California Car Crazy

1950s Southern California was car-crazy. Reggie drove a 1947 metallic purple Ford, nosed, decked, and hung, with a 3.6L flathead V8 engine, twin pipes, seatbelts he’d installed himself by drilling holes in the floor, and furry white dice dancing from the rearview mirror. He was the guiding light behind the Clutchers Car Club, a sacred fraternity of motorheads.

Reggie’s mother had a powerful religious conversion listening to Charles Fuller’s Radio Hour, and this drew the family to Stanton church in 1957. Reggie came along. For the Wednesday night events, Reggie would wear a white tee shirt and new, blue Levi’s—the kind with the little red tag on the back pocket—-Stanton kids were pretty informal—but on Sundays he always wore a collar shirt.

He didn’t talk much about religion, but he always came to Stanton Church where he found a lively youth group that sang songs and did a little Bible study. They played circle games that Reggie called “swing the butt” games. One of the high schoolers was Bob Burchitt. Bob was not part of the “in” group. Once Reggie told Sally, “I tried to mispronounce Bob’s name ‘burshett’ but Mrs. Wallace [the youth leader] insisted, ‘No; it’s ‘bird shit.’” Sally smiled, embarrassed.

 

It was dark on a Tuesday night in November when the Clutchers gathered in Jeff Adams’ barn at his dad’s orange ranch in Villa Park. Cars pulled in, parked among the orange trees, and their drivers walked into the barn, which was swept and all alight. Eight guys showed up. They all wore grey jackets with “Clutchers” embroidered in white on the back. Jeff’s dad kept an old Fordson tractor in the barn, plus a harrow, a couple of plows, and a sledge with runners on it that he pulled behind the tractor to gather rocks out of the orange grove or transport new trees for planting. In one corner was a rusted-out 1932 Ford hot rod that served as the club’s eternal project. After pushing these items against the walls, Reggie set a few chairs in a circle under the lights in the middle of the barn. He was precise—they were all equally spaced.

Dan Hanson was the current president. A friendly, approachable guy with a nice smile, he seemed a little self-conscious. “Well, I guess we’ll get started. Anybody have anything?”

Mack said, “I wanna install three two-barrel carburetors on my 1946 Chevy to give it a bit more power. I already bought the intake manifold and the carbs. The hard part’s getting the links adjusted so the front and back two-barrels will kick in when you stomp the throttle down. I figure it’ll cost me about $150.00.”

Everybody nodded approvingly. Dan offered, “I know a guy who can adjust the links.”

A Clutcher could never let his car alone—-he had to install twin pipes, mill the heads, chrome-plate various engine parts, nose and deck it, and always, paint the cars in metallic colors. He had only two goals—make it more powerful and make it more beautiful.

After about an hour, the guys got up to get some soft drinks cooling in a bucket of ice. Jeff’s mom had provided some snacks. Reggie grabbed a glazed donut. “You know Hillcrest Park, where some guys park with their girlfriends? Jeff and I were driving up there last week, shining a flashlight into the cars. Startled a few people. But if we saw bare bottoms, we moved on.” People smiled. Some of the guys had girlfriends, but they didn’t talk to each other much about sex.

They walked back to the chairs. “We talked about a tune-up party this Saturday at Dan’s house,” Reggie said. “Clean and gap spark plugs, set the timing, change points and condensers, check fluids and lights, stuff like that. You should do that every 5,000 miles. How many can come?” Several hands went up. “You guys all know how to get to Dan’s?” Dan lived out in Westminster where his farmer father had a huge truck garage and lots of tarmac outside. Perfect place for a tune-up party. Reggie sketched a crude map on the chalkboard hanging on the wall, carefully labeling the streets and turns.

Then Jeff spoke up. “I’ve been working on the lime run. ‘Bout 50 miles long, I think. I figure four guys will drive their cars and each one can take a couple passengers. My dad gave me five sacks of lime. Let’s divide it into about 30 paper bags. Need to be sure they split and spread the lime when they hit the pavement. We have a secret destination where we’ll meet for dessert at the end. I need one guy to go with me to put the lime packets out.” Lime runs were fun. Theoretically it isn’t a race. In fact, most guys spend most of the time trying to track the lime route¾it’s easy to miss a lime mark. You drive until you see a splash of lime on the pavement to show you where to turn.

The meeting broke up about 9:00 p.m.

 

That same week, Reggie had a proposal for Shawn.

“Hey, Shawn—let’s race along Almond Avenue in Orange. We’ll see whose engine is more powerful.” Shawn had bought his blue 1950 Chevy with its inline six engine a few months after starting at Stanton, then painted it metallic blue. But the guys never invited him to join Clutchers Car Club.

They picked a quiet night and lined up side by side at Walnut Street and then punched it. A huge blind bump bulged up where Almond crossed the Santa Fe mainline railroad tracks. The two cars were speeding side by side at fifty miles per hour when they hit the blind bump and briefly became airborne. Fortunately, no cars were stopped on the other side. They squashed down on the pavement and accelerated. They weren’t worried—they were in their late teens and knew themselves immortal. Just before they braked for the Main Street signal light, Reggie nosed Shawn out and won.

The next month, the guys both signed up for a town-sponsored “economy run” that started at Hagen’s gas station. Reggie used his own 1947 Ford but Shawn’s dad let him drive their 1955 Chevy station wagon. His dad explained, “A better car for this type of competition—-the race makes allowances for different car weights. I’ll ask Slim, our mechanic, to tune the car for economy.” The route ran through El Toro, out to Laguna Beach, followed the road through the mountains to Corona, and then back to Hagens—-about 100 miles total. A 1953 Cadillac won the run, but Shawn beat Reggie.

In 1950s Southern California, cars gave status, bonding, friendships. You picked up your friends and drove them to school. To be anybody you had to have a car—-the student parking lots were full of them—-a car put you into an elite club only some guys could join.

Bus riders were second-class citizens.

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