From Two Wheels to Four
During college, my transportation was a used Honda CB77 Super Hawk. My buddy Mark had a similar one when we rode them together from the Chicago suburbs to Santa Monica and back in 1966. Two more road trips later it was time to switch to four wheels.
It’s almost a cliché. With the prospect of a steady paycheck, a young man entering the service goes out and buys a car.
The car to buy in 1968 was a Mustang, but there were so many options, and to get the exact car I wanted (Highland Green, four-barrel 302 V8, four-speed, disc brakes, Wide Oval radials) would have meant a six week wait. I hadn’t the patience.
So instead, I went to John Weinberger at Continental Imports, the guy who’d sold Dad a couple of British cars, and bought a Triumph GT-6, the coupe version of the Spitfire, with the two-liter six from the Vitesse sedan.
I liked the fastback design (a poor man’s XK-E?) and the compact dimensions. Of course being British, it had to be green. Sadly it did not come with “biscuit” leather.
Dad had unwittingly instilled in me perhaps unrealistic expectations with his E-Type Coupe, so when Triumph introduced an independently sprung six-cylinder Fastback coupe at an affordable price, and the Mustang I wanted was too long a wait, it was almost a foregone conclusion.
Having left 135 horsepower and 193 pound-feet on the table when I gave up on the Mustang, I was almost immediately disappointed in the Triumph’s mediocre performance.
I had learned to drive in Dad’s red MGA, and if the GT-6’s handling had lived up to that benign standard I might not have cared about the power deficit, but the car’s swing axle and heavier engine were ill-matched to the Triumph Herald front suspension. The car couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether it wanted to plow like a tractor or fishtail like a hooked trout.
But I screwed a pair of Lucas Flame-thrower driving lights on it, christened it with Carroll Shelby’s Terlingua Racing Team shields, and learned to live with its shortcomings – briefly.
The Red Cougar
That summer I had finished my first classes at Aberdeen Proving Grounds and was headed back from leave in Illinois, figuring to stop at Mark’s house in Meadville, Pennsylvania on the way.
Cruising toward the end of the Indiana Toll Road, I passed the last rest stop just as a red Mercury Cougar accelerated onto the highway, passing me in a burst of V8 exuberance as though I was pedaling my bicycle.
No self-respecting sports car driver would let a challenge like that go unanswered, so I downshifted and gave chase. If I had been in that 302 Mustang I don’t know what would have happened, but with only 95 horsepower on tap there was no way. I topped out short of “the ton” as the Brits say, and gave it up.
At the toll plaza for the Ohio Turnpike I cinched up my seat belt and resumed my steady progress a few discreet mph over the limit. Only a few miles on, I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser on the right up ahead.
Could this be divine retribution for the humiliation I felt earlier? I pulled into the left lane to give them plenty of room and glanced over. Yes! It was the red Cougar.
Feeling the satisfaction that only schadenfreude can bring, I turned my attention back to the road ahead, only to find my windshield rapidly filling with the tail of a flat-bed big rig, which had taken the same precaution I had while I was gloating, and moved into my lane.
Whether I hit the brakes before or after impact I’ll never know. I bounced off the semi-trailer’s rear tires, but my bonnet had become wrapped around its cow-catcher. Fortunately those brakes were still working, and a heavy foot on the pedal separated us.
The officer who took the report was the one who had stopped the Cougar. My chagrin was complete when I learned that the Cougar’s driver had diplomatic immunity and got no worse than a cautionary lecture
The remains. Three months later, as the reporting date for my first duty station in Alaska approached, the repairs were still far from complete. John Weinberger arranged for the pieces to be trucked back to La Grange, Illinois, where I bought it and took them in trade for a new Toyota Land Cruiser for my trip North (https://carmacarcounselor.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/true-off-roading-arctic-adventure-1969/).
I spent the night in a local hospital and Mark came and picked me up. He’s the one who took the picture. Note the small bandage on the bridge of my nose where I received a few stitches on the slice inflicted by the broken horn button.
To this day I believe that accident statistics are skewed because of the report forms the investigating officers use. Under “cause of accident” the report for my crash was marked in the box that read “following too close.” I think it should have said “poor visibility.”
You can’t see where you are going when you are driving with your head up your ass.
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