The Good Old Days

by Rick Kopec (4/8/15)

A friend recently saw a photo of the ‘66 GT350 I bought in 1969 and owned until around 2009 or so. The picture was taken in 1972, when my wife and I drove it up to Watkins Glen to see the U.S. Grand Prix. In the picture I was standing behind the car with Seneca Lake in the background. He noticed that the bumperettes below the front bumper had been removed. It wasn’t the first early Shelby he’d seen that had this “modification” and asked if I had done it myself. At first I thought I detected the hint of an accusation, but he revealed that he, too, had removed the bumperettes from his early GT350 because the chrome was pitted, and he never replaced them. We both agreed that without the bumperettes the car looked cleaner and smoother.

I don’t know why I’ve recently begun spending more and more time thinking about “the good old days.” Maybe it’s a type of nostalgia; you mostly remember the good things, the things that made you happy. Maybe as you get older you just feel more comfortable in the past than you do in the present, and you’re not very excited about what’s coming down the road in the future.

Take the bumperettes. I bought my ‘66 GT350 in 1969. It was a used performance car and was about near the bottom of its depreciation slide. I paid $2,000 for it and that was probably a fair price at the time. It had about 25,000 miles on it and everything was “original.” By today’s standards that carries a great deal of weight but back then not so much. The main thing was, did it run and was it reliable? After all, it was going to be driven daily.

The original owner purchased 6S118 from Tasca Ford and as soon as the new 1967 models came out he traded it in on one of those. It only had a few thousand miles at that point and a pair of snow tires mounted on steel wheels came with it. The second owner was a friend of mine who used it as daily transportation. I was home on leave from the Army around Christmas in 1967 and he gave me a ride in the car. A couple of my friends had Mustangs and they were nice cars, but they had 289 Lo-Po engines. As soon as I saw the GT350 I knew it was, somehow, different. The Hi-Po engine seemed to spring to life when the car was started. The solid lifters were loud and the rocker arms reverberated under the aluminum valve covers. The exhaust growled and rasped. And that was just when the car was idling in the driveway.

Once underway, even as a passenger, I had the feeling the car was alive around me. It was as if it had a life of its own. Although I had never ridden a horse, I had seen plenty of western movies and TV shows. It was easy to imagine a cowboy—a grizzled marshal or a gunslinger—astride a snorting stallion at full gallop across the prairie, bending forward slightly, urging his horse on with his spurs and guiding its direction with the leather reins. Man and mount riding as one. I fell in love with this car before we had gone one mile. This car—not just any generic 1966 Shelby. In all honesty, I had never seen another Shelby up close. They were that rare. I had seen a couple now and then, driving past me in the other direction, but never one up close.

When we got back I looked my buddy in the eye and told him that if he ever wanted to sell this car to let me know and I would buy it. And then forgot about it because other things were consuming my time and attention. In a short side-track, about 18 months later when I was prowling through the jungle in Vietnam’s War Zone C, I received a telegram from him telling me the GT350 was for sale and asking if I still wanted to buy it. Did I? Long story short, the answer was “yes” and the car was sitting on the side of my folks’ garage when I got home in February 1970.

Back then, modifying a Shelby based on your individual taste was not considered heresy. There were no concours purists hovering over your shoulder and wagging their fingers, shaking their heads and “tiching” you if you changed to silicone spark plug wires or swapped the stock air cleaner for one made by Moroso. Or installing a Hurst Competition-Plus shifter.

Those were simpler times when no one was straight-jacketed by concours guidelines. There was no peer group pressure. Yes, I removed the bumperettes. I was caught up in Trans-Am fever after seeing races at Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton and Lime Rock. I made an airdam out of galvanized sheetmetal and painted it white with blue stripes. The bumperettes ruined the racing look so they went bye-bye. I recall having a minor thought about weight-saving. In all honesty, I could not tell the difference with the airdam or without it but it sure looked cool. After bending it on a cement parking lot divider I removed it. I then understood why the chin spoilers on the Boss 302s were made out of plastic and didn’t extend down so far.

I also did a few other dumb things that sometimes keep me awake at night, wondering what I was thinking. I had never had a problem with vapor lock on hot days, but the way the gas line was routed— from the fuel pump up to the carburetor and clamped in the middle to the front of the water pump—bothered me. How could the heat from the engine, being transferred to the water pump, not affect the steel fuel line by raising its temperature accordingly? It stood to reason that it would.inch

My solution to this non-existent problem was a small power steering fluid radiator I had seen used on some newer cars. They needed it because between hoses running everywhere and insulation that left little room for air in the engine compartment to circulate and underhood temperatures were problematic. The cooler was essentially a small U-shaped piece of tubing incased by rows of one-inch by two-inch cooling fins. I mounted it on the front radiator support bulkhead after fashioning a square opening about the same size as the fins (approximately two-inches by four inches). I say, “fashioned,” because “fabricated” is too elegant a word and while “butchered” or “hacked” is probably more accurate, I still have some measure of pride.

I had only basic hand tools at my disposal. [Note: those with weak stomachs or delicate sensibilities may wish to skip this next paragraph.]

I marked out the approximate size of the hole required (mounting it flush against the bulkhead would eliminate any air flow through the fins). Using a ¼-inch drill, I drilled holes where the four corners of the hole would be. Then I drilled holes between them, every half-inch or so. Next, using a medium-sized cold chisel, I drove it through the metal separating the holes until I was able to twist off the piece in the center. Using a coarse file I smoothed out the edges until there was no evidence of the holes and cleaned it up with a finer file. There were a few small buckles in the metal of the bulkhead but using a hammer and dolly I was able to make them relatively flat. Finally, after preparing the area using fine sandpaper, a rattle-can of gray primer was employed. When it was almost dry (I lacked patience in those days) I sprayed on a finishing coat of black semi-gloss to match the bulkhead’s original finish.

I removed the offending fuel pump-to-carburetor steel fuel line. Using black neoprene ½-inch O.D. fuel line, I routed a piece from the fuel pump to the inner fender panel, up to the radiator bulkhead and to one side of the cooler’s tube. Another piece of neoprene went from the other cooler tube back to the inner fender panel, turned 90-degrees to run halfway across the Monte Carlo bar, and turned 90-degrees to the carburetor fuel inlet. White nylon tie-wraps were used to secure the hose, carefully measured to be exactly six-inches apart, just like I had seen in the engine compartments of Trans-Am racecars. The finished fuel hose did not come into contact with the engine at any point, and from that point forward I never experienced vapor lock, even on the hottest days.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that prior to this modification I had never experienced vapor lock, but you can never be too careful.

The speed shop was, for me, what a penny candy shop was for a little kid with two quarters in his pocket. The chrome accessories attracted me like shiny tin foil attracts a pack rat. I replaced the inefficient-looking Hi-Po fan with a white Moroso fiberglass “flex-fan.” I should note that these fans work equally well mounted in either direction. At a fairly large Shelby meet in Great Barrington, Massachusetts it was pointed out to me by Dave Mathews—in front of, maybe, a dozen other Shelby owners—that I had installed it backwards. A dozen heads all moved as one, under my hood to look. It was like one of those “When E.F. Hutton speaks…” television commercials. Using the flippant line, “Yeah, I knew that” wouldn’t work here, so I was compelled to quietly remove it and replace it right there during the car show. A steady stream of mocking and sarcastic comments helped me to complete the changeover in record time.

We drove to Reading, Pennsylvania for the second annual Shelby Owners Association in August of 1974. The convention festivities took place at the Heidelberg Country Club, about 20 miles outside of town. After the dinner/evening program ended, cars began leaving the parking lot in twos and threes to drive back to the hotel. Howard Pardee, who I had only met a few months earlier at a Cobra Club get-together, headed out and I tucked in behind him. When we got to the hotel I found a spot outside of my room and Pardee pulled in behind me. He was in his ’65 GT350. We got out of our cars and he rushed up to me before I could get to my room. “How did you get your parking lights to stay on with your headlights?” he asked. I was surprised he was so perceptive. As I got to know him better I would discover that he was extremely observant.

In 1974, new cars had light switches that activated the parking lights but when the headlights went on the parking lights stayed on. It had become a federal safety requirement. But there was no such requirement when Shelbys were manufactured. I had seen an advertisement in a J.C. Whitney catalog for an electrical gizmo about the size of a matchbox that you would wire into the car’s headlight circuit. It caused the parking lights to stay on when the headlights were on. It cost about $3.95 but it was worth every cent to make Pardee wonder how I had made my Shelby do that during the drive from the country club to the hotel.

When I crewed a 289 Cobra in 1966 we raced against Mark Donohue in his GT350 R-Model. I was there when a complaint was made by another competitor who had been following him in practice and said his brake lights were not working. When Donohue came off the track at then end of the session he was directed to drive the car over to the tech inspection station. They checked the lights and they were working just fine. Donohue had a cut-off switch under the dash wired into the brake light circuit. When a competitor was following him in practice he would turn the brake lights off so they could not tell his braking points.

I wired a toggle switch into the brake light circuit on 6S118. I found it useful when I was cruising at night at something approaching warp speed and noticed a pair of headlights coming up behind me. I would turn the brake lights off and ease on the brakes, bringing the car down to something much closer to a legal speed. Most of the time it was just another car but once in a while it was “the Man” and every time that happened I silently thanked Mark Donohue.

I wired a toggle switch into the brake light circuit on 6S118. I found it useful when I was cruising at night at something approaching warp speed and noticed a pair of headlights coming up behind me. I would turn the brake lights off and ease on the brakes, bringing the car down to something much closer to a legal speed. Most of the time it was just another car but once in a while it was “the Man” and every time that happened I silently thanked Mark Donohue.

None of these electrical shenanigans were the cause of any guilt. Back then Shelbys were just cars. Dazzling and impressive cars, but just cars never the less. This was before they began to be restored and before there were commonly accepted production standards. All that would come in the future. In the 1970s, owners saw them differently and enjoyed them differently. Some cars were still daily drivers. Some were fair weather weekend cars. Some became car show specimens and others were driven hard in autocrosses, gymkhanas and open track solo events. And then vintage racing came along, and white glove concours judging. More and more became known about these cars’ production history and their values escalated accordingly. Suddenly it was a different world, where standards acquired more weight and seemed to displace the do-whatever-you-want-with-your-car attitude. And almost without realizing it, the good old days were gone. But not forgotten.