First Car, Race Car

My first car was a race car. Ha Ha.

My first car was really a 1954 Lincoln Capri coupe, black over yellow with matching leather interior.

Lincoln Capri

My father had bought a new blue Lincoln coupe in 1954. It was in this car that I first learned to drive, when I was 14 or so – rural folk do it more quickly. Our family had left the East Coast for the Rockies in 1952, driving in our green 1950 Olds 88. It was traded in on a Mercury in ’53, but that was a dog that got replaced by the Lincoln. The big Lincoln would cruise up Trail Ridge Road without strain, something the Merc could only dream about. It also handled the sweepers through Big Thompson Canyon and the switchbacks above with aplomb. And it looked like it fit in well in Estes Park. A winner all around.

In 1955, the time-capsule movie Picnic, based on the Inge play, romanticized both mid-50s small town life, and through adroit product placement, the 1954 Lincoln convertible. Picnic was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but won just two. It was beaten for best picture by Marty. I liked them both about equally, but Picnic hit much closer to home.

My family ended up in Southern California in 1957. I didn’t drive much during high school, getting my license late at 17 specifically to take some classes at a local JC during my senior year. The next year, my parents very reluctantly let me use the family Lincoln to go to college. I had a ride all four years, a privilege I appreciated. They had actually taken me to the bus station to send me off, but I was so unhappy that they relented, called me back off the bus, and we packed up the car instead.

Cool people my age drove old Chevys or VWs or Triumphs. But familiarity and nostalgia and an eye for a good value warped my thinking. As I neared my age of maturity, I decided to get my own Capri coupe. It cost $450 of saved summer wages, had 57K miles, and needed a valve job. That fixed, it lasted me for over 10 years as my daily driver/tank. My parents and I commuted on the same freeway for a while, and I passed them one morning in the Lincoln. They laughed that night when they told me I looked like a banker driving that car. I knew it would not be my last car, because cars wear out. But it was a fine first ride, and also the last car with automatic transmission that I have owned.

The Capri was produced from ’52-’54. It weighed nearly 4200 pounds on a 123″ wheel base and was powered by a 317 cu. in. V8 (a Ford truck Y-block). With a Holley 4-bbl carb, it produced 205 hp at 4200 rpm and 305 ft-lbs of torque at 2650 rpm. It was a torquer, and was notable as the first American car to utilize a ball-joint front suspension.

Power got to the rubber via a 4-speed hydramatic sourced from General Motors, an efficient automatic transmission that did not utilize a torque converter. The transmission body was cast iron, making it the heaviest transmission ever fitted in an automobile. Due to its indestructible nature, it became a preferred transmission for heavy duty applications from tanks to trucks to drag racers. Manufacturers from Rolls Royce to Ferrari sourced these transmissions from GM, based on a design dating from 1939 and first appearing in the 1940 Oldsmobile.

The Capri would do a true 118 mph all day, and I ran it wide open occasionally on back roads in the central valley, as did many others with their rods. But I survived. I got an overall average of 15 mpg in my normal driving, not too bad for the time when gas was a quarter a gallon. It needed little mechanical work, mostly tune-ups; I rebuilt the carburetor a couple of times, and replaced the water pump and wheel bearings. I liked to work on my ride. The transmission bands required professional adjustment occasionally.

I didn’t know it at the time I bought it, but the Capri had another name, the Mexican Road Race Lincoln. It pleased me in retrospect that I had chosen a winner in more ways than one. This model had been campaigned by Ford in La Carrera Panamericana road races from 1952-54 and had acquitted the marque in a dominating manner, finishing as the top American production car in all three years it ran. It was the first time Ford had sponsored racing since 1935. The Lincolns trounced their competitors Cadillac and Chrysler; factory support undoubtedly helped.

La Carrera was initiated in 1950 to celebrate the opening of the Pan American Highway through Mexico and to encourage Mexican tourism. It was a grueling 5 day, 1900 mile, ‘get there first by any means’ rally, initially run in a single class, mostly American sedans. An Olds 88 driven by NASCAR rookie Herschel McGriff was the overall winner of the first race in 1950. In 1952-1954, the race was divided into classes: open sports models (Ferrari, Lancia, Mercedes, etc), and stock touring (all the big American iron). At the end, there were also displacement subclasses. The race was part of the FIA world championship series in ’53 and ’54 that also included the Sebring, Le Mans, and Mille Miglia enduros.

In the big bore touring class, the factory-sponsored Lincolns swept the top four finishes in ’52 and ’53, and took the top two spots in ’54. Ruggedness was the main requirement. The Lincolns had their stock hydraulic lifters replaced by the mechanical lifters from the truck engine. Also, some suspension stiffening was performed that was somehow kept within the rules. Other than that, the winning cars were just like mine, except for the removal of fender skirts, hubcaps, and chrome rings around the headlights.

The winning Capri of ’52 and ’53 was piloted by Indy driver Chuck Stevenson, with legendary race mechanic Clay Smith along for the ride. Unfortunately, in 1954 Roger Ward lost control in an Indy car race and killed Clay Smith in the pit lane. Stevenson teamed with a different mechanic in the ’54 Carrera and their car quit on the first leg with engine failure. The 1953/4 winning Lincolns averaged about 93 mph for the race over the rough course, beating Porsches and Jaguars with smaller engines. Stevenson was the only two-time class winner in the original event.

The overall average winning speed for the much lighter and more powerful open sports class increased from the 101mph of the ’52 Mercedes 300SL, to 105mph for the ’53 Lancia D24, to 107mph for the ’54 Ferrari 375. The race attracted legendary names of auto sport, such as Formula I champions Fangio, Ascari, and Hill, Indy winners Rathmann and Vukovich, and American hot rod legends Thompson and Shelby.

Carnage was the rule. 26 deaths were recorded over the five years of the race, eventually causing the race series to be canceled. (A modern version was resurrected in 1988, running period cars from the ’50s.) Mexican soldiers closed the roads before each race leg and some speculated they had orders to shoot any person or animal that ventured onto the restricted roads. The rules did not permit stopping to assist victims of accidents during the race.

The race began going north to south, from Texas border to Guatemala border. It reversed direction the second year. The roads were mostly paved except in the southern section where they were gravel. Many entrants operated on shoestring budgets and drove themselves to the start line. Some of the more fascinating stories regard the exploits of the drivers and their crews before the race and between race legs, dealing with the local banditos and other official obstacles. Any support crew would have to sprint ahead to the next leg’s end point prior to the road being closed for racing. From the stories that are told, it is hard to believe Mexican tourism was advanced at all, unless booze and women of easy virtue were one’s main ticket to happiness, and buying one’s safe passage at gunpoint would be considered a thrill of a lifetime.

My Lincoln seemed to sense its racing heritage. My first ticket came in the Lincoln on Highway 101 by Gilroy. When my rear seat passenger told me I had just passed a patrol car, the speedo said 110. Oops. Speed really crept up in that car; it was effortless. We were all young and foolish once, no? The CHP officer told me he clocked me at 108 but only wrote me up for 80. He was the nicest cop I ever met; he told me to slow down or I would be broke or dead by the time I got home. The ticket was $54.

It bugged me that I had been $54 dumb. But found money can ease the pain of fined money; the books became balanced a few years later. My parents liked to go to the races on the weekend. I placed a $2 bet through them on Travel Orb at Hollywood Park and got a $58 return. I always bet long shots. It was their only winner of the day and collecting at the winner’s window pleased them. I had gotten a tip on that small horse from a TV show the day before: long shot most likely to impress, or some such tout. Later on, my job located me close to Hollywood Park and I would jump the fence every day for a while to catch the 9th race (free entry). I came to know the $3200 claimers very well and made enough money to cover nearly all the traffic tickets I have ever received. But they have become quite expensive of late, so I choose not to get any more.

On reflection, I admire my father’s taste in cars. I don’t think he could have been aware at time of purchase that the 1950 Olds 88 and the 1952-54 Lincolns had run all over the competition in La Carrera. But it was inspired buying, whether informed or instinctual.

Proceed to Sports Car.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s