I've often written about how the familiar sounds of an old song can instantly transport me to a different time and place, and that was certainly the case with one I ran across recently. Johnny Bond's "Hot Rod Lincoln" took me back to a time when my friends and I had some hot rod adventures of our own — and one of us became a local legend.
Cyrus Whitfield (Johnny) Bond had already been a very successful country music songwriter and performer for years when he first recorded the song, and it wasn't a particularly big hit at that time. That occurred years later when Commander Cody's version hit the charts. But Bond's early version had a vitality and rawness that seemed to be lifted right out of Rebel Without A Cause.
My friends and I were nothing like James Dean; and a movie of our lives would probably have been named Rebels Without A Clue, but we did have a few experiences revolving around the familiar pairing of teenage boys and hot cars. And I confess that we did occasionally go rocketing down dark roads, our pulses pounding.
I have to begin by admitting that my car wasn't exactly smokin' in those days. It was an ancient Buick that went from zero to sixty in something like 12 minutes, and that was only with a following wind. I did try to make it a little cooler-looking with some customizing, but all I could afford were some chrome knobs from the hardware store, which I mounted in the front grill. Not many people thought the resulting look was cool. In fact, I think I heard my Buick called 'the kitchen cabinet special' a few times.
One guy in my circle did have a very cool car, but it wasn't our first choice for late-night drives. It was an old Ford coupe that had been carefully and lovingly restored, but even though the car looked good it wasn't particularly fast. Besides that, he was so worried about anything happening to it that he drove it like — well, like an old man.
But another friend — let's call him Larry — had a car that put the others to shame. The strange thing is that of all the guys I knew, Larry was probably the least like James Dean — he wore thick glasses and played saxophone in the school band — but he did have one thing in common with Dean: he too had a date with destiny.
Ironically enough, Larry had grown up without a car in the family because his dad didn't drive and had never owned an automobile. He'd always ridden a bicycle to work and felt like they did just fine without modern transportation. That might have been true in the past, but it didn't account for now having a teenager in the house.
As Larry approached driving age, he grew more and more obsessed. He took driver's ed in school and passed the test for a license, all the while constantly nagging his parents for a car. They finally gave in and purchased a used Pontiac hardtop, and since neither of his parents drove at that time (his dad later learned how), the Pontiac effectively became Larry's car.
None of us were too sure why the Pontiac was so quick, because even though it was in nice shape it just had a standard factory V-8 under the hood. But we soon discovered that whenever Larry stood on the gas pedal the car took off like a demon, leaving long strips of burnt rubber on the street. It was a little scary just riding with him, especially when we'd look over and see his wild eyes peering through his thick glasses. That might be one of the reasons why we all encouraged him to take his car to the local drag strip, which periodically offered amateurs a safer way to test their cars against others.
I don't think there's much doubt that Larry was nervous that night at the drag strip, but he followed instructions and pulled his car into the starting position next to his opponent. But then one of the officials noticed that Larry's front bumper was overhanging the starting line by a few inches, so he motioned for him to back up a little. Larry shifted to reverse and gently moved it back.
Larry and the other racer — along with a pretty sizable crowd — then breathlessly watched the signal lights, and after what seemed like forever they flashed to green. Both drivers stomped their pedals and the night was filled with the sound of screeching tires and the smell of burnt rubber. But there was one problem: Larry had forgotten that he was still in reverse.
As his opponent disappeared down the strip, Larry was going just as fast, but backwards, causing everybody around to dive for cover. Luckily, he was able to get control and stop before anyone got hurt. To his credit he raced later that evening and won — and he won most of his races on other nights too — but he always had to ignore the snickering. He had become a legend.