Automotive Memories from the 1960s
Automotive Memories from Eastern Kentucky, 1965 to 1970 | Stirling Watts
These automotive memories of my youth are interspersed with fond memories of my Dad, who was a first rate mechanic and competitive driver in the early SCCA days and a die- hard firearms enthusiast. These experiences all took place during our temporary residence in eastern Kentucky from 1965 to 1970. The following paragraphs are an excerpt from a more complete article describing that period of my life. The car pictured is very similar to the one described in the paragraphs below. Ours had bubble style headlight covers which had been added by the previous owner, but otherwise the car looks identical,
An Interesting Afternoon Drive
While we were living in that green house, one Sunday afternoon we decided to all take a long drive. At that time the family car was a 1962 Lancia Appia, a very tiny 4 door sedan by modern standards. Our destination was Pine Mountain, in Breathitt County in the south part of Kentucky near the Tennessee line. I remember that the terrain down that way was very rugged, and that dad had said that Breathitt County also had a reputation for being a rough place. We had an employee on that job named Bert Couch, who came from Breathitt County who could attest to its rough reputaion. Bert was a tough man.
The whole family was on this Sunday driving excursion, my two older brothers in the back seat and I think I was up front between Mom and Dad on the bench front seat. We had just been to Pine Mountain and I think we were sill in Breathitt County heading back north towards Morehead. A carload of possibly drunk men, I think there were four of them in their car, appeared in front of us. It seems to me they were driving something like a standard Chevy sedan of the period. They seemed to be wandering all over the road. Dad prepared to pass them, and just as he pulled to the left to go around, the driver also swerved left and jammed on his brakes forcing us to almost come to a stop. Then they drove off, laughing at the fun they had just had.
Pretty soon we were behind them again and dad figured he would just pass them up and get away from them. Again, Dad pulled to the left to pass and they repeated the same trick, apparently even more amused at the fun they were having with this Yankee with Ohio tags. Dad opened the glove box and pulled out his M1911 .45 auto. On the third attempt to pass, he plainly displayed the .45 in his right hand, pointing it straight up, as he pulled to the left to pass. The occupants of the car all immediately stopped laughing. The driver jammed on the brakes as we were passing them. If my memory serves me right, we saw them make a U turn and head the other direction.
I related this story at Dad’s funeral. That day affirmed to me Dad’s strong character. Harley Watts was a tough and respectable individual. Dad almost always carried. Maybe it was illegal, I have no idea, but there was always a loaded pistol at his disposal at virtually every moment, and he lived a long and incident free life.
Fast Street Driving in a 1959 Ferrari 250 GT
I remember a couple of automotive incidents from that era involved Dad’s 1959 Ferrari 250 GT, his hobby car. You have to understand something of the automotive background of the Watts family to appreciate why he owned a Ferrari, while we all lived an average and far less than flamboyant middle class style of life. Any way, Dad used to drive the Ferrari back and forth to Columbus every other weekend during the school year, when the family was back home. It was 165 mile drive which included driving through traffic lights in four towns including the edge of Columbus, across the toll bridge into Kentucky in Portsmouth, Ohio, followed by the portion of the trip where he would really make time on 2 lane rural roads the rest of the way into Morehead. His best time in the Ferrari was right at 2 hours and 30 minutes, and average speed of 66 mph, including traffic lights in 4 towns. Guess for yourself what his maximum speed must have been along various parts of the route. I rode with him on one such commute which was far slower than his best average, and I recall seeing the speedometer dial pushing the 140 mph mark on more than just a few occasions along the way.
One time I remember fondly that we were driving on KY 10 along the Ohio River between Portsmouth, OH and Vanceburg, KY. We came up behind a guy in a convertible Corvette, probably a late 50s model, and he obviously thought he was going to be able to prevent Dad from passing him. I guess the fact that we came up on him at a high rate of speed must have been to him an indication of a desire to race. I’m guessing the Vette was running along at 100 to 110 mph on the straight sections, and then he was all over the place in the corners. The Ferrari had excellent cornering manners, but lacked the punch to overtake the Vette in the straight sections. It only took a couple of corners to make it by him. Dad just left enough space between us and him to allow himself to gain on him while building momentum at the exit of the corner. Just about the time the Vette driver was ready to punch the throttle , we slingshotted past him. In only a few more corners he was totally left in the dust. I LOVED driving with Dad in those days.
On another occasion we had driven in the Ferrari to do some business at the Montgomery County court house in Mt Sterling. It was a rainy and slightly cold day. Anybody with any sense at all had their headlights on, and we did. Driving with Dad in the Ferrari was sort of like being in competition regardless of the conditions, and I think he rather liked to play sliding games in the rain. We were passing cars on east bound US 60 like they were standing still, one after another. Most of the time when I was Dad’s passenger, I was just smiling ear to ear the whole time. This was no exception. But this time Dad did make one small error in judgment as we were making what would have been a smooth pass. In the middle of a pass with the power full on, there suddenly appeared in the opposite lane a car. It had not been as visible, as the driver had failed to turn on his lights. There were two things we could do in that short span of time – we could either hit him head on, or take intelligent evasive action. As usual, Dad took intelligent action. He slowed the car down tremendously with the brakes and looked for an available entrance into the ditch to our left, which we found at just the moment the approaching car passed by us in the opposite direction. It happened so fast that I doubt if the other driver even had the time to brake. I think the car may have been slowed to maybe 40 mph when we entered the rather broad but deep ditch. It then took several hundred feet for us to slow to a stop.
We came to a stop well down in a rather deep and only slightly muddy ditch, as most of the surface of the ditch had grass in it. Dad was only a little bothered by his mistake, but I think my heart was beating a little faster than normal. It was a great save by a good driver. The guy who was coming the other way showed up in a few minutes later, white as a ghost, as he was almost sure that we had rolled the car or been badly injured. I was impressed at the truly quick and intelligent thinking on Dad’s part. The other driver I think didn’t even realize we had been going pretty fast, and he was extremely apologetic about not having his lights on. The other driver I think got a wrecker out to us and that put us back on the road. I think there was a piece of trim that got pulled off, and a minor dent in one rocker panel, and a whole lot of mud under the car, but we drove home otherwise unscathed. I know this to have happened in 1965, because I remember the car so well, and it was in 1966 that Dad moved on to a different model of Ferrari.
When we got home, Dad never said a word about what happened. I think he was a little pissed at me when I blabbered about it to Mom.
More Vehicle Stories – Work Vehicles
Telling this story brings back memories of the other vehicles we used on the job. Dad’s primary work vehicle was a 1964 VW Kombi, known to many as a VW bus. The Kombi, though a bit underpowered for highway use, and being only 2 wheel drive was every bit as nimble as were the 4 wheel drive vehicles which the crews were also using. There was red 1960 Ford 4×4 pickup which was jacked high in the air for ground clearance. It looked strange and unconventional at that time, because absolutely nobody put lift kits in their trucks back then. That fad didn’t start until 30 years later. And there was a 1947 Willys Jeep. It was okay, but still no more nimble off road than was the VW Kombi. They also had a 1952 Willys which was only 2 wd. Perhaps there were some other work trucks but I cannot recall what they were.
The VW was great because it was relatively water tight. The road systems of the time in that region rarely included bridges, unless the road was paved. In that era, a large number of KY state highways were still gravel. County roads were less maintained and usually had gravel on them. Township maintained roads were often just dirt paths with little or no gravel on them.
Anyway, there was one particular farm that Dad had to survey that was owned by a family named Donahue. I don’t remember their first names, and there were Donahue families all over the place in that valley. It seems that different families spelled the name differently. Maybe it was because nobody really could read or write well and they were all intermaqrried, or maybe it was because they were reall from different families, or maybe some of both. There was Donnahoo, Donahue, Donahew, etc. on various mailboxes. Anyway to get to these Donahues house you had to ford the river. When the water was up at all, there was a troublesome deep spot near the bank closest to their house. I know that Dad’s favorite vehicle for crossing there was the Kombi, because the motor just never got wet, as long as you didn’t stay in the water too long. On more than one occasion the wheel stopped touching the bottom of the river for a few seconds, and the Kombi was floating across propelled only by momentum and spinning five wheels.
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