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Hemi Hunter's Top Fuel Tales

Gentle Ben; No, Not the Bear

By Gary Peters

It was always forgotten in the overall game plan. Just about the time you scraped together the money to get the drag car finished, the little details would come up to bite you. The money was all gone and one thing still remained. How do we get the car to the tracks? What do we tow with?

After building about five cars, you would think we would be prepared for this, but we didn't give it much thought again. Neither Tom nor myself had anything resembling a decent tow vehicle. We're driving around town one day and we spot a 1959 Chevy all windowed panel truck behind a gas station. The tires were all flat and the lime green paint job was very faded. We stop into the gas station and ask for the owner. He tells us we can have the truck for 150 bucks, but if he remembers correctly, it had a broken rear. We show up the next day, hand the owner the money, and he gives us the title.

Now we had looked over the truck the first day we stopped in. It had a 6-cylinder engine and a 3-speed manual stick shift tranny. No good for towing, period. We had decided to put together an Olds V8 with a Hydromatic transmission we had pulled from a ‘60 Oldsmobile. The car was given to us by a fellow Tom worked with. Back in those days, anything with a V8 motor was a desirable piece. You would take the car, pull the engine out, and set it in the corner of the garage, just in case. Take what was left of the car to the local junkyard and get 10 bucks for what was left.

The truck needed to be towed to the garage so we could start pulling the 6-cylinder engine out. Remember, we were told by the owner that the rear was blown. So we get all of the tools and jack up the truck to pull the rear and replace it so we can tow this beauty back to it's new home. After a couple of hours, we pull the rear out and low and behold, there's nothing wrong. We put everything back together and hook up to tow the truck home. What a minute, why don't we get the thing running and drive it home? Off we go again for a battery and plugs and points, etc. We return and get the tune up finished. The battery is installed and we get the truck running. This isn't too bad; we could drive the thing around for awhile and get to know him. We call him Gentle Ben, after the TV series with the big bear.

I put Ben into gear and started backing up. No go. An awful grinding is heard from Ben and he jumps around like a scalded animal. The problem is a bad transmission. That's what was broken, not the rear. So we wind up towing Ben anyway. For those of you reading this little tale, if you have never towed with a chain, you don't know what you've missed. Nylon straps were not an option. I didn't know they even existed back then. Nylon in our minds was for stockings, on our next favorite thing to cars, women.

A couple of weeks go by and Ben has his Olds V8 engine and automatic trans. We had installed the engine from parts laying around the club garage. Basically, it cost us nothing for the engine swap. We rework the trans with a shift kit by opening up some of the holes in the valve body. Little tricks we all learned from drag racing. Ben's running for the first time. We back him out and nail the throttle down. The rear tires light up and we start thinking maybe we could race Ben along with our dragster. That might be a first at the local tracks.

We clean up Gentle Ben and install an 8-track tape player to keep us entertained on the long drives home after the races. We install a tow hitch we make from junk metal in the garage and install a push bar on the front. We slotted the front bumper and ran the flat steel plate back to the frame. We run some weld on the plates at the bumper slots. We figure this would be a conversation piece with everyone, thinking we just welded plate to the bumper. Those plates turned out to be more than that. Back in those days, all gas stations had fellows to pump your gas. They also always cleaned you windows and checked your oil.

The guy would put the nozzle in the tank, lock the trigger, and start to clean the window. He would then walk around the front of the truck and disappear. You see, the plates were just about at the height of an average person's kneecap. Not too many guys would see the plates sticking out, and they would bang their kneecaps on those plates. I did it myself more than once while cleaning the windshield. It hurt like heck. You instantly would bend over to rub your knee and disappear from view to anyone inside Ben. I guess we should have told everyone to look out for the plates, or we should have changed the design, but it became a game to see which fellows would avoid the hazard or fall victim to the plates.

One Sunday we decided to run the dragster at Maple Grove Dragway. It was an extremely hot August day with the temperature above the century mark. My wife Peg and my father in-law Fritz went along for the adventure and to watch the races. It was so hot that we figured lots of hot cars would stay away on such a day. The word here, folks, is HOT! Ben's tooling down the road, running along at his usual pace. We're just about at the turn for the track when old Ben coughs, sputters, and shuts down. We just had time to pull over onto the side of the road. We all get out and let me tell you, it was hot. We open the hood and the heat waves looked like a scene from the movie, Lawrence of Arabia.

We check for spark -- that's OK -- and we pull the fuel line and turn Ben over. No gas flowing to the carb. Just about then, a crew goes buy that we know, and they stop. We tell them we think we have a bad fuel pump. Would they run into town and get us one for a 1960 Oldsmobile? I look at Peg, and she appears to be melting in the heat. I ask her if she wants a cold drink. She says yes. I could feel the daggers stabbing into me from her eyes. Just another little adventure. Her dad seems a little warm also. I grab a couple of cold sodas and walk around the truck. Jeez, those rotten plates on the bumper really hurt, and Peg and her Dad's cold soda is flowing across the ground.

We change the pump after an hour of sweat and major discomfort. We turn Ben over and nothing happens. We're scratching our heads and Peg starts to say something. I snap her off, and she really gets mad. She says she and her Dad know what the problem is. I start to laugh. Hey, we're the experts. After all, we built Ben from scratch. We keep checking everything we could think of. We just can't get him running. Peg and her Dad have cooler soaked cold towels on their heads. The heat is terrible. She says she and her Dad noticed something while we were driving along. The fuel gage was going up instead of down. She says we dummy's are out of gas.

I start laughing again. I go behind the wheel and turn the key on. The tank is almost full. I can't remember filling Ben up. I ask Tom when he put gas in Ben last. He can't remember either. Peg is standing at Ben's side, and I can see extra heat waves coming off her head. I walk around to the trailer and get the gas can and dump it's contents into Ben's gas tank. I go under the hood and pump the throttle while Tom turns Ben over. Fifteen seconds go by and Ben comes to life. We were out of gas. Don't you just hate it when that happens. We find out later that the fuel gage is bad, a poor ground. We get to the track, and the races had started. It's too hot to stay and watch.

Were towing home and decide to stop for more gas. We had filled Ben up with some more fuel at the track, but I didn't want to take a chance on running out a second time in one day. No sense in getting the little woman mad at me. I go to the men's room while Ben is being filled. I'm walking out to Ben when I see Peg coming around the front of Ben. I just start to yell, "Watch out for those plates" when Peg disappears. Today, there's a little scar just above her knee. We sometimes go to the ‘Grove to see a race or go to the restaurant at the track. Somehow, she never passes that spot without reminding me of that hot summer day, even though that was 30 years ago. Don't you just hate it when that happens? And another thing, I'll bet that none of the guys towing around in those 18-wheelers today know which holes to open up in an automatic transmissions valve body.

Gary Peters
gary.peters@macktrucks.com
www.hemihunterracing.com

 

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