The Mr. Kupferberg Story
Smuggling and the Canadian stink Bombs
A true story written 01/2010 and rewritten 04/27/2016 unedited
It was in 1957 when my cousin Allen and I started going to Canada, and it opened up a whole new world of opportunity for us, one we were never aware of.
In 1957, both my Cousin Allen and I were working part time in a Gulf gas station that was managed by a local New Haven guy name Scotty Massey. The station was located on the corner of Whalley Avenue and Emerson Street, in Westville Connecticut.
My cousin Allen and I both loved working on cars, not only cars that were coming in to the gas station but we were always working on our own hotrods as well. So when we were not in school or not working at the gas station, you could always find us in my back yard working on our cars or working on our friend’s cars. One day Allen told me that he had relatives living in Montreal Canada and he wanted to go visit them, it really sounded interesting, so we both went, and that trip became a life changing experience.
In 1957, I had graduated from Hillhouse High school and Cousin Allen was completing his last year of Commercial High School. I had just started rebuilding the engine on my 1940 Ford Convertible. I had driven that poor 1940 Ford convertible mercilessly until the engine just couldn’t take it anymore. I was fortunate enough to meet a fellow named Billy Flynn who offered to teach me how to rebuild the engine, so Billy was coming over every few days to instruct me. At the time I didn’t realized how lucky I was to have known Billy, as a few years later, Billy Flynn went on to become the famous head driver of Chryslers racing team. (See the Billy Flynn Story)
Once I started rebuilding the Ford engine, I got the brilliant idea that I could soup it up while rebuilding it, so I went out and bought a Ford Model a roadster, with the intentions of making it into a drag racing car, and using my souped up engine from the 1940 Ford.
My Cousin Allen was working on his own hot rod project. He had a 1949 Ford Coupe and he had installed a 1957 Oldsmobile V8 engine in it, and his car was always a work in progress. The bottom line being that neither of us had a reliable car to go to Canada in.
My dad had a 1952 Pontiac but had just bought a 1955 Oldsmobile four door sedan, he bought the car for $900.00 from Scotty Massy the manager of the Gulf gas station. So naturally I hit on him to lend us his Oldsmobile to drive to Canada. Once we had reliable transportation, my cousin Allen suggested that we drive up to Montreal Canada and meet all of his cousins. Allen said that all his Canadian cousins were from his dad’s side of the family and that’s why we had never met any of them before.
At the time, I was just turning seventeen years old and had never driven on a long trip like that, so I thought going to Canada was going to be pretty exciting. So one weekend, we gathered our available cash and we did it, we made the eight hour drive from New Haven to Montreal Canada. We found that driving from New Haven into Canada was really interesting, as we had to go through Canadian customs, and swear we weren’t smuggling anything in. Then you had to do the same thing with U.S. Customs when you returned to the United States. As we weren’t smuggling anything, we thought going through Customs was all kind of a big joke, even though we heard that they could confiscate your car and put you in jail if they wanted to.
Once we were in Montreal, we were actually in cultural shock, they served French fries with vinegar, instead of ketchup and some of the people didn’t even speak English, they spoke French. We were also pleasantly surprised that our money was worth 25% more in Canada, which meant we could buy Molsons beer cheap.
We met Allen’s cousins, the Penfolds, There was Allen’s uncle and aunt and they had four children. The oldest was Billy and Joyce who were about our age and Gloria and Lorraine who were a bit younger perhaps eight or nine years old. They were all swell people and they always made room for us to stay in their home in Montreal North.
Now back then in 1957 and 1958, the hot rod craze was in full swing throughout the United States, and my cousin Allen and I were not immune to it. I had started attending New Haven State Teachers College, and I was using my father’s 1955 Oldsmobile. He was getting tired of me always using the car when he wanted to use it, so he went out and bought me a 1959 Chevrolet to have reliable transportation for college. So I reasoned that I could always use the Chevrolet to drive to Montreal as Allen and I were still driving there about once a month. I have to admit that after meeting Allen’s pretty cousin Joyce, she was the attraction for me making the trip.
Now back in those hot rod days, if you were building a racing car, you needed a strong heavy duty three speed transmission. Hot rods needed a transmission that would hold up under the strain of the high horsepower V8 engines that were being installed. It was determined by the hot rod professionals that the three speed transmission used in the old 1939 to 1941 Cadillac’s would do the job perfectly. So now, everyone started buying up all these old Cadillac transmissions wherever they could find them. It wasn’t long before the used transmission price was over $150.00 each, and that was only if you could find one.
So by 1959, looking for an old 1939 used Cadillac transmission in a junk yard anywhere in the United States became an impossibility. One day we were talking about it, and my cousin Allen suggested that possibly no one was even looking for these old transmissions in Canada, and if we looked, we could probably find them in junk yards there. So I thought about it, and concluded that
Allen was right, no one living in Montreal would ever be looking for these old Cadillac transmissions. We could drive around to all the small junk yards and probably buy them for twenty dollars each, so I told Allen that I thought it was a real good idea. It was then that I got to thinking about how to bring a used Cadillac transmission back over the border into the United States. The Canadian and U.S. Customs were very strict about that kind of stuff. It would probably require a lot of paperwork.
I thought long and hard on the subject, and finally I came up with an idea. If we put two junk transmissions in the trunk of my car when we left New Haven, we could declare them with the U.S. Customs as junk transmissions when we entered Canada. Once we were in Canada we could throw them into the woods, and replace them with two old used Cadillac transmissions that we would buy in Montreal. Then we would declare to customs that they were all the same parts and they wouldn’t charge us any duty, I thought it was a great idea.
So the next time we headed for Montreal, it was in my new 1959 Chevrolet, and we had two broken, junk transmissions in the trunk of the car. Cousin Allen had purposely studied the French language and had mastered an entire paragraph in French. He memorized how to ask a French speaking junk yard owner, if they had any 1939 to 1941 Cadillac transmissions, and could we buy them for twenty dollars. So on the next trip we drove around the entire island of Montreal stopping in every small back yard junk yard. Some little junk yards had cars in them so old that trees were growing through them. We would park in front of a farmhouse, and Allen would knock on the door. Usually an
Elderly French speaking husband and wife would answer the door and Allen would go into his prepared speech in French. Listening to him speak French was so humorous that I could see the people didn’t know if they should laugh or cry, but they all listened to Allen, and we did find and buy two transmissions. The only problem was that they were still in the old cars, we hadn’t anticipated that until the negotiations were all over. So now Allen and I had no choice but to jack up the old cars and with our own tools we removed the transmissions. By the time we were done we were covered with transmission grease and dirt, and we must have looked like two real American idiots to anyone watching us. We then threw into the woods the two old junk transmissions, I had in the car, and brought back to the States, the two used Cadillac transmissions, everything went as planned without a hitch, so we knew our smuggling system worked perfectly.
Now, Billy Penfold, Allen’s cousin, owned a Singer automobile, it was sitting parked behind their house for several years. A Singer convertible was a sporty little British car, very similar looking to a MG. Billy said his car didn’t run because he was told it needed a valve job. So I wanted to help Billy get his car running, but to give it a valve job I knew that I would have to remove the engine head, and bring it back to the United States with me where I could work on it in my workshop, but there was no way I could do this as I would have to declare the head at Canadian Customs and I was certain they would give me a hard time. I knew that they wouldn’t let me bring it into the States, and then back into Canada, without a lot of paperwork. So I reasoned that I needed to do it the same way Allen and I had brought the Cadillac transmissions out of Montreal the last time.
The following month, Allen and I were working at the Gulf gas station in Westville. The manager now, was a fellow named Tony Navarro. Tony had taken in a job to replace a noisy rear differential in a 1953 Buick. Now removing a differential from a 1953 Buick is no joking matter, neither Tony, Allen or I had ever removed one before. So as hard as we tried, we couldn’t get that differential out of the car. We beat on it with hammer and chisels and we even tried using pry bars, but it just wouldn’t come loose. So finally I went home and came back with my oxygen acetylene cutting torch, and with my
Torch we heated up the parts red hot and with Allen beating the hell out of it with a 5 pound hammer, the differential finally came out.
We replaced the differential with a good used one that Tony ordered from a local junk yard. The old Buick differential that we had removed looked terrible, it was completely black from using my torch to heat it up, and it was dented from Allen beating on it with a hammer, so I just threw it in the junk pile behind the gas station.
When it was time to make our next monthly trip back up to Montreal, I wanted to bring Billy’s engine head back with me to do the valve job, so I needed something to throw in the trunk to declare at U.S, Customs. We looked behind Tony’s gas station and the only thing we could find was the old burned and beat up 1953 Buick differential, the one we had thrown away, so we put it in the car’s trunk.
At U.S. Customs, they made me open up my trunk, and the young customs officer asked me what the hell the awful looking part was, I said it’s an engine head for a Singer car. He scrunched up his face and looked at me like I was some kind of Idiot, he knew it didn’t look like an engine head. But the part was so burned, dirty and greasy he didn’t want to touch it. At first he wanted me to fill out all kinds of papers, I got nervous as I thought he was going to confiscate my car. I knew that he knew something was wrong, but he didn’t know exactly what. He must have wondered what in hell we were up to, bringing a dirty piece of junk like that into Canada? As hard as he could he looked for a serial number, but he did it without wanting to touch the dirty burned piece. There were no legible numbers, so he hesitatingly closed my trunk and told us to move on. I have to admit both Allen and I were more than a little shook up over the intensive inspection, and somehow we ended up heading into Canada on a different road than we normally took.
Late in the afternoon as we entered some town, there was a big billboard, it said “Kupferberg Transmission Rebuilding straight ahead”. We both thought it must have been an omen from heaven, possibly Kupferberg had the old Cadillac transmissions we needed.
By the time we reached the Kupferberg Transmission Company, all the employees had gone home.
The only person still there was Mr. Kupferberg himself. So we got out of the car and asked him if he had any 1939 Cadillac transmissions? Mr. Kupferberg was about fifty years old and spoke with a heavy European accent, he said he couldn’t believe we were looking for the old transmissions. Then he
Said, he had never saw kids our age that knew anything about old transmissions. He was curious and he asked us how we smuggled them across the border, so I told him the whole story of how we brought junk parts in and brought transmissions out. Kupferberg said, “What kind of junk do you have in your car now”. I told him we had a beat up 1953 Buick differential. His facial features changed completely, he said let me see it. So I opened the trunk and there was the burned and banged up 1953 Buick differential sitting there.
Mr. Kupferberg rolled the dirty differential over and there was tears in his eyes, he was almost crying, he said, “How much do you want for it, I have a customer that needs one right now and I don’t have one.” I said, Mr. Kupferberg, you can have it for free.
He couldn’t believe it, he picked it up and carried it into his store. Then he motioned for us to follow him to the back of his building. It was a big warehouse and had a concrete beam ceiling, from the ceiling were hanging greasy burlap bags, each with a used differential in it. Kupferberg said he was the biggest rebuilder of U.S. differentials in Canada. He said he bought used transmissions and differentials in the United States and he personally smuggled them into Canada by the truckload. Kupferberg was so proud, he showed us his entire transmission and differential rebuilding shop.
Just as we were leaving his front door he reached down under the front counter and brought out a brand new set of gears, they were still in in an original Chevrolet box. He said please take this in exchange for the 1953 Buick differential you gave me, I can’t take it for free. I looked at the box, it was a set of late model Chevrolet, 4/11 racing ring and pinion gears that was not available in the United States. The Chevrolet 4/11 ring and pinion gear set was not only unavailable, in the U.S. but it was priceless.
That evening we reached the Penfold house in Montreal and the next day Allen and I took the head off of Billy’s Singer. I had all the papers from U.S. customs showing that I had entered Canada with a Singer head, so Canadian Customs let us pass through with no problems.
While my Cousin Allen and I were in Montreal, we had stopped at a magic and trick shop just off Saint Catherine Street, where they sold all sorts of tricks and magic items. I bought a box of stink bombs, they were small glass vials of liquid that when they were broken they gave off a horrible Sulphur stink. Then on our way home after clearing the Canadian Customs, we stopped at the U.S. customs office, it was the office that the inspector gave us the hard time about bringing the 1953 Buick differential into Canada. We asked if we could use their rest room, they said yes so behind every door, we taped a stink bomb with a band aid. We did it so the glass would break when the doors were closed.
The next month we returned with the rebuilt Singer head and installed it on Billy’s car, and it actually worked beautifully. And to prove it, around 1962, Billy Penfold drove that Singer all the way to New Haven, and then back to Montreal.