Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Rocket Car

Editor’s Note: If you’re not interested in old cars, you might want to sit this column out. It gets around to being NASCAR related only in its own sweet time and briefly at that. In my defense, it’s been a long season, I’m on deadline, out of ideas and I have a ton of cleanup to do outside after the storm this weekend.

As I grow older, autumn tends to be a time of almost morose reflection on the past. The arrival of autumn means it’s almost time to pack away the beloved Harley for the season, with no more romps in the Nova or Trans Am until the first heavy spring rain washes away all the road salt from a wearisome winter.

This weekend here near the Lancaster-Chester County border, autumn collided with a very premature winter in the form of eight inches of snow. In a way, it was handy. Rather than raking leaves, we’ll be hauling away branches still laden with them. There was plenty of time to contemplate how to do so on a long cold, night with no electricity, temperatures in the 20s, howling winds and near whiteout conditions most of the evening while berating myself for neglecting to pick up a spare pack of smokes or fill the kerosene can.

Once more, the weather witch on six got me; she swore we were only due a dusting. Trick or treat, bitch!

More bearable temperatures have returned and the snow is melting (though the branches steadfastly refuse to move themselves to the burn pile) and one of the things that’s been on the “to-do” list for about two years is taking a road trip out to one of those rare wrecking yards that still has a lot of older cars.

All I really need is a little guide that screws to the headrest of the Pontiac to keep the shoulder belt from catching the wind and beating your ear until it looks like a rose somebody stomped on. Truth be told, I like slogging around wrecking yards, looking at old cars, so it was worth the 90-minute drive.

Those brackets were nearly universal in GM cars of the era and I was able to find one out of a ’77 Firebird that will do fine. Two bucks. On the way to pay, I passed a lean-to and experience tells me that’s where the good stuff (the stuff the owner is going to restore one day but never does) lives. And there at the end of the structure sat a Rocket Car.

All of us have that half-formed memory of the first car we recall from our youth. Mine is Mom’s Rocket Car. It was a 1960 Chevrolet Kingswood nine-passenger wagon, in a deep blue color with a white roof, whitewall tires and the deluxe wheel covers. And chrome. Miles of chrome. On the side of ’60 Chevys there was a stylized piece of trim that looked like a rocket, complete down a contrail of contrasting paint that flowed to the rear of the wagon. (See picture at the top of this column).

It was mom’s first car. She grew up in the city and her family never had a car. She rarely even rode in one. Thus she didn’t know how to drive, which was fine when my parents first married, but a new addition, yours truly, was on the way. Babies need to get taken to doctors’ appointments constantly as well as trips to see the grandparents, diaper runs and what not.

A nervous, expectant first-time father wanted his child to be riding in reliable style along the way and the family’s only other set of wheels was a ’53 Chevy with a couple hundred thousand miles on it, rust holes in the passenger side floorboard from a leaky heater core. Dad went out to buy the wagon and I’d hear years later that the salesperson pressured him into buying more car than he actually sought for more money than he wanted to spend.

Yes, indeed the McLaughlin kids were going to ride in style into the rocket-age future where trips to the moon would be as easy as taking the bus to school.

As a fetus, I was blissfully unaware of the transaction. Dad taught mom to drive (poorly… she was never a very handy driver even later in life). At 4 feet, 10 inches, mom must have been quite the sight wheeling that big blue monster around. Neighbors quickly learned to stay out of her path. Blissfully unaware, infant Matt rode around in that car starting with the first trip I took after arriving home from the hospital.

As I got a little older and my tiny vocabulary grew, I felt the need to assign names to objects familiar to me. I had a cast metal rocket toy and the side trim on the Chevy looked like the toy. Thus was born “the Rocket Car” (well the “Wocket Caw” but you get the idea). The Rocket Car would remain my primary transportation as the baby count swelled to four, each of my next three sisters a year apart.

We rode in our big blue chariot without complaint or contemplation, and in that era minus seatbelts, baby seats, air bags or even disc brakes. In the event of a hard crash, I’m sure the four of us would have flown like missiles from the car in an unintended imitation of the rockets on the side of the car. To see how a similar Chevy sedan fared in a modern crash test, watch this.

Somehow, an entire generation of children by and large survived the pre-safety era despite taking long trips jumping up and down in the back seat or in my case, hanging my head out the window like a happy Golden Retriever on hot summer days to catch a breeze.

For all it’s gee-whiz futuristic styling, the Rocket Car lacked air conditioning. It did, however, have bright blue vinyl seats that on a summer’s day when the car was parked, heating up to the point it would leave red marks in the design of the upholstery branded into tender young skin.

Naturally, given my age, my recollections of the car are less than perfect. But after mom died, we were sorting through her boxes upon boxes of pictures and there it was – the Rocket Car. There are no pictures I know of only the Chevy itself. It wasn’t the sort of car you took pictures of. But there it always lurked in the background berthed in the driveway of 2121 Boxwood Lane, the unsightly blue and chrome, mastodon.

There’d be the four McLaughlin kids dressed in our Easter best, ready to hop in the Rocket Car for the ride to Mass at Saint Charles Boromeo. Or we’d be in our snow gear, ready to play in the newly fallen snow that blanketed the big blue Chevy in the background. Or, we’d be dressed up for trick or treating in our dime store costumes and there behind us, a few more dings added sat the Kingswood.

Here’s what I do know for sure about the car. It cost over $3,000, a fortune at the time. How do I know? As I got a little older, I recall Dad returning from work to find a new dent in the Chevy and hollering “Damn it Anne, that’s a $3,000 car!” I remember him telling men in our neighborhood it had the same frame as a Cadillac, which I now know to be incorrect, but that’s probably what the dealer told him.

I remember clearly how huge the car was, size of course being a matter of perspective when your height is two foot something. On evening trips on the way home my eldest sister and I could lay across that backseat without touching one another while our two infant siblings slept in the footwells ahead of us. Oh, and the car had the optional 348 four barrel. I remember the valve covers that looked like the letter W I’d just learned on my magnetic letter board. As a result, it got terrible gas mileage, my guess is probably in the single digits.

Even in an era of 20-cent gas, my dad fretted constantly about fuel costs and wished he gone with the standard eight. Family finances didn’t concern me. I just recall enjoying watching the rotary numbers which I was just learning roll by with a soft bell tinging each gallon at the local Flying A filling station.

I recall a neighbor told my dad that by doing something to the air cleaner (flipping the lid, perhaps) he’d get better fuel mileage and acceleration. I don’t know if it worked, but I do fondly recall a giant wooshing sound emanating from under the hood when mom buried the throttle because she was in a hurry. And when you have that many kids in potty-training or needing diapers, you’re always in a hurry.

As a 4-year-old, I took my own hugely inappropriate turn at the wheel of the Rocket Car. Mom said we were going to see Nana, Dad’s mother. A trip like that meant two things; lots of treats and gifts, usually Matchbox cars for me. When Mom took too long gathering up things for our younger siblings, my eldest sister and I decided to speed things along. We climbed in the front seat.

In those days, cars didn’t have interlocks to keep the column shifter from leaving park without the keys in the ignition. I found neutral and rolled proudly out of the driveway, cranking away hand over hand on the giant blue steering wheel that looked like it had been pirated from a tug boat.

That’s when the adventure went wrong. Even if I knew which pedal down there made the car slow down I wouldn’t have been able to reach it. The Rocket Car bounced up over a curb and flattened a stop sign which was crushed beneath it. The Chevy was hung up, so the tow truck guy smoked the hell out of the rear tires on the sidewalk trying to dislodge the behemoth, a trick that fascinated me.

And if I recall when he got home Dad hollered at me, “Damn it, Matthew, that’s a $3,000 car.” Fortunately, the “Cadillac” frame wasn’t bent.

I never fell in love with the Rocket Car. It was like the fridge, handy but not much to look at. (Yeah, I should be careful here. All right, ’60 Chevy fans, I drive a car with a gold screaming chicken on the hood and I once owned a Gremlin. In my defense, it was a V8 three-speed X model with the Levi interior and “desert air” which I sold at a profit. About four years after I put it up for sale. So I am not the ultimate judge of auto design.)

The first car I recall lusting after was in 1966 when a local young man returned home from ‘Nam and bought a dark green Shelby GT350. Then one day while Mom was in the grocery store I walked over to the adjacent Dodge dealer just in time to see a fire engine red ’69 Daytona with a huge white wing in the back roll off the transporter.

I remember touching the Hemi emblem with awe. I tried convincing Dad that Daytona should be his next set of wheels. No sale. Gales of laughter I recall. A few years later a neighbor bought a silver ’70 Mach One Cobra Jet home and that did the trick … I was a gearhead forever.

Shortly before the birth of my fourth sister I came home from first grade and the Rocket Car was gone. Despite the snow that day mom, who was seven months pregnant with my fourth sister, ventured out in the Chevy to do her Christmas shopping while she still could. She lost control of the Chevy and spun it backwards into a bridge abutment, totaling the big blue car.

I went with Dad to collect our personal effects out of the Rocket Car. The fancy Chevy emblem on the grille had been knocked half off when the front end initially hit a guardrail and I asked if I could have it. He allowed me to pry it off and I still have it stuffed away in some box around here, so I guess I did feel a certain affection for the Rocket Car after all.

Mom was fine but out a set of wheels. We must have been a bit bucks down back then because the massive Chevy was replaced with a tiny Dart wagon with the slant six dad decided on to reduce the nearly daily robbery at the Flying A.

I was a budding car guy in the era and even I knew that a six was inferior to an eight. Besides its ungainly body lines that particular example was painted a horrible shade of tan with a brown interior. I hated that thing from first sight. Out of my parents hearing I called it “The Fart,” the first naughty word I’d learned.

Eventually five growing kids meant the Fart no longer fit the family and it gave way to a ’70 Vista Cruiser with the 455 (I guess Dad reconciled himself with fuel prices). That wagon would eventually be handed down to me to drive whenever my own silver Cobra Jet was torn apart and inoperative which it was frequently while I sought a few more tenths improvement at the drag strip.

As I found out, you can make good money street racing a wood-sided wagon with a big engine against small block sporty cars which kept the Cobra on life support.

OK, I promised if you hung in there long enough I’d somehow steer the story of the Rocket Car to NASCAR racing. I am many despicable things, but I am not a liar.

In 1960, I was going on one year old, so I had no inkling of what was going on down south that summer and fall. If I’d known what NASCAR was, what a race was or such doubtless I’d have been thrilled to know that a fellow Rex White, who a lot of you have never heard of, won that year’s NASCAR championship at the wheel of 1960 Chevy.

(No seriously. Check this out for some images of the car, though a few photos are of later models, and to find out who White was. Here’s a hint, he had a better career average finishing position than Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson … or Dale Earnhardt for that matter.)

The picture of the rear of White’s car and the battered-up racecar on the trailer are both clearly 1960 model Chevrolets. Nobody was going to mix them up with a Ford or the era or the Plymouth some kid named Richard Petty drove to second in the ’60 championship standings.

You’ll note that the trademark rocket emblems are missing from the side of White’s car, but I have vintage photos of ’60 Chevys running in full trim right down to the rockets. I guess when they fell off while beating and banging the trim pieces weren’t replaced but the holes where that trim once mounted were left open by and large.

The massive chrome grille, the body style lines and even those massive bumpers looked just like Mom’s Rocket Car. The following year, Ned Jarrett won the NASCAR championship wheeling mainly a ’61 Chevy. If White’s ’60 model and Jarrett’s 61 were parked side by side, most of you wouldn’t know which was which, but you’d easily discern they weren’t the same sort of car. So what year Ford Fusion was Carl Edwards driving last week? Was the No. 99 car even a Ford? Other than the decals it sure looks like a Chevy … or a Dodge … or a Toyota.

My point is this sport was a whole lot more fun when the stock cars were more “stock.” That used to be in the rulebook. Ford went to great expense to alter the roofline on their street going Galaxies to make them faster on the track. They stuffed 427s under the hood to make their cars legal in NASCAR and the NHRA.

Chrysler spent millions developing Dodge Daytonas, like the red one I saw being dropped off at the dealership and Plymouth Superbirds to be able to race them. In more recent years Chevrolet developed the Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe and Pontiac the Grand Prix 2 plus 2 to go NASCAR racing.

Both of those cars were aesthetic disasters, but GM had to give their teams a more aerodynamic car so they could keep up with the fleet Ford Thunderbirds of the era. To race them on the track Chevy and Pontiac had to sell them in the showroom. That front end that looks so good on ’86 and 87 ‘Grand Nationals was a complete redesign to try to make Buick NASCAR entries faster. Hence the name of those sinister black cars.

There’s no way the Cup series could run stock Fusions, Impalas or Camrys today. They’re all front wheel drive and wouldn’t last a lap in any form barely approaching stock. The street Chargers are rear wheel drive, but come off the showroom floor as four doors. However lurking in the big three’s inventories are Camaros, Mustangs and Challengers that are in fact rear-wheel drive, two-door coupes, just like God and Bill France Sr. intended a stock car to be.

Ford races the Mustang in the Nationwide Series, but says it won’t make the move to the Cup Series. Chevrolet has steadfastly refused to consider the Camaro as its NASCAR entry.

Tough. Tell the Big Three these are the cars that are legal for the Cup Series in 2013, the Mustang, the Camaro and the Challenger. If you want to race bring those cars along.

Oh, and be sure they meet the same templates as what your dealers sell, right down to the emblems, badges, outside rearview mirrors, grilles, bumpers and style lines. We’re going to put some stock back in stock cars. (What about Toyota? They don’t offer a V8 two door coupe. Whoops. We’ve inadvertently solved another problem that irks fans today … foreign cars in NASCAR.)

The cars are too fast at Talladega? With the stock bodies they won’t be. And the bumpers aren’t going to match up too well so there goes your tandem racing. Sure we’ll have to add some sort of spoiler to the rear of the cars and the appropriate safety equipment, but as I sit in turn 1 watching cars come at me off of turn 4 I want to be able to tell a Dodge from a Ford from a Chevy.

People say “they don’t build them like they used to.” Perhaps in the case of the Rocket Car (and the Gremlin) that’s for the better. But my guess is 40 years from now when some gearhead slogs his way through a muddy wrecking yard to see what’s to be seen, he isn’t going to feel nostalgic about a 2011 Focus, recalling it as the car that won this year’s Daytona 500.

You know, maybe in the spring I’ll return to that wrecking yard I visited today and see if that old Chevy is still sitting there and the owner is willing to admit he’ll never get around to restoring it. If nothing else I already have a grille emblem for it.

About the author


Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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