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Street Racers' Reunion - Milan Dragway

A.J. MuellerphotographersDon Shermanwriters

Return with us to those blissful days when Detroit's rule of the automotive roost was unchallenged by foes from east or west. In 1964 - the year suburban Detroit's Woodward Avenue became the country's favorite unofficial drag strip - Toyota was just breaking out of its Toyopet shell, and a fledgling Mercedes-Benz was still prepping for flight from the Studebaker-Packard nest. Hyundai didn't exist, and Nissan was pronounced "DAT-sun." The most energetic Porsche packed 145 hp.

The official muscle car clock started ticking when Pontiac blessed its '64 Tempest LeMans with a $295. 90 GTO option. Unofficially, factory-supported backyard tuners had raced on Woodward and other Detroit avenues for years. When big-block American V-8s roar, there will be acceleration.

To put a fresh shine on Detroit's faded glory, we rousted three veteran street racers from the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, where the cars spent last winter in repose, to strut their quarter-mile stuff at Milan Dragway near Ann Arbor. Upholding the spirit of street-racing competition, we drove each contender twenty miles on back roads to confirm that these are real road cars, not trailer queens on quarter-mile leashes.

Orange Crush

John Vermeersch was a suburban Detroit teenager when he bought Orange Crush new in the summer of 1961. His timing was perfect for joining the street/speed movement. Ford had just resigned from an industry-wide agreement prohibiting direct participation in motorsports and was set to introduce its global Total Performance initiative. Late in the '61 model year, Ford was the first manufacturer to top the 400-hp barrier with a triple-carburetor, 401-hp, 390-cubic-inch Thunderbird V-8 for its Galaxie Starliner hardtop.

Vermeersch's Starliner came with 300 hp, but during his Marine Corps years he began to make amends. The eye-searing orange paint was an accident. "My intention was to change the car from its original mandarin red to a hotter Mustang vermilion red," Vermeersch recalled. "Unfortunately, a couple of paint-code numbers were transposed, so we ended up with Chevrolet hugger orange. It looked so spectacular on my Ford that I've left it this color for forty years."

In 1972, Vermeersch realized that the overhead-cam 427 V-8 that he used in his racing boats would fit in the Galaxie. Ford created this engine to battle Chrysler's Hemi and Chevy's Mark II "mystery" V-8, but NASCAR never approved it for competition. Orange Crush's first such engine gave thirty-six years and 82,000 miles of service. Last fall, Vermeersch built a fresh cammer bored and stroked to 482 cubic inches and equipped with a compression ratio suited to today's fuel.

On the road, Vermeersch's Starliner felt amazingly benign. Working through its long-legged driveline, the muscular V-8 quickly shuffled through the transmission's three speeds and settled into a gentle lope. According to its owner, Orange Crush is a pleasure on long trips, where it delivers 12 to 13 mpg while cruising at 75 mph. Riding on stock springs and dampers, this full-size Ford coupe is a gentle old soul that murmurs contentedly through fat headers and quiet mufflers.

During the mid-1960s, when a win was worth $50, Vermeersch raced other Fords on the east side of Detroit. Today, Orange Crush is happiest when cruising or parked with its hood up and a crowd admiring its massive cam covers and cowl-induction system.

ORANGE CRUSH Born as: 1961 Ford Galaxie Starliner Engine: 7.9L (482 cu in) OHC Ford V-8, Holley 4-barrel carburetor Power: 650 hp (owner's est.) Driveline: Cruise-O-Matic 3-speed automatic, 3.00:1 final drive Tires front, rear: Goodyear 255/60SR-15, 275/60SR-15 Weight: 4150 lb

Bad Cad Zeus

Detroit celebrity "Top Hat" John Jendza is a collector-car authority, part-time journalist, and full-time guardian of Bad Cad Zeus. Jendza's 1949 Cadillac coupe is a classic sleeper: a hell-raiser masquerading as a low and slow cruiser.

"Gary Ellinger of Hazel Park, Michigan, built this car in 1964," Jendza explains. "A number of engines have powered Zeus, including a 390-cubic-inch Cadillac V-8 with three carburetors as well as various big-block Chevy V-8s. Ellinger had excellent racing luck before selling the car in the early 1970s. Three owners later, a full body-off restoration and a major investment in chrome plating brought Zeus back to pristine condition. I bought it in 2006."

"I intend to return Zeus to its mid-'60s configuration and have a hotter engine. It's currently powered by a Chevy big-block V-8 bored out to 410 cubic inches and equipped with a roller-lifter camshaft."

Breathing through a Holley four-barrel carburetor, three-inch headers, and Flowmaster mufflers, this engine makes about 500 hp in Jendza's estimation. In its salad days, Zeus was a lion off the line thanks to its high-stall-speed torque converter and 4.56:1 locking differential. The original '57 Oldsmobile rear end fitted with slapper bars and custom axle shafts and lashed down with heavy-duty springs is still in place and provides superb traction.

Zeus currently has a tighter torque converter driving its Turbo-Hydramatic transmission, which is programmed to shift at a modest 5000 rpm. A 3.23:1 open differential brings up the rear.

Zeus's old bones were evident on the roads around Milan. My arms and elbows were a blur wheeling the huge steering wheel around 90-degree corners, because there's no power assist and the ratio is slow. Even though the front dampers are the ancient lever type and the springs are soft in the interest of transferring load to the rear tires during acceleration, this veteran didn't bounce or wallow over washboard roads. The split windshield and the liberally chromed dash are standard Cadillac features, but the tuck-and-roll trim and four Eldorado bucket seats are custom touches added by Jendza. A period Sun tachometer attached to the steering column keeps track of rpm.

A gear-driven camshaft whirs nervously, and sewer-sized pipes rumble with good exhaust reverberations. When nailing the throttle off the mark, the 1-2 shift felt like a pickup truck had slammed into the rear bumper. Lightly pedaling the gas evoked the Cadillac side of Zeus's split personality: gentle gear changes and smooth sailing.

BAD CAD ZEUS Born as: 1949 Cadillac Series 62 Club Coupe Engine: 6.7L (410 cu in) OHV Chevrolet V-8, Holley 4-barrel carburetor Power: 500 hp (owner's est.) Driveline: Turbo-Hydramatic 400 3-speed automatic, 3.23:1 final drive Tires front, rear: Mastercraft 235/75SR-15, BFGoodrich 255/70SR-15 Weight: 4300 lb

Silver Bullet

Contestant number three, the Silver Bullet, is the world's most notorious street racer. A team of Chrysler engineers led by Tom Hoover converted a stock 1967 Plymouth Belvedere GTX into this pro racer with plates at the peak of the muscle car movement. I know because I stumbled across this car while employed as a Chrysler engineer in 1968.

Hoover and his accessories to street-racing crime were no strangers to the fundamental "acceleration equals power divided by weight" equation. The original 440-cubic-inch V-8 was replaced by a 487-cubic-inch Hemi with aluminum heads and a magnesium dual-Holley intake manifold. The hood, door skins, front fenders, and deck lid were molded in fiberglass. Aggressive dieting also cut weight in seating, sound deadening, and trim areas. Recontouring the rear fenders provided room for wider, stickier tires. Hooker headers fed 3.5-inch collectors, 3.0-inch pipes, and four Cadillac mufflers, chosen because they were the largest and least restrictive of the day.

The Chrysler crew's motivation was defending Mopar's honor, which was being threatened by Ford and GM street racers. Upon completion, the 3200-pound factory special was turned over to Jimmy Addison, a capable tuner, street racer, and Woodward Avenue gas station proprietor. Addison changed the original blue paint to Corvette silver, prompting Car Craft magazine's Ro McGonegal to christen this piece of street ammo Silver Bullet. (For more info, visit silverbulletgtx.com.)

In 1969, Harold Sullivan was an eighteen-year-old with Mopar fever and a '67 GTX that he fueled with Sunoco 260 at Addison's station. "Every time I tried to get a look at the Bullet, Jimmy would tell me to pump my gas and get moving," he recalled.

Time hasn't diminished Sullivan's passion for Mopar muscle. His fleet topped out at forty Chrysler collectibles, but the Silver Bullet's current garage mates include sixteen Challengers, 'Cudas, Daytonas, and Road Runners.

Sullivan discovered the Bullet languishing in storage minus an engine. The owner wanted a Petty blue 1970 Plymouth Superbird in exchange. Sullivan tracked one down, made the swap, and began restoring his prize to its early-1970s configuration.

Countless cruise nights, car shows, and magazine stories later, Sullivan rode nervously in the passenger seat while I rumbled around Michigan back roads in his priceless heirloom. Given the high-riding front end and low-hanging plumbing, only a fool would consider racing this beast. And only those with a screw loose would consider driving such a wild thing on slick rear tires down public roads. At least we waited for moisture from an early-morning shower to evaporate before commencing our twenty-mile trip.

Trumping Bad Cad Zeus, the Silver Bullet adds brakes to the list of systems lacking power assist. Nonetheless, it was relatively easy to drive. The steering is slow, and the ride is jiggly with the front suspenders hiked to their high limit. The seats are comfortable and supportive, and the engine burbled along in a relaxed state at 30 mph.

When I legged the throttle, the tach needle whipped around the dial and an invisible rubber band yanked the car horizontally with violent intent. Short of a roller-coaster ride, g-forces of such intensity aren't found in the natural world. Sullivan managed the manual-shift Torqueflite while I kept a wary ear on howling protestations coming from the rear axle.

Upon successful completion of the public-road qualifying runs, we handed the ignition keys back to their relieved owners for the speed portion of this power picnic. The two Johns piloted their cars on the drag strip while Sullivan had a hired gun - Vance Cummins - shoot the Bullet. (Cummins is a veteran drag racer and Chrysler restoration expert who was instrumental in the Plymouth's revival.)

Jendza was first to the starting line. Hoping for a pass in the fourteen-second range, he left without a hint of wheel spin, and his Caddy cruised through the traps in 15.61 seconds at just under 90 mph.

Vermeersch followed with blue smoke boiling off his right-rear tire and his Ford's nose up and attentive. That first pass - 14.32 seconds at 94 mph - would stand as Orange Crush's best run of the day.

Back for more, Jendza lined up to clip a few hundredths off his time, but his trap speed duplicated the previous 89.82 mph. Because it's set up for cruising rather than racing, Bad Cad Zeus rolled across the finish line in second gear at less than optimal rpm. A rematch may be in order after Jendza equips Zeus with the more aggressive engine and gearing he has stored in his garage.

The Silver Bullet's burnout generated a fog bank that obliterated the staging area and dispatched every mosquito in the county to an early end. Black rubber was converted to white vapor by the volcano erupting inside the rear fenders. After inching to the staging lights, Cummins departed like a round exiting a rifle chamber. Now the rear tires bit into the asphalt with gear-teeth efficiency. Before anyone could exhale, the signboard at the end of the quarter mile flashed the news: 10.38 seconds at 130.77 mph.

Considering the indignity the Bullet had endured during our street saunter, we were flabbergasted by such a show of speed. (Today's domestic quarter-mile king, the Chevy Corvette ZR1, comes close to that speed but crosses the finish line 1.5 seconds in arrears.) That said, photographers are never content with a single shot at glory, so we politely asked for half a pass more. Following a few words of instruction from Sullivan, Cummins revisited the burnout bay before returning to the starting line.

With fingers poised on shutter releases and toes crowding the gas pedal, time skipped a beat. When the start light flashed green, Cummins seemed to hurtle into the past with an exact repeat of his first run. But instead of lifting off the gas at mid-track as requested, he held all eight Holley throttles wide open for the distance.

Glee erupted when the signboard lit up with a 10.14-second ET and a 131.73-mph trap speed. Then photographer A. J. Mueller added the cherry on top: an image captured in his camera's memory of the Bullet grabbing a wheelie on its second pass.

With the pecking order duly established, we dropped the checkered flag to make sure that no unintended cylinder-block ventilation ensued. All three street racers left Milan Dragway with an Automobile Magazine Big Dog trophy to commemorate time well spent toasting rubber and Detroit's glory days.

SILVER BULLET Born as: 1967 Plymouth Belvedere GTX Engine: 8.0L (487 cu in) OHV Chrysler Hemi V-8, dual Holley 4-barrel carburetors Power: 650 hp (owner's est.) Driveline: Torqueflite 3-speed automatic, 4.56:1 final drive Tires front, rear: Goodyear front runner 26.0/4.5-15, Hoosier drag slick 29.0/10.5-15 Weight: 3200 lb

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