Old cars and new friends; the second time around

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it yet.” —author Mitch Albom

In a column published just shy of five years ago, I mulled as to how coming full circle can be many things. True enough, it can be an ending, a beginning, or both.

One continuous thread throughout my three-score and ten has been cars. Old cars, unique cars, cool cars, fast cars. My father never fully appreciated this concept, to him an automobile was “just a way to get from point A to point B.” He was still shaking his head when by the time I graduated from college at age 23, I had owned seven vehicles: two new from Sandlin Chevrolet and Olds in Mount Pleasant, Texas, where I worked my way through college (and cars); four of them high-performance muscle cars of the era.

In reality, I agreed with dad. Cars were about getting from A to B. For me, it just had to be as fast as possible.

A fast trip to the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals (MCACN) show in Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving proved to be a “coming full circle” experience as well as a look back at my history of getting from A to B in fast fashion. Organizers promote the annual event as “…the ultimate gathering place for young and old who have a passion for horsepower…a showcase for the cars that have become a part of our lives…a place to revive past memories and friendships while opening the door to new ones.”

I could not have said it better.

 

69 Olds W-31_1
My 1969 Olds F-85 with the W-31 performance package in racing configuration and ready for the 1970 NHRA Springnationals. Just one on that long list of, “Should’a never sold it.”

Having owned a number of high performance and muscle cars both when they were new and in the years since, the show had been on my radar for a couple of years. Two things determined that this was my year to go.

The first was a low-production, high-performance Oldsmobile muscle car manufactured from 1968 to 1970, one of which I bought new at Sandlin’s. Dubbed as the “W-31 Ram Rod,” it was built to make lots of power with a high-flow forced air induction system, a number of unique speed components, and marketing with “Dr. Olds W-Machine” black-and-white ads that would have made Boris Karloff and Dr. Frankenstein proud.

The other was a friend I had yet to meet, Stephen Minore of New Haven, Connecticut. Stephen is a life-long Olds W-Machine fan recognized as the “guru” for identifying and authenticating surviving examples. I contacted him in 2016 about the one I owned and raced 49 years ago. He tipped me off earlier this year about a W-31 Invitational as part of the MCACN where his own 1970 W-31, fresh out of a complete restoration would be unveiled.

That was all I needed. I was all in.

MINORE-IMG_5767blog
Stephen Minore’s freshly restored 1970 Olds Cutlass W-31 in Chicago at the MCACN show.

 

Oldsmobile built a scant 212 copies of the car like I raced. Try and find one today and you’ll likely score a genuine set of hen’s teeth first. Seeing a dozen or so examples in one place and remembering my drag racing days was a pinnacle moment in that full circle.

As for making new friends, not only did I get to finally shake hands with Stephen after more than two years of email and phone calls, attending the show also resulted in making another new friend—someone else who lived those drag racing days.

 

Dr Olds ad
“Dr. Oldsmobile” W-31 ad from 1969.

Tweed Vorhees of Dover, Ohio, drag raced a ’67 Olds W-30 and Ron Garey raced a ‘68 Olds W-31 (pictured at the top of the page), both sponsored by the Chesrown Olds dealership in Newark, Ohio. Garey won his class at the 1970 NHRA Springnationals at the old Dallas International Motor Speedway. Other Oldsmobile W-Machines competing that June weekend were from California, Nebraska, Iowa, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Washington. Oh, and a kid from Mount Pleasant racing a ’69 Sandlin sponsored Olds W-31.

 

A few years ago, Tweed located the 1968 Ron Garey car that had been lost since 1970 and restored it to its racing glory days. He had it on display at the show where we shared memories about the history-making cars and some of the drivers we both knew back then, many of whom drove for a Smothers Brothers sponsored team of the W-equipped Oldsmobiles.

When I sold my Olds W-Machine in 1971 and ended my racing career, I never dreamed there might one day be the beginning of a new circle with the old cars and new friends in my future—an end and a beginning.

By the way, I’m loving the second time around.

—Leon Aldridge

(As a postscript to this sentimental journey, I would be remiss in failing to acknowledge my lifelong friend who passed away in 2016, Oscar Elliott. It was Oscar who encouraged me to buy a W-31 Oldsmobile and race it when we both worked at Sandlin’s. He performed all the work needed to transform it into a competitive race car in Sandlin’s service department and maintained it for me. It was his 1968 SS 396 El Camino that we used to tow the W-31 Olds to race tracks from Dallas to Houma, Louisiana, down close to New Orleans and numerous drag strips in between making memories that have lasted a lifetime. I thought about him at the show knowing he would have enjoyed this new circle as much as I have.) 

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune

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