Back in 1976, I used to beg my mom each morning to get me to school early, just so I could play an insane inner-city game called Suicide. I was 10 years old, and while the St. Anselm nuns copped a smoke next to the rectory, trying to steady their nerves for yet another day without debauchery*, 50 testosterone-filled boys gathered to throw a raggedy tennis ball against the church wall. The object of the game was simple. Catch the ball without fumbling or the mob pummeled you. It was the greatest game ever… unless you dropped the ball.
Then it was your ass.
That’s what I think restoring a car is like. Your energy level at the start of the process is as high as Rick Ross’ cholesterol. That’s the exciting part. But you also have to figure out how to make a thousand teeny tiny decisions without dropping the ball, because if you drop the ball, your financial ass will be handed to you. And that’s where a bit of indecision creeps in and you suddenly become That Guy.
You know That Guy. He’s the customer in every restoration car show. He walks into the shop with a laundry list of wants longer than your average Jalopnik writer’s traffic infraction record, and wants it all done for the price of a Happy Meal and just as fast.
And I hate That Guy.
“But it’s my dream!” he cries when given the bill and the impossibility of the task. “Who knew that dismantling, welding, grinding, and building a car back up would be time consuming and expensive?”
Yeah, early on, I became That Guy, but I quickly snapped out of it.
As you may recall, I am restoring an old Chevrolet Corvair and, because I fashion myself something of a writer, inventing its prolific racing history as I go along. The car develops in reality, the fiction here on the page. A fun time should be had by all, I reckon. I call this wallet-lightening thought experiment Project Mongoose.
The first stage of Project Mongoose centered on dismantling the car, meaning all of the stainless steel trim, the chrome, the interior, lights, e’thang that wasn’t needed for the bodywork. My boy Mark is handling all things Corvair related, and the dude is a beast when it comes to not only building and rebuilding, but also letting me know what I need for every specific part of the car.
“What is this?” I asked, as I received a humongous list of parts I needed to order from Clark’s Corvair.
“What you need for the car. I’ve also attached my labor to put all of this stuff on.”
“Okay, yeah, I get that,” I said, trying to be cool. “What the hell are fuzzies?”
“You know those things in the door between your glass and the metal door? Those are fuzzies.”
“And I need those things?”
“Yeah, you need those things.”
Who the hell knew?
The list for Clark’s Corvair was long, but surprisingly, it was easy to put together. It was like they knew a dummy like me was gonna come along and need to do this. I bought front suspension parts and brake parts. There was some wiring of some sort, and then brackets of this or that.
By the way, you’re gonna hear me mention Clark’s Corvair a lot during this build because I simply couldn’t do this without their products. And a small American owned business that dedicates itself to making parts for a deeply unloved 50-year-old car deserves to be named, and not just erased into nothingness. Fight me.
In fact, my first piece of advice if you attempt to do a Project Mongoose of your own: A.) Find a car club and get the most knowledgeable and mechanically inclined member to help you. B.) Find a specialty shop like this one because they give a damn about your particular car and they’ll actually talk to you on the phone. It will help the anxiety quotient in your life.
Cool, those orders are done. Only problem was that I needed to figure out a schedule for everything, something I hadn’t really thought about, but since my bodywork dude, Ricardo, was doing the body on the weekend, and Mark was doing it on the weekend too, I needed to figure out how and when which stuff would be done. I made a decision: bodywork first, then mechanicals.
So that meant Ricardo and his crew got started. You know how you get around cats who know what the hell they’re doing, so you quickly realize that your chitter chatter ain’t helping them get their work done, so you slowly back away from the work area? Yeah, the dudes doing the bodywork on the Corvair are no joke. They stripped my car like we were in a chop shop, revealing a 52-year old body that was in surprisingly good shape.
A lot of times when you see someone list their car as being a “California car” what they don’t tell you is that Big Bear Lake is in California too, and there a slight chance that it spent the Reagan years at the bottom of it.
But my car came from Bakersfield, and since there ain’t shit to do in Bakersfield except to sit in the sun and bake yourself to death, I rightfully felt pretty good about the rust issue.
“We got some rust on the floorboards and trunk, but other than that, looks good,” Ricardo told me. That’s just what I wanted to hear. Ordered a couple of floor pans and a bottom trunk unit from Clark’s, and I was all good.
The next thing I needed to do was get the bodywork supplies. The owner of Picture Car Warehouse (big ups to you, whoever you are) was cool enough to let Ricardo and Mark do the work on my Corvair as a weekend side hustle, but ya know, he wasn’t about to let them use his supplies for it. And hell, I get it. So I headed over to where all people go when they don’t know where to get stuff, YouTube. And that’s where I found Eastwood.
Eastwood had everything that I needed. DIY-ers for folks who wanted to the bodywork and paint themselves? Check. I needed a one stop shop with simple decision making. In my fantasy brain, I can tig weld because I’ve watched PowerNation. In reality, I couldn’t tell you the difference between steel and aluminum (except that I know you need to put some anti seize goop on aluminum threads that go into steel. Told you I watched Detroit Muscle!).
I called up Eastwood and was like, “What I need?” and soon, the brown and yellow delivery man had a soda blaster, body filler, a bunch of paint (we’ll get to that in another column) and pretty much everything we needed to get the job done.
“Nice, my man,” Ricardo said as he looked at the Eastwood package. And then they went back to work.
For high school, I went to posh Catholic all-boys school that didn’t have a shop class, but watching Ricardo and his crew bend and repair metal makes me understand that I missed out. It’s truly inspiring to watch the world’s last craftsmen take a pockmarked piece of metal, massage it, and then fill it so that it’s smooth to the touch. Bodywork is an art, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It took about three weeks before the car was ready for paint, and you’ll see that in the next edition.
But remember I said there were two parts to this Project Mongoose. You’ve seen what I’m doing to the car, but I’m also gonna make up a racing history, and that first means making up the man who did the racing. He did it back in the glory days of American racing, when he and his Corvair did battle against Cobras and Porsches, breaking barriers and shattering expectations along the way.
It is a fake true story of the African American experience—told through cars.
“What you drinking, kid?”
Jamal, the bartender at the Cork, had already slid my Makers Mark on the rocks to me without a word. Two fingers. I needed no introduction. My grandson, The Kid, had just graduated from Howard University with honors a couple of nights before, and now that he had a Harvard law school acceptance letter in his back pocket, he justifiably thought his piss smelled like Chanel No. 5. Still, he needed an introduction at the Cork. He wasn’t me.
“Let me get a…” The Kid began.
“He’ll have what I’m having,” I told the bartender. There were no other questions. The Kid would learn to drink what I drank, and then he’d make sure to teach it to his kids. Thems the rules.
“Why do you like this place?” The Kid asked, as he reached for his drink. He took a quick sip of whiskey, and then stifled a frown...because…manhood.
I took a sip of my drink. The Cork had been in South Central LA since the 1950s, right about the time white folks from Iowa realized they were allergic to living next to the new black homeowners from Texas and Louisiana. Fear of integration caused white flight to the suburbs. Cool for us. That left the Cork as that one bar where you could feel at home as a black person in Los Angeles. It was unapologetically black.
It’s a place where an ex-Fruit of Islam security guard pats you down, politely takes your sidepiece, and then promises to give it back to you unmolested at the end of the night. But on the other hand, he’ll ban you for life if you try to enter with open toed sandals. That’s a world that I want to live in.
The Cork was dark, dank, and perfect. A place where fast women and slow men could meet over a lower shelf concoction, and depart life long temporary friends.
“Get used to places like this,” I told The Kid. “You’re about to enter a world where the so-called respectable people are going to try to convince you that successful lives are centered around being nice, neat, clean, and polite. Fact is, you’re only truly living when you surround yourself with the messy and the real.
My second sip finished my Makers Mark. It was now time for business.
“Why do you want my Corvair?”
“You said I could have whatever I wanted for a graduation present.”
“Want and deserve are two different things. That’s a life lesson you might as well learn now.”
The Kid, taken aback, took a deep gulp of his drink. No frown this time because…manhood.
“Look, it just sits there, rotting away in your driveway. No one else wants it, and you won’t tell me anything about it, except that it has a story. A story that no one else seems to know.”
The Kid was talking about my ’66 Corvair Corsa, which in its faded glory, had sunk into my driveway pavement for the past 25 years.
Before he could say his own name, The Kid had been attracted to it. He’d climb in and out of its cracked vinyl drivers seat, and pretend that his tiny hands could sling the steering wheel through S turn after S turn. Of all my grandkids, he was the one who truly had gasoline and oil in his veins. Still, he hadn’t proved that he was worthy of my Corvair.
“Let’s say I gave it to you. What would you do with it?’
The Kid perked up. “Paint it red, put an LS motor into it. I don’t know. Just get it running. Hadn’t thought too much about it.”
“And that…right there,” I said as I nodded to the bartender, and who quickly swooped up my drink, replacing it with a fresh one, “is why you’re not getting it.”
The Kid’s face turned downcast.
“Putting an LS in everything is not a solution for life,” I said. “It’s a lazy man’s idea of doing something important. But I’ve gotta simple question. Why are we here?”
“Here? I don’t know. You wanted to come to this place?”
“Not this place,” I said, my arm spread out wide. “Here in LA. Here. The family. Why the fuck, Los Angeles? Why not Vegas, Dallas, or Oakland? Do you know?”
“Ever hear of the Peoples Grocery?”
The Kid shook his head.
“Right after we’d been freed from being fucking enslaved a couple hundred years, our family lived in Memphis. Made due, and for the most part, tried to stay out the way of white folks. My grandfather, your great, along with a few others, owned a supermarket called Peoples Grocery. It was one of the most successful businesses in the city of Memphis. That is until white folks started lynching black folks, almost getting my grandfather killed.”
“Same shit as it ever was,” I continued. “Black boy and a white boy were playing marbles when they started to fight. Suddenly, this white man started beating the black kid. Well, I don’t know what you heard about those times, but black folks weren’t hat in hand docile as they like to portray in the movies. So when they fought back, all hell broke loose. White folks ended up rioting through the black section of the city, focusing on the Peoples Grocery, and by the end of the night, they’d lynched three black owners of the story, including a cousin of yours. Before they lynched them, the white men blew holes in their faces, literally blowing their brains out, and chopped off their body parts for souvenirs.”
“That’s some sick ass shit.”
“Yeah, but before they lynched our cousin, they allowed him to say something to the crowd. You know what he said?”
“I said, ‘Tell my people to go West, there is no justice for them here.’ My grandfather heard him say that, piled the family in the wagon, and didn’t stop until the family got to Los Angeles. And that’s why we’re here.
“And that’s why we had that supermarket chain out here?”
“Now you’re understanding. Granddaddy came out here, set up a few grocery stores on Central Avenue, and made a fortune. Turns out that LA was segregated too. But he made enough money to buy himself a Patterson-Greenfield to show off.
All of his hard work allowed me to go to Morehouse, and when I graduated, I took the stores to a new level. Broadened out to white neighborhoods, using a white guy as the front man. Then sold the stores in the mid ‘60s for about five million to Vons supermarkets, which was real money back in those days.”
“You were rolling in cash,” The Kid said. “A black man with five mil?”
“Who you telling? By 1965, I had money in the bank, a Vietnam deferment on my record, and Playboy club key in my pocket. You couldn’t tell me shit.”
“Just like me?”
The Kid smiled. He had balls. I had to give him that.
I paid my bill with a slight head nod to the bartender, exited the Cork, and jumped into my Mustang. Drove down Crenshaw Boulevard, the central artery of black Los Angeles, and up into various hills that composed Baldwin Hills. In less than ten minutes, I’d pulled into my driveway, and there it sat, the Corvair. We got out and stared it, half-assed covered in a blue tarp that I’d grudgingly laid on top of it about ten years before.
“I’d wanted to get into racing,” I explained, as I pulled the tarp off. “I liked going fast, and winning. I’d always been a fan of Briggs Cunningham, a guy who had the original ‘I don’t give a fuck money,’ and spent it by building his own race cars. He went to LeMans in the early 50s, but what got me was when he brought some Corvettes to LeMans around 1960. I happened to be at LeMans that year because I was with this French chick who could do some…anyway, I knew right then that I wanted to get into that race.”
The Kid walked around the Corvair slowly, peering into the cloudy windows, trying to see inside. He ran his hands along the body, reading the surface rust like it was Braille.
“Why a Corvair?” The Kid asked, as he lowered himself to check the rocker panels. Still rust free. “You had millions in your pocket. You could have gotten a Corvette, a Mustang, hell, what year was this?”
“You could have gotten a Lamborghini Miura, for that matter.”
“Easy call. Different is cool. And life is always about being underestimated and then proving the world wrong. When I got into racing, the sport was still hanging onto segregation. A black racer named Levester Lewis tried to enter his Camaro in Sports Car Club of America races in Michigan, but the national org said no because he was black. That was late in the 1960s, and he eventually ended up getting in, but it pissed me off so much that I was determined to race in SCCA and then LeMans.”
“What I don’t understand is if Nader was killing the Corvair, why you’d still pick it? The 911 gave you the same feel as the Corvair, but without the issues.”
“True. But there was also Don Yenko out in Pennsylvania. He was taking these things and turning them into Yenko Corvairs.”
“I remember reading about him,” The Kid said. “Race cars. Hot cams. I only thought about him in association with Camaros.”
“But he started with Corvairs. But he only made about 100 of them, and by the time I got in contact with him, they were all sold. But he was a good guy, and he gave me the specs for what he was doing. Plus, I still think they’re beautiful looking cars. So I decided to create my own version of the Yenko Corvair. Called it the Mongoose.”
“Cause it was gonna be a Shelby Cobra-killer.”
“Wow. You really were dreaming big.”
“What other types of dreams are there?” I said. “That’s enough for today. Next time, I’ll tell you about my first trip to Riverside International Raceway, where I put Mark Donahue into the wall, and punched Steve McQueen for talking to my girl.”
“What the hell?”
“It was all good,” I told him as I put the tarp back. “He bought me a drink afterward.”
“Maker’s Mark?” The Kid said with a smile.
The Kid was learning.
Lawrence Ross has written seven books about the African American experience, campus racism, and police brutality, including The Divine Nine, a Los Angeles Times best-seller on black fraternities and sororities. He also dabbles in cars, sometimes even successfully.