Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Tommy Letis Pick-up Truck Story

                                             The Tommy Letis Pickup Truck Story            
                                                               1959 to 2011
                             A true story about Tommy Letis and his 1956 Ford Pickup  
                                                 And how Tommy became a legend                                                                                         
                                  Written 03/2011 and rewritten 05/29/2016 unedited
                                                             Howard Yasgar

     This is a true story of how I met my best friend Tommy Letis, and it is a friendship that has now lasted more than 55 years. This story took place starting in late 1958, when I was living in Westville Connecticut, and was attending New Haven College. I was also working part time in the evenings at a Gulf gas station located on Derby Avenue in New Haven. My parents were concerned that I didn’t have decent and reliable transportation to attend college, so my father suggested that we just go to the local Chevrolet agency in New Haven.
     At Cooley Chevrolet, the sales manager asked who was going to be using the car and I said I was going to be using it for college. He said, “If it is for college, why not get an Impala convertible it was only a few hundred dollars more than a regular model”, well I just loved the idea, and my father just shrugged his shoulders which the sales manager assumed meant OK.
    As the salesman was writing everything up, he said, “You are here just at the right time. Chevrolet is offering several promotional options. He explained that Chevrolet was experimenting with putting Corvette 4 speed transmissions in the bigger passenger cars to see how it worked out. He said that if I wanted one Chevrolet would throw it in at no charge, so of course I wanted one. Also he said Chevrolet was trying to stimulate sales of their 348 cubic inch engines. They had introduced it into the passenger car line, but the public’s reaction wasn’t as good as they had expected, so to make the engine more powerful, they were experimenting with using 3 carburetors, they called it a Tri-power package, and he would include it in the car if we wanted. Then he said, “Any 1959 cars that came with those options automatically came with Chevrolets new positraction differential.”        
     What we received from the Chevrolet, was actually a 1959 Chevrolet, Impala Convertible, factory made muscle car. It was an absolutely beautiful car, and to this day I don’t fully understand how we ended up with what was apparently some kind of experimental model.  It was a jet black convertible with a red interior, and it had a 348 cubic inch engine with the Tri power package (three carburetors). It also had an experimental four speed Corvette transmission installed, and it had a special non-slip positraction rear differential, and dual exhaust. It was absolutely a factory made hotrod and it sounded like one. Consequently anywhere I went, as soon as I stopped for a red light, someone always pulled up, revved their engine, and they wanted to race me, and I usually I accommodated them.
     At the time, in 1959 organized drag racing and street drag racing were fairly common activities. There wasn’t a whole lot of traffic in those days and whenever we wanted to race seriously, everyone simply would head up to the Connecticut Turnpike and we just drag raced.
    At the time, one of the common hangouts for the hot rod race crowd was Jimmy’s Restaurant located at Savin Rock amusement park at West Haven Connecticut. Jimmy’s was both an indoor and outdoor restaurant specializing in split hot dogs, cooked on a flat top, and they also had fried clams and lobster rolls. Jimmy’s had a huge parking lot, with room to park hundreds of cars. So every evening lots of cars would come and they all parked in long rows, all the back rows were sort of reserved for the guys with hotrods, so that’s where I parked most evenings.
    Parking at Jimmy’s was like a big social event, everyone would walk up to the take out windows where Sal the hot dog chef, would be cooking hundreds of hotdogs. Sal would split them, cook them on the flat top and put them into hotdog rolls faster than the eye could see. Working behind Sal, was Jimmy himself, he was handling the French fries, sodas and the fried clams. Everyone would come up to the windows, stand in line and order. Sal and Jimmy knew all of us regulars, and they always joked around with us as they assembled the plates of hotdogs, which everyone would take back to their cars to eat.                        
    Every so often, in the evenings, a shiny black 1956 Ford pickup truck would appear. The truck would drive slowly between the rows of cars. Its driver revving up the trucks engine and making its exhaust roar. Occasionally the driver would horse the engine and pop the clutch making the front of the pickup jerk up in the air, which was a novel maneuver rarely seen in 1959, as most engines just didn’t have the power to do that kind of thing.
     No one at Jimmy’s had any idea of who owned that truck, but the rumors were always circulating hot and heavy. Some people said the pickup truck had an experimental engine in it, and the hood was locked with a chain so no one could see it. It was said that whoever sat in the passenger side of the truck would always partially roll down his window always looking for someone to race, and it was said that they would take on all comers, and it was also said that the truck had never lost a race.
     As the pickup drove up and down the rows of cars in the parking lot, I could see there were two people riding in the cab, but I had no idea as to who they were.  
     Every evening, I waited in trepidation, hoping the pickup wouldn’t challenge me to a race. Because I was told by pretty much everyone that I didn’t stand a chance of winning. Several people claimed that they had witnessed the truck racing, and they said it was so incredibly fast, and it beat all the competition like they were standing still. So I felt that I didn’t need that kind of embarrassment.
     Then, several weeks passed and the black Ford pickup truck didn’t show up anymore. Its absence became a topic of conversation among every one of us parked in the back row, we all wondered what had happened to the truck.
     Then one day the truck appeared again at Jimmy’s, but something was very different, there was no revving of the engine and no popping of the clutch, it just drove in between a few rows of parked cars, and then it just drove off and disappeared for good, after a few weeks the truck was all but forgotten about.
     Then on one summer evening, I was parked in the rear row of Jimmies parking lot. It was a nice warm evening and I had the convertible top down. I was sitting in the passenger seat, the car was running with the air conditioner on, I was waiting for several of my friends to show up.
     I had hardly noticed him, but there was someone standing near my driver’s side door. I looked over and saw a fellow studying the interior of my car. He looked to be about 5 foot 6 inches tall, with sandy blond hair, and a friendly cherubic face. He had on a flannel long sleeve work shirt and green work pants and he was twirling a stubby small cigar in his mouth. He took the cigar from his mouth and with a big friendly smile and kind of a chuckle he said, “How does it go”, she goes OK, I replied. “How’s that four speed Corvette transmission working out, he asked”, OK, I replied. He said, “Does your 348 cubic inch engine have the 3 carburetors,” yes it does, I replied, “Does the engine have any punch,” he asked. Yes I replied but not as much punch as I would like. He said, “I had heard that Chevrolet was building these factory hot rods, but I never really saw one up close until now. His face was still smiling, “I want you to know I think it’s really a sharp looking car he said,” and that was the moment when I knew that I liked the guy.
    Now, still to this day I still don’t know why I did it, but I asked him if he wanted to take the car for a drive, I had never said that ever to anyone before, but that was exactly how I first met Tommy Letis. Tommy then introduced himself, as he got in the car and he took it for a spin up on the Connecticut turnpike. When we returned to the back row of Jimmies parking lot, I asked Tommy what he was driving, he said, “I’m just driving a pickup truck,” and he pointed behind us, and I looked across the street where a shiny black 1956 Ford pickup truck was parked in the shadows.
     We walked across the street and got into Tommy’s truck, and he drove cautiously up to the Connecticut turnpike, but once we were there, he stepped on the gas. I was startled, it was like I was in a jet aircraft, I was thrown back in the pickup trucks seat, and it just took my breath away. I had never experienced a force like that before, as Tommy then backed off the gas, and the truck slowed down to the turnpike speed limit, and all I could say was, Wow.
      Tommy said, I’m sorry, but I can't really open it up, as I’m having a little problem with the Connecticut State Police right now, and they have their eye out for me. I thought, my goodness, he wasn’t even going at full speed and we had already accelerated faster than I had ever done before.
     By the time we returned to Jimmies parking lot, Tommy and I were good friends, and I gave him the directions to come visit me at the Gulf gas station on Derby Avenue, where I was working part time in the evenings. Tommy promised that he would come and visit me, and he did. He came every night that I worked, just to talk and keep me company.
     As Tommy and I became friends, he came to my home and met my father and mother, and I also went to Tommy’s home. But I was jealous of the way Tommy lived. His home was like nothing I had ever seen before, he lived with his mom and Dad and his brother and grandfather, and they lived on what was formerly an egg farm located on Hunt Lane, which at that time was a rural area of Foxon Connecticut. The chicken coops were now all falling down, but behind the house there was a large barn, and that’s where Tommy parked the pickup truck, and also worked on his ten wheeler dump truck.
     Now the reason I was jealous, was that although Tommy and I were similar in age, here Tommy was already in his own business and earning what I thought was some very serious money, and I was still in school, and hardly earning anything. Wherever we went Tommy always carried a roll of cash in his pocket and it appeared that he could afford to do just about anything he wanted, and that was something I certainly couldn’t do.
    At the time we were both only twenty one years old, but Tommy’s having plenty of money, allowed him to do things that would have been impossible for me to do.  
    One day, Tommy asked me to go with him to a Ford truck agency, and I watched him order a brand new dump truck for $26,000.00, a whole lot of money back in 1959. Tommy walked out of that agency like his buying that truck, was nothing out of the ordinary.
     I started spending more time at the Tommy’s home, watching and helping as he worked on his dump truck in the barn. For me, just being at Tommy’s home was always a learning experience. His grandfather, was an old time woodworking craftsman from Germany. He taught me how to boil and bend wood to make sleigh runners, something I will never forget how to do. So you could say, I just loved hanging around Tommy’s house, and the best part was that Tommy’s father George treated me as if I were one of the family.
     In the summer evenings, Tommy and I would always go out riding in the Ford pickup truck, Tommy was constantly looking for cars to race. He would drive to all the popular hang outs, places like hamburger and hotdog joints, because those were the places where all the guys with the souped up cars hung around.
    Tommy, had a simple routine, he would drive right into the restaurant parking lots, and start revving up the pickup trucks engine, that always got everyone's attention pretty fast. Then Tommy would roll down his window and offer to race anyone. But usually there were no takers, as always the pickup trucks reputation had preceded it, but you never knew, as there always seemed to be someone new around that thought they could beat him. But inevitably they always lost, with Tommy pulling away from them just like they were standing still.
     Tommy would always start each race from a rolling start, and no one seemed to mind it. Even when sometimes a competitor would get the jump on Tommy, he would quickly pass by them like they weren't even moving. After watching him win so many races like that, pompously, I would roll down the passenger side window as we raced and I would wave goodbye to the competitors as Tommy rapidly pulled away from them. It was just an amazing sight to see, as Tommy accelerated I could turn and look out the cabs rear window and see the competitor falling way behind us. It was a special feeling to be with him, it was just like we were in a rocket ship.
    On some evenings my cousin Allen, came along with us and even with the extra weight of having three of us sitting in the truck’s cab, Tommy would still beat the all  the competitors.
     I recently discussed this story with my cousin Allen, and he remembered some of the humorous confrontations we had with the police. It was unfortunate, but as the reputation of Tommy’s Ford truck grew, the State and local police started to recognize us wherever we went.
    Now trying to pry the true story out of Tommy, as to how the truck came to be, was no easy task, but I questioned him constantly about it, mostly because I was just curious. But once I heard the story, I felt that the reason Tommy didn’t like to talk about it, was because the story had ended up with lots of hard feelings between him and one of his good friends.
    He said that it all began in 1956, when Tommy, who was doing well with his dump truck business, went out and bought a brand new 1956 Ford pickup truck. At that time, Tommy, had a friend that lived nearby, his name was Billy Quick. Billy Quick was not only Tommy’s best friend but he was also a very good mechanic.
    After driving the pickup truck for a few years, Tommy got the idea that he wanted to soup the truck up. He decided that he wanted to make the 6 cylinder Ford truck into a “Street hot rod”. He wanted to do it because it was the kind of thing that lots of other guys were doing back in 1958. Also, by 1958, the local junk yards were starting to get in late model wrecked cars that had powerful V8 overhead valve engines in them. So Tommy told Billy Quick that he decided to pull the small 6 cylinder Ford engine out of the pickup truck and replace it with a high powered and souped up V8 engine that would be much more powerful, and more fun to drive. So they started calling around to the junk yards to see what was available, and they eventually located an auto wrecker that had just gotten in a wrecked 1957 Pontiac automobile with a V8 overhead valve engine. The only problem was, at the time, Pontiac V8 engines were not considered worthy of building up into racing engines, and few companies sold any parts to soup them up, and that was a big negative, but Tommy and Billy took that as a challenge, and he bought the 1957 Pontiac V8 Engine anyway, and then they did everything they could to soup it up.
They bored the engines cylinders out, and they located special racing pistons, and then they shaved down and ported and relieved the cylinder heads, and then they had the entire engine completely balanced. Tommy had called up the “Howard Camshaft Company” who, at the time, were the leading manufacturers of automotive racing camshafts. He told them that he wanted them to design the most radical, experimental camshaft that they could come up with for his Pontiac engine, Tommy told them that cost was no object. So the Howard Camshaft Company did design a special cam shaft for Tommy’s engine, and it cost him close to $400.00, which was a lot of money in those days. Prices like that, were out of reach for most people, but not for Tommy, he had the money, and he was now on a mission to build a high powered Pontiac engine for his pickup truck.
     Once they installed the new racing camshaft, the engine ran so crazy that all the studs that held the valve rockers into the cylinder heads pulled out. So to solve the problem, Billy Quick drove in oversize studs, hitting them into the engine with a 10 lb. sledge hammer. This was a solution that was unheard of at the time, and it was a very unorthodox way to fix the rocker stud problem, but then, nothing Tommy and Billy did to the Pontiac engine was orthodox, everything  was just as unorthodox as can be. When the engine was finally completed, they then had to design a special adapter to bolt the engine to the 1956 Ford’s three speed manual transmission. Then they had to fit the 1957 Pontiac engine into the pickup trucks engine compartment.
    Tommy said that the transmission they used was originally designed for the Ford six cylinder engine so using it turned out to be a wise move as the high gear ratio combined with the big V8 engine was what made the truck literally jump off the ground when in first gear. They eventually got the engine to fit in the truck, and surprisingly enough, it started up and it ran, but that radical racing camshaft they had installed made the engines RPM  difficult to control. So Billy tried playing around with the engines carburation and he finally determined that they were just not getting enough fuel into the engine. So then he installed a high volume Stewart Warner electric fuel pump, and this allowed them to get the motor to run smoother, just smooth enough so they could actually drive the truck, on the street.
    To first try it out, Billy got behind the steering wheel, and that's when they found out that they had somehow accidentally built a rocket ship.
     That was when Tommy and Billy started to make the rounds of all the hamburger and hotdog joints, and taking on anyone that wanted to race them. By doing this they eventually ended up at Jimmy’s Restaurant. Tommy told me that Billy Quick was always doing all of the driving.
    One evening they were on the Connecticut Turnpike racing another car, and as Tommy’s pick up pulled away from the competitor, they noticed a State Police Trooper was right behind them. The Connecticut Trooper was trying his best, but he couldn’t catch up with Tommie’s pickup truck.
     Billy Quick, was determined to escape, so he took off down an exit ramp at over 110 miles per hour. Tommy said he thought that at that speed, they could never negotiate the turn in the ramp and he was bracing himself for a horrible crash. But somehow the truck stuck to the road and they eluded the police, and Billy then slowed down and kept to unlit city streets, until they got to Tommy's home and the truck was safely hidden in the barn.
     That evening the police came calling, it seems they had taken Tommy's license tag number. They asked if Tommy had been driving the truck that night, and he said no. (That was true, Billy Quick was driving). The police asked to see the truck, it was in the barn and the radiator was still hot and smoking so Tommy was arrested.
     Now, being arrested was no concern to Tommy, but possibly losing his driver’s license was a big concern. If he was ever convicted he would lose his license and lose his dump truck business, so at the
Police station, Tommy said he was not driving the truck, he said that it was Billy Quick, and Billy Quick when arrested said that it was Tommy that was driving. I don't exactly know what happened at that point as Tommy never seem to want to talk about it, but he didn't lose his license and he never spoke to Billy Quick again, nor did Billy ever talk to Tommy again, and that was the whole story behind that Black 1956 Ford Pickup truck, that is, until I met Tommy at Jimmy’s Restaurant.
    After a year or so of street my racing with Tommy, He began to get antsy about wanting to make the truck go faster. Tommy said that he wanted to be able to race the truck from a standing start, rather than a rolling start. Personally, I didn’t think the truck needed to be any faster, but Tommy kept asking me what I thought he should do, and I was hard pressed to come up with a solution for him, as I thought he already had a winning combination and he probably had the fastest street racing vehicle in the entire New England area.
      Finally, the only suggestion I had for Tommy was to lock the differential on the truck. This would make both rear tires turn at the same time and give the truck more traction on the take off. If we locked up the trucks differential, Tommy would be able to race from a standing start. But I warned Tommy, in locking the differential, there were some sacrifices that had to be made, and because both tires now turned at the same speed, and this would make going around corners difficult and put a lot of stress on all the gears in the differential.
    “Let’s do it, Tommy said, who gives a shit about turning corners”. So we jacked up the truck in the barn and I slid under and opened up the rear differential case, and with an electric arc welding machine I carefully welded the spider gears in the rear differential together, this now locked both rear tires, making them turn together at the same time. As soon as I was done, Tommy was anxious to try it out, so we tried to push the truck out of the barn by hand, but by locking the differential, making the turn out of the barn was now almost impossible.
    Once we were on solid pavement, Tommy, tried spinning the rear wheels from a standing start and they grabbed the ground perfectly. That pickup truck didn’t lose even one moment on the take off, it now had one hundred percent perfect traction, and Tommy could now race from a standing start.
    Tommy said he loved it, he said the truck was perfect. But every time we took a corner, the truck would make loud chirping noises coming from the locked rear tires, it bothered me, but Tommy said he could care less about hearing the chirping noise coming from the tires as we turned the street corners. But the fact that Tommy could now race from a standing start, was what he always wanted, and I had to agree with him that there was no question that the truck was now much faster on the takeoff then before.
      For the next several weeks, we continued going out in the evenings looking for anyone to race, and the truck performed absolutely perfectly, but one evening, we were driving by the Yale Bowl in New Haven, we stopped at a red light, when all of a sudden a black 1957 Chevrolet coupe pulled up next to us. Before the light turned green and with expert control, the driver let out his clutch, making the 1957 Chevy lurch forward then he punched it again, making the front end of that Chevy lift up.  Now that Tommy could race from a standing start, he waited for the red light to change to green, and as he let out the clutch, the truck lurched forward and we heard a loud explosive noise that came from the rear differential, was awful, the truck stopped dead in the street. The power from the engine was no longer
Turning the rear wheels. We both knew immediately what happened, the rear differential had destroyed itself. So as we got out of the truck, that black 1957 Chevy backed up to us, and he rolled down his window. “Do you guys need a lift he asked”, we did need a lift and he drove us all the way to Tommy's house, in Foxon. Once there we got in my 1959 Chevy, and with a tow chain we pulled the truck home and into the barn.
     The times were changing, and also our lives were changing, we were both getting older. So Tommy and I started an auto wrecking business, and then all of a sudden, girls were becoming interesting to us. So for a while, Tommy and I double dated, and whenever I brought up the topic of the 1956 Ford pickup truck, Tommy would always say, “Sure we can get it running again”, but we never did. That truck just sat in the barn, and it seems like we never had the time anymore to get around to working on it. Eventually Tommy got married, and he built a new house across the street from his father’s house, but he still used his father’s barn, to store the pickup truck and for his dump truck business.
     I left for Army, and then in 1963, I also got married, and moved to Florida. Tommy and I sort of lost touch. But then in 1969 I called Tommy from Miami, I told him I had gotten involved with a friend and we were removing the railroad from Haiti. I needed Tommy’s advice regarding an old Mack truck my friend was rebuilding in Haiti. We ended our conversation with me asking him about the 1956 Ford pickup truck, and Tommy said it was still sitting there in the barn.
    Again around 2001, I got the idea to call Tommy up again, and this time when I called he was really surprised to hear from me. Tommy said was delighted for me to have found him again. Tommy said he was always thinking about going to Haiti to look for me, somehow he had gotten the idea I lived there.
     I told Tommy we lived in Miami and were renovating a place in the Florida Keys. Tommy said that he and his girlfriend Sandy were in Florida every year for NASCAR races in Daytona where she also owned a condo and Tommy said they always came to Miami, and to the Keys to visit friends. So he promised to come visit us, and the following year they did.
     Tommy, was still in the dump truck business, but had expanded into sewer and cellar excavating as well, and now with his girlfriend Sandy's help they had also expanded into the home construction business, and as expected, we talked about the 1956 black pickup truck.  I could see that Tommy got wistful every time the conversation came up, and it was now hard to get him to talk about it. It appears that somewhere down the line he needed more room in the barn and he sold the pickup truck, but now he regretted doing it.
     Sandy told me that sometime in 2009, she located the original 1956 Ford pickup trucks registration papers, so they went to a junk yard that had a computer system that traces registrations, but it turned out to be a dead end. Sandy said that Tommy told her that if they could ever find the present owner, Tommy would buy the truck back.
     Then just by chance, at a car show in Essex Connecticut, they bumped into a fellow, who said that he knew a guy in “Deep River Connecticut” that collected black 1956 Ford pickup trucks.  So off, to Deep River Connecticut, Tommy and Sandy went, and they eventually found a house with two 1956 black Mercury (Canadian Ford) pickup trucks, that were parked in a garage. There was even a black Ford pickup truck parked in front of the house. Tommy looked into the window of the pickup truck in front of the house, and laying inside, were the two inner door panels, from his original 1956 Ford Truck, he recognized them, but as no one was home, they could only leave a note.
     That evening they received a call from the trucks owner. Yes he said he had once owned Tommy’s pickup truck, but he gave it to his brother who lived in Vermont, and he thinks his brother junked it.
     As of March 2011, Sandy says that Tommy thinks the truck may still be in Vermont, and if I know
Sandy and Tommy we haven't heard the end of this story yet.
     In May of 2016, I received a call from Sandy, It appears that they had just attended a car show at a local Dairy Queen, and a fellow there recognized Tommy. He said, “Aren’t you the guy that had that fast 1956 Ford pickup truck back in 1959”.  Tommy said, “Yes”.  The fellow said, “Man, you are a legend around here, can I stand next to you”.         



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