The Towering Inferno (the 1970 Mach 1 Version)

CarMichael Angelo

clearly, I’ve got something going on in that hole
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Nov 29, 1999
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When I was 20, I had had my 69 Mach 1 for 3 years. I had rebuilt the 351W, and added all of the available add-ons in an effort to make it as fast as I could get it. It had Centerline auto drag wheels, and was sporting it's first custom candy apple red lacquer paint job. Despite spending thousands of dollars on a minimum wage salary, the car still only managed 13.20's in the 1/4 mile. I wanted to get it into the 12's.

No nitrous available back then, no aftermarket heads available, and only a few intake manifolds to choose from, a 351w in 1977 was a seriously hobbled engine. My boss was hounding me to dump the windsor, and do a big block swap. After enduring several months of his ridicule, I finally took his advice and started my hunt. A salvage yard in downtown Omaha had what I was looking for, a low mile, carb to oil pan 429 SCJ out of a 1971 Mercury Cyclone Spolier. Asking price......375.00. :o
I gave the man 50.00 as a down payment, told him I'd bring in money every two weeks, and hoped to have it bought in 90 days. For those that dont know, a 429 SCJ is a 4 bolt main, forged bottom end 429, sporting a factory set of CJ heads, and a factory highrise aluminum manifold, topped with a 735 CFM Holley vacuum secondary carburetor.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

I just didn't have the money. That swap was gonna require more than an engine transplant. I'd need a c-6, a new converter, a driveshaft modification, and a set of headers that didn't exist. (they didn't put 385 series engines in that chassis) I didn't have the skills, or the place to do this. Couple that to the fact that this was my daily driver, and the swap plan quickly got a dose of reality. I went back to the junkyard that had my 50.00 to see about a refund.

No refunds.

My 50.00 ended up buying the carburetor that sat on top of the engine. A carburetor, that I didn't need by the way. Nonetheless, I was stuck with it. I bought a rebuild kit for it, freshened it up, and put it on a shelf in my uncle's garage where it sat.....waiting on the day Butchhead bought his 1970 Mach 1.

Butchhead was a pig farmer in Missouri Valley, he was also the cousin of my next door neighbor. (the Neighbor kid in other stories) Because of that association, I was introduced to Butchhead. At the time Butchhead had a 71 mach 1 that he hated. Because he hated it, he neglected it. The floors were pig farm muddy, stuff was broken, it was scratched and dented, it looked like hell. His actual name was Butch, he was 6' tall, about 265 pounds, and in typical fashion for a pig farmer of the period, wore coveralls, a ball cap with some advertisement for herbicide, or a farm implement, and had long stringy hair. In actuality,...he had far from a "butch" head.

But that was the nickname I gave him, and he let it stick. Henceforth, he was known as Butchhead.

As much as Butchhead hated his car, he loved mine. He wanted a similar bodystyle instead of the USS Saratoga version he was driving. The neighbor kids dad came home one day having seen a Grabber orange 70 mach 1 for sale, and promptly told his brother (butchheads father) about the car.

3000.00 buys it. A really nice car with a 4bbl 351 Cleveland, toploader 4 speed, with F70 15 Uniroyal rubber on magnum 500 wheels. Short of a leaking header gasket, the car was perfect.

Butchhead gets it, and having only driven manually shifted stuff like tractors, and farm trucks,....manages to destroy the clutch. (Which in his defense, was probably close to giving up the ghost already.) Consequently, after only having it a weekend, managed to make it undriveable.

I and the neighbor kid offer to fix the clutch. While we're at it well replace the header gasket (since both headers will be off to get the transmission out), and I just happened to have a factory version of a 735 CFM Holley carb with a fresh rebuild that I'd sell him for the bargain price of 75.00. He gladly accepts the offer, and limps the poor slipping clutched 1970 mach 1 to my uncles driveway where the work was to take place. We get to work on it in earnest.

Since the easiest of the three jobs was the carb swap, It was what we did first. We got the old Motorcraft 4300 series 4 bbl off and the Holley swapped within a half hour.

I have the neighbor kid attempt to start it. He starts to crank the engine so the mechanical fuel pump will fill the float bowls.
No sooner does the front bowl fill, when gas starts shooting straight out of the front vent tube.

"Stop! Cut it off!" I yell, and step out from under the hood, and make the "cut my throat" gesture with my right hand.
The neighbor kid quickly complies.

I go about the task of draining the float bowl, removing it, and freeing up the stuck float, probably from setting all those months before. I put the front bowl back on, and have TNK start the cranking process again to fill the bowls again. This time, the rear vent tube starts spewing like a geyser.

I remove one of the lower bowl screws and start the draining process, gas pouring all over the runners, and valleys of the Edelbrock Torker intake manifold. After starting that process however, I think better of it, and decide to put the screw back in. I decide to give the bowl a rap with handle of a screw driver in an attempt to free up the stuck needle and seat assy instead of taking a chance of hurting a bowl gasket.

I tell TNK to start cranking. He depresses the clutch, and cranks......PFFFFT!! it backfires.. A small amount of fire is now dancing in the venturies, and on top of the carb.
This panics the TNK, but I stay calm, and tell him to keep cranking in an attempt to suck the fire into the engine.

To no avail.

The fire jumps to the pools of gas left into the valleys of the Torker and starts burning. The fire quickly intensifies. (it was getting fed by gasoline after all)

Now I'm in full panic. The fire is blistering the paint on tops of the fenders. The wires are melting, and I got nothing to stop it. There is no rag to smother it, no dirt to throw at it, and it is getting bigger by the second. Me and TNK are both running around like manic chickens looking for something,.... anything to stop this catastrophe. I ignore the old advice always ingrained in my head about what to use on a gasoline fire, and run and get the garden hose.
The water from the hose hits the fire, and flaming pools of gas spray all over the fenders and cowl. I only managed to make it worse. Now the hood scoop, once bolted to the hood slides down the hood in a molten glob. The electrical wires, now burned through short out, and the engine starts to crank. TNK runs over to the clothes line, and yanks my aunt's bedspread off the line despite her screaming to not do so, and starts beating the fire out. He wails and thrashes at it like a mad man, and finally manages to do so, at the same time destroying my aunt's bed cover.

We're both completely exhausted, nerves shot, and full of dread. We just managed (me more so than the poor TNK) to burn a beautiful 1970 mach 1 almost to the ground, and it's new owner has no clue that it just happened. What we had left was a completely warped hood, the tops of the fenders scorched of their Grabber orange paint, unrecognizable engine harness wiring, and a melted,.....75.00 Holley carburetor looking all ugly on top of a blackened burnt 351 Cleveland.

With a brand new clutch and PP assembly, and header gasket set sitting on a bench alongside the house.

We finally comes to terms with it, and get in my car, and go to Butchheads place of employment. (He coincidently worked at Swifts Premium Pig slaughter house).

We summon him from the inside and he walks out. We both must've looked like we had just had a relative die. I walk over and hand him my keys, and tell him that my red 69 was now his, because the orange car that he used to have was now almost burned to the ground.

Despite my offer, he refuses. He acknowledges that the fire would've happened if he was standing right there,...and that it was gonna happen regardless. He gets off shift and comes to my uncles house to see for himself. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.

It was as bad as we had made it out to be.

We cumulatively decided to pull the engine, and have it inspected for fire damage. The plan to put the thing back together at my expense. ( And me not even being able to afford a $375, highly coveted engine) That doesn't happen, as Butchhead starts selling stuff off. The car ends up at Butchheads fathers house, left alongside an outbuilding on the family farm. At some point in time between the fire and then, the offending carburetor gets blamed for the incident. It becomes a sacrificial lamb. It gets beat on with a sledge by all of us, thrown against the ground, and dropped 50' off an overpass in an attempt for us to move forward. It needs to be said, that as much as gas fueled that fire, booze fueled that ritual.

He later sells the Cleveland piece by piece. The 4 bbl heads get separated first. He parts out the rest of the things that made the car special ( the top loader, the locker rear end, the magnum 500 wheels) all probably in an attempt to recoup the 3000 purchase price of the car.


He died some years back. I was back in Omaha in the late 2000's. A few friends confirmed that the 70 was still alongside that building only covered by a tarp, his father unwilling to part with the car for obvious reasons.

It's hard lessons like this that none of us need to learn "the hard way". An engine fire will destroy years worth of blood, sweat and money in an instant. Unlike the majority of my other stories, this one has a hard ending. Take it as advice. Never start an untested car w/o a fire extinguisher immediately at hand.
 
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TOOLOW91

If you're the village idiot what's that make me?
15 Year Member
Nov 29, 1999
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I enjoy these stories Mike. That was awesome. Glad no one was hurt and the dude had the heart to not take your car.
 

A5literMan

At least it is lumpy...
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I enjoyed that Mike but it also caused me to cringe. I had a similar thing happen to my cousin and I in high school(mid 80's). He had "inherited" his dad's 1970 Nova SS. He got to drive it to school the last part of our junior year.

He gave me a ride over to his house and we decided to give it a bath. We let it sit to dry(didn't hand dry it). We went into the house to do some algebra homework(I specifically rember that-I hated algebra). We started smelling smoke..looked out the window..and the cars got smoke coming out from under the hood. It ended up burning / melting everything from the front bumper to the back seat before we got it out. Never really found out what caused it. Probably an electrical short(the car wasn't running). His dad had owned that car for 20 years and we weren't looking forward to telling him.
 

95BlueStallion

Drop into my dm’s gurrrrrl
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Feb 22, 2007
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I've been through Missouri Valley en route to Council Bluffs from Algona, IA. Been a good 10 years since the last time though. And when I bought the Ranger a couple years ago, it used to drip gas on the intake until I replaced the carb. I always knew in the back of my mind it could be bad, but that makes me glad I never had it go up.
 

Boosted92LX

It's only an inch or two. What's the big deal?
Dec 19, 2010
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Good grief. That's the most depressing story I believe I've ever read.. That was like watching a star cast movie where the three heroes in the story all meet a tragic demise..:(
 

smokin joe

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Sep 30, 2000
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That was quite a sad story.

However it did remind me of something. When I lived in Des Moines, IA their was a 73 or 74 Nova that was metallic gray with black stripes. This car had quite a reputation for being bad luck to whoever owned it.

One night while crusin' in my ultra cool 72 Camaro (yes, I was sporting a mullet) with a buddy we spotted it with smoke coming out of the hood. We pulled over to help and the paint on the hood was blistering.

We found out that the current owner worked with us at the grocery store. We opened the hood to find the engine on fire and put it out with our store aprons.

To our shock the car didn't have an air cleaner on it and was later determined a total loss.