Day 1 of 13,870

The silver blue 1965 Mustang parked on the side of a long uphill stretch of I-71 in Ohio finally stopped blowing off steam but the sun had set an hour ago and we still hadn’t found a source of water to top off the radiator. The thought occurred that in a pinch the two bottles of Sprite we had bought at a gas station a few hours back could be substituted for antifreeze, but this became moot when it turned out that one of the bottles was near empty.

Sitting by the side of the road contemplating, it eventually began to sink in that a radiator throwing a hissy fit may not be the last of our troubles before we would reach Rochester in upstate New York the following morning. If something as simple as an overheated engine could derail us on the way up there was no telling what fresh new hell would be waiting for us on the way down. Fried brakes came to mind, along with images of a 2,500-pound pony car trying to hold back nearly twice its own weight with the trailer getting all squirrely and fishtailing out of control behind us, leading to predictably unpleasant results for both car and occupants.

But, our final destination was still some five hundred miles away so the empty radiator was the crisis of the moment and there’s no point worrying about a dripping faucet when a hurricane is tearing your roof apart.

A week earlier, Jerry Mayo and I had driven to Indianapolis to check out a used drag race Cobra advertised for $3,600 in the National Dragster. Jerry knew I was in dire need of just such a car and had found the classified listing. Both price and description “ticked all the boxes,” as our British friends are fond of saying. The seller was right when he wrote in the ad that I wouldn’t find a fully equipped Cobra priced any lower. In four years of searching I hadn’t found a single racing Cobra for sale in the entire country – at any price.

randy berry ad

Randy Berry looked to be in his twenties, an instantly likeable type, easy to do business with. His car was stunning, better than what I had expected. And that drag-spec cam exhaust note coming out of the open headers, music to my ears. We obviously couldn’t take her out for a test drive – not a ¼-mile strip in sight in this residential Indianapolis neighborhood – so the inspection lasted only minutes. This all happened nearly five decades ago, yet I vividly recall handing Randy a $500 check as a deposit as soon as he turned off the engine. I’d be back the coming weekend with a trailer and the rest the money, I told him; wouldn’t have dreamed of rocking the boat by haggling over price. We sealed the deal with a handshake, both parties well satisfied.

You couldn’t miss the scroll on both back fenders of the car, the one that said ‘The Original Dragonsnake.’ When my neighbor and I arrived the following Saturday to load the Cobra onto a rented trailer, I had to ask. Seems the scrolls were Randy’s handiwork. He wanted to let the world know that his car, the twentieth Cobra built, serial number CSX2019, was the first Cobra campaigned on the national drag racing circuit by Shelby American. The handpainted ‘Cobra powered by Ford’ lettering on both sides and the trunk lid had been applied by the factory team. The car really was an authentic Dragonsnake. Randy had bought the Cobra straight from the factory when they retired it.

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I hadn’t been aware of any of that. With the adrenaline pumping during our first encounter there had been no time for trivia. As strange as that may sound today, knowing the Cobra’s pedigree wouldn’t have changed its value. History was not yet history. In 1967, even a genuine Dragonsnake was just a used race car. To illustrate my point, take Shelby American’s famous fire sale of some race cars that were deemed no longer competitive. The sale took place in 1965 and included a Daytona Coupe, one of six ever built. That coupe changed hands for a paltry $4,500. By 2009 buyers could look back on forty-four years of auction results to rethink the valuation. That year another Daytona Coupe sold for $7.25 million, the highest price ever paid for an American car at public auction.

My neighbor’s little Ford Mustang had given a good account of itself towing an 18-foot double-axle steel trailer all the way from New York to Indiana. It came as a surprise but shouldn’t have when the car began to act peculiar on the way back after we had strapped on the Cobra. Ideas always look good on paper when you’re young or at a minimum shy of pushing thirty. Not to mention that without the lessons driven home by experience there are not yet consequences to make a person think ahead or get overly analytical about.

Even accepting that we might have screwed up a little, it was now too late to change our travel arrangements. I mean you can’t just call a transport company after business hours to come pick up a Cobra on Interstate 71 in Ohio and take it to a place in upstate New York to which one of us would have had to hitchhike to accept delivery. Least not without a cell phone you can’t, and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet.

Besides, transporting a car halfway across the country isn’t cheap. If I could have afforded to hire a transporter I would have hired a transporter and we wouldn’t be in this pickle. No, what we needed was to find water – soon – or the whole plan of hauling a 2,000-pound trailer loaded with 2,350 pounds of race car more than a thousand miles nonstop with a six-cylinder Mustang was going to appear less than adequate, in retrospect. Having to bed down for the night in a pintsized car with non-reclining bucket seats and no amenities would be the least of it.

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Mind you I’ve camped before, mostly at the infield of the Watkins Glen racetrack. Back in the sixties we thought nothing of setting off on the two-hour trip with three sixpacks of Budweiser and a portable cooler, a change of underwear, and an extra pair of socks in case it rained. Most race goers would have considered that well provisioned; above average for a single-day trip. For weekends we generally had a small tent in the trunk and a sleeping bag. If there was space left, a BernzOmatic burner so we could start the day with a cup of Maxwell House Instant and not have to wait for the vendors to show up in the morning. Spending a cold night on the humped backseat of a Mustang without a blanket or a warm long-sleeved flannel shirt would have meant roughing it, even by Watkins Glen standards.

My neighbor had offered to install a trailer hitch on the Mustang as part of a deal that had him take possession of my red Sunbeam Tiger. He remembered seeing what might have been the reflection of the setting sun bouncing off a small puddle at the bottom of the hill we were sitting on. By now it was dark enough to where a flashlight would have been a worthwhile upgrade over the Zippo lighter we used to slither and stumble our way down the embankment with two empty pop bottles. This being the Northeast there was little chance of running into a snake by the puddle, at least not of the poisonous kind. Lord, please let there be water – and no snake just the same, if you don’t mind.

Sometimes you just have to believe there is a God or a Saint at least, willing to look after starry-eyed, ‘what-could-possibly-go-wrong’ young risk takers who live for the sound of throaty straight-through mufflers and the smell of Castrol. More trips down the embankment and an hour and a half later we were back on the road with a topped off radiator. The cool night air and fading hills along the Great Lakes would help us reach Rochester without further mayhem.

Thirty-eight years after that unscheduled stop on I-71, the Cobra I had bought secondhand for $3,600 would leave my care and custody forever and return to Indianapolis in the luxury of an enclosed transporter, to be auctioned off at the 2006 Mecum Spring Classic for $1,525,000. ‘Destiny’ had become a star.

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Copyright 2016 Helmut Heindel