Volume II, Issue 2, Page 2


2/15/2007

“Zora, how fast is my wife’s new Camaro going….?”

Here’s the landscape.  It’s the Fall of 1966.  I’m the Tech Editor for HOT ROD magazine and at the GM Engineering center for a first-hand look at some of the “experimental” engines Chevrolet had been hiding for more than a decade.  Walter Mackenzie is Chevrolet’s PR person, if you want to deal with any segment of their engineering staff.  Stated another way, he’s the insulation between staff engineers and probing media scrubs like me.  After a number of inquisitions, Chevrolet had finally admitted substance to rumors that there was an assembly of concept engines that had never made production, cutting-edge designs that would set Stovebolt enthusiasts back on their bragging-rights heels and, very positively, pop the eyes of the Dearborn and Mound Hill contingency.

I spend the morning with Zora Duntov, already becoming a friend (from previous visits), much to the concern of Mackenzie who baby-sat Zora during all our visits to make certain his conversational enthusiasm didn’t over-ride GM corporate policy about what he could and should not be talking about.  Most of the time, this didn’t faze him at all.  He discussed whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

During that morning visit, I got the chance of a young journalist’s lifetime.  Zora led me into the bowels of the GM Tech Center to view prototype DOHC small-block V8s, DOHC Mark big-blocks and a fuel-injected 427 SOHC that bore close resemblance to the 427 Ford “Cammer” of the time.  Well, maybe the Ford compared to the Chevy.  Not all GM secrets are known only to staff.  Regardless, it was a morning I still vividly recall.  In fact, we managed to perch Zora amidst an assortment of these engines for a HOT ROD cover shot, the issue in which the corresponding story was entitled, “Chevy’s Moustache Curlers.”  The magazine was a newsstand sell-out.

So much for all that.  This story began at lunchtime.  As we leave Zora’s office, he turns to Mackenzie and asks, “OK, Walt what are ‘we’ driving today?”  It wasn’t until years later that I came to recognize the mischievous look typically spelled trouble for his target conversant.  “I just picked up my wife’s new Camaro convertible, Zora, and am taking it to her this afternoon.”  “Good.  Let me have  the keys.”  The expression on Mackenzie’s face had the appearance he was giving away the car…for good.  Turns out, that wasn’t far from accurate.

We proceed to lunch at one of Duntov’s favorite “bladdy Mary” restaurants within Camaro distance of the Tech Center.  And he did.  Maybe it was three Marys, I don’t recall.  Lunch is done and Zora still has the keys to Walt’s “wife’s new Camaro.”  I’m now in the backseat, Mackenzie is riding shotgun and Zora asks, “Jim.  Have you ever seen our test track at the Center?”  I note that the color in Mackenzie’s face is beginning to pale.  He clearly knows something I don’t, we’re in his “wife’s new Camaro,” and Zora “two bladdy Marys” Duntov is about to put on a driving demonstration.  All I can see of Mackenzie is his backside, from the shoulders up.

We pass through the security gate.  Zora turns onto the track and begins to explain the layout, noting it’s a long straightaway (at least a mile) with two slightly-banked, 360-degree circular skid pads at each end with an overall shape somewhat like a dumb-bell.  (Mackenzie later remarked that the only “dumb-bell” at the time was him.)

Mackenzie’s “wife’s new Camaro” begins to accelerate while Zora, facing me over his shoulder, begins to one-hand the car up to a high rate of speed.  Curiously, I notice Mackenzie isn’t sitting as tall as he was previously.  He’s beginning to slink lower into the seat.

Still looking back and narrating track facts as we hurtle toward what appears to be a dead-end to the straight-away, Zora then begins to brake, slowing only moderately as we head into the slight banking, his one hand on the wheel while we noisily drift through the 360-degree circle and back out onto the straightway again, now in the opposite direction than when we entered.  All I can see is Mackenzie’s head, amid the smell of rubber being scrubbed off the tires and the hot-fresh smell of a just-born small-block laboring against the road load.
Duntov never changes expressions, deftly guiding the new Camaro through the circle and under acceleration again toward the other end of the track…this time even faster.  I’m comforted by the knowledge that Zora had driven the 24-hours of LeMans multiple times in his younger days, both prior to and after joining Chevrolet in the 50s.   But Makenszie didn’t ride with him then, and I note he’s now out of sight down into the seat of his “wife’s new Camaro.” 

And then, as we continue accelerating, Mackenzie asks, “Zora, how fast is my wife’s new Camaro going?”  “Last time I looked, just passing 100.”  “I think we should get back to the office…now” came the request from somewhere in the passenger seat.  “OK, good idea.  I propose Jim has probably seen enough.”

As we dismounted at the Tech Center’s entrance, Mackenzie said, “Zora.  Give me the keys before you get out.  I’m going home before you decide to show Jim how my “wife’s new Camaro” works on the skid pad.

In the years that followed, none of us ever forgot that ride…although I’m reasonably certain Mackenzie tried on numerous occasions. 










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