I did my share of cruising both Northern Lights and Benson Boulevard in the late 1960’s through 1970’s. It was a favorite pastime for young people during long Anchorage nights. Those folks having lived there during that time know what I mean. The sun barely sat each June and July night before it popped up for another day of excitement.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to hang onto several grainy photos to help tell this story:
My initial experience with cruising was with my friend, Rod Sanborn. This took place in his 1958 Chevrolet Apache pickup. The year was 1969. I would’ve been a 9th grader at Clark Junior High. Rod was two years older and attended East High.
Rod’s pickup was painted bright Hugger Orange and had large Mickey Thompson street slicks on the rear. Traction bars helped put rubber to the asphalt. All windows except the windshield were tinted orange to seemingly match the truck. I recall Rod saying they accidentally turned out that way after he used ammonia-based Windex on gray-window-film. A chemical reaction took place changing the hue. Rod’s truck looked cool to say the least.
The engine was a hopped up small-block Chevy 283. It had a Mallory ‘REV POL’ (reverse polarity) dual-point ignition, with a switch in the cab that allowed the distributor to fire on one set of points only. This was intended for regular driving purposes. A red light came on when switched to dual points and reverse polarity. On top of the panel was a warning label declaring that when the light was on, you were in “Race Mode Only.” Each time Rod used that switch, I told him I could feel the difference in horsepower. Looking back on things, I believe it was more of a imaginary feeling than anything.
This high revvin’ motor grenaded on more than one occasion with my pal at the wheel. I helped him scrounge parts for it at the vehicle graveyard off Kincaid Road. We spent many Saturday’s wrenching away on discarded cars and trucks along with other money savvy residents.
Rod and I would cruise to The Bun Drive-In on Northern Lights and park with the hot-rod crowd. This was back in the day when “GTO Joe” was ‘King of the Street’. Being surrounded by serious horsepower nearly made me drool. Rod gave me a nickname back then that he still uses,
He says the term has something to do with a black hat that I wore. I tend to believe it was because I always bummed money from him for a Coke and fries.
My brother, Jim, purchased a 1969 Mercury Cougar from a local radio DJ. That car became our next cruisin’ machine soon after Rod’s truck was sold. The Cougar had a 351 Windsor with manual 4-speed transmission. Glass pack mufflers gave it a nice throaty sound. I was allowed to drive the Cougar on occasion which helped to swell my head.
Several years later I purchased a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T. It was equipped with a 440 CID engine, 4-speed transmission, and Dana 60 differential. The Mopar was a looker and quite adequate in the acceleration department. Cops came to know it and myself on a first name basis.
Back then, street racing on Northern Lights was basically a stoplight to stoplight affair. I often thought that an unbeatable combination would be a car with a manual-shift automatic transmission, along with a super-low gear ratio. My friend, Jeff Thimsen, and I set out to build two such street racing machines.
Our 1954 Chevrolet “Highboy” hot rods were unbeatable up to 40 mph. Jeff’s ’54 had a Jimmy Arnold built Turbo-400 transmission and 4500 RPM stall torque converter. A Dana 60 with 4.88 gears completed the package. An original LS-6 454 from a 1970 Chevelle SS powered his car.
My ’54 had 5.38 rear gears with the same Jimmy Arnold transmission and torque converter. A high winding 1969 Z-28 302 engine sat under the hood.
We took our automobiles to Northern Lights each weekend when it wasn’t raining. After a month or so, it became impossible finding anyone wanting to go up against us. There was nothing that’d beat these cars the first 100 feet. At that point, we’d quit racing and let the other guy sail on by. It was our way of silently saying,
The last such race I recall is one I still laugh about. We were in Jeff’s ’54 sitting at a light on Benson heading east, when a gloss black 1964 Ford pulled up. This Galaxie 500 had huge leaf spring shackles on its rear end.
When the light turned green, Jeff ran through all 3-gears and as usual we were five car lengths in front. He let off the gas and the Ford went flying by. Unbeknownst to us a patrol car was directly behind taking in all the action.
The officer pulled up next to us and ordered Jeff to pull over at McDonald’s and wait. The cop then took off in hot pursuit of the Ford with lights and siren going. Jeff wheeled into the fast-food parking lot as instructed but he didn’t wait. We took various side roads all the way back to his apartment which was located on Spenard Road.
Jumping into my Charger, we returned to Northern Lights finding the same policeman had pulled over a black 1955 Chevrolet. The vehicle’s owner and passenger were standing against the car, with several other police cars circled around. We observed one fellow trying to plead his case.
We learned through the grapevine, that the officer ordering Jeff to stop believed he’d caught the right culprit. Jeff and I chuckled over how someone could misidentify a 1954 Chevrolet over a 1955. The two automobiles share no common traits.
We parked our hot rods for the rest of that summer. Stoplight to stoplight racing was no longer fun; it also wasn’t safe.
Jeff and I continued to cruise Northern Lights with our girlfriends and then wives. Jeff upgraded to a couple of SS-454 Monte Carlo’s and a 1963 split-window Corvette.
I drove a 1971 SS-454 Chevelle for a while, and then a 1974 SS-454 El Camino. A V-8 Chevy Vega was eventually built for cruising, with a 1968 supercharged 440 GTX finishing things off. By this time Jeff and I came to the conclusion that racing belonged on the strip. It seems we had matured.
Some of the names I remember from my cruising days are: Jeff Kritenbrink, Steve Kretsinger, Doug Miller, Bob Malone, Jerry Warren, Faith Luther, Michelle Giroux, Cathy Cook, Willie Brown, Dennis Hackenberger, Gary Adair, Warren Fife, Mark Lewis, Mike Smith, Pat Steger, Tim Amundsen, Kathy Fejes, Ken Lucia, Mike Eddins, Rick Barden, “Buzzy”, and a few other first names only.
Jeff changed the gearing in his ’54 and raced it at Polar Raceway several times before selling it. We eventually moved on to other things like raising families, finding viable careers, fishing, camping, plus other pertinent activities. Cars were still fun to tinker with but not as important as they used to be.
Looking back on this time, my favorite cruising machine of all time was a 1954 Chevrolet station wagon named, ‘War Wagon.’ Jeff, myself, and a friend, Ken Lucia, purchased the wagon just for kicks. Several years ago I wrote a story solely about this ride.
Sadly, ‘War Wagon’ eventually succumbed to one too many,
“Hot Anchorage Nights.”