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,
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.