Dr. Wrench: Do You Have Hot Rod Fever?
Do you have hot rod fever? Do you need to feel the rumble of a loud V8 exhaust tremble through your body when you sit behind the wheel? Does the smell of burning rubber get your blood pumping and fill you with adrenaline? Does the feeling in the pit of your stomach make you smile when your right foot is smashed to the floor as you watch the scenery flash by in a blur? I know I have a bad case of it and have had for most of my life.
My name is Dale Metlika, and I am sure that like me, many of you definitely have the symptoms of hot rod fever. It’s an ailment that is shared by many men who, in their youth, were confronted with raw, beat-your-chest, grunting, animalistic automotive power. My case started when I was young, as I was exposed to all different forms of racing and fast cars at an early age.
My father was the manager of a very popular speed shop, and that meant that we went to the races. He would load my little brother and me up in the car and drive us to the circle track. Once there, we would sit in our seats in amazed wonder, watching the cars speed around the track as we each picked our own winner based on looks and sound.
Other times, we would spend the weekend at the dragstrip, watching alcohol funny cars while holding our ears the whole time. I always loved feeling the noise of those cars in my chest. It felt good and I smiled.
My father had his share of cars all throughout my childhood. My first car memory is of my dad’s ’64-1/2 Mustang convertible. I was only six or seven, but that car made an impression. It was purple with white interior and had a nifty foot print for a gas pedal.
Later on, my dad owned a ’64 Falcon complete with traction bars, slot mags, and ultra loud side pipes. Every time my dad had to work on that car, I was there holding the tools or helping in any way that I could.
Anytime there was an opportunity to ride somewhere with my dad, I jumped at the chance. Cruising around with the exhaust echoing in my ears and watching my dad shift gears with his Hurst floor shifter was more awesome than a bag full of Halloween candy.
This is Dad’s trusty brown Falcon before the sidepipes. Note the “way before its time” blacked out front grill.
As time passed and I got closer and closer to my sixteenth birthday, I started dreaming about owning my own hot rod….the only cure for the fever, or so I thought. Posters of Corvettes, Mustangs, GTO’s, Camaros, Chevelles, and ‘Cudas covered my bedroom walls. I had a two foot tall stack of Hot Rod and Car Craft magazines, complete with dog-eared pages of my favorite cars. Just about every night I would lie in bed and read about each and every one, until I had all the specs memorized.
My cousin and I at the NHRA Gator Nationals sometime in the 80’s.
Then day came that I found it (or it found me)….my dream car. I had
worked with my father at the speed shop for a year or so, saving every dollar for my first real car. As I pulled up to work that fateful day, there it was: a 1968 Pontiac GTO convertible.
I calmly walked around the car, noting the clean white paint, hide away headlights, black bucket seats, Hurst his and hers shifter, and two polished tail pipes under the rear bumper. I saw a guy sitting inside the warehouse with my dad, and I was barely able to contain my excitement about the muscle car outside that had found me.
“Dad, dad! Did you see that awesome GTO convertible outside? That is the coolest car ever! It has a Hurst dual gate shifter!” I continued for about five minutes before the stranger seated in my dad’s office grinned.
“It’s mine and it’s for sale,” he stated simply. I nearly passed out. I had been saving my money for this day – the day that I found my true destiny car. My love. My vision. My passion. My dreams had been answered.
See, most kids my age were trying to go out with girls, or playing sports, or playing in a band. But not me. I had the fever. I was working as many hours as possible so I could save up and get my hot rod. And now, that day was here.
Here is my father working the counter at the speed shop. They used to do the silk screened racing shirts there and I loved visiting dad and choosing which car pics I wanted on my t-shirt, then wearing it to school the next day.
The following weekend, I rode with my dad to the gentleman’s house to pick up my beauty. I studied the car intently as I slid into the driver’s seat. It had a power top, power windows, power door locks, and air conditioning. I fondled the T-handle on the Hurst shifter. I stared at the dual scoops in the hood and imagined them sucking in the world.
I hesitantly turned the key and watched the tach in the dash jump to life as the glass packs called out their rhythmic V8 thumps. He showed me how to put the top down, and I slid the car into drive. I gave the gas pedal a little nudge and I pulled out onto the highway, barely squealing the tires as I accelerated. I smiled and it was good.
I had big plans for my new cool ride. I even stopped on the way home to show the Goat off to one of my buddies. He didn’t get it. Sure, he said, it was nice and nifty, and even though he declined a ride, he offered his congratulations. He couldn’t get it because he didn’t have the fever. I didn’t care. I smiled anyway as I tore out of his parents’ driveway on my way home. Little did I know that my affliction had just gotten a little worse.
The famous Pontiac dual gate Hurst shifter as found in my ’68 convertible. This one is in a ’68 GTO hardtop project I now own years later.
The next day, as I prepared to drive my new pride and joy to high school, I heard a new noise coming from under the hood mimicking the glass packs. It was a nice loud popping coming from the carburetor and happened under any type of acceleration. This time I didn’t smile. I had barely experienced my dream of owning a great hot rod, and now my dream car was broken.
The gear heads at the speed shop pointed me in the direction of a spun timing chain. Seems Pontiacs were notorious for chewing up the nylon gears and sending the camshaft timing all out of whack, causing the loud backfires that now stopped me from attempting to race off the stoplights. This wasn’t a problem for me since I worked at the speed shop and had the shelves at my disposal – as long as I willing to spend my now dwindling savings.
After some long hours, tutoring, multiple phone calls, and tool borrowing, I was able to get the timing set changed and got it running again. But it wasn’t right. It wouldn’t idle. I took it to a racing mechanic who gave me the bad news: bent valves. The heads had to come off and it needed a valve job in order to get it running properly. Not the best news to hear when you are just about broke.
This is the closest thing I could find that reminded me of the GTO of my youth: a 1969 LeMans convertible. I plan on making it into a GTO clone.
This is when the fever holds strong and keeps you going. I took the engine apart myself and changed the heads, only to find the oil pump locked up from a piece of the nylon gear. If you have ever tried to change the oil pump in a Pontiac without pulling the engine, I am here to tell you: it is impossible. A friend helped me pull out the engine and replace the pump to get it roadworthy again.
As usually happens in these cases, many more problems occurred with the GTO, quickly draining my life savings. I started figuring out that this car, the car that I just had to have, my dream car, was leaving me stranded on the side of the road more than I was actually getting to drive it.
It also gave me busted knuckles, taught me how complex an engine really is, and the value of every hard earned penny that I had saved up.
So, in an emotional moment, I got rid of it. College was coming, I needed a much more reliable car and I was going away for the summer. The GTO simply didn’t fit into my plans anymore.
I stood and watched it go away on a trailer for the last time. I was a little sad, but feeling slightly more mature and a tad wiser, I tucked my tail between my legs and went on with my life.
My brother and I bought and restored this ’69 Mustang convertible. It was a beautiful car and fun to drive.
As you probably already know, the fever never really goes away. It simply gets put on hold for a sliver of time.
About a year and a half later, I started obtaining more fast cars in order to keep the hot rod fever at bay. I went through a whole variety. I had a ’68 340 Barracuda Fastback, a ‘70 Monte Carlo SS Big Block, a ’74 Camaro, and three Fox Body Mustangs from ’88, ’98, and 2000 just to name a few. Some of them were fun and ran great. Some of them never ran and just went through different phases of construction.
I found this sweet ’72 LeMans Sport that was owned by a little old lady. I’ve got a 500ci Pontiac in the works for this project.
Fast forward to today. Twenty plus years after I let my dream GTO go, and I can proudly say the fever is still strong in me. I now have six Pontiacs, in various states of completion. I have helped other people feed their fever by selling them parts and even by helping them work on their hot rods of choice. I have helped organize and run drag races and I still love that feeling in my chest when two loud drag cars are doing burnouts.
I love cruising around town with the top down in this ’72 LeMans.
I took my ’72 LeMans convertible out for a nice drive with the top down the other day. It was a sunny day, and unlike the ’68 GTO, it never lets me down. Starts up every time, runs smoothly, and is great for cruising.
A young guy in a pickup truck yelled over to me at a red light. “Hey, man…can that thing do a burnout?” he asked with a slight grin. Yeah, I knew he had the fever too. I gave it a good load of pedal when the light changed, so the exhaust pipes rang out behind me and the tires put out a good amount of smoke.
It felt good and I smiled.