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On Being a Car Guy in the ‘60’s
As a car guy, I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have been “of age” in the 1960’s! I turned 16, full legal driving age, in 1963. But, I had been interested in cars for a few years prior to that, certainly by 1959 or ’60.
The performance wars between the various manufacturers had been going on for many years by the time I got involved in the car hobby. By 1961 I had some general ideas of what I thought were cool cars and by 1964 it all started to come together for me. With some coaching from good friends and knowledgeable adults, and reading every car magazine I could get my hands on, I became a Chevy guy. For me, this was the brand that called my name.
But by this time, the possibilities for a car guy were endless! Virtually all of the car manufacturers had fine looking high-performance cars out there. I could list 15-20 performance variations from the manufacturers without giving it much thought, but suffice it to say, they all had several great choices for the enthusiast. What are you looking for in a car: 4-speed transmission, supercharger, 400+ cubic inches, wild colors? All that was available from one manufacturer or another.
And the neat thing for a young car guy was-they were all cruising the streets of Sioux Falls. From the mid 1960’s on, I realized that Sioux Falls had a very strong car culture. This was particularly impressive when you consider it wasn’t a “large” city, and it was here in the snow belt. That was the case in 1965, and it’s true today.
Here are a few fond automotive memories of mine from the 1964-69 timeframe:
Hanging out in the Barrell Drive-In with friends watching the endless parade of great cars driving through. GTO’s, Sting Rays, 413 and 426 Dodges and Plymouths, Mustangs, Fairlanes, Chevelles, Studebaker Avantis, hot rods/coupes (we didn’t call them street rods then), the occasional not-for-street-use all out race car, Chargers, Darts, Novas, Bonnevilles, tri-five Chevys, the list goes on and on.
Cruising “the loop” in Sioux Falls. Have you seen the movie “American Graffiti”? (If not, you should.) That’s what it was like. Kids in mom and dads’ car, all the cool cars from the previous paragraph, out-of-towners just here for a look, it was all there. There was some foolishness and the occasional stop light to stop light drag race but, for the most part, it was pretty harmless fun.
Going to Jay-Shon Chevrolet (or the dealer of your choice) for the new car unveiling in the fall. Jay-Shon was right across the street from Washington High School in those years. And, since I was a Chevy guy and going to high school across the street anyway, this was perfect! The new cars were all announced in the early fall, not scattered throughout the model year as they are now. They would cover the windows with brown paper so you couldn’t see inside while the new models were all being placed in the showroom for the big release day. On the big day, my buddies and I would all dash over there after school to check out the new cars. We’d grab brochures to study and, I’m sure, generally give the salesmen fits.
Driving to Rapp Chevrolet in Marion, SD, to pick up a new performance Chevrolet. Rapp’s was known for specializing in high performance Chevys in those years. Several of my friends bought high performance cars from Glen Rapp. If he didn’t have the performance car you wanted in stock, he would order it in for you. I was fortunate to tag along a couple times when friends picked up their new car. On one occasion, the car was taken into the shop and exhaust cut-outs were welded on, and left open, prior to leaving the dealership. This particular friend subscribed to the “break them in the way you’re going to drive them” theory. (I’m not sure exactly how many times you can “run a car through the gears” between Marion and Sioux Falls, but there may have been a record set that night.) Apparently no harm was done, as it turned out to be a fine performing car.
Going to the drag races-always a highlight of any summer. I went to the drags at the airport in Sioux City in my earliest days, even before I had a car of my own to race. I loved it! Watching the races, helping in the pits, hanging out with buddies, watching the “big boys” wrench on their cars, studying techniques…what an experience! Later, when I had a car of my own to race, Sioux City, Thunder Valley Dragways (Marion), and Minnesota Dragways (near Minneapolis) were area dragstrips. In those days your whole circle of friends would attend; it was a big social event.
In September of 1965 two good friends and I drove to the National Drags in Indianapolis, IN, for the “Nationals” over Labor Day weekend. We drove there in a 1965 Chevelle and camped in an area campground where many of the top racers stayed. This was a huge deal for us! This was the big race of the year and all the top racers in the nation were present. All three of us were in absolute heaven throughout the entire event. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
Several of my good friends had a mix of serious performance cars. I was fortunate to ride in, and get to drive, many of those. A variety of Nova’s, Chevelles, and 409 Impalas, a mean GTO, a couple of 442’s, a 426 Plymouth, several Sting Rays, and a few hot rod coupes. All were a blast and would be fun to see, or own, again today.
Through these years I managed to get involved in the hot car scene myself. I started drag racing with a ’56 Chevy wagon. This was also my daily driver during high school. After extensive work, I raced it in 1964 and ’65, with surprisingly good success. That car was traded for a ‘56 Chevy sedan. I was attending USD at the time (1965) and never got this car on an actual drag strip. (There are rumors of an occasional remote highway drag race, however.) I bought a ‘63 Chevy Bel Air in 1966 that was an exceptional car. This car saw extensive drag racing and is a favorite car to this day.
In February of 1967, Uncle Sam desired my services and I was off to the Army for three years. While stateside I still attended races whenever I could, but it was pretty limited. I spent 1968 in Vietnam, but stayed in touch with the automotive world through car magazines and photos my girlfriend (now wife) Joyce would send me. Like so many car guys in the service, there was a lot of dreaming about what cool car I would buy upon my return.
In 1969, after returning from Vietnam, then getting married some months later, Joyce and I bought our first new car, a 1969 SS396 Chevelle. This was a pretty typical scenario. A returning GI would marry the girl of his dreams and buy that cool car he’d been thinking about for the last many months. Lucky for me, this was still the ‘60’s, when you could stroll into the dealer of your choice and buy your high-performance muscle car right off the showroom floor.
As automotive history goes, it just didn’t get a lot better than being a car guy in the 1960’s! I’m glad to have been a part of it.