rods II, pg. 179). When Sidney told me he wanted to sell the car, I mentioned it to Sam, because he had loved it since he was a kid watching it from the stands at Fremont. But when Sam got the car, with a partner, 2 or 3 years ago, I strongly suggested it was now a museum piece, and he should confine it to smoky burnouts, short hops, or 1/8-mile blasts at most. This was a jacked-up ’60s A/Altered with a big engine, direct drive, not much frame, and it went really fast. So we took it to Eagle Field a couple of times (me in the push truck for a change) for some memorable, quick, straight blasts. I’ll say here that Sam is an excellent–if fearless–driver. But then we took both our cars to a big, 2-day, supposedly vintage drag meet at Famoso. The Low-Buck was running good, as usual, so for his first run, Sam lit the tires and smoked them all the way down the quarter mile. Everyone loved it (like the old days at Fremont). Then for his second pass he cleaned the slicks, drove around the water, staged, and nailed it. The time slip, which they jammed in my face as they vehemently yelled to take our cars and leave, read something in the mid-9s and high 150s. The car ran straight and true and sang all the way down the track. If you want to see and hear it, search the I-net for Low-Buck Spl./ Fremont/Sam Strube. That was the Low-Buck’s last run. This was after a 30-year slumber. And it’s also exactly the way we hung it on the wall. We drained all fluids, but otherwise it’s complete and still ready to run.
But of course I’m way ahead of the story here. Many of you old-timers have heard, or seen, some of it already. But there are a whole lot of younger readers who have no idea what the Low-Buck Special is or was. In fact, I couldn’t even tell the whole story in the first place. So let’s see if I can recap it succinctly, and add some new stuff, as well.
I was always a drag race fan. I followed it in the magazines as a car-hungry kid, built models, and from my home-town of Corona, CA, went to actual races at Pomona (including the first Winternationals), Fontana, and Colton and saw big-name racers of the time–Gassers, Fuelers, Altereds. In high school I raced my own car at Fontana, but there were only a couple guys from my town who had “real” race cars. One was Butch Sinclair. He was an “older” guy (i.e., high school graduate), but as a young teen I knew him because he was the best model-builder in town, and we hung around his house to get tips or maybe some help. He also built the first real dragster in town. It was a fairly heavy Gas rail with an injected Chrysler. Not fast. But it did run at the first March Meet at Bakersfield in ’59. After that he built a Fiat coupe with the same engine. I went off to college in ’65, so I never saw his A/Altered, steel-bodied, ’27 T roadster, and I’ve never shown the photo below (because it’s so ugly), but this was the first version of the Low-Buck.
It competed regularly at Lions (seen here), Pomona, Fontana, Riverside, and even made some “64 Fuel Altereds!” shows at OCIR after he added a ‘glass body and stretched the 354 Hemi to a whopping 440 inches with a 3/4-inch stroker, good for 9.20 @ 157 mph on gas. Competitive for its day. But not pretty.
OK, let’s jump ahead to 1983, when I joined the crew at Hot Rod magazine. I’d already championed street rod drags at Street Rodder magazine some years before, and Tom Prufer and Brian Burnett had just launched the Nostalgia Nationals at Fremont, which Gray Baskerville and I promoted as much as possible. Meantime my excellent upholsterer, Dave Gade, had moved to an older section of Corona, building a large shop behind his vintage house. I went out to see his new place, and as I drove up the dirt driveway he shared with the old house next door, this is what I saw:
That’s when I remembered, “Hey that’s Butch Sinclair’s old house.” Yes, it’s the same Altered, with a gel-coat ‘glass body and no Hemi. To keep the story short, Butch had quit drag racing and completely filled his garage (behind the Chevette) with a huge model train layout. The roadster had been sitting, like this, for 15 years. He’d obviously lost all interest in it, because when I asked if it was for sale, he said, “How about $300?” Yow! This was no piece of junk. It had a chrome-moly tube frame and front axle, solid Olds rear, Franklin center steering, and was complete, less engine. I immediately envisioned dropping a stout Chevy 6 in it, because I had plenty of parts and experience with those, to build a fun machine to participate in the Nostalgia Nats. Done.
The first problem was that I had no truck or trailer. But I couldn’t let this get away. So I called my long-time good buddy Dave Williams, who let me borrow his, and I towed my new prize out to his shop in nearby Norco.
I would have preferred a ’23 body, and a bit lower roll cage, but–hey–the Halibrands were worth several times the price, and I got a Moon tank, too. While at Dave’s I had him bend up and weld in another roll bar hoop, for extra safety. Then I took it home to our 2-car garage in Anaheim.
Meantime, I was doing some sort of story for Hot Rod at Joe MacPherson Chevrolet in Irvine, and a young guy who was a mechanic on their off-road race truck team, named Bob McKray, introduced himself to me. It’s hard for me to imagine now, but he was in his mid-20s, and I was in my mid-30s. Sheesh. But what surprised me was that this young guy was involved in the United Flathead Racers Ass’n, with a very competitive injected flathead rail. He had also worked at Hilborn Engineering before this. So I mentioned getting this Altered for the nostalgia drags, and his immediate question was, “What kind of engine did it have in it?” When I said a Chrysler Hemi, he said, “Oh, you’ve got to put a Hemi back in it.” I looked at him like he was crazy, saying, “There’s no way I’d drive that thing with a big injected Hemi.” I think Bob actually raised his hand and eagerly said, “I will!” So I then made a new friend, not to mention an excellent driver, tuner, and engine builder. He suggested I go back out to Butch’s and ask what became of his engine. Which I did.
This is all true, I swear. When I got to Butch’s and asked where the engine went, he said, “Oh, it’s all here, underneath the train tables.” And he pulled out the block, crank, rods/pistons, injectors, heads, magneto, two roller cams–everything, down to headers, valve covers, spark plug tubes and wires, timing cover, pan, pumps…everything. I asked how much? Butch hesitated, scratched his chin, and said, “This is some pretty good stuff. I updated the motor not long before I quit running.” He hesitated some more, then said “I’m going to have to get $500 for this.” Yes! I couldn’t get out to Dave Williams’ fast enough to borrow his ’38 Chevy pickup again to haul all this home.
You obviously can’t see all the goodies in there, but it included things like motor plates, T grilles, I think a dual-disc clutch and aluminum flywheel. You can probably tell the Hilborn injectors were the new, larger, straight-up type. But you can’t see that the heads were a fresh set of Mondello’s, complete with 426 swirl-polished stainless valves. They even had half a set of Mickey Thompson adjustable aluminum rockers–the exhausts, because the longer intakes had all broken. And in a stroke of luck, I was able to trade the “breadpan” M/T valve covers (which I hate) straight across for rare, Donovan-style, magnesium Moon covers because the owner was tired of polishing them.
I mentioned that Bob had worked at Hilborn, as did Gene Adams and Don Enriquez at that time. Gene was, of course, one of my drag race heroes, though I’d never met him. So after describing what I got, Bob suggested having Gene come over to check it all out and see how usable it was. This was amazing to me. Here was Gene Adams–who didn’t even know me–coming over to my house to look at a bunch of old Chrysler race parts. Wow. And his assessment was pretty positive. We both knew the 3/4 stroker was a dead player. There were three different brands of pistons, but they all had the same domes and were in good shape. What he really liked were the small, light Harmon-Collins roller lifters which rode in brass sleeves. He told me to get a set of stock rocker arms, adjustable push rods, and some hard-chromed rocker shafts from Joe Reath. We said we wanted to smoke the tires and run for fun, and he decided these parts were good enough for that, including the old Don’s Boxed Rods. Further, I ended up getting a good 5/8 stroker crank, so it became a 420, and with the same rods and pistons compression was way down, especially considering we planned to run alcohol instead of gas.
Obviously there’s way more story here than I have room to tell (or you want to hear). And I already told much of it in a more complete 2-part story in the Aug. and Sept. ’84 issues of Hot Rod. Maybe you can find them online. It shows that Gene did help “screw together” the engine for us, dialing in the cam, checking clearances, etc. (just don’t say I “built it,” he stressed).
Meanwhile it was mainly a process of taking everything apart, cleaning it, checking it, and painting it (remember those Epoxy Black spray cans–great for dragster frames). We have no idea who built this one. It was all gas-welded chrome moly, and even lighter than it looks.
I got a set of used slicks at the swap meet, painted the front axle Porsche silver, and had several parts gold cad plated (very cheap back then). The ‘glass body took a lot of sanding to get straight, which is done and primered here.
Then I sprayed it with then-new catalyzed enamel in Corvette Yellow, right there in the garage. It wasn’t cut, buffed, or rubbed. Just straight out of the gun. This is the same paint that is on the car now. Of course the real artistry is the gold leaf lettering and obviously whimsical brush-work added over this by my favorite artist, Steve Stanford. His work has held up quite well all this time, too.
I had the seat and roll bar upholstered by Dennis Taylor in Anaheim. Then we moved to our new (present) house in Glendale, which is where I installed the finished engine. I also beadrolled and semi-polished the aluminum paneling. But the car, seen above, is essentially done.
I still didn’t have a truck and trailer, so we used Bob’s to haul the finished car out to the obviously closed and abandoned Fontana Drag City for its glamor shots. This was 1984. The whole track was still there, and not much else. Since it’s a push-start car, we fired it off there for the first time, Bob did some tuning, then did a few short squirts to make sure everything was working right. It was.
So what’s this malarky about? First, Floyd Lippencotte Jr. was the name Bob Muravez, driver of the famed Freight Train twin-engine rail, used because his father forbade him from driving dragsters. It won a lot, so in trophy and other photos, he always kept his face fire mask on. Shortly after I got to Hot Rod, a new manager took over and one of his stupid new rules was that no magazine staffers could be shown owning modified hot rods, and especially not building or driving one. So, with Muravez’ permission, I took the pseudonym Floyd Lippencotte III, wrote the articles as if that was the car owner/builder, printed a T-shirt with that name on the back to wear at the track (“Just Call Me Floyd” on the front), and then in the spirit of the unknown comic, donned paper bags for any photos of me and Bob or, here, me and Anna, that might appear in print. As should be obvious by now, the whole point of the car, the story, and nostalgia drag racing in general was to have fun with some cool vintage cars.
Oh yes, for our debut at Fremont in May, ’84 I still didn’t have a truck or trailer, so Ford loaned me new ones. That’s Bob’s truck in the background with his flathead dragster in tow, which he was delivering to a new owner.
And this is what our cheap, mis-matched collection of old used parts (carefully and expertly assembled) did all weekend. Yes it was fun! As I said in the magazine, the car did the A/Altered Shuffle off the line, then boiled the hydes, just like this, down the entire quarter mile. Yes, Bob was an excellent driver/tuner. The car never stumbled, faltered, or got out of shape. We made several such runs with consistent times, the best being 10.71 @ 150.75. We had to quit when I noticed our used slicks were down to cords. Did I mention this was fun?
There were a few more meets that year, so the first thing I did was visit the Pomona swap meet, specifically looking for a ’56 F-100 pickup. I found this faded yellow one, with a 351-Cleveland and C4, that looked decent for $3000. The converted boat trailer with a plywood flatbed came from the Recycler for $450. Both were rebuilt, extensively, several times afterward. Philippe Danh got this shot somewhere along I-5.
The team consisted of Me, Anna, Billy and Bob, and we had bright yellow “Low-Buck Special” T-shirts to match. Bill was fully involved, age 7-8.
By the second year the truck, trailer, and race car got their first rebuilds, and Anna got this good picture at an I-5 lunch stop.
This story’s too long already, so I can’t get detailed. But Tom Prufer had built a duplicate of the Speed Sport Special rear-engine ’27 T, but only had a 330-inch Hemi, which wouldn’t do the job. I said “Let’s put my 420 in it,” which we knew would do 150. So we did, and with Tom driving and slipping the clutch it did did run 150 at Palmdale, but one of the old Don’t Boxed Rods didn’t like it, and exited the block, making a sizable hole.
Sooo… The Low-Buck soon became less low-buck as I searched for a good new 354 block, had Wilson Bros. grind a new 5/8″ stroker crank, and bought a fresh set of J-E pistons, aluminum rods, and a semi-slider clutch. Gene Adams suggested we shorten the headers, and I also polished the mags and got fresh new slicks. We didn’t air them down to wrinkle wall, and we still did some smoky passes. but Bob preferred to hook up at the line and skeddadle as quick and fast as possible. Note here the left front tire is slightly off the ground.
Remember this was a direct-drive car (no transmission), which meant high-gear launches. But hooking up meant doing a burnout first (no, not nostalgic, but necessary), and no reverse meant hand-pushing back, which was Anna’s and my job. But this resulted in a best time of 9.13 @162.16.
I know this is long. And I’ve cut some. But I like this unseen afternoon photo. I’m feeling the head to see if the engine’s warmed enough, and Bob is telling me something. The car performed flawlessly. With a better clutch, it would have run 8’s. Why did I sell it? Because late that year Gene Adams finally came to see a meet, and quipped, “I think I could beat these guys with our little A/Fuel car,” meaning the Adams & Enriquez unblown 354-inch Comp Eliminator NHRA national champ. So I said, “You get Don to drive, and we’ll do it.” So we did. For the next two years.
But this is the story of the Low-Buck Special. It was a whole lot of fun. I hope it made that point. Man, it was a long time ago. And, as Yogi said, nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.
ADDENDUM–THE RODDER’S JOURNAL:
For some reason, in the last 2-3 weeks I have been deluged with emails asking me what I know about the status of The Rodder’s Journal. The answer is simple–I know nothing. I’ve contacted Geoff Miles in Australia a couple of times. I talked with Curt Iseli a while ago. I even discussed it recently with Bruce Meyer. All we know is that Steve got hit with the multi-prong whammy of moving across country, then Covid, involving staff loss, Post Office and shipping snafus, and possibly more. I’ve tried reaching Steve without luck. But I know he would never intentionally cheat anyone. I also know what he put into each of 84 excellent issues over 27 years, with not much financial return. I also see a few new titles seeming to emulate the TRJ style, and doing well, but not getting the full TRJ concept. Steve Coonan owns the Rodder’s Journal copyright, he has the talent, and he knows the formula. I assume the problem is financial at this point. That could be solved, and it could come back. Whether it does or not remains to be seen. We just don’t know.