Monday, August 28, 2023

North Main - Chapter Five

 Birds of a feather flock together, that would best sum up my friends, acquaintances,and people I knew growing up and especially during my mid to late teens. We ate, drank, and slept cars. Duane had (and still has) a '67 Pontiac GTO with a 400 cubic inch V-8, tri-power carburetors and a 4-speed manual trans. Jim had a '67 Chevy Camaro with a small block 350 equipped with a polished tunnel ram with dual quads. Bob had a '67 Chevy Chevelle with a 327 and a 4-speed, Paul had a '70 Dodge Challenger with a 440 and slapstick automatic, Zeke had a '67 Chevy El Camino with a 327 wearing big 'n little Cragar SS mags, Buddy had a '65 Chevy Chevelle Super Sport with a wicked 327, Roy had a '70 Chevy Chevelle SS 396 with a 4-speed, Dominic had a '70 Chevy El Camino with a 300 horsepower 350 wearing Daisy mags, Francesco had (and still has) a '65 Chevrolet Corvette with a 425 horsepower 396 big block and a 4-speed (that I actually got to drive!), Danny had a '67 Pontiac Firebird with a small block Chevy in it, lil' Erik had a '70 Chevy Chevelle that he equipped with hand controls due to his paralysis, and Rob had a '69 Pontiac Firebird. There of course were many more but these are the ones that stuck with me.

Many of these cars were regulars on the cruise circuit and more than a few raced at North Main. As was common during this era, a lot of guys were referred to by their last name. I also recall Downing and his pro street '71 Chevy Vega, Mix and his '65 Chevy Chevelle Malibu, Hudson and his '69 Chevy Z28 Camaro with nitrous, Lattica and his '67 Chevy Nova with a Doug Nash 5 speed, Atkins and his '70 Plymouth Roadrunner with a 440, Larkins and any number of his race ready big block Mopars, the Cruz brothers who had (and both still have) a '68 Chevy Camaro rs/ss and a '65 Ford Mustang fastback, and the Whittier Boys with their pro street '55 Ford T-Bird and small block Anglia. Like I had said, towards the end more and more purpose built race cars started showing up on trailers which really caught the attention of the local authorities.

Everyone that I knew also worked on their own rides. There was no internet to search for answers so networking among fellow enthusiasts was necessary if you didn't know the answer yourself. If I needed to talk to an expert I would just call them. I picked the brains of some of the best of the best. When I had a question about a Pontiac I called Nunzi Romano from Nunzi's Automotive or Ken Crocie from H-O Racing Specialties (whose son Kevin I would later work with at Super Shops). I called Bill Summer from Summer Brothers Racing when I had a question about my big block Chevy gear drive, George Spink when I had a fabrication question (it also helped that he lived just a few blocks from my parents), for camshaft questions I talked with either Jerry or Don Johanson from Howard's Cams and for high performance parts recommendations none other then Phil Braybrooks from J&M Speed Center. Sometimes you figured it out on the first try and other times it was trial and error. I vividly remember a recurring problem I was having on my '69 Chevelle. Just prior to my big block swap I was trying to squeeze out as much power as possible from the original 307 small block. The engine had been balanced and had a healthy Crane Cam in it. I wanted as much compression as possible so I had installed an early set of 194 small chamber heads that had been surfaced and port matched. To top it off I put on the recently released Edelbrock Performer intake manifold. The problem was that I was oil fouling plugs but only on a couple of cylinders. I pulled the heads off numerous times and had them checked. Each cylinder had good compression and I had installed the rings myself so I was leaning towards a collapsed oil control ring, but on two cylinders? What are the chances of that? More clues were revealed during the subsequent reassembly and testing. I was still getting oil fouling but now it had switched one of the cylinders! One of the previous suspect cylinders was now firing correctly with no sign of oil burning on the plug... what the heck! I was really confused now and needed to consult someone with a lot more mechanical experience than me, but who?

I went over to see my friend Jim as he had a lot of experience with small blocks. After explaining what was happening to my Chevelle motor he was as confused as I was but suggested that we go ask his neighbor Fred. Fred was quite a bit older then we were and was a GM line mechanic. He had decades of experience and always seemed to be working on a car when he was at home. After explaining to Fred what was happening to my motor he sat down and started asking me some questions. He was particularly interested in the heads and how much had been milled off of them. His educated guess was that the intake manifold was not sealing correctly and was pulling oil from the galley below the intake. I had never heard of this before and it never dawned on me that it was even possible. He told me what to look for so I went back to tear down the top of the motor. After removing the intake and carefully inspecting the gasket I spotted it. On the bottom side of the intake gasket, at the end that was closest to the oil galley, the gasket was wet with oil. I checked both the intake manifold and the head with a straight edge and also did a dry fit test on the intake to see how much clearance was between the intake and head mounting surface. It looked good until I put the cork sealing strips on the front and rear of the galley. With the intake in place the cork raised it up too far and there was my problem! Fred had suspected that the milled heads might be causing some problems and when I told him what I had discovered he told me to throw away the cork ends and use RTV silicone. I bought some fresh FelPro blue intake gaskets, a tube of Permatex silicone and the next morning proceeded to button everything back up.

That morning happened to be a Saturday so I got an early start in anticipation of cruising Market Street later that evening. My friend Johnny and his buddy Jose showed up and were soon helping me. After the initial start up and setting the timing I was ready for its shake down run. Johnny had ridden in my Chevelle numerous times so he kind of knew what to expect performance wise. Everyone climbed in and I took off, anxious to see and feel the results. The very first thing I noticed was the power, it was like a whole different motor! This motor was pulling hard! Johnny was shocked at the power difference and Jose was just sitting in the back seat, wide eyed with a smile on his face. I was really feeling good when all of a sudden the motor started losing power. I could feel it as it was happening and then I noticed the smoke. I immediately pulled over, leaving the engine idle while I got out and popped open the hood. It now had a noticeable miss at idle and was running rough, all the same symptoms as before! Man was I pissed off! I couldn't believe it but the same problem was back. All that work for nothing! I jumped back in and started to head back to the house. The motor seemed like it was getting worse and started loading up on me. I was at a red light waiting to turn right on Van Buren Blvd when the engine shut off. As I was cranking the starter to get it started again the light turns green and of course cars start honking at me. I get the engine to fire up, proceed to rev it to about 6500 rpm, and dump the clutch... right across from a Police car waiting at the intersection! Of course I did not see the cop car, I was too engrossed in getting the car started and getting back home. The Chevelle ended up getting sideways as I turned through the intersection and was billowing smoke from both the rear tires and the exhaust, but I'm sure the fuzz only saw the tire smoke. My two passengers saw the cop before I did and tried in vain to get me to lay off the gas pedal but I was hell bent on teaching that motor a lesson. There was so much smoke that I literally could only see the police car's red and blue lights before I saw the car itself so it was a good block or two before I pulled over. 

Now at that point in my young life I had had my share of traffic tickets. Exhibition of speed, speeding, California stop (rolling through a stop sign), engaging in a speed contest, reckless driving, and too many fix-it tickets to count. Heck, I made John Milner from American Graffiti look like a choir boy. I was in serious danger of losing my drivers license and I thought this stunt was the final nail in the coffin. When the officer walked up to my window I felt my heart sink as he was not a city cop, he was a CHP Officer! Everyone knew that the Highway Patrol did not mess around. They did not pull people over to give them warnings or warm hugs, they are all business all the time, or so I was led to believe. The first thing he says to me was "What the heck were you thinking and what's your problem?!" I thought honesty was the best policy here so I started off with "I was not thinking, that's the problem" and then proceeded to tell him the whole story about the engine, which Johnny and Jose collaborated, right up to the very end when I lost my shit and dumped the clutch. The officer was very patient and listened to everything. After verifying that I had a valid driver's license and lecturing me on my disregard of my passenger's safety, he said he understood what I was saying and that I needed to think about how my actions can affect others. He then wished me luck on figuring out what was wrong with the engine and told me I was free to go! Wait, did I just get a "warning" from a CHP officer? No one I knew would believe me so I was glad I had two witnesses with me.

So it was back to the drawing board on the Chevelle's engine problem, or in my case back to talk with Fred. Fred was asking a lot more questions, this time it was about the gaskets. He had worked on more than a few Corvettes and they all had aluminum intake manifolds. He told me they used a different gasket than the cast iron intakes, it was a different material. That got me thinking and after another tear down I noticed the intake gasket had failed again, this time on multiple runners. I knew it was getting sufficient clamping force but the material still failed. Fred suspected it was too hard of a gasket material so he suggested I get a pair of GM intake gaskets that were specifically for a Corvette. I went down to the parts counter at De Anza Chevrolet and picked up a set. I noticed that the material was softer and seemed thicker so I was eager to try them out. It turned out that those gaskets did solve my engine's problem and a few years later Edelbrock issued a technical bulletin saying not to use FelPro blue gaskets on their aluminum intakes as leaks could develop. Go figure, we found that out before they did, the hard way!