Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Burning rubber in a 1970’s Ford Pinto

One of my best friends in high school wore several hats. He was the lead photographer for the student paper. He was a schemer. He could destroy property with the best of us. He was a hellion. He also drove an early 1970’s Ford Pinto. Sometimes, on two wheels.

I’ll explain. I’m not sure what year the car was. We got our drivers licenses in 1974, in the summer of our sophomore years. His dad and mine wanted their kids working. They probably hoped to keep us out of trouble. It was also pointed out to me that on my dad’s military salary, there wasn’t much left over to fund college educations, so I’d best get to work. Because of this, we got our licenses at 14. His car was a used Ford Pinto. Ford started building them in 1970, so it must have been a 1970, 71 or 72. I doubt it would have only been a year old, 1973 model. It wasn’t his choice in a car, but his dad refused to consider the Pontiac Trans–Am 455 Super Duty.

Wise father. I can barely recall what the Pinto looked like. I believe it was either white or a very light blue, with a blue interior. Roll up windows, four speed, I think it had air conditioning. The trunk had a spare tire and jack, jumper cables, some oil, explosives, duct tape, Playboy magazines, cigars, a can of warm beer, loose tools rattling around. Just normal items for teenage boys. Probably an AM or an AM/FM radio. He added an 8-Track tape player. Remember those? I thought that was so cool, I had to have one. He helped me add one to our 1969 Mustang. We sawed a hole in the glove box door to add it to the Mustang. I still have that car, but no 8-track in it. The 8-Track is factory in our other Mustang. Tales for another day. What did we listen to on that 8-Track? Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits.
The Beach Boys greatest hits.
The Eagles,
Led Zeppelin,
The Beatles,
The Rolling Stones,
The Grass Roots and I don’t remember much else. Remember those 8-tracks when they switched to the next track? You’d be rocking along to a song, and all of a sudden, you and he are the only one’s singing. Badly and very off key. The next sound would be a Ka-CHLunk as the 8-track switched to the next track. And the song would pick up were it left off. Or there would be a minute of silence as you realized that it had caught the tape and was destroying it. I got pretty good at unwinding the tape from inside all the roller wheels in the player. At 45 MPH.

It was hard to hear the music over that four cylinder engine revved up as high as it would go. We were always in a hurry. Going to the game, going to the pizza place after the game, going to see some girl’s house. Not to see her. We’d just cruise by. I’m sure he had gotten speeding tickets, but never when I was with him. I don’t think the cops thought a Pinto could really go that fast. Plus, he was usually just 8 over the limit. 38 in a 30 residential zone. Thing was, he didn’t slow for the corners. Well, maybe from 38 down shift to second, slow to about 35 and round the corner onto the next street and accelerate back to 38. He also loved to practice different driving moves with the car. He’d practice the 180 degree turn, sort of like James Garner did in The Rockford Files.

He’d get up to about 30 or 40 MPH, punch in the clutch pedal, crank the steering wheel full left, while he or I would grab on the parking brake. The car would do a neat 180 degree turn. You’d release the parking brake, pop out the clutch and nail the accelerator and take off. We thought this would be a great move to have when some senior took exception to our sophomore prank, comment yelled out of the car about their mother. Remember, extracting yourself from trouble is more important that how you got there in the first place.

Let’s move ahead to burning rubber in a Pinto. Burning rubber is a term for applying so much power, that the driven wheels become overwhelmed, loose traction and start to spin, overheat and burn. Makes sense? Ever seen the smoky burn outs that drag cars do? Remember that semi truck you cut off today? The one that had to lock up his brakes to keep from running into you? All that smoke was tire smoke. My friend liked to burn rubber for fun. Maybe because no one thought a Pinto could. He would practice smoking the tires. It was fun to see all the white cloud rolling off the tires. It stank. It made a lot of noise, with the revving motor and the squealing of the tires. It was the perfect hobby for teenaged boys. It has been since the 1950’s. He practiced a lot. Remember that spare tire? That was better known as “the next victim”. He would wear out a tire, we’d put on the spare. He’d go down to the wrecking yard or the used tire store and get the cheapest tire he could get. He’d always try and mount the tire the same. White wall or black wall, I don’t remember. The point was, it could not change back and forth. His parents would notice and then the inquest as to just why there was an ever changing back tire situation on a Pinto would commence. I have no idea how many tires he ruined.

There was one very memorable tire killing day. I don’t know why we didn’t wind up in jail. Our area in Virginia has a lot of streets with cul-de-sacs off them, or “courts”. These were designed so teen aged boys had a place to practice smoky burn outs. In Pinto’s. See most cars with enough horse power and torque, could smoke the tires from a standing start. You just braked the car, revved it up, let loose of the brake and one or both of the rear tires would disappear in a cloud of burning tire smoke. A Pinto had enough horse power to scare a small mouse. There had to be another way to burn rubber, scare people, make a stink, practice our hobby. We found that by driving around in a circle on one of the cul-de-sacs, that we could get enough speed up and enough pressure on the tire, which it would smoke up! Success! So this one day, he decides to have a “take no prisoners” event. We head down a cul-de-sac and he lights up the one tire. We must have gone around about ten times. People were coming out to see what was on fire. The cloud of stinky burning rubber was drifting up over a house, by the time he pulled off the street and we vanished. There was quite a lot of burned rubber left on that cul-de-sac.

The adrenaline then took over. He heads down the very next cul-de-sac and does a repeat command performance. We streak out of there after another ten circles, another billowing cloud, and more ladies out on their stoops shaking their fist at us. We now have a pretty good head of steam up, so he heads down yet one more cul-de-sac!!! This time, he reversed the direction of the circle, to burn off some rubber from the opposite tire. After that, we decide that the cops are going to arrive very soon and we must exit. He heads to my house to drop me off. We get out of the car and I take a look at the passenger side rear tire. I call my friend over. His eyes get a bit big. There are some metal cords of the tread sticking out, zero rubber tread is left. He burned it right down to the cords! A thrilling achievement to add to our manhood. Something to brag about to the geek with the Trans-Am. He decides that we’d best change that tire out right now and he stops off at the used tire store for a new victim, I mean spare.
We talk the next day about returning to the scene of the crime but decide that would be unwise. Criminals often screw up by returning too soon to the site of the escapade. But we do have a problem. This is Virginia. It rains. A lot. We need to get back to that second cul-de-sac before too much rain happens and washes off our masterpiece. Like all good forensic scientists, we need to examine the bite marks on the victim. That would be the rubber “scratch” we’d left behind on the road. We decide to wait at least a week. In the smoky aftermath of the events, we doubted anyone got a good description of the culprits. “Springfield Police, Sergeant Smith. Lady, you saw a car burning rubber for 5 minutes on your court. What type of car? A what? Pinto! Is this some sort of joke??? No mama, I’ll take the report. No need to ask for my supervisor”.
So a week goes by and we quietly drive down the second cul-de-sac. This is where we are sure the tread worn down to the cords at. We slowly circle the street, parking on the out-bound side. In case we hear approaching police sirens, we can get out of there without executing the 180 maneuver. We get out and walk over to the five or eight perfect donuts, which is what the burned rubber circles are called. We are able to identify where the start was, as the scratch was black all across the foot print. By the second or third circle, the inside of the black, starts to vanish and by the time the rubber trailed off on our exit, only about half the tire was still laying down any rubber. We were thrilled. What an accomplishment.

He had one other noted accomplishment in that Pinto. It almost killed the car. I wasn’t with him. Somehow, I’d gotten to drive our Mustang that night. He pissed off some seniors by pointing out that their girlfriends were probably needed back at the circus. He took off in the Pinto. They took off after him. The lack of horsepower in the Pinto meant he could only outrun a Volkswagen so he had to rely on his driving skills to get away from some very ticked off seniors. Afterwards, he told me he was loosing ground quickly and in a moment of brilliance, he drove down one of the country roads behind the school. See, his family had settled into the area right after World War II, so he knew every back road for miles. This one dead ended in a creek. Yes, desperation ruled. He drove that Pinto INTO the creek, went down it about a block, banging and crashing the entire time, up the next opening and vanished into the next neighborhood. None of the seniors were enraged enough to follow with their cars into a creek. He escaped to live another day. The Pinto suffered a bent wheel, a cracked oil pan, loosing oil all the way to his house. I think it also damage the rear axle case. He hid the car in one of their barns and enlisted one of his older brothers’ help for a ride to the junk yard for new “old” parts. I think he told his parents that he hit a slick spot of oil puked out by the Trans-Am, and hit the curb. I wonder why they didn’t ask about the mud, leaves, and dead frogs, the car was dropping on the barn floor.

Oh, and Time Magazine thought so highly of a 1971 Pinto, they named it one of the fifty worst cars of all times.

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