Dream Drive: '69 Superbee
The single-day show at Bandimere Speedway near Denver had been excellent, though the weather was somewhat overcast. The annual Mopars at Thunder Mountain had come off without any major hitches and, as car folks are prone to do, tales were being told as the sun fell behind the front range of the Rockies.
I was talking with Jon and Melanie King, who had come to the event with two cars. Jon had driven their pristine restored '68 440-powered Dodge R/T, while his better half was in the family's '69 1/2 Super Bee. The latter was the Ride of the Month in last May's issue of Mopar Muscle.
I had already lined up an A-12-type Plymouth for a Dream Drive, Smith Stokes' low-mileage '69 440-6 bbl Road Runner. However, that car really was no longer a street driver. Fresh heads, a reverse valvebody, and other changes made it fairly radical. I didn't get much more than a ride in it during a stop at Farmington Dragway in May, so that particular experience was postponed until we could get more track time. I looked at Melanie's machine while talking to Jon.
"You know, this car would be very cool to do one of those trips in," I suggested. "Hey, we could even say you guys lent me the one machine that would scare me enough to wet my pants!"
"When does your plane leave?" Jon asked.
"Tomorrow at 1 p.m.," I replied.
"Well, how about I just bring it over to the hotel and you take 'er out for a spin in the morning?" Jon said.
The '69 1/2 package cars coded A-12 have been covered in depth by Mopar Muscle in the past. This was the most legitimate street racer to leave Detroit during the musclecar era. Think about it-a huge functional scoop on a lift-off fiberglass hood; a 440 fueled by a brace of three Holley carbs; worked driveline parts that had previously been reserved primarily for the Hemi set. You didn't pick up too many street races in this one; people knew just what it was from the day it left the dealership.
In fact, reviews of these cars in the day had perceived it as more than just a go-fast machine. Publications such as Car Life praised it for its handling (relative to that era's other offerings) with the new suspension and wide F60 tires. Indeed, these tires made it necessary to use rims from Chrysler's police car package, and no other wheels were offered with the car when new. Car and Driver magazine even gave one to a trio of bootleggers in North Carolina for a gravel-spitting road test!
With this in mind, and the mountains so close, it stood to reason that perhaps it was time to revisit this idea and save the drag car stuff for the Road Runner. Initially, the idea was to drive to the former gold district of Central City, gaining an elevation of almost 10,000 feet. However, with the fast waters of Clear Creek in full spring rush at road's edge and the narrow pavement occupied by casino buses, Jon thought better of that idea. Instead, we hit a section of winding, climbing two-lane that was 20 miles south, near Morrison.
One thing the magazines had been unanimous in protesting was the braking system, which consisted of four 11-inch drums. As soon as I slid behind the wheel, I understood exactly why. Slowing this puppy down requires a good deal of foresight; you could push that left pedal with all your might, but the car was going to stop when it wanted to, not when you wanted it to. Moreover, the steering wheel was more of a rudder; it also took some getting used to. The rumble of the free-flowing exhaust filled the car as it idled out of the hotel parking lot.
As we drove onto the interstate, Jon gave me some details on the car. Rescued from the junkyard, its previous owner had never finished it and, as recounted in the Ride of the Month story, Jon and Melanie had opted to simply get it back on the road, battle scars and all. Since winter, however, the body panels and had been straightened and repainted (the couple owns an automotive business, King's Auto Restoration in Englewood), and the engine had gotten a mild cam, some transmission changes, and a set of BFGoodrich drag radials.
"Get used to it a little," he said with a grin. "Then drive it like you stole it!"
Monday morning traffic was heavy on the highway from Denver, so other than a couple of quick, full-throttle bursts, it was pretty hard to let the engine wind up. We exited the interstate, drove past the entrance to Bandimere Speedway, through the basically deserted town of Morrison, Colorado, and headed for the hills.
Except these weren't hills, they were mountains-real ones. The road was in good shape, but had turns and bends galore. Given the steering and brakes, not to mention the rocks and cliffs with a little foggy mist thrown in for good measure, I kept a tight grip on the steering wheel and stayed pretty near the legal limit as we went up in altitude. Body roll was minimal since I wasn't pushing it hard, and the car was well-behaved when running on just the center carb at 3,000 rpm. The rare air in Denver is said to account for an 18-percent loss in power. When a half-mile stretch of pavement opened up, I finally got a chance to wring it out, based more on Jon's laughing at my driving fear than anything else. After all, he'd told me point-blank the only thing limiting the car's ability was the size of the man's testicles who was driving it. At the first depression of the throttle, you can feel the engine labor for a moment, begging for fuel. Then those outboard carbs kick in. And even with the drag tires, the rear wheels were breaking loose at 50 mph. If it was losing power in the heights, you couldn't tell. The rpm level climbed in earnest, the front danced around a little, and with no traffic in sight, the centerline seemed to be as good as anything to use as a guide. Another 30-mph curve was coming, though, so easing off the gas and pumping the brakes brought the car back down to a more reasonable speed. Jon took another drag on his smoke and muttered, "Oh, man."
We went up a couple more miles, then turned around for the trip back. I was a little embarrassed; hey, the guy had told me to drive it like I had stolen it, and I was acting like my grandma. I wound it out a little more on the way back, nothing serious, and before we got back to the highway again, Jon said, "Turn in here."
The place is a spectacular park, where huge, building-sized boulders jut out of the landscape like something off one of Roger Dean's Yes albums from the '70s. At 8 a.m., the place was deserted, and we wound our way through a series of very narrow, one-lane roads that lead to a natural amphitheater in the center of the park. The mist was lifting, though droplets of moisture remained on the car and the windshield. Jon and I had both shot in-car photos using a digital camera on the earlier uphill jaunt, and now I wanted him to do some sideways acceleration displays on one of the S-curves. He obliged twice, with the car oversteering severely as the tires hopelessly grappled for traction on the damp uphill road. Great stuff for the camera, though. He pulled up after the second one and opened the passenger-side door.
"Get in, I'll show you how to drive this thing!" he said.
Blasts down the dragstrip or flat out on three-lane highways were one thing; careening down one-lane roads in a boulder-strewn park was another. Still, saying no was out of the question; my valor was at stake!
As everyone knows, riding can be a lot more, er, thrilling than driving. I was still scrambling for the seatbelts as the three carbs took in air with earnest. Now we were at full throttle in Second gear, downhill on a misty stretch of pavement. In Third nothing was visible except the mist, the road, then my life flashing before my eyes. Nowhere to go if there was a problem, and out of the corner of my eye, I spied a late-model Buick easing its way across a rapidly approaching T-intersection.
"Look out, there's a car coming!" I yelled.
My fearful plea not withstanding, Jon had already hit the brakes, the car went a little sideways, then he threw it down into Second for a quick moment. The engine screamed in protest, but the brakes took hold and the car finally slowed down.
You know the feeling you get at the apex of a roller coaster: whatever's coming is going to happen and you can't stop it.
"You have to hear this thing in the tunnel," Jon said.
There's a small tunnel in the park, a single 200-foot bore through solid stone with a big rock wall on the curve at the end of it. We idled up toward it and he hammered it again. This time, the rear wheels were way loose, and as we hit the opening of the bore, I was probably screaming louder than the engine. Once inside, it was like a dyno room. That cliff was looming ahead, immovable, and again all I could picture in my mind was going over the cliff on the other side or watching the fiberglass hood fly through the air as the engine burst through the firewall. My only hope was that Jon had been through this routine before and that no other early risers were tooling down from the other direction.
At the last minute, the engine rpm dropped, then screamed again as Jon put it back into Second. The steering wheel was cocked to one side and 3,800 pounds of Mopar steel accelerated sideways through the apex of the turn. Yep, we were still alive, back on the throttle again, and shooting up to the top parking lot. There Jon slowed it down briefly, then nailed it while twisting the wheel a hard left. The Dana was getting worked out big time as twin streaks of black rubber made a complete circle and then some and smoke boiled from the rear tires and mixed with the mountain mist. Facing the access road, the car fought back as Jon straightened it out, just as a carload of young people in a Honda crested the lot. He didn't miss a beat, and we rocketed back downhill. Once past the tunnel, he stopped, looked at me with a nervous laugh, and said, "You drive it now!"
As I slid back behind the wheel, the Honda rolled up beside us.
"Hey, man, do a burnout. C'mon, let's see that thing go again!"
I could only look them in the eye and shake my head no.
This was quite a fix. The park was getting busier and, let's face it, sound carries in the hills. Now, with all the fun stuff done, I was back in the saddle and figured it would be best to leave before somebody in authority saw the car and instantly put two and two together; I can get tickets well enough on my own, thank you. We idled out a side entrance and took a leisurely jaunt back to the interstate.
Once back to our starting point, I put some gas in the tank and tried to settle down. There were rides I'd taken in high school that scared me, but I think Jon's Six Pack Big Smack had taken the cake. We got on the interstate and I nudged the beast up into the triple digits, but that didn't matter at this point; there was no way I could drive that thing like a go-cart.
How many musclecars and their youthful owners had bought the farm driving stuff like this? The car could definitely perform, but obviously Jon had gotten quite used to that margin and knew where the boundaries lay. On the other hand, my past experience had put cars into telephone poles, stumps, other cars, and upside-down. When I asked him if he had ever piled one of his cars, he shook his head no.
Do I still want an A-12 package car? Oh, yes, yes, indeed! However, on this misty mountain hop, I realized a bit more than I expected: this stuff required some true finesse-R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Melanie's car is a stout package, but Jon told me it's going up for sale to pay for the Prowler they just bought. Personally, I would upgrade to better brakes and tighter steering (including a smaller wheel), but that's just me. In the days these cars were available from the dealership, they were the pinnacle of Mopar's wedge motor package for the street; from personal experience, I can now say this reputation remains untainted.