by Rick Kopec (April 2014)
I was talking about Cobras the other day with a couple of long-time Cobra owners and enthusiasts (over 40 years, if that provides some perspective) and the name Carter Gette came up. Carter passed away in November 2003 and the first time I met him was in 1968 when he was working as a salesman at a Ford dealership in Westport, Connecticut. A high school buddy of mine named Bruce Pentland was also working there as a salesman and he introduced me to Carter one evening. After graduating high school in 1964 Bruce worked for Bob Sharp. Sharp was supporting his fledgling Datsun 2000 racing effort out of a two-bay Gulf gas station in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He hired Bruce to run the gas station end of the business and had a pair of race mechanics prepare his car and help him at the races. In 1966 Bruce got a letter from Uncle Sam that began with, “Greetings…” He spent the next two years in army green, stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas as a tank mechanic. I remember one of his stories about a new recruit who had joined him in the motor pool. A grizzled sergeant assigned the man to remove the engine from an M-60A1 main battle tank. The new man asked the sergeant how long it would take. “Well,” said the sergeant, pausing as if he was thinking about it, “if you started right now, you’d never finish.”
When Bruce’s enlistment was up he came back to Connecticut and was offered his old job again by Sharp, who had been very successful racing his Datsun roadster. That was before he moved to a 240Z and opened up a new dealership. Bruce wanted to stay in the car business but he decided he’d rather be in sales. The thought of not having dirt under his fingernails appealed to him. He bought a 1965 Mustang notchback, a bronze 289/225 h.p. four-speed and went to work at Westfair Ford in Westport. One of the other salesmen had a 1966 Shelby GT350 (6S034). His name was Carter Gette. While his family occupied a minor branch on the Getty family tree, it wasn’t anywhere as thick as multi-millionaire J. Paul Getty’s limb. Nevertheless, Carter was far from a pauper and if he wasn’t exactly rolling in dough, a lot of people assumed he was just because of his name. He never said anything to dispel that and let it work for him. He was tall and rail-thin and moved with a patrician glide. His dark eyes sparkled, as if he was enjoying a joke you had yet to hear. In 1968 he sold the GT350 and replaced it with a Guardsman Blue 427 Cobra (CSX3270). When he was working at the dealership, it was parked out in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
By August of 1968 I had graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School and needed a car. I contacted Bruce and when I got home on leave a new 1968 Torino GT fastback was waiting for me. It was Sea Foam Green with a black C-stripe. At this point I would love to say it was a 428 4V Cobra Jet but it was actually much tamer: a 302 2V automatic. After my two-week leave ended, I drove the car to my first duty station, Ft. Ord, California. I put 8,000 miles on the car in the first month. In Monterey, coming back from a lengthy pub crawl in Carmel late one night, I was carrying a bit too much speed onto an exit ramp, as someone slightly impaired is wont to do. The car made a slow-motion 180° spin. That much I remember. When the rear wheel ran out of road it dug into the dirt and flipped the car end-over-end, spinning it on its roof like some kind of an amusement park ride gone wild. Another lieutenant was accompanying me and we ended up bouncing around inside the car (seat beltless) and escaped with only a few bumps and scratches. The driver’s side of the roof was collapsed to the point where you couldn’t slide a credit card through the side window. The car was a total loss and the insurance company paid it off. I hadn’t even made the first payment. But that’s another story for another time.
The night I met Carter he seemed a little agitated. He was getting off work about 7 p.m. and normally I would hang around the dealership until 9 p.m. and then go out prowling with Bruce. But when Carter said to me, “Want to go for a ride?” and pointed to the Cobra, he didn’t have to ask twice. “Let’s turn some big numbers,” he said with a straight face. The Cobra had a black hardtop and Carter took the rear license plate off and handed it to me. “Just hold that in the rear window,” he said as we climbed into the car. He pulled out onto the road and was quickly on I-95 heading south toward New York. It was just getting dark and Carter was not afraid to feed it the gas. The Connecticut State Police had a well-deserved reputation for being hard on speeders and were just beginning to rely on radar. None of that seemed to bother Carter.
When I asked him if he was worried about getting nailed for speeding he said that he regularly outran the troopers. In fact, he thought of it as good sport. “Turning big numbers,” he called it. For amusement, he would drive the speed limit looking for a radar trap on the opposite side of the divided highway. After spotting a radar car he would get off at the next exit and get back on heading in the opposite direction. Knowing exactly where the radar unit was, Carter would blast past it, like a fighter on afterburners. A state policemen friend of his had told him that when he flew through one radar trap he was clocked at 150 m.p.h. By the time the trooper got his cruiser rolling, Carter had gotten off at the next exit and disappeared. The radar car called ahead and advised the next trooper to be on the lookout for a blue Jaguar. It was apparently an often-told story in the barracks.
We were heading to Greenwich, Connecticut because Carter said he needed some gas money. I was curious to see how driving twenty-five miles was going to accomplish that, so I sat back and shut up. It was hard to talk above the bellowing big block anyway. We got off I-95 in Greenwich and drove down Route 1, the Boston Post Road. Before the interstate was built, the Post Road was the major thoroughfare between New York City and Boston, winding along through every city and town on the Connecticut shoreline. Carter parked the Cobra on a side street, next to Moroso’s Speed Shop (before they became a major speed equipment manufacturer in the late 1970s) and we walked a block down the street to a McDonalds.
Lined up along the back fence were a couple of dozen cars — a typical cross section of new muscle cars, older street machines and one or two rods that would be attracted to any hamburger joint at that time. Carter was wearing a dark sport jacket and tie, and he sized up the cars. He picked out what looked like the fastest one: a bright red 396 Chevelle with white stripes, cowl induction and Cragar S/S wheels. He was very obvious as he inspected the car. The owner, sitting with his girlfriend, watched proudly. “Is it fast?” asked Carter.
“Want to find out?” responded the kid, in a menacing, I-dare-you tone. “It looks fast,” said Carter, “but a lot of cars look fast.”
“What do you have?” asked the kid.
“A Ford,” responded Carter. “I think it may be faster than this.” The kid bristled. “Maybe you want to put some money where your mouth is?” In a fluid motion, Carter pulled a crisp $100 bill out of his pocket. It had been folded in half. “Show me how fast it is,” said Carter, opening the bill and holding it out in front of him at chest level.
The kid didn’t have a hundred bucks and everyone else in the lot had been watching the unfolding drama from their cars. The kid said something to his girlfriend and she squirmed out of the car with a paper hamburger bag and started going from car to car, collecting money so her boyfriend could match the bet. I have to admit, Carter looked like an easy mark; a guy in a jacket and tie who had probably borrowed his old man’s Galaxie and was out showing off, on his way to making a big mistake. If only the kid could cover the bet. When the girl returned the white paper bag was bulging with money. She dumped it on the Chevelle’s vinyl roof and counted it out. A hundred dollars was there, mostly in change and singles. There was nothing larger than a five-dollar bill. Carter gave her the hundred and told her to give it all to the manager to hold.
One by one, the other cars started up, flicked on their lights and pulled out of the lot. The Chevelle was one of the last ones to move. It did sound strong. You can always tell a car with headers, even through mufflers. The lot was empty in minutes. This was a practiced routine. Everyone pulled out onto the Post Road and in less than a mile there was a highway entrance ramp. It was dark and traffic was light. Four or five cars accompanied the Chevelle onto I-95. By this time Carter and I had gotten into the Cobra and caught up to the parade. In the dark, with headlights blazing, it was impossible for the kid in the Chevelle to see what Carter was driving. But he could hear it. His girlfriend’s head was moving like her neck was a slinky. The rest of the cars had kept going, past the entrance ramp and down the road to a side street. It led to an overpass where they all parked and got out to watch the race. They were roughly a quarter of a mile from the entrance ramp.
What happened next took place very quickly—quicker than it takes to read this. The other cars spread across the three lanes of I-95 and came to a stop, effectively blocking traffic. The Chevelle and Cobra pulled around them on the shoulder and then lined up, side by side. The kid looked over at the smaller Cobra, seeing it clearly for the first time, and his eyes expanded into white saucers. He began to suspect that maybe he had made a big mistake. Another kid with a flashlight sprinted about fifty feet ahead of the two snarling cars, standing between two lanes. Without any warning or countdown, he snapped on the light, both cars’ revs grew and their clutches were released, almost in unison. Rear tires began spinning, there was some smoke as more throttle was given. Both cars began moving forward, picking up momentum. By the time they passed the flashlight they were near redline. The kid in the Chevelle power-shifted into second, the engine only losing a thousand RPM. Carter calmly shifted into second and the Cobra lurched forward. Both cars were still fender-to-fender.
The Chevelle approached its redline and the kid power-shifted into third. He was good. But the Cobra was still even with his front fender. Both cars were going well over a hundred when the third-to-fourth shift was made. The Cobra moved ahead about three feet. Carter continued accelerating, staying just ahead of the Chevelle until it ran out of steam and the kid backed out of it.
An exit came up and Carter took it. The Chevelle kept going. Carter got off at the exit, went up over a bridge and got back on the highway going in the other direction. He got off at the next exit and drove back to the McDonalds. He stopped next to the building, went in, and the manager handed him the paper bag full of money. As we drove back to the dealership, I said, “That was pretty close. You didn’t beat him by much.” Carter looked at me and smiled, and said, “I only went fast enough to win. No sense in humiliating the kid.”
That was the last I saw of Carter for about five years. Our paths crossed again in 1973 when he hosted a Sunday afternoon Cobra Club meeting at Rob Dyson’s estate in Millbrook, New York, about halfway between New York City and Albany. By then I had a ‘66 GT350 (6S118) and Carter had shoehorned a Holman-Moody 427 SOHC engine into his Cobra. It was one if the first, if not the very first, 427 Cobras to get a SOHC engine. In those days, the Cobra Club was not quite two years old and Carter had already acquired something of legend status among Cobra owners. He was known by everyone, even if they had never met him. The event attracted about a dozen Cobras, including Dyson’s Daytona Coupe, CSX2601, which was pushed out of the garage. It was the first time I saw a Daytona Coupe. It was also the first time I met Howard Pardee, who drove his ’65 GT350 (5S357). But that’s another story entirely.