THE ORLO VISTA DISCOVERY
One fall day in the early ‘60s, my dad and I drove out to a small community about ten miles beyond what were then the Western outskirts of Orlando. “Community” is probably too elegant a term for the ramshackle cluster of old houses and shabby commercial enterprises that had been named ‘Orlo Vista’ by a hopeful developer many years earlier, but had never bloomed. (This visionary should feel vindicated today—the sprawl of restaurants, hotels and other glittery tourist trappings has spread from Disney World thirty miles up the road to this one-time backwater outpost.)
My dad evidently had some business with a man who ran a small auto repair shop in a clapboard two-car garage. The garage backed up to a weed-choked field, in which were numerous old auto carcasses returning to the elements. Dawdling around in the garage as the men discussed their agenda, I noticed an unusual hood hanging high up on the shop’s back wall. Generally able to identify what make and model car even smaller artifacts had come from, I was buffalowed by this one. It was small by 1950s standards and distinctly longer than it was wide. In the center was a pronounced air scoop that could be seen to be functional, not a dummy. The hood was painted white and had two wide dark blue stripes running down its length.
Feeling the call of nature, I drifted out into the back yard to leave some spoor. Watching out for snakes and other unpleasant things to step on, I picked through the weeds toward a similarly unrecognized old white roadster from which the hood may have come. I came to a good spot to make my mark in front of the car and, standing on a truck tire, irrigated the front crossmember of the dilapidated, but racy-looking old car. Amongst the bevy of disintegrating old Fords and Studebakers, this car was very different. Not delicate in style or construction like an MG or Jaguar, it was larger, more beefy and had obviously been in that field for a long time. The engine and drive train were missing, as was the radiator and grille, whose opening served as my rim shot, and the interior had been open to the elements so long that a layer of decaying oak leaves covered the floor and what was left of the seats.
The paint was flaking off of the apparently-aluminum body, but it was still clearly white with blue stripes and certainly the car which the hood inside the shop had come from. Scavengers had made off with any and all identifying emblems from the body and dash, but a plate riveted to the firewall could still be read, and a close look told the tale: “Cunningham Automobiles, West Palm Beach, Florida.” I had read enough in books to know something about these works of Briggs Cunningham, and his attempts at LeMans, to recognize that this old roadster was something special. I have no idea what the exact model was or if that car had any actual race history, or if it was one of the few built as street cars….but I am one of the very few who can say they’ve peed on a Cunningham!
ORLO VISTA REDUX!
Twenty years after that afternoon in the junkyard, my friend Tim and I were snooping around for a car to use in an upcoming demolition derby. I had already found one for me, a ’62 Chevy, but Tim needed a car and had talked to somebody who had a rough ’68 Plymouth station wagon for sale, out in….Orlo Vista. Following his directions, we found the Plymouth, which was every demolition driver’s dream—a huge, Battlestar Gallactica-size 8-passenger wagon--and I realized we were right next door to the junkyard where I had seen the Cunningham while in high school. Putting curiosity on hold for a moment, we first looked over what we had come to see. The Plymouth was perfect—it was cheap, not all rust-rotted, it had the big V8 engine, that might even run, and had no title—all important attributes in a demolition car.
It had been under a tree with the windows down for years, and the pesky kudzu vine, so prevalent in the South, had crept inside and wound its foliage tentacles all around the steering wheel, the door pillars and everything else. There were a couple of annoyed raccoons that had to be evicted, several mice and an entire civilization of big, shiny, brown roaches enjoying the moldy ambiance and many French fries under the seats. Like I said, it was perfect. The price was quickly negotiated to our arbitrary spending limit for demolition cars, $50, (they were worth $40 as scrap, afterwards) and funds changed hands.
Leaving Tim to drive out the vermin and hack through the kudzu, (Well, it was his car) I wandered over to see if the Cunningham was still around. The garage was boarded up and obviously long out of business. There were still a couple of rusty hulks deep in the weeds behind a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, but the old white roadster was gone. Risking a shotgun blast, I jumped the fence and peered into the old garage, but it was empty, and the sagging back wall held nothing but cobwebs. Well, that was too bad, but we had another classic to rescue.
Dragging the Plymouth out of its earthen lair and onto our tow dolly revealed an incredible ecosystem of primitive life forms skittering like vampires away from the sunlight. The dank bare spot ringed by thick weeds was alive with earthworms, termites, snails, red ants and lots more roaches; big, insolent ones. A startling array of vile-looking mushrooms feasted on piles of droppings and little mouse skeletons lay near some outgrown snake skins. Reaching under the car to secure the tie-down straps disturbed several of the big furry spiders fond of suspension crannies. These cinnamon-colored fellows aren’t aggressive, but their palm-sized diameter is unsettling nonetheless. (Have I ever mentioned why I left Florida?)
Anyway, the unsuspecting Plymouth trundled back to our garage shucking kudzu tendrils, dirt gobs and insects all along the road. Tim got it running within a few hours and began the process of removing the glass, reinforcing critical areas and all of our other set-up secrets to prepare it for its destiny in the infield at the stock car track.
This story does have a happy ending, by the way—At the demolition derby that Saturday night, Tim won first place and I got second, so we cut up a $500 purse! Oh, you thought I was going to say that I learned the old Cunningham had been discovered by a sensitive, knowledgeable enthusiast who lovingly restored it for Pebble Beach? Sorry.
-- Bill Orth --