Four Speeds and Drum Brakes: Off to the (Rat) Races

For generations, teenage boys always got their drivers license on their birthday. For some it was 16 years old, down south it was 15 years old, when I was a kid. While different states had different age criteria we all looked forward to the freedom that a license allowed and couldn’t wait for that special day. We could run errands for the family, drive ourselves to school and Rat Race with our friends.

I had the advantage of riding with an older brother for a year and a half while he threw our father’s Studebaker President around the dirt roads of Kissimmee, FL . It was a low slung two door V8 that was pretty radical compared to classmates’ Fords and Chevys. The car came with us from, CA when we moved, had dual exhaust and dual antennas on the rear fenders. Bill got really good at “dirt tracking “ that car and I got good at learning how to steer in the direction of the skid.

In those days some of the roads were paved but there were no curbs, so chasing friends through neighborhoods meant cutting corners and driving across front yards. One course that we used often had an owner that would come flying out the front door yelling at us as we trimmed the edges of his Zoysia grass. One of our friends got such a charge out of the guy that he went back later in his ’49 Ford, rolled up by the front door and revved the straight pipe engine until the front door swung open. He dropped the clutch and laughed as the spinning tires left a pathway to the street. Halfway to the pavement he slammed the column shifter into second gear, popped the clutch and broke the driveshaft. When the police arrived he was still sitting in the car. It took him a month of weekends to repair the grass in the yard.   

Most of these runs were at night and we quickly learned some tricks to outrunning other cars. Cars were pretty simple back then and all the fuses for my VW were bolted to the panel holding the steering column in place. It was easy to just drill a couple of holes for toggle switches and wire them in line to interrupt power to brake and taillights. The license plate light was connected to one of the taillights so everything out back went dark when that toggle was thrown. The first advantage was to be able to turn off the brake lights. That way when brakes were applied the car chasing close behind didn’t get any advance notice that you were about to turn. My beetle got outrun by a lot of faster cars but because they spent time backing up to get turns they missed, I could usually get away. Another advantage was to eliminate tail and license plate lights. That made it easy to hide in driveways and alleys but still be able to see ahead. The real advantage was to have a set course with short blocks and many turns to interrupt the line of sight. I was always taking a different way home from school to find roads that were to my advantage. Roads that looked like they didn’t go through or even construction areas that didn’t seem to have more than one entry/exit were perfect for my Bug.

My best run was with a neighbor that drove a ’57 Chevy with a Corvette engine, hardly a match for my 36hp VW. Lots of smoke and noise but every time he got up too close I would turn off the brake lights using the switch under the dash, hit the brakes hard and turn right. He would go sailing through the intersection with all four wheels locked and I was gone. The Beetle outran the big bad Chevy for the better part of an hour. I stopped before he ran out of gas and we had a great laugh. Great fun and we probably never got over 50 mph. At least I didn’t.

While cars weren’t as large as today’s version, most everything was larger than my VW. I found a couple of dirt roads that turned into paths which were wide enough for me but not for a “real” car. If all else failed I could always bail on a larger car by just heading for the “Squirrel path”. In the process of exploring a dirt road one night, I came upon two posts that were pretty close together on the top of a Dike that I figured I could slip past. As I stared at the fender clearance and slowly let out the clutch, I was surprised the see the chrome strip on the front hood hit the windshield. It turns out that there was a black crossbar that was attached to the two posts that I didn’t see. It was at just the right height to contract the chrome strip without damage to the hood itself and push it up into the glass. I stopped, backed out, pushed the strip back in place and counted myself lucky as there was no damage.

A few years ago, I read a report written by the guy who bought the Volvo wagon that belonged to, Paul Newman. The original engine had been swapped for a Ford V8 to turn the grocery grabber into a real sleeper. The part I liked the best was the disclosure that there was a brake light cut off switch, under the dash that, Paul had installed. While the current owner was not sure how it was used, I knew exactly why it was there. Nice to be a member of the same club as, Paul Newman.

Too much traffic and too many curbs to do any Rat Racing nowadays but I still feel the need for extra switches. With cars following too closely, the cutout switch isn’t needed but a turn on brake light switch sure comes in handy. I have a small momentary switch that will turn on the brake light without ever lifting my foot off the gas. If that doesn’t work I can throw on the clear ( LED bright) back up lights. The Audi also has rear fog lights which are really bright.  It only had one originally but it was easy to add a second in the other taillight housing. Different countries have different regulations as to which side should be used, so most manufacturers have a socket  inside both taillights.

Modern cars are not as easy to modify since their wiring harnesses look like something off the Lunar Landing vehicle. If you can find the correct wire, the computer will trip you up and start lighting up the dashboard. It knows the brake lights shouldn’t light up unless the brakes are on and will send  a message that there is a brake problem. Don’t ask me how I know that. I think it notifies your local dealer, the police department where you live and your Senator in Washington DC. If you throw the interrupt switch  I think a voice comes on and suggests that you pull over and wait for AAA.  I’m not sure of that because I didn’t get that far.

(Actual image: Porsche Gold Meisters doing any work on a modern Porsche)

I’m just happy that I have been able to personalize (OK modify) my cars over the years and nobody cared. It has been great fun to tinker with cars and make them my own. Whether it’s exhaust systems, wheels and tires, stripes down the side or switches under the dash, each change makes it different and I enjoy being different. Isn’t that what the Muppets said on Sesame Street?

May the cars in your garage be as much fun for you as mine are for me.

-Tom Tate