CONFESSIONS of a CONQUISTADOR Part 4
The Conquistadors Car Club by 1963 was fading into the mists of the Fifties. Members individually moved on in their lives to marriages, to diverse locations, and to a wide variety of careers.
Oregon had been the Promised Land for several of us over the years. Don “Duck” Butler and Harry Schwartz headed to Portland after high school. Don stayed, as an auto body and paint man, then as an insurance adjustor. His brother Curt joined him after a stint in the Air Force, becoming a Portland police officer. Jack “Bushy” Bushmaker moved to Coos Bay, Oregon, first with the newspaper there, and later, like Curt, as a policeman. LeRoy ‘Frenchy” Holbert also spent some years in Portland, doing what he loved, custom bodywork.
I, too, would seek promise in Oregon by 1966, but that was later to come. I was most happy be back among friends in Sheridan. Harry Schwartz also had returned, Bob Prill and Jake Jacobson were campaigning a new factory Ford at drag strips in Colorado, Montana and elsewhere in Wyoming. The Conquistadors were not able to raise enough interest or funding support for a strip of our own. Harry Larsen, Cass Campbell, and Dick Holcombe had joined the legion of construction worker on our new Interstate Highway system.
Harry Larsen was challenging all comers with Pontiac’s “barely legal” 421 cu.in. Super Duty Catalina. His aggressive launchings off the line hadn’t been fully contemplated by Pontiac, I’m pretty sure. Breakdowns were inevitable and frequent. While it was frustrating for Harry, it was a losing proposition for Pontiac. They would come to a gentleman’s agreement to part ways.
On one occasion, I had gone down to Harry’s place to have a dropped tie-rod fashioned for my Buick powered ’53 Ford Victoria. He was just finishing a “shade tree mechanic” reassembly of his ’62 ½ Pontiac, the former “Tonto 4” out of the Collingwood racing stables of Greybull, Wyoming. “C’mon,” he grinned, “Let’s take it out on the Interstate, and see how she runs now.”
I climbed in. The Poncho came to life with power sound-surround. “Buckle up,” Harry chortled. He fished a five dollar bill out of a pocket and laid it up on the dash in front of me. “I’ll tell you what. When I punch it, if you can reach up there and grab it, that five dollars is yours.”
He did. I didn’t. What a launch!
I can still hear Harry laughing.
That same year “little” brother 6’ 6” Fred Larsen launched me off the back of a bovine into life as a college rodeo advisor. I can still hear Fred laughing, too.
But fun and adrenalin junkie games serve only as a sidebar for those times. A living had to be made, and I applied for a job between school sessions as a bodyman at the same Cook Ford shop that had built Jack Bushmaker’s chopped ’47 “Purple Burp”. Frenchy Holbert also had done a stint there, and I had another friend currently there, working his way through school after returning from the military service.
“Can you paint?” Rocky Pedulla asked.
Well, back in high school farm shop I had painted a Farmall tractor, hadn’t I? I was hired. I did OK with basic body repair, shooting primer and prepping cars for paint, with coaching from my buddy Kenny Coop. Then came Judgment Day.
“Hey, Pointer,” Pedulla called over to me as work started one day. “I want you to paint the car in the paint booth today.” I busied myself through the morning, dreading my date with disaster. Just before noon, Rocky closed his door up front and headed home for lunch.
“Come on,” Ken nodded toward the paint booth door. “Let’s go!”
I have to say here that was not just any car sitting in there. The very first car I was to paint was no less than the local physician’s pride and joy: a Snowshoe White 1955 Thunderbird. Gulp!
I hosed down the floor, circling the T-Bird. I mixed reducer into the enamel. I hated enamel! Why couldn’t it be lacquer, where mistakes are easier to correct. Then, with Ken behind me, I set the pressure, tested the spray pattern, and began to paint, reaching out to the center of the car, starting the spray ahead of the hood panel, walking down the length of the T-Bird and not stopping until I had cleared the other end. Then back. Overlapping. Pacing myself to lay down a wet coat. Soon I was loose, doing the dance like Bill Brown had taught me. Like I had been practicing with the primer coats many times before.
Then the other side, just as before, working from the centerline outward and pass by pass downward, over the length of the car, until I was painting the rocker panels. Take a break. Let the paint tack up. Do it all over again. Before I knew it, I had painted the Doctor’s Thunderbird. It laid down well; a smooth surface with no orange peel. No runs. Well, there was one hardly detectable “drape”, low on the quarter panel behind the passenger side rear wheel. Easy enough to correct. Whew!
While I was earning a first stripe in the auto body trade, another Conquistador was raising the bar for custom craftsmanship. Ed’rd Lawrence was working for Andy Grotz at Central Garage. He purchased a 1950 Olds fastback coupe and began to create a mild custom. Frenched headlights, shaved hood, deck and door handles. Fender trim removal and hours with the long board to block out the inevitable ripples. At the rear, he removed the stock tail lights, then embedded a length of exhaust tubing into the crown of each arched fender. The tubing was trimmed back to the fender contour. He then deeply recessed a ’59 Cadillac tail light assembly into the reverse curve trough created with the tubing. Only the tips of the tail lights protruded from their recesses. Cool!
For paint, Ed’rd became the first in our area to custom mix a candy metalflake. He went to the local paint and wallpaper store and purchased tubes of gold and copper “bronzing” powder. He then mixed the powder with a hefty amount of clear. When he added the metallic powder to the gun, he also threw in some marbles to keep the particles suspended in the liquid. First he covered the entire car in the metalflake mixture. Then he mixed a custom candy purple topcoat with toners and more clear lacquer. (Andy Grotz also was the Ditzler dealer in town, and Ed’rd had the full paint inventory at his disposal.) The Sunday he shot the Olds, I was privileged to be there, as his “go-fer”. It turned out beautifully, and I wish I could have located photos of the car. It was a sight to see. At night, as that purple metalflake Oldsmobile cruised past the lights of downtown, it was simply breathtaking.
The Sixties were to transform forever how we would view our World. On April 12, 1961, Russian Yuri Gagarin became the human launched into Space. The United States would counter on February 20, 1962, sending John Glenn into orbit aboard the Friendship 7 capsule of the Mercury Atlas 6. Something about a Mercury took on a whole new meaning.
America still was reeling with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy when the British Invasion took America in a perfect storm, February 9, 1964. AS Ed Sullivan brought on the Beatles, pitched shrieks from the audience blew decibels out of television sets across the land. 73 million people in their living rooms strained to hear the lyrics of “All My Loving” above the din. Their finale was “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. We were on a huge leap across the sky, and a little steadying from hands across the water was much obliged.
In 1964, Pontiac unleased the beginning of the muscle car era. Their small Tempest base model would launch with their 389 cu. in. engine, a most excellent power package. They called it the GTO. I drooled. But Gran Turismo Omologato by any call was beyond my school teacher calling. Pontiac, however, offered other options for the lesser of us. The LeMans model was something I could strive for. I had that ’58 Pontiac as a trade-in, a job, and an understanding colleague at the college who had watched me come of age. He would loan me the difference!
That was back in the day when you actually could special order options. In effect, you could create a car to meet your dreams. And I did! This was to be a Nocturne Blue ’64 Pontiac LeMans two-door post, with deep blue naugahyde over bench seats. A 326 cu. in. engine was selected, with a “three-on-the-tree” transmission, and a posi-traction rear end.
I’ll never forget the day the car hauler arrived in our town. It pulled up on the side street right beside the Cook Ford Bodyshop to unload. What were the odds. That very point on Earth was where I was working for the summer. I could hardly contain myself as that midnight blue LeMans backed down the ramps onto the street. And then the excruciating wait until Westbrook Cadillac-Pontiac Motors processed it through receiving, clear across town.
Oh, I understand, completely, how the end to the traditional custom car era came about with the introduction of Detroit’s first muscle cars. But it would be 50 more years before I would learn the rest of the story.
The Pontiac GTO was the brainchild of another small town car guy of my era, who it turns out grew up in Billings, Montana, only a couple of hours away! David North had been a high school kid working at MacIntyre Motors, the Cadillac dealership. His doodles and drawings of cars had caught the eye of the dealership owner, and several were displayed on the wall behind his desk. One day some top brass from GM came through, and saw in those drawings a raw talent worth nurturing. Soon David North was off to California and the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design. There, among his tutors was Gordon Buehrig, designer of the 1935 Auburn and the classic Cord of 1936.
When hired by General Motors, David found himself in the prestigious Art & Color studios of Harley Earl, under the supervision of Billy Mitchell, a hard-driving dynamo whom North likened to the Hollywood gangster character, James Cagney. David North’s office mate was John DeLorean.
Gordon Buehrig designer of the ’35 Auburn and 1936 Cords, amongst many other cars was one of David North’s tutors at the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design.
David told me that the young stylists of Detroit at that time would pool their resources and rent huge mansions together. Of a Saturday night, in rotation, a group of up-and-coming designers would host a party for colleagues. Competition among designers was high. Ford was preparing their Mustang, targeted for release to the younger car buyers in America. Hints were dropped, to taunt their competitors.
One day, David North sketched a drawing of a Mustang and a Pontiac Tempest he was designing, squared off at the starting line of a dragstrip. As the Ferrari Gran Turismo Omologato was tearing up the racing circuit on the Continent, for fun he lettered in “GTO” on the side of the Tempest in his sketch.
Before leaving work, John DeLorean asked David if he could perhaps take that sketch with him. David didn’t give it much thought. Not long later, he received a call from the front office. “Mr. Mitchell wants to see you right away.”
Billy Mitchell struck fear in the hearts of all the studio designers. Firings came as often as hirings. A call to the office could mean few things. Firing was at the top of the list. When he entered the inner sanctum, Mitchell looked up at him. “What do you want?” he growled.
“I’m David North. You asked to see me.”
Mitchell thrust David’s recent drawing at the frightened young designer. “Did you do this?”
“Well, get this straight. I am your boss. No one else.” And just as quickly, North was excused.
David North at work at the studio.
But not fired. Not long later, North again was called upstairs. When he entered the board room, it was filled with the movers and shakers of General Motors. They were gathered at one end of the room looking at something. There on the wall was David North’s drawing of the drag race scene between the Mustang and the Tempest. Someone pointed to the lettering, “GTO”.
“That’s it. That’s exactly the image we are looking for. GTO! How soon can we bring this design on line?”
Billy Mitchell swelled with the positive responses. Then he turned to David North. And winked.
And that’s how my Pontiac Tempest LeMans and its burly brother, America’s first muscle car the GTO, came to be.
The day my Nocturne Blue LeMans rolled out onto the streets of Sheridan to become the very first new car I would ever own, was a very special day. But the day I met David North and became his friend, was priceless.
This was the last of this four part series….
Go back to Part Three
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