Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bumper to Bumper and Side by Side

Back when I was just startin’ out, I was runnin’ a nice ’54 Ford two-door. She was a good looking sedan. I’d painted her kinda black and hand made some flames on the front.

She shipped new out of Dearborn with a 239 Y-Block, Ford’s first production overhead valve engine. A good little V8, but I’d updated her with a bigger-brother outta Mercury that had rolled down the side of the mountain leavin’ little but the engine of any value.

It was a 312 cu in V8 breathing through a four-barrel carburetor. She had 9.0:1 compression, and was mated to an automatic transmission, but I’d paired her with my manual tranny with three-speed plus overdrive. A Hurst shifter put that on the floor, and I had the overdrive switch wired to a toggle on my dash rather than under the accelerator pedal like old man Ford had intended. Gave me more control.

That engine sure looked purty with her gold-painted blocks and heads. Those long skirts were where the “Y” in the name came from, and produced around 235 horsepower stock through her four-barrel carb.

I added the "M 260" engine kit composed of a hotter camshaft, revised cylinder heads, and an intake manifold mounting two four-barrel carburetors. The kit was advertised as boosting the Mercury 312 V8 to 260 horsepower. Plus I’d done a little tuning and other things to get her just right. I worked at this gas station pumpin’ gas, but we was closed at night and my boss let me tinker around with my Ford after hours. I had a garage full of tools and hydraulic lift.

I modified the exhaust, running twin Lake Pipes. That’s a type of after market performance exhaust. The exhaust is routed from the exhaust manifold along the bottom of the car body beneath the doors. They were chrome plated. They offered a performance boost as they had less back pressure. Combined with my modified valves and heads, they really roared when I had it floored.

And my ride could breathe, sporting good performance heads due to their large valves and their unique stacked intake runner design, which flows very well. My ported and polished ECZ-G castings have flowed up to 235 cfm on the upper port. (I told you I had fiddled a bit with the engine innards! “Ported” means I’d ground out the intake ports to get maximum airflow and “polished” means that metal shined like chrome so there was no turbulence in the fuel flow for maximum “go.”)

The only problem I hadn’t worked out yet was the cooling. My original ’54 Ford radiator wasn’t really up to the task when the nights got hot and the roads ran fast. I wished I could have salvaged the Mercury radiator, but she was busted clean in two in the roll over, and I couldn’t afford to spring for a new one. So I just made due. A couple of SW gauges mounted under the dash helped we keep an eye on both the temperature and the oil pressure, and sometimes she’d start to get hot when I had her to the floor. I’d have to roll off on the gas in that case and let her cool down.

So that was what I was ridin’ out east of town toward a big hill we called the “divide.” It was a warm evening and I was keepin’ her under 80 when up ahead I spotted one of them big old Cad-e-lacs. It was a big one. A series 62 Coupe de Ville. She musta been doin’ 95. I sped up a bit to get a closer look. Soon we were bumper to bumper and side by side as I pulled into the passin' lane. When I rolled by I looked inside and — damn if I didn’t spot my girl friend, Mary Lou.

Now she wasn’t much of a girl friend. Had an eye for the other fellas, ‘specially if they had a hot car. And that Caddie was hot. But nothin’ can outrun my V8 Ford.

Sure the Cadillac has a 365 cu. in. V8, ‘bout the biggest GM made at the time. And that was hooked through a 4-speed Hydra-Matic, and she could move on down the road. But that big hog weighed 5100 pounds with all her chrome, and my little two-door tipped the scales at a bit over 3,000 pounds, so the Caddy would need the extra horses, especially as we climbed up that long hill.

I pressed the pedal to the metal and pulled out in front of that big Cadillac. As I pulled back over to the right, I looked in my rear view mirror. The Caddy musta stepped on it too, ‘cause the first thing I saw that Cadillac grille doin' a hundred and ten gallopin' over that hill. We made the top and rounded an offhill curve headin’ into a downhill stretch. It was me and that Cadillac neck and neck.

I knew Mary Lou was urgin’ her boyfriend of the moment on, and he was gonna try to pass me. He started to pull up even with my Ford. Just about then I glanced down at my temperature gauge and realized the Ford was hot and wouldn't do no more.

This wasn’t doin’ my motor no good. So I rolled back on the accelerator and let him go by. Just then it got cloudy and it started to rain. The rain water was blowin’ up under my hood and cooling off those Mercury horses. So I stepped back on the gas and tooted my horn for the passin’ lane. I rolled past that Cadillac doin’ around one twenty-five. I passed him at the bottom of the hill and it looked just like he was standin’ still.

I knew next time I saw Mary Lou, I’d just look the other way. I realized now my true companion was that Detroit iron, and I didn’t need no fickle gal anyways. I knew Mary Lou just couldn’t be true. She'd hang with me for a while, but then start back doin' the things she used to do.

After my little race I was about half way to Billings, so I just kept goin’. Stopped at a small bar in Roundup that had this band on stage. The band was called "Johnnie Johnson Trio." When they took a break, I invited the singer for a cold one, and we got to talkin’. The guys name was Charles. He turned out to be quite a car guy.

I was tellin’ him about my car and pretty soon I was describin’ all about me racin’ that Cadillac in my V8 Ford. He said he was gonna make a song out of it. I didn’t want people to know my part. Maybe some copper would hear and try to give me a ticket … if he could catch me. Or my mom might hear and get upset. So, just in case, I told him not to use Mary Lou’s name. He said he’d call her Ida-Mae. I was OK with that.

A year or so later I heard the song on the radio. He’d become a big star. I met up with him one more time in Chicago and he told me the rest of the story. He said that he performed the song around St. Louis with his group. Then he got his big break.

He had never recorded, but when he went to Chicago to see Muddy Waters perform, he stayed in town to pitch himself to Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who asked him to come back the next week with some original songs. Berry returned with his bandmates Johnnie Johnson (piano) and Eddie Hardy (drums), and a demo reel with four songs, including "Ida Mae." That's the one Leonard Chess liked best, but he asked Berry to change so there wouldn't be any confusion with "Ida Red" (a country tune popular at the time) and to fend off any copyright claims.

Berry changed the title. It was the first song the band recorded, and it proved a challenge: they recorded 36 takes.

There are a few different stories floating around about how the song got its name. Berry has said that Maybellene was the name of a cow in child's nursery rhyme, but Johnnie Johnson recalled that there was a box of Maybellene mascara in the office, which gave Leonard Chess the idea for the title.

Chess Records gave the disc jockey Alan Freed a co-writing credit on this song (and also some cash) in exchange for playing it on the radio. Deals like this led to the Payola scandals, which led to rules prohibiting record companies from paying DJs to play their songs.

But all that’s about the music biz, and I’m just interested in cars. My buddy Chuck went on to become a big music star, and he even showed up in that movie about the Delorean car with the flux capacitor. I liked that car.

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