In 1972, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen got on the pop charts with a re-make of an old Charlie Ryan song called "Hot Rod Lincoln". Johnny Bond had a hit with the same song in 1960. But Charlie Ryan's recording, about 1955, was the original. What a lot of folks don't know is that Hot Rod Lincoln was an "answer" song to one called "The Hot Rod Race" from 1950 by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys. Both songs take place on a stretch of road north of LA called "the Grapevine". It is a long tall hill that separates LA from the San Joaquin Valley. I doubt that either of those early songwriters ever actually drove over that grade before they wrote their songs; in the early fifties it was a highway, but it was not a highway any sane person would be racing on. If you drive over it today, you may get a feel for what it used to be like; you can look down the steep grades and in places you can still see some of theswitchbacks from the earliest editions of that route.
The Grapevine has always been a challenge for truckers. It doesn't matter which end of the grade you are on, it is a long, semi-steep grade in an arid, hot, and shadeless area where desert-like temperatures are normal almost all year long. If you are going up the hill you have to find a gear that will pull you up the hill without putting too much of a strain on the engine. Rookies and drivers not familiar with mountain driving often think that you just get a gear that works and put your foot to the floor. A lot of those guys wind up on the side of the road with white steam shooting out of their engine compartments.
If you are going down the hill, you have to find a gear that will hold you back without too much use of the brake pedal. Again, those who are not used to hot mountains will start down the hill in too high a gear and have a really bad day before it is over. Too much pressure on the brakes or too long riding them will build up so much heat that, if you are lucky, your brake shoes will glaze and lose most of their braking power. The less lucky will glance in their mirror and see flames shooting out of their wheels.
When I was in the 301st Trans at Fort Ord in the middle 80's, we used a regularly-scheduled mission to Los Alamitos Reserve Station near Anaheim for a final test drive for new drivers in the unit. We would leave Fort Ord about 6:30 am and arrive at "Los Al" between 4:00 and 6:00 pm, depending on traffic and how well the new driver would handle the long hot drive down the Central Valley, the taxing pull up the north side of the Grapevine, the slow descent into the LA Basin, then negotiating the freeway exchanges and exits and entrances and mergings. It is challenging enough in a car, let alone a 55 foot-long tractor-trailer with a full load on it. If they were able to handle all that, they were a qualified driver.
We (the 301st Trans) had a number of adventures on that hill. One of my drivers left Los Al with a load that he said "felt a little heavy" (there was no scale at the Reserve Center - loads were shipped in "packages" that had been "pre-weighed"). He had a rough trip up the hill and when he started down he realized he was in trouble. To keep this from running into a dozen pages, I will just say that the boy didn't manage his braking well. He wasn't even half-way down the grade when he had fried his brakes; the truck was equipped with an air-actuated shifter that would pop out of gear if the air pressure in the truck fell below 60 psi...his did and he found himself in neutral (there is a reason truckers call it "angel gear") with no brakes and a long downhill road ahead of him. There is a Caltrans scale house at the bottom of the grade, about where highway 99 splits off from I-5. Our trucks were not normally required to go across the scalesunless we were breaking a law. The Highway Patrol officer in the scalehouse hit this truck with radar. Our driver was doing just a little less than 100 mph. The cop chased him down; ( it took a while to get the truck stopped) and brought him back to the scales. Turns out that our "package" loads were not so accurate; his truck weighed about 102, 000 pounds - just a little more than 20, 000 lbs over the maximum limit. We had to send another truck to take some of the load off...and equipment to handle it. And the driver got a real interesting ticket out of it.
There're a lot more stories about that crazy transmission arrangement; we'll explore some more of them at another time. But that wasn't the only adventure we had on the hill.
One afternoon I had the chance to take one of our trucks back to Fort Ord of some reason. We were on an exercise that covered all of southern California. We had operations going on in Riverside, Yermo, Barstow, Irwin, San Pedro, and lots of other places. Anyway, I was going up the Grapevine, slowly; it was a hot day and I was doing about thirty mph. I heard a bunch of chatter on the CB about two women coming up the hill in a convertible...and they were putting on a show. About five minutes later a sporty convertible pulled slowly around me. There were two women in it who could have been twins. Unnatural sliver blond hair, black tank tops and hot pants, shiny silver nail polish and matching lipstick. They were displaying a lot of affection for one another...I mean...a LOT...standing up in the car and well, use your imagination...they REALLY liked each other and they wanted everyone on that hill to know it. I did mentionthat the Grapevine is in California, didn't I?
It isn't the tallest pass in California. There are lots taller. Donner Pass is 7000 feet plus, Tehachapi is 3900 plus feet, Cajon Pass is 3700 and some, and there are a lot more of them. The Grapevine is only 4100 feet. But it is a challenging drive and it outfoxes a lot of drivers.
I heard the old songs recently and it made me think of the Grapevine and how it has changed over the ages and how a lot of folks who heard the Commander Cody version probably didn't have a clue what the Grapevine was or what Commander Cody meant when he said, "You've heard the story of the Hot Rod Race when the Ford and Mercury were settin' the pace. Well, that story's true, I'm here to say, 'cause I was driving that Model A