Since we are more or less in a readers’ request mode, it’s finally time to address one that I’ve been avoiding for years. The question goes back a few years; the answer goes back decades. It seems that on one of the few occasions I was able to visit Marty Strode at his shop in North Plains, OR, as he constructed my Spalding Bros. repro track roadster from a semi-rusty ’23 T turtle deck body and a whole lot of scratch, we were discussing typical, mostly amusing–some potentially lethal–foibles of our hot rod youth. At one point I apparently quipped, “Some day ask me about the time my steering wheel came off on the starting line at Fontana drag strip.” Marty, of course, has asked that question many times since, once again recently. So, Marty, here goes. I feel a good bout of self-deprecation coming on.
The problem is that the story itself is pretty short. And of course there are no photos. It’s basically oral legend (in my own mind). But for those of you who haven’t been reading my stuff since day one, and don’t know the tale(s) of my ’48 Chevy, I’ll have to start with some background material. Many of you have seen some of this. And some not.
It’s a high school story, so of course it centers on my sad ’48 Chevy. The one with too many doors and not enough cylinders. The one my grandfather bought new and I got for free because it sat abandoned in a field on his ranch. I was 15 going on 16, and obviously quickly growing out of my (once) white Levis. The reason I’m so greasy is that the car didn’t run, and had no brakes, and I had worked on it about six months to get it to the point that I could drive it down to our house, where my dad relegated it to this dirt patch in our backyard. The garage was off-limits. You’ve seen a similar photo, from the other side. This is the good side. I knew very little about bodywork. But by this time I had taken all four fenders off and pounded them flat against the asphalt in the front driveway with a large rubber mallet. You can tell by my expression I wasn’t exactly proud of this thing. It was the best I could do.
One thing I’ve never mentioned is that I did all the work on this car myself. My dad gave me an old Chilton auto manual that covered most cars through 1955, and that was it. I scrounged a mis-matched set of hand tools–end wrenches, not ratchets. I learned from the how-tos in Hot Rod and R&C, and by working on this heap. I was never proud of this car. But I was proud of what I learned and what I could do to fix it up; to hot rod it.
Basically it’s a story about my do-it-yourself, low-buck roots. But ultimately it’s a story about metal shop. It was my favorite high school class, and the one where I learned the most. And got a lot done. Unfortunately it was only a 3-year high school. Catholic school, through 9th grade, didn’t have shop. But first:
I ran this photo recently in my Instagram, explaining that it was from a vary faux, tongue-in-cheek swimsuit issue I did at Rod & Custom magazine (Oct. ’90). That’s of course my ’48 in the background that I dumped dirt on and broke the headlight out of. But I’ve never explained the other hulk. It was a parts car that I bought from one of my high school buddies for $10. It sat dead in his large rural yard, but it was complete, straight, rust-free, and preserved with a coat of brushed-on house paint. I pumped up the tires and towed it home on a chain…well, not home, but up to the old ranch my ’48 came from, which is where these photos were taken. So I immediately swapped all four fenders, the trunk, the back bumper, and most of the grille onto my car, and continued to glean other parts (trans, rear axles) as I needed them (as did local lowriders once they discovered it). I stashed my old parts there, too. Nobody took them.
The ranch figures in this story because I had to work there from a young age. The one good part was my dad bought a Craftsman acetylene welding outfit and put me to work cutting and welding water pipe, fences, and so on. He didn’t know how to weld, so (with minor help from Bud Lang Hot Rod articles) I taught myself to weld, braze, and cut with a torch; got pretty good at it.
So back to metal shop. A side story. The first week our excellent teacher, Mr. Rybicki, gave us 3″x 5″ pieces of 1/8-inch steel plate, showed us how to stand them like a pup tent on the welding table, then told us to fusion weld them together (no filler rod). Piece of cake. I adjusted the torch for a medium flame, started melting the metal at the right corner, then ran an even bead, rotating the torch, all the way down the seam. Perfectly even, just like a stack of little tiny dimes. I was quite proud. Mr. Rybicki looked at it, said, “Nice bead Ganahl.” Then he put it on the floor and stepped on it with his work boot, immediately flattening it. “Not much penetration, though,” was all he said. Lesson learned. There were more to come.
But metal shop was better than Disneyland. The equipment was old, WW II surplus. But we had welders, band saws, lathes, grinders, drill presses, reamers, polishers, maybe one or two mills. And plenty of raw material. So I got busy and creative. The first thing I devised for the ’48 were some spring clamps to lower it in the front. But this was ’62-’63, and the current style was “jack ’em up.” So I made spacers to raise it and pulled the grille out for a short while. Maybe that was more because, with the new fenders on, I decided to pull all the trim off and wet-sand the whole car in preparation for paint. The fenders were tan, the body was pea green, and the top was brown. At least it was straight, but it looked like the polka-dot appaloosa at right. Fortunately the high school had no painting equipment, nor did I, and I didn’t know how to paint with anything bigger than a spray can. I say “fortunately” because my plan at the time was to paint it Mandarin Orange. Thank god that didn’t happen. So it looked like this all through high school. My mother proudly knit me that ugly green sweater (so I had to wear it), and the basketball coach made us (particularly surfer me) cut our hair off.
Nobody sold a floor shift for the weird one-arm trans in the ’48. So I devised my own using a bicycle brake cable and a lever that looked like a big hypodermic needle. Made the whole thing in metal shop. Worked great for many years. Went through more than a dozen transes, just in high school, though. I also made a set of hairpin-type rear traction bars for my friend’s ’50 Ford, a couple other sets of “traction masters” made from cut-down tie rods, and I even made another floor-shift for a guy in trade for a dual-carb intake for the 216 six in my car. Went through a few of those, too.
Speaking of which, this is a later 216 I was running in college, but the Tattersfield intake and dual Carter carbs are the ones I traded a shifter for and ran through high school. The original Fenton headers I found for $15 on a used parts shelf at a speed shop. Bought the air cleaners at Pep Boys, but found the other chrome parts at my local wrecking yard–along with several transes, a couple engines, and some rear axles. They knew me well.
And this is a scene my dear mother knew only too well. In this case I had just installed a ’55 235 that I had traded my home-built 10-speed bike for, and rebuilt on a table out there. But I’m getting ahead. And leaving a lot out. We can all talk about our high school days, right?
So metal shop. One of the few items I still have that I made there for my car is this foot-shaped gas pedal. I made it by standing on a piece of 1/8″ steel plate and tracing around my size 13 leather shoe (we couldn’t wear tennies or Levis to high school) with a piece of chalk, and then cutting it out with a torch. After grinding the edges smooth and drilling a lot of holes, I made and welded on the other parts, including a still-attached hinge bracket in the middle. Then I installed it in the car, along with a free, broken tach I mounted on the dash. All part of the racer image.
The pedal worked fine. The only problem was it got really hot. Too hot to drive when I was barefoot, which was a lot of the time then. So it eventually came out, and lord knows how or why I still have it. How could you throw something like this away?
The difference is that I did race this car, quite a bit. And I got the tach fixed. Not only did we do a lot of street racing in our then-sleepy small town (Corona, CA). We even had a marked-off (with white lines) quarter-mile “strip” at the top of Main St., just below the family ranch. But I also raced this car several times at the Fontana strip when I was in high school, as I did for many years later at vintage, antique, and Inline meets.
I can’t tell you why Fontana was our adopted “local” track, but it was. Riverside, Colton, and Pomona were all about the same distance away (about 20 miles). But for some reason all of my older friends, and their friends, went there to race or to watch, and I tagged along well before I had a license or car. Saw lots of big names and magazine cars run there, from Greer-Black-Prudhomme and Tommy Ivo to John Geraghty’s Grasshopper, among others. It ran from 1960 to ’72, and was known as Drag City most of that time. And it sat there, abandoned, much longer than that. I took the photo at right in 1984, when I posed my Low Buck Special altered out there to photograph it for Hot Rod magazine.
And this is what it looked like at the starting line when I paid a visit around 1977. As you can see, it never had guard rails. I was hoping to find some good shots in my files of cars running there in the ’60s, when I was, but couldn’t readily find any. One problem was that, as far as I know, Fontana always ran Saturday nights, and good night photography from back then is hard to come by. I wasn’t taking pictures then. Nor was anybody else taking pictures of my car.
So I don’t even know who took this picture, obviously later at Orange County Raceway at an Antique Nationals, shortly before I rebuilt it for an umpteenth time. But it approximates what it looked like at Fontana.
Steering wheel? Something about the steering wheel…coming off? OK, here it is.
I’ve always loved the early Corvette steering wheel (’56-’62): flat three-spoke center, three tapered holes in each spoke, brushed finish, painted rim, small flat horn button. But where and how could I get a Corvette steering wheel? They weren’t in wrecking yards. There were no swap meets. Buying one from a dealer was out of the question for me. So I started figuring how to make one. The flat center I could make in metal shop. We didn’t have a piece of 1/8″ flat steel large enough to cut it out, but I could make the three spokes and then weld them to a flat center piece cut to the right shape. I could drill the holes in the spokes with a large bit, then ream them to progressively larger sizes with an adjustable ream we happened to have. That was the easy part.
The hard part was the rim and especially the splined center hub that fit on the steering shaft, that the wheel would have to bolt to. I wasn’t aware of Bell wheels, and I don’t know if they had Covico or Grant aftermarket wheels by then; if they did, I didn’t know you could get the splined center hub separately. I’d never seen one.
So I went and got the steering wheel out of my parts car. I figured there was some way I could use the rim. More importantly, I knew there was a metal splined hub somewhere inside the middle. I have no idea what those old steering wheels were made of, but I easily cut the two-spoke center off the rim with a hack saw. Then I used a large bastard file to quickly cut three notches, equally spaced, in the backside, down to a metal ring about 3/8″ diameter in the middle. The notches were about 1-1/4″ wide, same as the ends of each center “spoke” I had made. Then I filed each notch further, making a flat in the metal ring that I drilled and tapped for two 10-24 screws. That’s how I attached my cut, welded, and drilled 3-spoke center to the ’48 rim. Two problems: 10-24 slot-head screws didn’t attach the rim very solidly to the spokes. Worse, for some reason I can’t remember, the metal I used to make the center was something less than 1/8-inch. Especially with big holes cut in each spoke, it was less than rigid. It was flimsy.
But that wasn’t the biggest problem. Once I cut and crumbled the old wheel’s center off to locate the metal splined hub inside, it turned out to be much smaller than I expected. It was about two inches in diameter, at most. It had the large splined hole in the center for the shaft, with two smaller threaded holes on either side for the 5/16″ bolts for a steering wheel puller. So I figured I’d have to use those two bolt holes to attach the new wheel to the hub, with a larger hole in the middle to fit over the threaded end of the steering shaft, which took a large hex nut that would further hold the wheel tight on the shaft. That was the plan. Guess what? With the hub pounded tight on the shaft splines, and the wheel attached with two 5/16 hex-head bolts, there wasn’t room in between for the large nut to hold the hub (and wheel) to the shaft. I’d like to attribute this next part to ignorance or inexperience, rather than stupidity. Today I figure I might have used two Allen bolts or, better, counter-sunk Allens. But relying on my 16-year-old logic, I figured if it takes a steering wheel puller, probably with a breaker bar, to get the wheel off, it doesn’t really need that one big nut to hold it on. I had removed a few wheels, and it was always a struggle to break them loose. Made sense to me. So I pounded that center hub onto the shaft with a large deep-well socket and many blows from a very big hammer. Then I got a small chrome cap to cover the center, painted the spokes silver and the rim black, and proudly drove with my new Corvette-style steering wheel. Yes, it wobbled back and forth a bit because of the thin spokes, but there was no indication of the hub coming loose. None.
So sometime later I decided to drive out to Fontana to run the drags (by myself, as usual). When I got there I picked a spot by the fence in the dirt pits, unloaded the spare, jack, and small tool box to lighten the car. Popped the beanie hubcaps off. Uncapped the two cut-outs under the Fenton headers. Took the air cleaners off. Maybe checked the plugs or valve gaps. Then drove to “tech” where a guy asked how big my engine was. I told him 216 and he wrote H/HR (for Hot Rod) on my right windshield, and I was ready to go. No seat belts, no catch can, nada. So I made a couple practice passes (it wasn’t a crowded night). Then it was time for class eliminations, and I lined up against what looked like a pretty stock Falcon with an automatic. The flag starter brought us to the line, gave us each a look, then flipped the green flag straight up. I had one hand on my floor shift, the other tight on the top of the steering wheel, and I floored the gas and popped the clutch. As my big Chevy lurched forward, I was astounded to find myself flying backward, nearly over the seat, the steering wheel still clutched tightly in my left hand–but not to the column. Somehow my foot stayed on the accelerator, the car was speeding forward, I grabbed the bare end of the steering shaft, and all I could think was that if I stopped to put the wheel back on, the Falcon would get ahead of me, which it was starting to do anyway. So I came to my senses, stomped on the brake, slammed the steering wheel back on the column, pounded it a couple of times, then hit the gas and took off again. As I shifted through the gears I caught and passed the anemic Falcon. So of course I proceeded back on the return road, and right up to the starting line for the next round. Did I mention that I was kind of naive in high school? I think the flag starter was still bent over in laughter when I returned. But when he saw me, he came over to my window, pointed the flag at me, and just said “Get that thing out of here!”
I of course did as I was told, and I never mentioned the incident to any of my friends. My home-made Corvette steering wheel did not become one of my keepsakes. And I found the photo at right showing that sometime later I did acquire a Covico wheel with proper bolt-on adapter as a safer, if temporary, replacement. This photo shows the knotty pine paneling I put on the doors in high school–closest I could get to a woodie. You can also see the floor shift and tach on the dash. But it’s after high school because the seat has its first cheap upholstery job. During high school it had a blanket.
How in the world did this shaggy dog story get so long? I’ll stop right here with this photo I found from sometime in the ’80s after I had found and restored (in the car’s colors) an original steering wheel that was securely bolted in place. You also get a good look at my ever-faithful shop-class floor shifter.
So that, Marty, is the story of how my steering wheel came off at the starting line of the Fontana drag strip. What’s next?