Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Stored 46 years: Garage Find!

Given that I've been the region's most active Crosley enthusiast for a decade or so now, I was pretty surprised to see an unfamiliar 1948 Crosley wagon pop up for sale on the Sacramento Craigslist a couple of weeks ago.  It was less than three miles from my house in a neighborhood called East Sac.  When I read the ad my hair stood on end.
13 years ago, when I was first on a quest for a Crosley, my guide was Gordon Becher.  I've written about Gordon before- he was an amazing mechanic and a complete Crosley nut.  He still drove the Crosley sedan he'd owned since about 1954 and had a garage full of NOS Crosley gunk - he'd bought out the inventory of his local Crosley dealership when the guy closed the business.

After I'd been looking for a car for months with no luck, Gordon shared a secret- he had a tiny notebook in which he'd kept track of every Crosley he'd seen listed for sale going back a decade.  He shared some of those listings with me, and we even went up Highway 50 to Cameron Park to see a very rough Hotshot that Gordon had looked at years before.  It was mostly there, but a complete mess- I offered the guy $800 and in retrospect I'm probably lucky he said no.

One car that wasn't in Gordon's notebook was a Crosley station wagon that he'd looked at many years before in East Sacramento.  He told me that it had been parked in a garage off Folsom Blvd (a main drag in Sac) for decades and that it was very straight.  Gordon even drove to the area where he'd looked at the car and tried to remember for me which house had the Crosley.  It had been so long he couldn't remember, but he did tell me where it was within a few block radius.  I drove up and down Folsom and its side streets trying to find the house and garage that matched Gordon's description, but I never did find it.  That was 13 years ago, and I've probably driven down Folsom Blvd 500 times since then - and I've thought about that Crosley pretty much every time.

Suddenly, here it was.

I called the number in the ad and of course it was the same car.  The seller's father had bought it in 1964, driven around the block a few times and then put in the garage.  In 1964.  It hadn't seen daylight since.  His father had died earlier this year and now it had to go.  I arranged to go over the next day and take a look. After 13 years (Gordon has been gone for over 10) I would finally see the East Sac Crosley.
It was anti climatic.  You picture a car that's been garaged for 46 years, and you imagine a time capsule- at least I did.  Yes, the car had been put away in 1964... but the owner had started to 'restore' it, meaning that he'd partially taken the car apart.  The engine was completely disassembled in the back, rusty and probably worthless.  The transmission was out,  as was the back glass.  The seats were roached- the back seat had nothing left but the frame.   The paint was mostly spots of different colored primer.  They had no idea where the title was or if there even was one.  The owners were very nice, and were tickled to hear that I'd been looking for the car since the nineties. 

I walked them through the good (the body is about as rust free as I've seen), and the bad (all of the above.) I also marveled at the mileage.  The odometer had over 60,000 miles on it- by far the most I've ever seen on a Crosley.  Neat, but, that didn't bode well for the rear end and tranny- the steering box seemed like it was already shot.   There was a brief moment when I thought of making an offer, and then I remembered my blank bank account and all of my projects at home.  Instead I offered to help them sell it thru the West Coast Club if they didn't get much response to their ad. They liked that idea because they'd prefer to have the car restored rather than turned into a hot-rod.

So that was it.  Thirteen years of mild obsession, over.  After all those years of waiting, I can't believe I had more fun talking to the sellers about their dad  than I did actually looking at the Crosley.  I guess that's just the way it goes sometimes.



Monday, October 4, 2010

Hmod Reunion October 2 at Infineon Raceway

I always enjoy a trip to the vintage races, but this weekend I had a mission: after 6 years of seeing Lee Osborn's Crosley Special being loaded and unloaded off the trailer at the West Coast Crosley Meet, I was finally going to see it on the track.  Osborn's car, the 1955 Shannon Special has developed quite a reputation- it just may be the fastest Crosley powered object currently on the planet.  Lee himself has picked up a rep too- his aggressive driving combined with incredible engineering skills has meant that he's usually dicing with cars with twice or three times the engine displacement - Osborn's special has probably dusted more Porsches than any Crosley since Harry Eyerly was driving.
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I'd been following the preparations for this 'Hmod Reunion' on the Hmod bulletin board I read- with the limited number of Hmods still participating in vintage racing it's hard to get more than a few out at any given event.  Their months of planning resulted in close to 10 Hmods on this entry list, so I knew I couldn't miss it.  My pal Alex and I drove down to Infineon Raceway (which I still think of as Sears Point) on Saturday morning.  We got there just in time to catch the practice run for the group most of the Hmods were in.  Some of the cars were initially set in different groups, but after the practice the organizers got everybody put together in the same race, set for 4 o'clock.
 After the practice we walked back to the pits.  I was happy to find several Hmods I'd never seen before.
The Bunce Buck is a toothy Crosley based Hmod built by two guys, one named Bunce, the other named Ed Buck.  From talking to the current owner, Henry Morrison, it sounds like there were several of these built- this one is from 1959 and he's not sure if it ever had a race history.
At some point the Crosley that lived under the hood hump was tossed in favor of a rear Renault motor that, coincidentally, is identical (right down to the upgrade cam cover) to the Renault motor that was retrofitted to my Hmod.  The car is probably the most authentic of any Hmod I've seen, featuring a scratched plexiglass windscreen and a '10 footer' paint job.  I like it.
Pitted next to the Bunce Buck was a sleek fiberglass Hmod that was the solo project of Ed Buck - known as Ed's Hulk.  This thing is beautiful, so i'm guessing the name may have originated because of the beefiness of construction- the ladder frame has large tubing and there are several gussets made of 1/4 inch steel plate! The restoration was very well done and the motor was built by Barry Seel, the best-known of the East Coast Crosley engine builders.
Another car I was looking forward to seeing was this 1956 BMW Avia.  The car appeared briefly on Ebay and caused quite a stir on Bring a Trailer and some of the other carnut sites.  This hand formed aluminum bodied racer was built in Czechoslovakia by a company best known for airplane manufacturing and saw quite a bit of action in the fifties.  The new owners were racing it for the first time since its restoration- the BMW motorcycle engine seemed to run well but they were chasing a few electrical gremlins.

Every part of the car was a thing of beauty, and I could see why the owners were willing to part with their Shirdlu racer (currently for sale) to get this car.  They were stoked, and were super-nice to boot.
Two nice Panhard specials were also running in Hmod class.  I've seen these guys run before- great cars.  #114 is a particularly well-proportioned Hmod- there isn't that sense of the driver being too big for the car that plagues many designs.
Pitted with 114 was the Aardvark, a 1952 Panhard Special that is lighter and faster than almost any other special of the period- and you can tell... it's usually out in front of the pack even though it's one of the oldest Hmods still running.
Kip Fjeld was there with his 1956 Miller Special.  Originally built with a Triumph motorcycle engine, Miller installed a Crosley after three or four races and never looked back.  Kip has had this car a long time and campaigns it frequently.
Also on hand were Don Baldocchi and his incredible Nardi.  Don is the preeminent Crosley engine builder on the West Coast and his own car is evidence of his skill- he's always near the front and he never DNFs.
We chatted a bit with Lee as he checked the oil on the special.  Like nearly everything else on the car, the oil pan is a custom-built piece.  The car sits so low, Lee couldn't go with the Braje pan nearly every other racer uses, so he had to fabricate one out of a military sump.  Though the car is Crosley powered, there is little on the car that is stock Crosley.
There was plenty of other stuff to look at- the event was an annual charity benefit so there is always a good draw.
I believe that the San Francisco Sports Car Club might have been one of the sponsoring clubs- I saw a lot of their stickers.
One of the stranger cars I saw all day was this 1967 (i think) Marcos.  I'd only recently heard of these cars and thought they looked pretty funky.  Turns out that they are one of those cars that looks better in person than in pictures.  Saab Sonnets and MGBGTs are the same way.   Funky in pictures but really neat in person.
And this is the story of the track- scrambling to get something fixed before the next heat.  There were a lot of really nice cars on jackstands.
Not the Crosley-powered version, but amazing none the less.  These Siatas were called 'Baby Ferraris' and it's not hard to see why.
As it got close to the racetime for the group the Hmods were in we climbed the hill to my favorite vantage point..I think it's just called 'Turn 1.'  You get a great view of two twists in the track and there's usually plenty of action.  We watched a couple of other races up there and there was some excitement, especially for the driver a black Porsche:
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Finally the Hmods took their places on the tarmac along with about 20 other cars- all of which sported substantially larger displacements.  Unsurprisingly, Osborn was the first Hmod up the hill, running about 8th out of the whole race group.
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The rest of the Hmods diced a bit behind Lee.   Here's Don in the Nardi (101) followed up by the '54 Panhard (114):
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The track is long, and you lose sight of the cars for long periods... at some point I realized that we hadn't seen Lee Osborn in a while.   Just then we saw the corner worker pull a yellow flag- car off the track!  The race was almost over at that point- we watched the cars parade around the track and then hustled to the pits.  When we got there all the other Hmods were pitted- but no Shannon Special.
Don filled us in: Lee had lost a wheel and spun off the track!  We stood around and waited, not looking forward to seeing the wreckage, and hoping that Lee wasn't injured.  I couldn't believe it when the tow truck pulled the Shannon Special in, minus the left rear wheel but looking none the worse for wear!  Not even a scratch in the paint!  Lee had broken an axle in the middle of turn 11, just as he was passing an Alfa Romeo Zagato.  He spun 360 degrees and went into the dirt, but missed both the Alfa and the wall.
 You would never want to hit another car, but The Zagato was a particularly rare bird. Luckily the driver was very skilled and avoided Lee's car.  Lee went over and apologized and thanked the driver for not plowing into him.  He was pretty shaken up.
Although I'd have rather seen a race with less excitement I was still glad to have finally seen Lee run the car, and I was stoked that, all in all, he got away lucky.  It was amazing to see the car outperform the much bigger iron, but as Lee pointed out, it's at the absolute edge of performance now, so there's just no margin for error.  He's not sure when he'll be able to run again since the axles were custom made- the last set took a year to get. We stuck around long enough to help Lee get the three wheeler on his trailer and then headed back to Sacramento, visions of sportscars in both of our heads.