Stop me if you have heard this story before
The old Burkster, like many of his journalist peers, has more than a couple of project cars in various stages of assembly and disassembly. I own a really nice ’68 Buick Skylark that I bought with the help of my pal Dave Wallace from SoCal shoebox legend and engine builder Dave Riolo’s mom (whose first name was Henrietta) almost 20 years ago. It recently has taken up residence at the Burkster’s long time racing buddy and speed shop owner Matt Johnson’s Speed Center in nearby St. Louis.
Currently my ’67 big block El Camino and a pristine 1950 model Crosley station wagon are occupying the space in my garage. Unfortunately, neither of them are currently drivable much to the dismay of my long-suffering and patient wife, Kay. After I commandeered her Dodge van, again leaving her without transport, she made a friendly but firm request that I get one of them drivable or…. Not waiting for the rest of the sentencing. . .er, I meant sentence to roll off the lips of “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” I rushed out to the industrial ghetto area that is my garage and attempted to make an evaluation which of my in-the-works projects could be made street ready the fastest.
I gazed longingly at the 1950 model Crosley station wagon that I inherited from my father-in-law. For years I’ve planned to pull the Crosley four-banger out of it, beef up the frame, and install a blown, small block Ford and an automatic trans. But doing that requires a lot of time and cash, both of which I’m critically short of. Besides, I still harbor the idea of conning my kid brother, Dick, into putting some money into the Crosley project, getting my pal Jim Oddy to build us the blown small block and make the Crosley a gas/supercharged sedan. I’ve even got the name for it “Bing Crosley.” We’ll paint it Cherry red, of course
Unfortunately my brother is still reeling over the money he “invested” in the ‘63 Galaxie 500XL D/S he and I raced back in 1968 and isn’t likely to fall into that trap again.
Then my eyes wandered over to El Camino Nitrouso my big block car that has been the subject of many stories in this magazine and used to be drivable until I decided to paint it. In order to prep the body for paint it was almost taken totally taken apart by a friend’s son, who then lost interest in my car but not girls, and then abandoned the job.
El Camino body parts, trim and fenders are scattered all over my garage and unfortunately I’ve discovered I’m just a drag racer and not a paint and body man, so despite buying a shop manual I’ve not been able to put the “Elk” back together so it can be driven. It’s an old familiar story.
I could, with some help and money, get the "Elk" back together, but with the big block, headers, 3.73 gear, and gas prices being what they are, I’ve decided to option that for the time being.
So I’m left with just one doable project car: “Henrietta,” the ’68 Buick Skylark. I’ve worked on that car over years but aside from an MSD distributor and ignition it retains the stock 350 inch/275 horse/4 barrel Buick engine and trans. It retains the totally inadequate stock front brakes that feature a brake drum that is about 16 inches across. Both the engine and the brakes are tired and in need of some serious work. Frankly, parts for the engine are expensive and hard to find. To make matters worse the Buick engine has 10.25:1 compression and requires premium ($3.30 a gallon today) gas just so it won’t “ping” when you step on the throttle. Using the brakes at any speed above 50mph is just scary.
So, I’ve made a hard decision. I’m going to yank the Buick engine and tranny out of Henrietta, repair, pickle and store ‘em in my garage and install a TCI Turbo-350 trans and converter behind a .30 over 350 inch Chevy. I’m also going to replace the stock drum brake set-up with a stock disc brake from an ‘80 model Chevy Malibu. We’re ordering the parts from the CSK folks.
My old friend Matt Johnson is helping by assembling the engine using a rotating assembly I’ve had lying around the garage for about six years. The crank is out of a 4-bolt, 350-inch truck engine. The stock rods are ones that I polished and installed aftermarket rod bolts in and topped with a set of dished KB pistons. We’re using a pair of iron Vortec heads.
I’m still cruising the swap meets trying to buy an intake and a set of headers. Matt is even going to let (make) me do part of the work. The head and dished piston combination should keep the compression down to a level where I can run 87-89 octane pump gas. We’re even considering trying to burn E-85 fuel since my local station happens to sell it.
Now I can hear you Buick fans moaning about me screwing up a cherry ‘68 Skylark, but rest assured I’m not going to cut this car up in anyway. It will always be able to be returned to absolute stock condition. I’ve owned the car too long to hurt it. I just need something I can burn regular gas in, get stopped without breaking into a cold sweat, buy parts for at a reasonable price, and work on in my garage or driveway. I’m tired of renting my bracket cars from Hertz. Besides I think they are starting to get suspicious about the rubber on the rear quarter panel when I bring the cars back.
We’ve already started assembling the engine at Matt’s shop and are preparing to pull the engine and tranny out of Henrietta because I need this car to be on the street sooner than later, She Who Must Be Obeyed is insistent that I have my own car to drive or … well, let’s just say I don’t want to know what that option is.
Once we get the Buick running and back on the street I’m going to start racing it at Gateway International on Treaded Tire Tuesday and plan on some road trips to Sikeston, MO, and George Ray’s Outlaw Dragstrip with my buddy Bret Kepner. I’ll probably drive it down to Memphis to meet my bud Ro McGonegal when he picks up his own streeter that is getting some work done there. We’ll cruise Beale Street.
There’ll be no slicks, no short gear ratios, or other changes to make Henrietta more race car than a hi-po street car. If all goes according to plan, though, I’ll test a lot of different bolt-on parts like carbs, intakes, air filters, spark plugs, tires, and gas additives. In short, anything that can be bolted on, poured into, or applied to the car in the driveway that is supposed to help. Hey, we even plan to buy one of those “Tornado” thingies and put it on the carb to see if we can go faster and save gas like those guys on TV.
So, I guess in a way we’ve added another project car to the mix but really I prefer to look at it as a test car. I’m already testing my wife’s patience with it and we plan to drag test a lot of parts on it-even if we have to buy them to do it. So this is a test car. Yeah, that’s it. . .a test car ‘cause the magazine world don’t need another stinkin’ “project car” but we could surely use a test vehicle and besides She Who Must Be Obeyed likes the idea. We’ll keep you posted on the progress, but please don’t call it a project car. Those damn things never get finished.