THE GOOD OL' DAYS
Barnstormin' Days: Tales of My Dad and Stock Car # 273
In the years after WWII ended but before the Korean conflict started, America had a "can-do" attitude, and exuberance and prosperity made life good. My dad, Tim Benford, had a reputation as a pretty good "wrench" and he also had a used car lot, Tim's Auto Sales, located in Bayonne, NJ, where I was born and raised. (The slogan for the car lot was "Bring in a lemon and take out a peach" — they were big on catchy slogans in those days).
To promote the car lot, my dad got involved in oval-track stock car racing, which was the rage in those post-war years. He was a regular participant in the night events held at such New Jersey racing venues as Veteran's Stadium in Bayonne, at Dover, Lodi, and Henchcliff Stadium in Paterson, NJ. The car, #273 was a 1941 Ford Tudor jointly owned by my Dad, Danny Lombardi and Tex Faulkener. Tex also drove the car occasionally, and he owned Tex's Texaco at the corner of 34th St. and Broadway in Bayonne, where the car was worked on and garaged.
Dad and his buddies raced the car with moderate success from 1947 through 1949, winning some, losing some, but having fun in general. My mom warmed the bleachers on Friday and Saturday nights with my brother Tim, Jr., who was about 7 or 8 at that time, but she never liked the idea of my dad driving around like "a crazy man," as she described it.
Then in August of 1949, while she was seven months pregnant carrying me, my dad flipped the car one Friday evening doing practice laps before the night's races began and rolled it over 5 or 6 times. He emerged unharmed except for a slight scratch above his left eye (you can see the band-aid in these pictures), and the car survived relatively unscathed, too, except for some dents and broken glass. Largely due to the full roll cage (a real innovation in those days) the car was still drivable — but not by my dad anymore!
Nosiree — my mom put the kybosh on that but pronto! She went into false labor and passed out when the car started to roll over, thinking she was going to be a widow for sure with one kid already here and another on the way. She made my father promise he would give up stock car racing, and he did.
My dad died on January 27, 1961, at 42 years of age from heart disease. I was only 11 then, so unfortunately I didn't get to know him real well. But I do remember he was a great guy, fun to be with, a loving family-oriented father, an excellent provider and a very hard worker. I wish I could have gotten to know him better.
They say the apples don't fall far from the tree, and I guess that's true. My brother, Tim Benford, Jr., who passed away in August, 2008, owned a pristine 1956 Continental Mark II and his son, Tim III, drives racing karts at a championship level. My late son, Tom Jr., was also into cars big time, owning a restored Hemi 'Cuda and a Z-28 Camaro.
During my teenage years I owned a succession of cars, all of which needed some repairs. I recall having the front bumper of a 1964 Chevelle I owned propped up with a wooden milk crate on one side and a bumper jack on the other while I crawled under the car to drop the manual 4-speed transmission so I could replace the clutch. No such thought to jack stands or other safety measures in the blind exuberance of youth!
Then, after a 30-year hiatus from working on cars myself (and in that period, forgetting how much fun I used to have being a "car nut"), my wife, Liz, and myself spent the 1995 Memorial Day Weekend in Hyannis, MA, whereupon we came upon a 1933 Dodge 5-Window Coupe street rod for sale. This was your classic American hot rod — no fenders, flame paint job, big-block Chevrolet engine with 2 carburetors, fat tires, mag wheels, no engine hood — the car was absolutely outrageous, and therein was its appeal. On a whim we bought the car and had it flat-bedded to New Jersey. This car looked like it was going 100MPH even when it was standing still so, remembering an expression my Mom used to use, we dubbed the car "Screaming Mimi".
This was our joint entré into the "collector car culture", and we participated in numerous car shows and cruise nights every week throughout that summer and fall. While the street rod was fun, it had a rough ride and wasn't practical for long drives, so Liz and I both started to yearn for a more civilized classic car. We both liked Corvettes and, after looking at car magazines such as Hemmings and Auto Trader for several months, found and purchased a Riverside red 1963 Corvette Split Window Coupe in early 1996 which we appropriately named The Jersey Devil, followed by a Marlboro maroon 1967 Corvette Coupe with a 427-cubic-inch, 390HP engine in the fall of that year. This 1967 Corvette, named Maroon Afternoon, appeared as "set dressing" in the flashback scene of the movie One True Thing.
And the fever and passion, not to mention the enjoyment, of the collector car hobby continued to grow. We now own six vintage Corvettes from 1963 through 1998 and, of course, we still have Screaming Mimi. And I've written more than a dozen automotive books. Whoever would have thought that buying one crazy little street rod could change our lives so drastically? I guess it all has to do with having gasoline in the blood — thanks, Dad, for that!