Editor’s note: Tom Shaw worked on what would be his final Last Page column while he was in the hospital recuperating from his accident, and he sent it to us just days before passing. It is fitting that the subjects are two things that were very close to his heart.
They were very different guys from different places. Tony and Jim had never met, yet there was something that these two men shared.
Tony was a craftsman, a man with an artistic temperament. He could have been a painter or a sculptor, but Tony was a woodworker. Somehow the sawn boards spoke to him. He learned quickly how wood is bent, cut, shaped, and glued. He had an uncommon sense about how wood responds when it is worked. Tony labored in a humble shop in an uncelebrated river town, far removed from the larger, famous cities that drew the rich and powerful. But it wasn’t long before word about his talents got out, and in no time, wealthy clients were hiring Tony for his woodworking skills.
In another town far away was a kindred spirit, Jim, also an uncommon talent. The two shared a diamond cutter’s eye for fine detail.
Jim restored cars, and Pontiacs were his specialty. Jim’s Pontiacs looked great, but they were always known for their power. They ran like the wind. Jim had a way with the Pontiac V-8.
When he rebuilt an engine, Jim would get a block back from the machine shop and go over it carefully with his micrometers and log book. He would always find that the machining was good, but could be better. Cylinders were off by a couple thousandths, and so was the deck height. That would have been fine for most, including the factory engine plant, but it wasn’t OK for Jim. The imperfection stuck in his craw, and he just couldn’t let it go. Even if it’s good, if you can make it better, why wouldn’t you?
He bought his own torque plate and honing equipment, and in less than a year, he worked a deal with an old machine shop operator to use his align-bore and milling machine after hours. Now he could fuss and obsess over those wayward thousandths to his heart’s content. And he did. Jim spent slow, unhurried hours in the machine shop, and when he finally left, the block was a precision-cut work of art, not unlike something Tony would build in his woodshop.
Then he’d set up the meters and check every lobe on the cam, every rocker, every valve and seat. He’d degree the cam, check its fore and aft runout, cc each combustion chamber. Same for each piston and ring, connecting rod, wrist pin, timing gear, and oil pump. You get the picture. If it moved, Jim had a micrometer on it.
Jim had engine-building friends. They built good engines that were reliable, made good power, and didn’t use oil. Jim’s friends shook their heads over his obsession with what they saw as minutiae. They tried to convince Jim that he was worried about the equivalent of a pebble under a mattress.
Naturally, Jim didn’t see it that way. He couldn’t. Jim was cut from different cloth. Foremost in his mind was The Standard, an ideal of perfect specifications-maybe attainable, maybe not-that most others were comfortable just getting close to.
To see how they’d run in the real world, Jim began taking his restored Pontiacs to the dragstrip, where his time slip helped measure how well he’d done building the engine. It became a routine: machine, assemble, and test. And having learned the finer points, Jim became pretty good at it. Very good, in fact.
Jim began entering his restored Pontiacs in some local drag races, where he was the man to beat. Always analytical, always learning, he applied the same scientific approach to the rest of the car: axle, suspension, steering, brakes. Then Jim set his sights higher, entering a national stock class drag race where he quickly established a reputation as a pilot of one of the five fastest cars.
Some observers admired him. Some wondered how he did it. Some grumbled that surely he was cheating. He wasn’t. He hadn’t done anything shady. In fact, anybody with the same eye for detail could have built the same car. And it wasn’t long before they did. “Fast” cars of other brands began appearing, then one or two more similarly fast cars, fast because of how carefully they were planned and put together.
Are we getting the moral of the story?
Here’s the wrapup: I opened the column comparing Jim to a fellow sweater of details named Tony, the purpose being to illustrate how carefully some of the Pure Stock Drags cars are built. The Jim character in this column is inspired by a real person. So is Tony. While I can’t name the actual person who Jim is patterned after, I can reveal who Tony is.
In Philly or Lansing or Dallas, we’d call him Tony, but in his hometown of Cremona, Italy, he was Antonio, as in Antonio Stradivari, maker of incomparable violins and other stringed instruments. Is it a comparison too flattering for builders of muscle cars?
I don’t think so. I’ll bet if Tony built muscle cars instead of violins, he’d build them like Jim, and they’d run at the front of their class.