What's Your Beef?

by Rick Kopec (7/8/09)

Before Jay Leno became the host of the “Tonight Show” he was the guest host, filling in for Johnny Carson when he took time off. Before he was a guest host on the show he was a guest. As one of the most popular comedians at that time doing stand-up, he typically played more than 300 dates a year—everything from small comedy clubs to large concerts to TV shows. He was a frequent guest on David Letterman’s show in those days, and after doing a 3 or 4 minute set of jokes he would move to the first seat and typically Letterman would say something like, “Jay, you’ve got a scowl on your face and you’re not happy about something. What’s your beef?”

Handed the set-up, Leno would affect mock anger and proceed to describe some situation, dripping with irony, which went against his grain or set him off. He skillfully portrayed himself as an everyman; what happened to him could be easily understood by anyone, because it had happened to all of us at one time or another. The difference was that where we would just get steamed, he would squeeze a comedy bit out of it. That’s called talent. It could be a description of standing in a grocery store’s express line (12 items or less), watching the lady ahead of him unload about 20 items from her carriage and then pay for them with a credit card that was declined. She rummaged through her purse looking for money, and dredged the bottom of her shoulder bag trying to scrape up enough loose change to pay for the purchase. When she came up short she would be forced to choose what she wanted to leave behind, until the total of how much money she scraped together covered the cost of the food. While all this was happening, Leno was watching a shopper at the next register, who had a full carriage—and who he would have been behind if he hadn’t veered off into the express lane—check out and exit the store.

So, what’s my beef? There are some things that make me wince but probably aren’t even a blip on anyone else’s radar screen. They certainly wouldn’t be very entertaining as the basis for a comedy act. Part of my job description as editor of The Shelby American is to be exceptionally nit-picky and one of the things that sets me off is the misuse of terms by people who should know better. They often pop up in classified ads. When I find them in material submitted for the magazine, I correct them before each article is finalized. But it seems to be a never-ending job. Let me give you a for-instance.

Have you ever shaken your head when you see a Shelby or Ford vehicle described as having a “Posi-Traction” rear end? We know what the owner of the car is trying to say, but using the wrong terminology demonstrates either how little he or she knows or that they are just being lazy. An “open” rear end is the standard type used in most cars. This means that only one rear wheel drives while the other one freewheels. When you were showing off in your old man’s car, trying to leave a patch of rubber, only the right rear wheel left a black stripe. For increased performance, different rear end components would make both rear wheels turn at the same time. The result was two parallel black stripes. Occasionally, an additional unintended result was a flashing red light behind you followed by a citation for an “improper start,” “excessive noise,” “demonstration of speed” or “reckless driving.”

Every manufacturer had its own name for a limited-slip (or closed) differential. Before 1968, Ford called theirs “Equa-Lock.” In 1968 they changed the name to “Traction-Lok.” American Motors used “Twin-Grip,” Mopars were “Sure Grip,” Oldsmobile’s was “Anti-Spin,” Buick’s was “Positive Traction,” Pontiac was “Safe-T-Track.’ Chevrolet used “Posi-Traction” and since Chevy was the most common and most popular brand, it was shortened by hot-rodders to, simply, “Posi.” Through constant use, the term “Posi-Traction” or “Posi” became the generic term for a limited slip differential. However, common usage doesn’t make something right. If it’s a Ford unit, it’s Equa-Lock or Traction-Lok—not Posi-Traction. Got that?

Here’s another beef. A period of a month was required for Ford to changeover their Mustang production line from 1965 to 1966 models. This re-tooling took place in the July/August time frame when production workers were given their summer vacations. Once 1966 production began, Shelby American wouldn’t be getting any cars until October because Ford wanted the initial production of new Mustangs to go to their dealers first. That’s understandable.

At Shelby American, a changeover from 1965 to 1966 models was also required.

However, Shelby American didn’t want their dealers to be without cars from the end of September through the end of October while they waited for a batch of 1966 Mustangs to be built for them. Interest in new models was the highest at the very beginning of the new model year—which traditionally began in September. To make sure Shelby dealers had new cars during their change-over, about 250 units were ordered at the shank end of 1965 Mustang production (the actual number turned out to be 252). These units were updated to 1966 specifications at Shelby’s factory. They were all white and all were 4-speeds. As 1965 cars, they lacked back-up lights and a 4-way flasher in the glove box. They also had 1965 concave glove box doors and dash pads, 1965 upholstery and door panels. They were ordered with the Mustang GT instrument cluster (eliminating the need for a separate oil pressure gauge) and a ‘66 deep-dish, simulated wood grain steering wheel. They also had rear-exiting exhaust. The new 1966 features—a new grille, rear quarter windows and functional side scoops—were added at Shelby American.

Until Shelby enthusiasm resulted in a club in the early 1970s, the fact that the initial 1966 Shelby models were actually based on 1965 Mustangs was something that was simply not known. A ’65 was a ’65 and a ’66 was a ’66. Period. Once conventions brought large numbers of cars together at the same place and at the same time, differences and similarities were discovered. Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, owners of these early cars began describing them as “leftovers” or “holdovers” or even 1965 ½ models. They were never described this way by the factory: they were simply called 1966 models.

It’s easy to understand why this group of 252 cars was described this way and the reason can be laid at the feet of owners trying to sell their cars who wanted to separate them from the rest of the 1966 models. They realized that in the pecking order, 1965 Shelbys were generally worth more than 1966 models, based on rarity and what some enthusiasts considered clarity of purpose and lack of compromise.

Only 526 1965 street models were made while more than four times as many 1966 models were produced: 2378. In an effort to separate their car from the rest of the 1966 models, and to impart an increased value on them, owners of the first 252 cars, the 1965-based 1966 models, began calling them “leftovers” or “holdovers.” They were neither. They weren’t left over or held over because they had been specifically ordered so they could be used for the beginning of 1966 production. These cars have also been referred to as “1965 ½ models” but this is, likewise, inaccurate. It is little more than a ruse or contrivance used to impart an added value to this group of cars. And it has been used so frequently that it seems to have worked.

Is it a valid reason for these early cars to be priced higher than the 1966 models that came after them? That hardly matters because the perception is that it is. And perception in the market place trumps everything else.

And while we’re at it, another beef I have is the term “collector’s item” when it’s used to help sell something new. Nothing can be produced and marketed to become a collector’s item. Whether or not something is deemed to be collectible is determined by outside circumstances that conspire after the thing has been created and sold. Sometimes long after. We’ve all seen this. Something comes on the market and then catches fire. Manufacturers scramble to produce more to meet the demands (or make sure they never seem to have enough to totally satisfy the demand). Think Cabbage Patch Kids. Or the Tickle Me Elmo doll. Or the Pet Rock.

Whatever it is that makes something “collectible” can’t be built into it. It is an intangible that captures the imagination and makes a large number of people want to own one of those items. In some cases the desire lasts only until the item is owned. The thrill is in the chase and they lose interest after the kill. It is an interesting abstraction, but slapping the label of “Collector’s Item” on something will not make it so.

What’s your beef?

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