By Bill Ciccotti
Just south of the border, down Mexico way, Dunmore natives Brian McAndrew and I traveled, in search of rusty gold. We boys were in search of antique automobiles.
Robert “Rollo” Meehan had come across a good lead on some vintage muscle cars of exceptional lineage. He was willing to pay the price, but before he did, he wanted certain specifications and models.
So, we headed for a trip to the Baja. Rollo wanted a fast, high performance muscle car that knows how to glide through the gears smoothly. And built solid enough to be able to take out a telephone pole if he had to–50s chrome and steel by Detroit at its finest. We made a call to a point man we knew, Leandro Choba. “Leo” was a contact we knew from a previous road trip and a solid individual who could be trusted.
In accordance with strict COVID-19 restrictions Brian and I had both received our two shots and were cleared to go to Tijuana. We landed in Southern California and rented a car to drive the peninsula. Social distancing was seen in all the cantinas and the use of face coverings was consistent among patrons.
Mexico’s 775-mile-long Baja Peninsula is a magnet for travelers in search of their own slice of adventure. If you love classic cars, the Mexican Baja is a hidden destination gem. Unbelievable autos from the 1950s and 1960s motor along the cobbled streets and winding highways.
Chevrolets, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks, Dodges, Plymouths, and Studebaker’s cruise dirt covered magical miles. Those cars run the gamut from mint condition to downright dilapidated.
Well-preserved cars have exteriors that shine brightly with vintage chrome and lustful new paint jobs. While the worse-off autos were barely held together with odd parts, bailing wire and mismatched scrap metal of assorted rusty shades.
We crossed the border, met up with Leandro and three of his friends who would be watching our backs on this adventure. After a few get-acquainted rounds, we all journeyed from Tijuana down into Chihuahua, then finally to La Paz. But first, we stopped off for a few rounds in Tijuana. That chaotic metropolis can be jarring for first-time border-crossers. Leandro and his pals showed us around.
We traveled off into destiny. And maybe had a few too many rounds along the way. Somehow, I got scheduled for a boxing match in Mexico.
The night before I had shadow boxed with the bartender at El Dandy’s for laughs. Brian suddenly got the bright idea to set me up for a money match. Leo was all too happy to make it happen. I did not find out about the details till later. After I almost died.
Few boxing rings are as unique as the open-air Zapata Boxing Gym, the best in Tijuana. In the excitement of the moment, I agreed to shadow box a few rounds. Tequila is a bad deterrent to common sense. My opponent, Kid Mango was the local middleweight champion. I figured, “Ok. Bob and weave. Shadow box like last night. No contact. No blood. Maybe a few good photo ops.”
As soon as I saw my opponent lacing up for our match with blood in his eyes, I quickly declined the match Brian had set up for me. He looked too eager to punch me into another time zone, so I backed off the fisticuffs. Brian smiled, “What were you worried about Bill? I bet on Kid Mango.” What a pal. Kid Mango continued to stare evilly at me while we backed out of the gym.
It was time to move on.
Just 10 minutes down the Trans peninsular, there are rocky cliffs overlooking the dark blue Pacific and alluring Mediterranean type landscapes. The drive south has moments of majesty mixed with ugly, haphazard development. Ensenada, less than two hours from San Diego down the Baja California peninsula, is a lovely area.
Beyond the souvenir shops, sombreros, knockoff handicrafts and tacky T-shirts, we found the first clues of hidden Detroit muscle. Those small towns along the Mexican Baja have become a time capsule museum for old cars.
One of the cars we looked over had a gorgeous body but when we popped the hood, it revealed a smoke chunking washing machine for its motor. It had a body like Venus and an engine like Frankenstein. Those locals who want more power fit their American classics with tractor engines.
Entering the Baja at Chihuahua, in the rugged northwestern desert of Mexico, we traveled craggy mountainous terrain and wide river valleys. The Sierra Madre mountain range, part of the continental spine that also includes the Rocky Mountains, dominated the terrain. We found no gold, but lots of chrome and steel.
A lovely Harvest Gold 1955 Bel Air was magnificent. It is super rare to find one with a 3.75″ bore x 3.0″ stroke, 9.25 to 1 compression ratio. 225 horsepower. Torque 270-foot pounds at 3600 rpm. Special high-lift camshaft, high-speed valve mechanism. Polished aluminum rocker covers. Dual four-barrel carburation, buff aluminum racing-type air cleaners, special intake manifold. Full pressure lubrication system with full-flow oil filter. High power exhaust headers and full dual exhaust system. Shielded ignition, 12-volt electrical system all in solid working order.
They let Brian take it out around the plaza and when he pulled back in, he told me, “She handles like a dream. The Synchro-Mesh has no sponge to it. But play it cool or they will rake us over the coals negotiating price.” After tough negotiation, the car was Rollo’s.
We kept low key and out of trouble, a monumental task for us. Because we were careful where we ate or drank, and never showed excess American money or clothing, and kept a very low profile. The only real trouble we had was along the road to La Paz. One of the local tough guy gangs stopped our car and demanded a toll payment. They had guns, knives and a hand grenade. Several dollars, a bottle of tequila and all our Santana CDs were confiscated. But we were eventually allowed to travel on.
In La Paz we hit the motherload. Attempting to pry some of that shiny Detroit gold free, was quite an effort. But money talks and we could not believe what we were shown down a cobbled side street. A Cascade Green 1956 Corvette with numbers matching. Only 290 cars were built in this Cascade Green in 1956 with very few receiving the optional 225hp dual carb engine 5200 rpm. This Corvette still retained its factory original “GR” Coded engine.
It has a beige interior and top, 3-speed manual transmission, Cascade Green hardtop, special two-tone paint, and wide white wall tires. We were not even looking for that one but when we called Rollo, he flipped. “Get it boys.”
A few miles out of town we got a wagon. A 1956 Chevy Nomad in fact. The “tri-five” phase of the 1950s produced some pretty good station wagons. The Nomad is the rarest of the lot with just 8,000 ever produced. Its 350 cubic-inch crate V8 was larger than other engines of the time and the two-door design makes her stand out from the pack. The improved front and tail ends give it a unique flair.
We discovered a pristine 1957 Chevy Bel Air. When we popped the hood there before us was a dirty but very fictional 265 V-8 that was bored out to 283 cubic inches, with a two-barrel carburetor and single exhaust.
We called Rollo and he informed us, if we got it, he intended to trade out the two-barrel for a four-barrel, adding dual exhausts and boosting compression from 8.5:1 to 9.5:1 super turbo-fire 283, rated at 220 horsepower. Howie said, “We could use Chevy’s fuel-injected Ramjet V-8s, with a hydraulic cam, and solid lifters.
It was time to celebrate and enjoy the setting of the sun. Howie set up the pickup and delivery for all the vehicles. Of course, no major money was exchanged before reliable pickup and inspection was completed by Dean-O himself. With strict documentation.