The Sports Car Scene in South Florida circa 1958 by Handly Caraway
Fifty-three years is a long time back to remember, but I will do the best I can.
My interest in sports cars was kindled while living in Hollywood by my Uncle Bill, who had a Jaguar XK 120 and a Jaguar XK 120MC(?), which reportedly had a 149 mph top speed. About the same time, while visiting in Indianapolis, a friend of my Dad’s treated me to a ride in his new Austin-Healy 100/4. I remember that short, fast drive through the verdant countryside. It had a gutsy growl and hammering acceleration; it was, of course, a roadster. There was an occasional MGTD on the road in 1955, but not much else.
Finally, later that year, Uncle Bill bought a silver grey Mercedes Benz 300 SL gull wing coupe: three liter engine, 240 hp, single overhead cam, in-line six cylinder. I think that he paid $5200 for the car. The intake manifold was a work of art. I remember the car very clearly, having spent hours with him crawling all over and admiring it in his garage. I loved the smell! There was a sign inside the doors advising that they should be locked at speeds above 90 mph! I drove the car several times. It had a very “Teutonic” feel: squat, very solid. The 4 speed shift stroke was rather long and a bit vague. The steering was heavy (I think that this was well before the time of power assist), with a bit of oversteer under hard acceleration in a curve. You could feel the swing axle rear end break-away a bit. He, or my cousin, Billy, his son, was at the wheel on those high speed occasions. I was 16 years old. Cousin Billy had a hobby. About that time Detroit started to build some muscle cars. The new Chevys had a V8 that was the current king of the road. When they would see the Merc out on State Road 9 (now I-95) they would want to race, so he would drop-in behind and run them up to their top speed. Billy said at that point, chunks of burning carbon would come out of the Chevy’s exhaust pipes! Then he would blast by them at 40 or 50 mph! Great sport! I think that the Mercedes was advertised with a top speed of 162 mph. I loved that car, and have a die-cast metal scale model in my den. You climbed in over the door sill, which was about a foot wide, and dropped into the plaid fabric bucket seat a foot lower. It had a 33 gallon gas tank, and took about the same number quarts of oil to top up the reservoir for the dry sump lubrication system. He always bought premium Amoco lead-free gasoline. I think that he claimed about 29 or30 mpg on the few road trips he took. There were problems with the fuel injection pump, and he replaced it several times. The 300SL had direct fuel injection of gasoline into the cylinder like a diesel. He found a mechanic in Palm Beach who could do the work. The car had an aluminum body, which I think was special, and whenever he would park it in public, a crowd of people would gather around. Some placed their fingers on the bodywork to lean over and inspect the car; Uncle Bill claimed that it left dimples in the aluminum when they did so! Aunt Selma didn’t like the car, as she felt it was unladylike to sit on the sill and swing her legs over to drop down into the seat on the passenger side. So, in 1958 it was traded in for a new (Uncle Bill always bought new cars) 1958 Ford Thunderbird. That car had a lot of power, but not much else in common with the Merc. Uncle Bill claimed that he was getting 5 mpg in town. So much for the 300SL. The Ford dealer was trying to wholesale it for $3850. Uncle Bill did a lot to foster my interest in sports cars.
When I was in South Broward high school, I rode a new Cushman Eagle motor scooter (5 hp air- cooled single cylinder, 2 speed “crash box” transmission) to and from school, and then at 15, got my first car, a 1948 Willys Jeepster. Well, the Jeepster was kind of like a sports car. It was a convertible in rough shape. We had the flathead engine overhauled and got a new white paint job. New shocks greatly improved the road holding, and we got a double (two two-barrel) carburetor manifold from J.C. Whitney with a short aluminum manifold to connect it to the stock single barrel intake manifold on the Jeepster. Of course that had problems. We did some work with the jets, soldering them closed and then drilling them out with a smaller drill. It never really worked right, but I liked the sound the minimalist air cleaner made. The gas tank leaked, and I remember watching the mechanic solder shut the leak with an exhaust pipe ducted into the tank to hopefully prevent an explosion! Those were the days. We never did get the overdrive to work right. My friend Mike and I left the summer we graduated on a road trip in the Jeepster, headed to the Grand Canyon. We had grief. Since the overdrive quit working at the beginning of the trip, we couldn’t drive much more than 35 mph. That didn’t make the truckers happy on the two- lane highways of the time. The car also overheated and we had to drive at night. I remember particularly getting a motel room for a day in Del Rio, Texas where the temperature was 123 degrees! The room had an evaporative cooler that ran water over a mesh with a fan pushing it our way. The drive across the badland was ethereal. No traffic to speak of, just miles and miles of highway and what seemed like thousands of jack rabbits all over the road. The horizon was punctuated by the flares of gas that was burning off at the countless oil wells surrounding us. We got as far as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Visiting the caverns was great, but we knew that we wouldn’t make it to the Grand Canyon, so we turned around and headed for home. We were gone for a couple of weeks.
Just before we left for our road trip, my Dad bought me a new 1957 MGA. I was graduating from South Broward and heading for the the University of Miami the next school year. We bought the car from Ft. Pierce Imported Cars, Inc.for $2360.50. When we got there that morning to trade-in his 1955 Buick Century with an ailing dynaflo transmission for a car for me, I was faced with a choice between the MGA and a new Morgan roadster for a few hundred dollars more. I think there were some Triumphs available as well. I looked them all over, and went for the MGA. I wonder how my life would have been different had I chosen the Morgan. I had been following the MGA since it was introduced in 1955, going down to Miami to see one of the first ones delivered to the U.S. Also, in 1955, the MGA raced at Le Mans, scene of the disaster that took over 80 lives when a Mercedes crashed through the barriers and burned. I believe the MG team placed 12th overall in the decimated field. What a tragic year for motor racing!.
My car was bright red with perforated disc wheels. I had engine #17153, and I believe that it was the second engine to have been upgraded to 72 horsepower from the original 68.
I soon found that the beautiful lacquer paint that you could “look right into” did not hold up under the South Florida sun. After a rain, the droplets would magnify the sun, and actually etch a small pit in the finish. After battling that phenomenon for some time, we repainted the car. I did the prep, and a friend of my dad’s sprayed on enamel of the same color. Later I painted it myself at least once with a Sears diaphragm compressor (which I still have, but haven’t used for years) in the carport of our 1315 Van Buren Street, Hollywood home. If you do this, wait for a calm day and don’t get too upset if you get a few sags and runs. Actually, my paint jobs came our pretty good; and I also painted our elderly Ford Escort. The Escort had a rusty gas tank, forcing us to boil out the carburetor on the kitchen range at regular intervals. What fun!
I drove the MGA to UM for four years (1957-1961), 26 miles down U.S.1 and Biscayne Boulevard each way. I also drove the car to ROTC Summer Camp at Ft. Benning, Georgia in 1960 between my Junior and Senior years.
Owning a sports car at that time meant you were joining a sort of fraternity of enthusiasts. When we would see another imported sports car, we would give a casual salute. No eye contact, but a raised left hand made into a lightly clenched fist with the thumb gently over the top of the index finger. Very casual. I also got a corduroy cap, the kind with the top extending to the front edge of the bill that was in style then, and still occasionally seen.
I don’t remember how I met Peter Van Steenbeeck. I believe that he also went to South Broward High School. He lived a few blocks away from me in the South Lake/North Lake area of Hollywood, I lived on the South Lake side, he on the North Lake side of the neighborhood. He had an Austin Healy 100/6, and later came up with a fascination with the Austin-Healy ”bug eyed” Sprite, although I don’t believe that he ever owned one. Christopher Lytle, a Brit, lived north of Hollywood in the Ft. Lauderdale area, where his dad worked for Performance Cars (Performance Motors?), an imported car dealership specializing in sports cars. The three of us became good friends in our common interest in sports cars.
There was quite a bit of SCCA activity around at the time, with races primarily held at air ports. I remember races being held often in Miami, Ft. Pierce, Bushnell, and Dunnellon, having gone to many events. I also remember Carol Shelby in his Cobra beast, and many other exotic machines. A friend of mine raced his Berkeley 500 once under the assumed name of ”Upton N. Owen”, so that his mother wouldn’t find out.
Sebring was the big local race. I went to Sebring several times. There you could see the big teams and drivers compete. Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss were big stand- outs to my recollection. A friend, Gary, had a fascination with the Marquis de Portago. De Portago reportedly was experimenting with magnets to pull back the rev counter maximum indicator. It was analog of course, and the rev counter needle simply just pushed the separate marker to the maximum revs made during a race. He was later killed in the Mille Miglia driving a Mercedes 300 SL. People used to die frequently in racing accidents.
In contrast to racing today, the cars were distinctive and easily recognizable as to their marque. It was a time of experimentation and innovation. I loved sports car racing. I also attended the first Formula I grand prix to be held in the U.S., also at Sebring.
Anyway, with all this action, Peter, Chris, and I were competing in local TSD rallies. There was at least one club in the Ft. Lauderdale area organizing those events in 1958. The first rally that I was in impressed me that it had been poorly laid out as I, and everyone else, almost got stuck in some deep sand on the course. In retrospect, I wonder if it had been laid out on a map and had not been driven-over at all. This may have had something to do with our decision to form our own club, Equipe Rapide, on September 21, 1958. I don’t know who had the original idea. I was barely 19 years old, and I think Peter might have been a year younger. I don’t remember how old Chris was; probably about my age. We organized at least one rally, as I remember laying one out in my MG, with Peter as my navigator. I recall that the event went very well. I think that we ultimately had one or two score of enthusiats associated with us in one way or another. I don’t recall any formal meetings, but I do remember getting together as a group often on weekends in the Ft. Lauderdale/Boca Raton/Pompano Beach area. We would meet at a local restaurant on an afternoon, departing with a full fledged “Le Mans” start (thats when the drivers actually ran accross the track, started their cars, and blasted off), then driving around the two lane back roads bordering the Everglades west of town. That’s where I learned about brake fade, one of the big problems of the drum brakes of the time. With all the drainage ditches along those roads, skidding off the road could have had disastrous consequences. In our area we had Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, Alfa Romeos, Porsches, Jaguars, a Lotus, MGs, and probably some others I can’t recall.
We also participated in, and, I think, sponsored, some auto cross events. That’s where Chris crashed his MGA and it got its Ferrari type snout.
I designed a badge, making, I think, one for each of the three of us. It was a silver crown on a blue field, with eight wavy golden beams of the sun projecting out, four longer than the others, projecting from the edges of the badge. The blue field was surrounded by a white band proclaiming “Equipe Rapide.” I did it freehand on masonite. I had the badge on my car for a long time.
I wish that I had more recollection of the early club days. I left for the Army in the fall of 1961, and did not return to South Florida for two years. I spent most of that time at Fort Carson in Colorado where I received a “system shock” regarding the effects of cold weather on automobiles. When I arrived there in January of 1962, I remember that it took three weeks for the weather to warm up enough to for me to be able to crank the MG with the 30 wt oil I had in the sump! Arriving back in South Florida in the fall of 1963, someone told me that the club had continued down south, but I don’t recall any details. It would had to have been continued by one of our early group. I don’t know if I ever saw Peter or Chris at all after I got home, many of my old friends had moved away while I was gone for those two years.
I drove the MG to Army Reserve drills in Coral Gables, and to grad school at Florida Atlantic University, where I graduated in 1966. The MG was aging. Since I was always short of funds, and influenced by my frugal dad, I did almost all of the mechanical work on the car myself. One of the good things about these old cars was that you didn’t have to be a “Rocket Surgeon” to work on them.
My first major repair was doing a valve job. I went down to Sears and bought a half-inch drive socket set (the MG was non-metric) and a torque wrench. I still have both. I had a workshop manual, and successfully disconnected the accessories and manifolding, etc.,and pulled the head. Actually, it was pretty easy. We took the cast-iron head to Ft. Lauderdale for the machine work. I think that it cost about $20. I put it back together, and when it worked fine, I gained confidence in my abilities. Another major project I recall doing was replacing the lever dampers on the front suspension, which also went fine. I always changed my own oil, up until just a few years ago, in fact.
In 1969 I found a job in Deland working with the Florida Division of Youth Services as an Aftercare Counselor (Juvenile Parole Officer). At that point the twelve year old car was still running well, but was consuming quite a bit of oil. It was clear that I was going to have to rebuild the engine. I think that there was about 125,000 miles on the odometer. Cars of that era were generally considered worn-out after 100,000 miles. Here begins my tale of woe.
I was living in a small house near the St. Johns River in 1970. As there was a carport attached, I built a giant “Saw horse” out of 2X6s, bought a “come along”, and pulled the engine. The hardest part of that job was getting out the rusted phillips head machine screws that held the mahogany plywood floor boards to the frame. There was a little metal conical washer between each screw and the wood. I had to laboriously remove each “stripped” screw with vice-grip pliers. With the engine out, I took off all the accessories down to the “short block” (block, pistons, crankshaft, etc.), and started looking for a machine shop in the nearest big city, Daytona Beach. As it turns out, I found a shop that had an MG block (BMC “B” type) that they would sell me for $150. They told me they had rebuilt the block for a customer who had never returned to pick it up. When I bought the block, I noted that there were bad ridges at the top of each cylinder worn by the piston rings. I brought this to their attention, and they brought out the tool to remove the ridge, doing, I noted, a rather crude job in doing so. Anyway, I returned to Deland, put everything back together, replaced the engine in the chassis, and tried to start it up. It wouldn’t turn over. I finally got it started with a push start, and it seemed to run o.k. It was great getting back in the MG as I drove the back roads of my rural county case load.
In 1971 I transferred to St. Augustine, finding an apartment on Anastasia Island.
Soon, I was having brake problems. In the past, I had bought pre-drilled brake linings from J.C. Whitney and riveted them to the shoes myself. It took a bit longer than expected to fix the brakes, and when I tried to start up the car, the clutch plate had “glued” itself to the flywheel. Since the car wasn’t running well anyway, I decided to once again pull the engine and tear it down. So I repeated the process of a year or two before. When I got the engine apart, I found that the piston rings had disintegrated and pieces had come through the top of the pistons! This was not good news. Things go downhill from here.
In 1973 I moved off State Road 16 west of town. and must have towed the car to my new home. And there it sat. I didn’t have the money or the facilities to work on the car there, as there was no garage or carport. In spite of that, I, hopefully, took the engine to Jacksonville for the machine work.
The machine shop bored-out the cylinders and worked on the camshaft and crankshaft. They said that all the clearances were wrong on the short block that I had purchased in Daytona. That was the fatal flaw. I never could get the right oversized pistons, and that, compounded by my lack of funds and facilities, doomed the project. The car sat up on blocks in my front yard until 1985 at which time I gave it to a friend who thought that he could get it back on the road. As a glorified “planter” accumulating rust for all those years, it proved to be too much of a project for him as well. So the 28 year odyssey with my “pride and joy” came to a bitter end. It deserved better.
That was my first and last experience with owning a “pure”sports car. I currently have a ’07 Ford Focus SES with stick shift. A leading comsumer publication said “It handles like a sports car.” Close enough for me. All of my personal cars have had manual transmissions. My previous car was an ’87 Nissan Pulsar; almost a sports car. I really liked the Pulsar, and drove that car for almost 20 years, but it ended up “nickel and diming” me to death as could be expected.
The old cars, with their primitive technology by today’s standards, had their advantages in that we could generally fix them ourselves. Today, the complexity of cars and their electronics are beyond the pale for most owners. The new cars are much better in so many ways. With the MG I was constantly fiddling with the points, timing, and valve clearances (.017 in. if I remember, “go” and “no go” with the feeler gauges), and also trying to “balance” the two beautiful SU carburetors. Rarely, if ever, was everything perfect. The Focus and all new cars have features that the racing cars of the time didn’t have, to say nother of the increased safety. The motoring world was different then. The advantage of the hands-on repair situation with the early sports cars was that it made for a deeper personal relationship with the machine itself. Some of the mystery was encountered and understood
In writing this article, I have realized that my most poignant “sports car experience” was when I was in college, and before I had to shoulder the responsibilities of career and family. It was then that I truly was immersed in all aspects of the sport and the mystique of that culture. I fondly look back at the “good” years that I had with my bright red roadster; the precise rack and pinion steering, the road handling, the stiff suspension, and the drumming sound of those minimally silenced SU’s as they sucked in the air under acceleration, all accompanied by the growl of the fiberglass packed aftermarket muffler. There was also the great feeling of being part of a brotherhood of enthusiasts, sharing a common love of sports cars and enjoying good times and adventures together.
St. Augustine, Florida June 28, 2011