Pardon the nostalgia. I’m posting some of my old favorite stories from my journalistic days and this Inquirer Magazine piece is among my all-times. This piece was also part of a coffee table book Rockin’ Down the Highway.
(And yes, I was wrong about the future of the V-8. For better or worse.)
A REQUIEM FOR REAL WHEELS
BY ROBERT R. FRUMP
In the parking lot of Amy Joy’s Donut Shop, Richie Brigidi slowed but did not stop. “Very depressing, Bobbie,” he said, and with the heel of his right hand levered the T-bar Hurst shifter down into second gear. The car gurgled and bubbled power.
Three women – curlers in their hair, doughnuts in their hands the slightly tired look of being 35 in their eyes – peered out the windows of their station wagon. They nodded. They smiled. Then, unmistakably, a leer began to spread across the face of each as the long, proud red hood of the car passed like an effortlessly swimming shark.
Yes, they knew. The car struck something within them, as if an old ’60s hit had been played, or the bell of an old prom rung. But before they could put a finger on just what it was, the car was gone, rumbling slowly in second gear as Brigidi cranked the wheel, sighed and said, “Nothing here, Bobbie.”
Ten years ago, 12 years ago, 14 years ago, the scene at Amy Joy’s at Cheltenham and Ogontz Avenues would have been different. Then, Brigidi would have assumed a cocky, decisive manner as he powered his car out of the lot and chirped the wheels, heading toward a dark, wide section of Route 309 not far away in Cheltenham Township. Word would spread, and the solid thump of dense American car doors slamming shut would spread it further: A match was set. Amy Joy’s would empty as Brigidi’s army tagged after him.
What would have followed was simple. Two cars would line up, side by side. A cadence would be called; sometimes a flag would be waved. Then, white-hot pure power would be set loose on the still night air. On the shift from second to third, low in the throat, bass to a tortured, snarling tenor that ripped and tore across the evening, clawing toward a climax, the sound would come:
It was the sound of a 1960s muscle car in drag-race battle. When you hear it today, as you still do sometimes, it is more than that. It is the sound of our past on the night air, a piece of Americana as important to modern popular culture as the creak of Conestoga wagons was to their time. It stands alongside combat troops, peace marchers and bull markets as a symbol of what the ’60s were all about, of the whole idea of unlimited power, of constantly bigger and better things, of wars on poverty and wars in Asia, of peace and promise and Gross National Products that roared always up, up, up like the madly whirling sound of a muscle car crescendoing through the gears forever.
And in the sense of power lost, and lost so quickly this past decade, I think the muscle car is a fitting symbol for the changes that have taken place in this land.
All of which explains something of why I recently rode with Brigidi and learned a little of how he is coming to terms with this era, having been born and raised in another one full of an abundance of American power. In that, he may be like you or me, if you are 25 to 40 years old. Except that Brigidi was a hero of that era, an honest-to-god drag-racing king of a large section of Philadelphia, and that the V-8 engine, which will become extinct sometime around 1985, played a much larger part in his life than in yours or mine.
Brigidi is 34 now, with charcoal gray flecking his hair. But when I rode with him last summer, the tattoo of crossed racing flags still showed on his right arm, and the good Lord knows the car was able.
It happened on the strip where the road gets wide
Two cool shorts standing side by side
My fuel-injected Stingray and a Four Thirteen
Revving up our engine and it sounds real mean
Tach it up, tach it up, buddy gonna shut you down.
from “Shut Down,” by the Beachboys
Brigidi’s car cost $2,574.18 new in 1966. Off the showroom floor, it was something special – bright red, with a white convertible top and the special tiger paw tires with the red-wall stripe, not white.
Under the hood, the car was simply awesome. The Oldsmobile 442 had been brought out as an Oldsmobile version of the Pontiac GTO, but it never quite gained the awesome reputation of its sister car.
Brigidi’s 442 was different. While most 442’s had a single four-barrel carburetor, his had the L-69 option: Three two-barrels sat atop Brigidi’s 400- cubic-inch engine, giving it more power.
But for some other unexplainable reason the red car was just plain hot. Maybe it was the way the car fell together at the plant. Maybe it was the way Brigidi drove it. Probably it was a combination of the two, and the tri-power, but whatever it was, other fast drivers with cars that should have easily muscled a 442 ate Brigidi’s dust instead. One moment, they were bound for glory; the next, they saw the 442’s taillights, and heard the high tenor chorus the tri-power makes in full-throated cry, gulping air for the engine.
“UuhhwaaaaAAAA! That thing would suck in air, birds and leaves off the trees,” Brigidi said.
It was a great sound, and a great car and a great driver. Brigidi was building a rep. On North Broad Street; on the Meadows near Tioga Marine Terminal; down near Pattison Avenue on Front Street, too. On any strip where the road was wide, the word spread that there was a hot Olds 442, an up and comer.
Soon, Brigidi and his buddies did not have to travel far. The boys from South Philly would come north to Amy Joy’s, circling the lot in second gear, checking the two ‘Vettes and the two 442’s that were the horses in amy Joy’s stable. There was a steady stream of such challengers, a steady stream of processions to the strip on Route 309, and a steady stream of Brigidi victories.
The car drew more than challengers, of course. It drew women, providing conquests of a different sort. “It was a good pick-up car,” Brigidi said matter-of-factly. “One in five would say yes when you asked them if they wanted to ride.”
There came a time when Brigidi stopped asking, though. One day, he cruised through his regular carwash at Broad and Godfrey only to confront a pair of smiling eyes where the stern-faced cashier normally sat.
“Nice car,” said the pretty young woman as she rang up Richie’s payment.
“Thank you very much,” Richie stammered. Then, recovering his cool, he shot back, “Want to go to the drags in it?”
The eyes were mostly shy. The young woman who would become Richie Brigidi’s wife and the mother of their son and daughter hesitated, then said: “Yeah.”
“Well, I never intended to take Terri to the drags – you don’t take something like that to a drag race on your first date,” Richie explained. They
went to the 309 Drive-In instead, but on the way back Brigidi dusted off a doggy Chevelle challenger just to show off his wheels.
Terri found that she liked racing, and the driver, quite a lot, but it was on the third date that the car, the driver and the romance were to be tested to the limits.
Terri was nuzzled close to Richie on the driver’s side when a plain black Plymouth pulled up next to them at an intersection. The driver was making all the signs, though Brigidi could not for the life of him understand why. Old ladies had cars like that. Yet the other driver was intent, almost smug.
It should have been a clue, for under the plain Plymouth exterior throbbed one of the most powerful V-8’s ever turned loose on the streets: a 440- horsepower Chrysler hemi. In the parlance of the day, it was a “Granny car,” a hot car made to look harmless, as if it belonged to the driver’s grandmother. So this time it was Richie who was surprised out of the chute. He had not even asked Terri to move over, so certain was he of dispatching the car with minimal effort.
Then, as he recognized what was happening, as the hemi’s awful surge of power torqued the Plymouth ahead like a rocket sled, Brigidi’s whole body rose high off the seat and moved above the floor-mounted shift knob. He tapped the clutch, jammed the pedal, then hurled all his weight into the speed shift, slamming down as hard as he could from first to second.
The 442 closed on the hemi as if jerked by a cord. From a racing perspective, the shift had been brilliant. The problem was that Brigidi had inadvertently sucker-punched his girlfriend in the process.
The full force of his shift had carried his hand off the end of the knob and, slamming backward toward the seat, his half-closed fist struck Terri full force on her left breast. She screamed and rolled to the side in great pain.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Brigidi said, the conflict still dividing him nearly 12 years later. “I could not stop. I could not even think of quitting.”
Intrepid, the Olds tri-power screamed forward. The hemi had the horses, not the jockey. Brigidi caught the Plymouth in second and ate up more inches, then dispatched him in third. By a full fender, it was over.
There was a hurried explanation afterward, an attempt to make things right with Terri. But that was the thing about her, and the thing about the car and the times. It didn’t take that much explaining. She understood.
The girl. the car. The races. Those were heady days. The thrill was still there for the street racing, of course, but there were matches at Atco Dragway and the Allentown-Vargo Dragway, too. Richie racked up the wins, until there was no more room on his left rear window for the little decals that signified 10 wins. He bought a second car, a black 442 hardtop which he christened “The Bachelor.” He raced it, too, but so slick was The Bachelor that he even entered it in car shows.
At the peak, his time for the quarter mile got better and better until he came off at 109 m.p.h. after only 12.71 seconds – so close to the world record for a 442, 12.63 seconds.
Richie never became the king of the region, or even Philadelphia. That honor belonged to Bill Flickthaler and his 427 Chevy Impala, christened “My Sin.” (The one time they met, Brigidi beat the Chevy out of the hole; then the Chevy simply, cleanly and purely blew the Olds away in third gear.) But Richie was the equivalent of any all-conference quarterback. His name may not be in a yearbook, but a friend of mine, who raced some back then, had a quick reply when I asked him if there was one driver he remembered from those old days.
“Brigidi,” he said, “Brigidi was the king of the clean drag-racing set.”
And far, far from Brigidi’s turf, another buddy and I checked out a muscle car that was for sale, just for kicks. We got to breezing with the seller; I mentioned Brigidi’s name. “Oh, yeah,” the seller said. “He had two cars. Both hot 442’s. One was all black, and had some sort of name. The other one was a red convertible.”
Little GTO, you’re really lookin’ fine
Three deuces and a four speed and a three-eighty-nine
When I take her out to race her, I really make her whiiineee
Why don’t you rev it up, tach it up, shut ’em down, GTO.
Ronnie and the Daytones, 1963
It was, said Jim Wangers, the inventor of the Pontiac Grand Tourismo Omigalti and the father of all mass-produced and -marketed muscle cars, an age of idolization, an age when “we made absolute gods out of our young people.”
Wangers was an advertising man, not an engineer, and therefore perhaps better able to see something out there moving in in the market before anyone else.
Pontiac was building cars that ran steadily and delivered comfortable family transportation for Dick, Jane, Dad and Mom, with Puff and Spot peeking out the back windows. But Wangers knew that the streetboys had been fooling with hot cars for years, slapping big engines in Fords and Chevies. In a memo to John DeLorean, then of Pontiac, he outlined plans for a car that would be “the fastest thing you could put your hands on.”
“We wanted to make certain that it was faster than a Corvette,” Wangers recalled. Pontiac’s biggest engine was plunked into Pontiac’s light Tempest model. Technically, it was illegal under company guidelines to build a street racer, so the first GTO came out in November 1963 as a 1964 Tempest with a GTO option – not as a model.
But the option was incredible. It created an entirely new car. It went from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a preposterous 4.6 seconds. And it changed the roads and the marketing of autos in America for the next 10 years. Kids ignored the sporty Italian name; they just called the GTOs “goats.”
Wangers talked to Ronnie and the Daytones about a Beachboy-like song they were working on about a GTO. He tinkered with it, rewrote their lyrics, and thought the time would have been well spent if it got played somewhere, anywhere, by anyone. It stayed on the charts for 31 weeks. It sold 1.2 million copies. Between June 1964 and the end of 1968, the song was played 7 million times on the air.
Unwittingly at first, then knowingly, the Pontiac people created in moving metallic sculpture a piece of the American Dream. Incarnate, the muscle car spit fire, scorched the earth with screams of rubber, roared and bestowed upon Everyman unbelievable power to put the pedal to the metal and show the world his tail.
“What was it these cars provided?” Wangers wondered aloud. “It was an opportunity, a time for anybody to be equal to anybody else. Get into the car and the power to put almost anyone down was right under your foot.
“There was an incredible emotional involvement with these cars, just as there was with the songs. You could be who you wanted to be. You got to be the real cool guy, the guy in the ad, with the chicks interested in being a part of this. In this car, a guy could beat his teacher’s Dodge.”
Wangers was working outside of Detroit as a consultant when I talked to him last. He was still very much attached to the idea of marketing the turbo- powered, overhead cam, 1980-version of the old cars. “Performance cars,” he called them. “Of course, the sort of sheer brute power of a muscle car is gone now,” he said.
Lots of things killed it. Manufacturers started phasing them out. Americans are notorious fad buyers. Post-1973 gas prices made driving a car that got no better than 15 miles per gallon impractical. Insurance rates soared. High octane gas disappeared. Times changed.
But before they did, muscle cars stalked the streets for a solid decade, and the market itself changed. In its 1958 Dick and Jane stage, Pontiac sold 245,000 cars a year. In 1969, with its muscle-car image, Pontiac sold 934,000 cars. In 1967, you could buy for street use what was perhaps the ultimate muscle car: a Shelby Cobra stuffed with a 500-horsepower Ford V-8 engine. Essentially, it was a NASCAR racing machine.
It cost $7,000, about the price these days of a Toyota with a tape deck.
Some guys they give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home for work and wash up
And go racin’ in the street
from “Racing in the Street,” by Bruce Springsteen
Richie got out before the great gas crunch of 1973. He was thinking about a family. He was managing a body shop. The Atco Dragways were crowded. The ennui of success jaded his street-racing days. “I thought, ‘Man, why should my car be out racing you?’ I really felt that. I did.”
So he sold the red convertible in 1970. He began his family. He was a great success in business. He bought a house, a Cadillac.
Mostly he was happy, but dark holes in the evenings yawned up at him. At such times, he would stare at the old picture a buddy had snapped of the red Olds digging hard out of the hole, a full fender ahead of Flickthaler’s legendary “My Sin” Chevy. And when one of the new-style muscle cars of the ’70s came through his body shop – a Trans Am or a Camaro Z-28 – he’d find an excuse to test-drive it. “I kept hoping one of ’em had some balls,” he recalled.
None did by the mid-’70s. The Trans Am, for example, managed 310 horsepower as late as 1973. It was rated at only 180 by 1977. They were pathetically sporty-looking dogs next to the genuine item of the ’60s.
Richie began taking some trips back to Amy Joy’s. “I missed it. I missed it so. To see the tach go up. Hit the clutch, feel the car slide sideways. Pure power. It was just gone. It had just disappeared out of my life.”
So he went to find it. He went looking for his old cars.
He found The Bachelor first, in awful shape, in Sellersville, Pa. “I saw it under a tree. I could not believe it was my old car. The guy was keeping it under a tree. A tree! The guy had ruined it, and then wanted to hold me up.”
He turned away from the rusted black car, once so clean it had sparkled at car shows in the Civic Center, and felt as if “my best friend or a brother had died or something.” He could not sleep well at nights.
Then he bumped into the guy who had bought the red convertible years ago. Brigidi was explaining all of this to me while seated behind his bar in his house. “The guy said he still had the car,” Brigidi recalled. “Then, Bobbie, guess what.”
The answer was in the flip of the door leading from the bar directly to the garage. Behind him, red paint glistened as if it were two feet deep. Mag wheels caught the light and shot stars of it back. It was the 1966 Oldsmobile red convertible with the L-69 option. Like a wooly mammoth flash-frozen in a glacier, the muscle car was intact, exact, a survivor of a modern ice age. On Feb. 25, 1978, Brigidi had bought back his car.
“Want to go back 10 years fast?” Brigidi said. The cassette deck switched on and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” filled the car. An electric motor whined. The top arched back to show a sky of stars framed by soughing tree branches. The car gurgled power. The Stones’ hard-driving rhythm answered back, and we were rolling. Past tinny Toyotas and stuttering Datsuns we prowled in a hungry, thundering dinosaur of a car, looking for action.
Through the Northeast and Cheltenham we cruised, the car bubbling power in a throaty growl that was choked suddenly as Brigidi cut the ignition at a service station. The kid at the station was bored.
“Regular, buddy?” he asked. Brigidi winced and tossed his head, but answered politely, “Premium.”
“Fifteen years ago you think a kid that age would have to even ask?” he said.
On the street, there was an unending string of Japanese cars, VW’s and American imitations. Old, beaten Pontiacs, Plymouths and Chevies wallowed along on shot shocks. We heard the growl of what we thought was a tough car coming up on our rear. It was a Plymouth Horizon with a shot muffler.
Then, suddenly, a cocky Datzun Z cut in across a lane and spurted ahead of us, its engine winding high like an angry sewing machine. Brigidi shifted fourth to third, touched the accelerator. The unmistakable sureness and power of the V-8 engine strode easily forward in front of the churning Z. Brigidi did not even crack in the trips. That is to say, he used only two of the six barrels of the carburetor. The full battery kicks in only when the machine is floored.
“Pathetic,” Brigidi said as the Z disappeared behind us, the car’s driver not wanting to push it further.
There is nothing there. There is nothing there. Brigidi kept saying it. He was right. We kept looking for Z-28’s or Trans Ams, or any old muscle car still on the street, but they were not there. Certainly, they weren’t at Amy
Joy’s, where we found only the three women in the station wagon. Brigidi cheered when we visited the old strip on 309. “They’re still there!,” he said as we passed the quarter-mile marker of faded red and white stripes painted years ago on the median barrier. But that was all that was there.
The same loneliness held court at the Meadows, a long, wide strip of Wheat Sheaf Road off I-95. Crickets chirped. The tires of cars splashed on the interstate far away. “It was something,” Brigidi said, in a tone of benediction. “My car against yours. Plain and simple. The fastest one wins.” Alone, in the center of a deserted highway, Brigidi smiled and said, “Want to light them up?”
The car surged forward and a little to the side as the tires lit up, screamed, shrieked, then grabbed the pavement in earnest. My neck muscles tired, pulling against the force tugging my head back into the seat. One hand on the wheel, Brigidi rose over the gear shift so that all the weight was behind the flat-out speed shift down into second. The car jumped, and again veered to the side. My head snapped like a whip. Again, the shift into third; again the veer, the squeal, the surge; and again, another body slam shift into fourth, the rubber, and the drive of the car, like a mighty racehorse pounding into the stretch, still reaching for power in its gallop.
It had been just a few seconds. We were traveling over 100 miles per hour. But there was no one for the Olds to beat, and there was nowhere else to go, except back to the 1980s and Brigidi’s home.
“I’m sorry it’s so dead out there,” he said. “I guess those times are gone forever.”
I didn’t argue with him. As I walked back to my car, a diesel Oldsmobile rattled out of a neighbor’s driveway. I started my VW and drove away, not knowing at the time that there really are other muscle cars out there, in numbers large enough to draw crowds.
At 2 on a summer morning you can step into a time warp at Front and Pattison. One thousand, two thousand strong, the V-8 cultists shut off Front Street and watch as paired-off cars wind up to a makeshift starting line. Two old warriors, a Camaro and a ‘Vette from a good year, cut loose with a scream and a howl of rubber that bring the crowd surging involuntarily toward the starting line.
It seems like the eternal drag-racing scene, but a closer look shows that the few muscle cars prowling the sidelines sport patches of gray and rust-red undercoatings, like battered old war vets. Then a guy in a Cougar with his family in back takes on a station wagon with nothing special inside. Two other cars mush down the line, their pollution controls, automatic transmissions and sound-proof mufflers strangling any power their plants put out.
Brigidi’s car would mop up here, I know, but I do not tell him about this place. What goes on here does not change the accuracy of his assessment. The scene at Front and Pattison is a last stand, nothing more. The parts are running out. The cars are running down. Street racing with muscle cars is part of Brigidi’s past, not his future. He settled that the night we went cruising.
Since then, the red convertible 442 has been mothballed. The car is for his kids, he said, not for him, and not for visits to Amy Joy’s to look for something that’s not there. Some day he’ll take his kids out and show them what his youth was like, what an era was like.
I suppose it’s no big news, what he has found, but I would commend it to Ronald Reagan or anyone else who wants to return wholesale to V-8 America, to wars in Asia, or on poverty. You can’t go back 10 years real fast. “It doesn’t hurt to remember,” Brigidi concluded. “It doesn’t hurt to visit. But you can’t go back.”
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