Madison Park became strangely quiet in the 1950s. No longer were cap guns being fired up and down the Ave. There was no more dodging other roller skaters and bikes with cards attached to wheels sounding like mini motorcycles. No, the too-old-for-toys boys had found a new fascination: four wheels of freedom—the great American automobile! The ability to discern by sound alone the distant roar of a throaty V-8 and higher pitched 6-cylinder proved a new passion had been found.
Between Broadway and Boren was the scene for a car show by the many car dealers we had in those days, so this was on our agenda. The new Hudson dealership on Broadway and Union even had a Clydesdale horse and wagon to draw the folks in. Around the corner to the west was the Tucker dealership presenting the Tucker with six tailpipes. Cadillac, a block north, and Davies Chevrolet on Broadway and Pike were showcasing their wares.
Good friend Bob McCormick borrowed his dad’s demo car—it was a 1963 maroon-colored Corvette convertible—the first one. It was a favorite, and we cruised in style. The only drawback was that body damage would take months to repair as fiberglass was brand-new and surprisingly frail.
In the ‘50s there were several options for buying old and slightly used cars, which were plentiful and not unreasonably priced. There were many used-car lots all around Seattle but mostly north of downtown in a place known as Auto Row.
Here in Madison Park our fascination for the car was so fixed we hung around any of the five gas stations just to watch the older kids work on their creations. They bought old cars, like early Ford and Chevy coupes and convertibles, and would customize them to make new personalities and styles.
First, an engine—a big engine, preferably a V-8, some with mufflers and some not, always thinking about the whereabouts of the neighborhood cop, Gordy Sacket.
The car buffs hung out mostly at the gas station on 41st. Oftentimes the garage lights were left on late in the evenings so the work could carry on. One friend somehow removed a V-8 from an old car via a kid’s wagon and pulled it several blocks to a garage. He then built a frame, welded it together, added wheels and drove it by sitting on an apple box. We all piled in and cruised mostly the alleys in the Park, so as to avoid Gordy. Bill Dennis was one hell of a mechanic, and went on to be one in the future.
My buddy Kim Matson scored a real buy: a chopped ’36 Ford convertible. One night while doing homework, I heard Kim’s car go by and screech around the corner, losing a wheel cover (spinner). Minutes later the phone rang and it was Kim. “Did you hear me drive by?” Who could miss it? Gordy chased but lost him. Suddenly, he heard a knock at the door. It was Gordy! That curbed Kim’s driving for a spell.
The car craze was really growing and clubs were formed. The cars had club-named placards on license plates and the hang outs were at restaurant drive-ins. The nearest one to Madison Park was HiSea on 19th and Madison, but the most popular was Johnny Primeburgers on Olive Way and Melrose. That area is now the onramp to I-5 North.
A new sport came out of all this: Drag Racing!
We would block the side roads entering the I-90 tunnel heading east to allow for the event. At the cue of lights blinking, away they went! Pipes racking, tires spinning, and then shutting it down mid-bridge made for a great show.
Jim Ellingston owned a huge 1920s four-door sedan. It was a perfect party car and was great on gas but had no power. The biggest problem was its constant flat-tire situation. We constantly had to jack the big beast up, remove the tire and the wheel, remove the tube, find the leak, patch the already patched tube, reassemble and party on.
An alternate option when customizing was to remove emblems or bull-nosing, and cut and lower springs to create a low and sleek profile. It was a rough ride but it sure looked cool. Also, the chop-top (called lead sled) was an option. When seated your knees were head high. Lots of lacquer paint made for a mirror finish.
The cars back then were loud and rough riding but always had the stare factor. You could tune a car easily buying parts from Shuck’s Auto Parts as they sold everything from high-compression heads to multi carburetors. The most popular Shuck’s was across the street from The Dog House restaurant on Seventh and Bell.
The need-for-speed folks hit two dealerships: Westlake Chevrolet and a new outlet called Madman Muntz. KJR radio announced a race between the Corvette and the Madman Muntz Jet, which was a heavier coupe. Fifth Avenue, south of Aurora, was closed for the event. The area was mostly used-car lots, so side streets were easily blocked. Away they flew and, mostly due to the weight difference with fiberglass, the Corvette won by a margin.
Today, with gas prices soaring, we could all go electric and, after charging, watch the city lights dim. We could make money off California with emissions standards being lowered and could sell air, gas masks and water, and it would help with our taxes. Yeah!