The Billy Flynn Story1956
A true story about my friend Billy a drag racing legend
Written 2010 rewritten 08/01/2015
Who ever would have thought back in 1956 that my friend Billy, a seventeen year old kid with messy blond hair and buck teeth, would become a future drag racing legend?
But that’s exactly what happened to him, it seems that after getting out of the service, Billy became the head driver for the Chrysler Corporation’s experimental car and drag racing team.
Back in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, all of the top automakers were trying to produce the fastest
“Muscle cars”, that was the terminology they used for factory built hotrods. They were factory production model cars that were built with souped up V8 engines and a lot of other modifications. All of the big three car makers did it, and the best way they had to show off their finished products, was at the drag strip.
Billy’s car was known as “The Yankee Peddler” and Billy, hand in hand with Chrysler Corporation had made racing history with it. It was unfortunate for me but at the time Billy was making history at the drag strips, I was already out of the drag racing scene, so I never got the opportunity to actually see Billy racing, and then by the time I learned about all his success, I was already moving to Florida. Consequently, I never got to see Billy Flynn and the “Yankee Peddler” in action, nor did I ever get to shake Billy’s hand, or pat him on the back or congratulate him, and I feel bad about that. By the time I learned about what Billy had done, he had already died. I first heard about it, around 2004 and I had already been living in Florida since 1963.
But in retrospect, Just the thought, that I had been one of the early stepping stones in Billy’s life and his automotive racing career gives me a good feeling.
It all started in 1955, when I was 16 years old, and I had just gotten my driver’s license. I had purchased a really neat, dark green 1940 Ford convertible, and at the time, I thought I really had a hot rod. Because in 1955, we were just in the beginnings of what was called the “Hot Rod Era”, kids were buying up all the older Fords, and then extensively modifying them. Hot rod and speed shops were opening up all over the place, and they were all competing with each other as to who could build the best looking and fastest hotrods. Just like in the computer industry today, a whole new vocabulary came into existence, people talked about chopping and channeling cars, they talked about candy apple paint jobs and flame jobs. These were words we had never heard before but were now part of our everyday language. Besides from the new words, new things were being invented and used in the hotrod industry, like fiberglass, polyester resins, and there was the famous Bondo, an auto body filler. To us at the time this was all new and revolutionary stuff. So 1955 was an exciting time to be involved with cars, and for any young man, who had some mechanical ability, not to be drawn into this national hobby of souping up and modifying cars, was almost impossible.
In my case, at age of 16, I knew very little about hot rods other than what I read in magazines. But by sheer luck, and my buying of that 1940 Ford convertible, put me right on the cutting edge of hot rod history, and I didn’t even know it.
When I bought it, I desperately wanted my 1940 Ford to be considered a hotrod, so the first thing I did was install two Hollywood glass packed mufflers on it. Once I did that, everyone within three miles could hear me coming, I would speed down Whalley Avenue, in New Haven, just as fast as that 1940 Ford would go. At every light, I would start off in first gear and rev the engine up and then quickly shift into second gear, I stayed in second gear until you could hear the engines rod bearings knocking.
My car was certainly no hotrod, but I thought it was, and then I heard that there was a New Haven hot rod club called the “Road Barons”, and since I thought I was a hot-rodder I wanted to join them.
I don’t think the Road Barons were real happy about me joining up, but after a bit of discussion and technical questions I was eventually admitted.
I attended my first club meeting, and didn’t know a soul, so I took a seat in the back of the meeting room. It was there that I noticed another fellow sitting by himself, he was in the back row, slouched down, his foot was on the chair in front of him, and he looked real bored. The fellow dirty blond hair that was messy and two buck teeth, and he was wearing a black motorcycle jacket. My first thought was that I should stay away from him, but then I reconsidered and when the car club took a break, I went over and sat next to him and introduced myself. He said his name was Billy Flynn, and he lived on Forbes Avenue in New Haven.
We talked for a while and Billy said he was bored with the car club meetings. I asked him what he did for a living and he said he worked for a car agency and he specialized in building car engines. That caught me by surprise, because here I was just thinking about rebuilding the engine in my 1940 Ford.
I attended several more of the Road Baron’s meetings and always found myself sitting with Billy in the back row, and I was asking him questions about rebuilding my engine. Eventually, Billy said that he would come over to my house and teach me step by step how to do it.
About one month prior to my meeting Billy, I had the opportunity to buy another 1940 black Ford coupe which also had a burned out V8 engine in it. I had paid fifty dollars for it, it was a beautiful little car and I had all the intentions of fixing it up.
When Billy came over to my house, he spotted that black 1940 Ford coupe in my yard and went right over to look at it, I told Billy all about my intentions of fixing it up.
Over the next several weeks Billy came over to my house in the evenings and instructed me on how to remove the engine, and how to take it apart. He went over every detail with me, then he showed me how to properly clean all the parts, how to hone the cylinders and how to put new rings on the pistons. Billy had advised me to buy adjustable valve lifters to replace the original valve lifters that were in the engine. Then after waiting several weeks, the new lifers came in the mail, I went to install them and they wouldn’t fit in the engine, I panicked, I just knew they had sent me the wrong parts, and after I had waited so long, so I ran up to the second floor of my house and called Billy.
Once I explained the problem to him, Billy said, “Put the new lifters in your refrigerator freezer, and wait until tomorrow”, I did, the lifters had shrunk and fit perfectly into the engine, Billy knew all these simple tricks of the trade, but I thought he was my savior.
By the time the engine was completed, Billy and I had become good friends, he had come to my house in the evenings and I had gone several times to his house on Forbes Avenue. I noticed that every time Billy came over to my house, he looked at my black 1940 Ford coupe. Finally Billy asked me to sell it to him. He said he was building a new hot Ford racing engine and that 1940 Ford would be the perfect car for it. I didn’t want to sell it, but it was Billy, and I owed him, so I relented and sold it to him. That was back around 1957, and I didn’t hear another word from Billy for several months.
One day, I picked up the New Haven Register, and there was a big picture right on the front page. It was my 1940 Ford coupe, and it was wrapped around a tree on State Street in New Haven, and there sitting in the middle of State street was Billy’s souped up V8 engine, it was just sitting there just like a photographer had purposely placed it there.
The article said that the accident occurred on a Saturday afternoon and the driver Billy Flynn was taken to grace New Haven hospital, with injuries. But it was expected that he would survive the accident. I cut the picture out of the paper to save it.
I waited about two weeks before I called Billy, and I was surprised when he answered the phone. I said holy shit Billy what the hell happened. Billy said, “I had just finished building a new really fast racing engine, and I invited a friend named Vernon Carlson to come with me to make a test run. I wase going around one hundred miles an hour down State Street in New Haven when it started to drizzle rain. For some reason, this guy Vernon reaches over and pulls the ignition key out of the steering column, and threw the keys out his open window”.
When Billy told me that, I already knew that when you removed the key from a 1940 Ford steering column, you automatically lock the steering wheel, and can no longer turn it. Then Billy said, “I tried to hit the brakes, but the street was very wet and worst of all, there was a big curve coming up, and I remember hitting the tree sideways at about ninety miles an hour, then I remember the ambulance came and took me to the hospital”.
Billy said that no one even asked him if there was any one else in the car with him and he never mentioned it. He said he was told many hours later that when the tow truck came to pick up the smashed car, they saw his spare tire up a hill on the porch of a house. When they went to retrieve the tire they found this guy Vernon Carlson laying in the bushes and he was still alive. I asked Billy if the Vernon was still alive today, he told me he didn’t know and he didn’t care if he never saw the guy again.
I asked Billy, what was up next, and he said, he was going to enlist in the Navy. He was afraid that charges that might be filed against him. After that I lost contact with Billy, and I had no way of knowing that he would become a celebrity, driving for Chrysler Corporation. It wasn't until 2007 when I met people that had known Billy, they said he had an automotive shop in West Haven Connecticut, and he had died of cancer.
After that I Googled Billy Flynn, on the internet, and I read that he was a paratrooper, so I guess he went into the Army and not the Navy. Google had all the stories about Billy’s car the “Yankee Peddler”. There was also a live interview with Billy and his hair was combed neatly and the buck teeth were gone. In the interview, Billy said that Chrysler had experimented with lengthening and shortening the wheel base on the Yankee Trader trying to change the cars center of gravity. He said that’s what started the “Funny Car” craze in drag racing.
I kept that picture for a long time, the one showing Billy’s car, (My car) wrapped around the tree on State Street in New Haven.