By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. As longtime AE readers know, my formative years were a blur of fast cars (with my older brother Tony behind the wheel), plus experiencing the latest concepts from GM Styling in the flesh (with none other than Design Legend Bill Mitchell at the wheel). It was a different time and a different era to be sure. Everything was seemingly on an upward trajectory. More power. More Speed. More dynamic and exciting new cars arriving onto the scene on a daily basis.
It was wild to be that close to the action, to get our hands on machines that wouldn’t hit the rest of the country for months to come. Even then, I started to appreciate the fact that this was far from normal, but as time went on it was easy to forget that. It just became a surreal reality.
One weekend, it was the 1964 Pontiac XP-400 concept from GM Styling. The very trick, Nassau Blue convertible based on a ’64 Catalina was powered by a 421 cu.in. V8 with a 671 GMC Blower race-prepared by Mickey Thompson. When Ken Eschebech, Mitchell’s on-staff personal mechanic and expert car guru dropped it off, he warned us that the motor was set-up for drag racing and the oil must be checked every time we stopped for gas. Which, as you might imagine, was often. I will save this story for another time, but I distinctly remember the rear tires breaking loose as Tony shifted into 4th gear – with five guys in the car. That thing pulled like a runaway train. Oh, and we went through 21 quarts of oil in three days of flat-out running.
Then there was the brand-new 1964 Electric Blue Shelby 289-cu.in. Cobra that we borrowed from Ford PR for a weekend. (It was a beautiful swap system: We would get a Cobra, and Ford PR would get a Sting Ray from GM PR.) When I said it was brand new, I mean brand new, with less than 50 miles on the odometer. It had silver-painted wire wheels and thin white walls, which was de rigueur for street Cobras at the time. And, of course, it wasn’t our first go-around with the Cobra either, as we were fortunate to “borrow” an early ’63 260-cu.in. Cobra that belonged to Pontiac Engineering pretty much the entire summer before. Though we were well-versed in Corvettes, the Cobra was an entirely different animal. It smelled different – like an old English sports car with its leather hides covering the seats – and it was much more compact and dramatically lighter than the Corvettes of that era. Translation? It was blistering fast.
We spent that late-spring weekend tearing around – especially on Woodward Avenue – humiliating mere mortal cars every chance we got. The Cobra would leap off the line and pull multiple car lengths ahead on just about anything, especially Corvettes. The best part? Riding in it at night, when the cool spring air was punctuated by the ferocious bark of that hopped-up 289, and the smell of burning rubber from our tennis shoes wafting in the cockpit. What? Yes, the floor got so hot in the Cobra that it caused the soles of our tennis shoes to actually melt. Just part of the memorable Cobra experience. I’ve read countless books and articles about the impact of the Cobra. It’s one thing to hear or read about the impact of the Cobra on the scene back then, but it was totally different to experience the Cobra in real time, in-period. It was truly fantastic.
There were many, many other cars and moments and stories that summer: The Black/Black ’64 Corvette Sting Ray Coupe that we drove to Watkins Glen so Tony could go through SCCA driver’s school. The ’63 Ferrari 250 GTE that belonged to GM Styling. More Cobras, and a machine that I’ve never talked about before: an early 1964 Porsche 904 GTS that Bill Mitchell brought home one afternoon.
I distinctly remember that day. Everything was vibrant green due to the stormy weather that had been rumbling around for days. Our neighborhood was blessed with hundreds of majestically tall elm trees, so much so that when we rode our bikes around it was like riding through a tunnel of trees that enveloped and shaded the streets. (Those same elms were decimated by Dutch Elm Disease over the next three years. It was really bad.) It was darkly overcast that afternoon, with threatening clouds off in the distance. I was on my bike (per usual), riding in the direction of Bill Mitchell’s “new” house. (After a period of relative quiet, I had learned that he moved from being one block north of our house to a home that was one block west. It seems that Mitchell had gotten divorced, as I had heard my parents comment about it, and he met and married a widow who lived a block away in the other direction. His new house was actually closer, which was fortuitous.)
As I was riding along, a small, low, all-black sports car rumbled by me. I knew it was Mitchell so I followed him into his driveway. Before he could emerge from it, I saw the writing on the back – “904 GTS” – and I recognized the Porsche logo on the front. Mitchell leapt out and greeted me with, “How do you like this? We just got it!” and I could barely mumble the word “Wow!” in response. I had never seen anything like it in person. As I said, it was all-black and unadorned with any bright work at all, set-off by its classic silver metallic Porsche wheels.
When Mitchell said, “We just got it” what he meant was that GM Styling just acquired it. As I’ve said in many of my writings before, Mitchell was akin to a potentate of a small country within the GM empire. He often acquired the sports cars of the moment for “research” purposes – it was “his” budget after all – and he’d have them parked in the GM Styling viewing courtyard next to the Design building for days at a time so that his designers could glean some inspiration from them. At least that was the idea anyway. The rest of the time? They’d end up being his personal toys on weekends. His favorite “inspirational” machines were Ferraris, but he even had GM Styling buy an ATS 1000 GT (look it up) and other machines of note. But this 904 was the very first Porsche he displayed in the Styling viewing courtyard, and it was the very first Porsche he had brought home.
Mitchell went inside and I immediately went home and informed Tony that Mitchell had something called a “Porsche 904 GTS.” And we were both right back down in Mitchell’s driveway inspecting every inch of that Porsche. The more I looked, the more I was entranced with this machine, which was basically a limited-production racing car for the street. Mitchell came out and asked Tony if he wanted a ride, and without hesitation he got in the passenger seat and off they went. They returned about fifteen minutes later, and Tony was wide-eyed and smiling broadly. Mitchell went back inside, and I asked Tony what it was like and he said, “Fantastic! Except…” and his voice trailed off.
“Except what?” I asked. He said, well, it was really cool, but “I noticed the redline was 7,600 rpm, and he was shifting at 8,600 rpm. Every shift.” I didn’t quite understand the ramifications of that statement yet, but I would in a couple of months.
Sure enough, a couple of months later Mitchell offered the 904 to Tony to drive for a weekend. In typical Mitchell fashion the 904 had been transformed. Gone was the Black/Black livery, replaced by Mitchell’s favorite German racing silver metallic. The interior was re-worked too – with darkish-blue leather and retractable three-point seatbelts, the first we’d seen. That 904 absolutely glowed now. That weekend was memorable, with several high-speed runs up to Flint (where we used to live) and back, and generally just a total, blissful immersion into everything Porsche 904. And it was great, right up to the point on Sunday afternoon when we were almost back from another run up to Flint, when suddenly the engine started making an unmistakable clickety-clack racket behind us. We quickly determined that it was a giant bowl of Not Good situation, and Tony shut it off immediately. He had to hike to a payphone to get some friends to come and help.
It gets worse. The idea of getting some sort of trailer or tow truck to come and pick up the car wasn’t on our consideration list back then, and the only thing our friends brought was a big heavy rope. Against all odds, we secured that rope to both vehicles, and they proceeded to tow us the ten miles back to our house. As I recall, it was one of the hairiest, white-knuckle experiences I can remember. One false move and that now-pristine Porsche could be wrecked in an instant. I think we were lucky enough to only have to deal with a couple of traffic lights and remarkably, we got it back to my parents’ garage in one piece. I still shake my head thinking about it.
The next morning, Tony put a call into Ken Eschebech, telling him that something was seriously wrong with the Porsche’s engine, and Ken was over in about an hour. We tilted up the back bodywork to gain access to the engine, and Ken had Tony start the Porsche, while he listened. The noise was coming from the right cylinder bank, so Ken took a broom handle and put it up against that part of the engine, and a few seconds later he had Tony shut it off.
“It threw a rod,” Ken said, matter-of-factly. Tony discussed with Ken that he observed Mitchell exceeding the redline on their little drive together, and Ken wasn’t surprised. “Yeah, I’m aware of that too.” Ken left and two hours later a truck and trailer from GM Styling arrived and the Porsche was loaded up for the return trip back to GM Styling.
End of story? Not quite. Apparently, Mitchell had to pay for the rebuild out of his own pocket – which had to be considerable – and he was furious at Tony, blaming him for it. As a matter of fact, Mitchell didn’t speak to my brother again until January 1969, while they visited on the starting grid before the Daytona 24 Hour. After that, all was well again.
That summer of ’64 had everything. More speed. More horsepower. And even a white-knuckle experience that remains vivid to this day.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
A Porsche 904 GTS as it appears in show condition today.