I grew up in Southern California in the 1960s, when car culture was a big influence on a boy. Slot cars and plastic models were the gateway drugs, so to speak, which was followed by go-karts and minibikes. I lived in a rural area on the family chicken ranch where there was plenty of room to rod around on hard-packed dirt. My dad, who built much of his own farm equipment, fabricated a go-kart for my older brother when he was 5. I inherited the kart when my brother moved on to bigger things. Of course, I modified it by installing a larger engine.

One of my nearby buddies back then was Gary, also from a gearhead family. His dad enjoyed cutting down old Lambretta motor scooters to make dirt bikes. These were strange creations. He’d shortened the frame of one scooter so much that he had to weld foot pegs on the front forks. Somehow, Gary and his dad had also managed to purchase a Crosley chassis that sported only a seat for comfort – there was no body of any kind, and its four-cylinder engine didn’t run at optimum performance because of a hole burned into one of the pistons. Before we had our drivers’ licenses, Gary and I would pilot this primitive “rail job” through the neighboring orange groves until we reeked of motor oil that had been blowing out of the rocker arm cover’s breather.

Jan's second EdselPhoto courtesy of Jan Zentler

I earned my license promptly on my 16th birthday. Like most boys, I wanted my use my own car to take girls on dates, so I worked summer jobs toward that end. Gary had managed to find a nearly complete 1948 Crosley sedan; “A Fine Car,” read the hood ornament, in case one failed to notice. Other friends had inexpensive orphans like De Sotos and Studebakers. I bought a ’58 Edsel Ranger two-door hardtop that gave up mechanically shortly thereafter. I bought another regardless, and the second Edsel had a Continental spare on the rear bumper, which attracted a lot of attention.

Any Edsel was still the butt of jokes in the late 1960s, and not just on the pages of MAD magazine, so I had to improve mine, of course. The 361-cu.in. V-8 was tired, so I rebuilt a 406 taken from a Thunderbird and paired that to a four-speed manual, and a Hurst shifter I purchased at a swap meet. The Edsel’s rear springs were tired too, so I jacked up the back end by reversing the shackles. This disappointed my Hispanic buddies, who preferred the dropped rear “low rider” look accentuated by the continental spare.

Those changes were fine to start, until James Bond hit the silver screen in 1962’s Dr. No. Television westerns soon gave way to spy shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and Honey West. When Goldfinger was released in ’64, a tricked-out spy car was way out of my budget, so I decided to stick with my Edsel, which needed some of those Q Branch gadgets that 007 had on his new Aston Martin DB5 - on a budget, of course. Some items could be bought from a JC Whitney catalog, but I built others myself.

Such upgrades began when I installed small-diameter aluminum tubes in the grille capable of firing bottle rocket firecrackers with the flip of a switch. I was especially proud of another gadget that lit and dropped firecrackers onto the road through a drain hole in the trunk. The device could sequence through ten firecrackers by pressing a button hidden under the dash. Unfortunately, I never found an ejector seat at the local military surplus store. I also didn’t have a smoke screen - at least, until the engine gave out.

My rebuilt 406 had developed oiling problems. I had installed the wrong washers on the bolts holding the rocker towers, which allowed excess oil to be diverted to the top end of the engine. Rod bearings were subsequently starved and started to knock. By this time, I was studying engineering in college and didn’t have time for serious wrenching, so the Edsel was parked, and I picked up a used Ford Pinto as transportation.

The mechanical passing of the second Edsel resulted in the purchase of this used Ford PintoPhoto courtesy of Jan Zentler

The manual-shifted Pinto lacked my Edsel’s charm, but I still felt compelled to add gadgetry. I grabbed one of those gag laughing boxes with the little plastic record inside and rigged it to chortle if someone dropped the clutch too hard and stalled the engine. Both my mom and girlfriend loathed it whenever they drove my car.

But the best trick was when I installed a spark plug in the tailpipe, wired to an old Ford Model T coil. While traveling down the highway, I’d turn on the coil and shut off the Pinto’s ignition, leaving it in gear. The carbureted engine kept turning, pumping unlit gasoline and air down the tailpipe toward the spark plug. This created a flame out the tailpipe about a couple of feet long. I could flare the flame by modulating the throttle. No, it didn’t ignite the Pinto’s gas tank, but it was a nifty way to discourage tailgaters.

Photo courtesy of Jan Zentler

When my dad saw the flame thrower, his only comment was, “Be careful with that.” Dad always figured that as long as I didn’t injure myself too badly, it was all good fun. I’d like to thank him for his tolerance and passing on his tinkering spirit.

As for the spy business, television moved on to other genres. I graduated college and spent the remainder of the Cold War working at a government laboratory where any sort of spy activity was decidedly frowned upon.

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