Studebaker Stories:


CRUISIN' "56J STYLE"
by Frank Ambrogio

1"56J" is the model designation which the Studebaker-Packard Corporation assigned to the 1956 Golden Hawk. The car came standard with a 352 CID Packard OHV V8. The photo at the left was taken in August, 1991. The car, serial 6031427, belongs to K.V. Smith of Winston Salem NC.

The full moon cast an air of intrigue over the crisp, clear night suggesting that, something from the darkness would make this night special. The year is 1960, Richard Nixon is Vice President and nobody has heard of the Beatles, John F. Kennedy is headed for the White House and only girls wear long hair or earrings. Elvis Presley is serving his Uncle Sam and nobody would be caught dead driving a Toyota.

At the ripe old age of twenty, I am young enough to act like I can do anything and not quite old enough to realize that everyone knows I am just blowing smoke.

This night is like all the nights since graduation two years earlier. Cruisin' from one drive-in (restaurant) to the next, I check out the action, looking for something yet looking for nothing at the same time. Life is rather simple. No rent. No laundry. No wife. No dollars. No sense .

The biggest problem in my life is trying to figure out how anyone is going to beat the New York Yankees. The next biggest problem is deciding what time to go home. I change the station on the radio, to WJBK, just in time to hear the crowd cheer as Al Kaline hits a three run homer and the Tigers now lead six to one. With Yankee killer, Frank Lary on the mound for the Tigers, it looks like we have a lock on this game.

I pull into the Holiday Drive-in and slow down so everyone can get a good look at my car, I imagine all the remarks being made by the onlookers, "There goes that 1956 Golden Hawk I told you about". "That thing really moves". "What a handsome driver" (I said I was imagining). I continue slowly through the parking lot making a half salute to Bob and Kathy in the '57 Ford Bob and I just painted. It looks pretty good, at night.

Everybody backs into the parking spaces so they can see the parade of cars going by. Everything from radical customs to daddy's car comes through and even if you have seen a particular car a hundred times, it is good to see it one more time.

On this night I have no plans to stop and park, at least not on this pass. I slow down for the car ahead and shift to neutral. I tap the horn in fun and Tim turns around and waves. We used to work together at the super market when we were in high school. Tim's uncle works for Chrysler and he got Tim an apprenticeship as a wood model maker at Dodge Main. He keeps the 1958 Fury immaculate. I rev the engine just a little to let everyone hear the glass packs rumble, then I shift into first gear making sure there's just that little gear grind so that any strangers will know we're running stick shift.

I finally make my way to the exit, turn right onto the road, and accelerate just enough for the tires to barely squeal. I let up on the gas before pushing in the clutch to let the engine back down. The mufflers really sound good as I shift slowly into second. By now I am doing about the speed limit, 35 MPH, and I shift to third and cruise down Nine Mile Road on my way to "Lucky Star".

Lucky Star Drive-in is where I usually hang out, so I back into a space next to Cliff in the 1955 Ford Convertible. I leave the lights on so Jennifer will know that I want to order something. She has been a car hop there for at least two years. I order some fries and a coke, extra ketchup too.

Cliff and I shoot the bull for about twenty minutes and then he takes off for Gratiot Avenue. I decide that maybe tonight I will just go on home early and make my parents happy. It is only nine o'clock and I can still catch the end of 77 Sunset Strip on TV. I love to try to figure out what Edd Byrnes is actually saying.

I head down Harper toward home and get stopped at the signal light at Fresard. Waiting for the green, I hear the roar of the '57 Chevy Hardtop which pulls up next to me in the left lane. Curt has been wanting to race me ever since he got the car last June but I keep putting him off. Actually, I think we are both afraid of losing, because he hasn't really pushed the idea that much. As they say, all yak and no shack .

His Chevy is the big one, 283, dual 4 barrels, the special solid lifter cam and 270 horses, a real screamer. He knows I'm not going to race even though I rev the big 352 Packard as the amber light comes on from the side of the signal light. We both go through the routine as if we are really going to do it but when the light turns green, we fake it and take off nice and easy. We both spotted the cop car in the bank parking lot. They thought they had us this time. When will those guys learn that they are no match for us?

"Are you going to the big race tonight?" asks Bill who is riding with Curt. "Who's running"? I ask. "Ray and Bob at ten o'clock", replies Bill, "they are going up Fifteen Mile Road, we're on our way there now". I indicate yes and fall in behind Curt and Bill as the road narrows to two lanes.

Guess TV will have to wait, this is big stuff and everybody will be there to watch the "Bob and Ray" show. Ray has a '57 Ford with three deuces and 3 speed column shift. I hear it really smokes. He has been making a lot of noise around town about how he can beat anybody. Bob has his old man's '57 Pontiac Custom Star Chief with Hydramatic. I rode in the Poncho a couple of weeks ago and I think he is going to surprise Ray. Talk about neck snapping power, I was really impressed.

Fifteen Mile Road is straight as an arrow and there are no side streets from Harper to Jefferson. We pull into the drug store parking lot on the corner and park. We are still early so everyone just stands around and talks.

My old girlfriend Judy is there and wanders over to where Curt, Bill, and I are standing. "When are you going to show what that snail can do" she says motioning to the Hawk while looking at me with a mean smirk on her face. "I think Curt will walk all over you with his Chevy". I don't know how she got so smart about cars, She didn't know diddly squat when we were dating. Before I knew it, everyone was gathered around waiting to hear my answer.

I knew I couldn't back down now, I think Curt was thinking the same thing. I had spent too much time building up a reputation to let some vengeful chick mess up all I've done. "How about right now" I say with as much force as I can put into my voice. Suddenly, as if we all were thinking as one, everyone jumps into their cars and in a matter of seconds the lot is empty.

Curt and I are lined up side by side as he yells over to me. "How about if we go from a rolling start at about 10 (mph)"? "OK by me" I answer. "Looks like we are stealing Bob and Ray's thunder", Curt says with a big smile. "Let's do it"!

Everything is perfect, no traffic in sight. I rev the engine, a kind of code of the road among us, to let him know that this is it. We both sit up in our seats poised as we start to move. "You count it Bill", I yell over the engine noise, "we hit it on three".

"One, two, three", I cheated just before he finished the count and we were both chewing up huge chunks of pavement. I really got a good jump as Curt's car fishtailed just a little at the start. I glanced at the tach and saw the needle skip past the 3500 mark, We are both standing on it. Curt hits second gear and the front end of the Chevy leaps a foot in the air. The good news is that he isn't pulling on me. The bad news is that when I glance to the side, I'm looking at his rear seat.

I slap second gear and pull my hand back in pain after smashing my fist into the dashboard. You'd think I'd have learned how to shift by now, but even the padding on the dash doesn't seem to have done much to soften the blow. Glad that it wasn't my head (maybe it should have been). We are door handle to door handle as I feel both four barrels wide open. There is tremendous exhilaration in the acceleration....

Suddenly, everything seems to be out of kilter. Wait a minute, something is wrong. What is that ringing noise I hear and why do we both seem to be fading away? I know I've heard it before but I can't make out just what it is. It sounds like, wait, I know, ...... my alarm clock, that's it, it's my alarm clock!

Things are beginning to come into focus now, I'm in bed and the sun is just beginning to brighten the room. My mind is getting clear now, it was only a dream. It seemed so real, I'm in a cold sweat.

It is forty years later, I'm married, retired, and it is time to rise and shine. Anita is already making the coffee. I reflect for a moment wondering if I could have beaten Curt. I reach over to turn off the alarm and I wince as I notice the pain on the back of my right hand. Where did that big cut on my knuckles come from?

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