I think most of us oil-soaked gearheads can appreciate the charm and novelty of a really bonkers one-off car. Even if the design is confusing or downright ill-conceived, you have to respect the effort and force of will it takes to build a whole idiosyncratic car from, essentially, scratch, all by yourself. A car like this doorstop-shaped Wedge is a perfect example of that. But to go beyond just appreciating such a car, though, takes a special sort of person. A person like Jim Forbes, who actually drove this insane thing 8,047 km in the recent LeMons Rally.
I know Jim via some mutual friends, and I can honestly say if there’s anyone up to the challenge of driving some insane home-built contraption like this and keeping it going, it’s Jim. In fact, he bought it mostly because he’d just finished restoring a Model T and noticed “hey, there’s an empty spot in my shop.”
Let’s talk a bit about the car itself, first, because it’s so nice and weird. It was built in the late ’70s by a GM engineer named John Harlow, and ended up in Tucson when the engineer retired in the 1990s. Harlow claimed that he only spent between $US400 ($551) and $US500 ($689) to build the car, and that “there’s nothing expensive in it.”
Much of the car started life as a 1963 Pontiac LeMans, which is already a fascinating start for, well, anything. That’s because that year LeMans was the first American front-engine car to use a transaxle at the rear instead of a conventional transmission and differential.
They called the setup, evocatively, the Rope Drive, because the driveshaft was thin and slightly flexible, though hardly the ropy thing you’re likely imagining.
The transaxle is actually a modified Corvair transaxle, flipped around so instead of taking power from an air-cooled flat-six behind it, it’s getting driven by that driveshaft from the front. It’s nice and weird.
Anyway, the Wedge uses parts from this setup, but in this case, it’s all driven by a 3520 cubic-centimetre Buick V8, and the “rope drive” is gone, since the car is so short, and the engine is positioned so far back (between the seats, inside) that a simple industrial coupling and a janky-arse bell housing connect the engine to the transaxle. As Jim describes it,
There is an industrial shaft coupling, and some interesting adapting of the wrong bellhousing to fit. Most of the leaks are from that area.
Oh, and the transmission itself is a glorious two-speed TorqueFlite automatic, so you know, nothing but the best.
The ’70s-futuristic body is made on a frame of simple angle iron and the front and rear subframes of the LeMans, with sheet aluminium panels, used to skin the body. Jim says the build quality isn’t amazing, but it’s held together this long. The whole thing weighs about 1,134 kg if you’re interested.
Jim had seen the Wedge at several Tucson-area car shows, so he was familiar with the car, at least a bit, and his brother and his wife knew the current owner of the car, who had just put it up for sale, so that was pretty much it. Jim had that Model T-shaped hole in his shop, and needed something for the rally, so, as he told me, “I guess I had to buy the stupid thing.”
The look of the Wedge is, of course, what everyone notices. It’s shockingly short and weirdly wide and has the look of someone told to copy a Syd Mead car from about ten feet away, in five minutes. I love the angular stripes, the funny quad headlight pods, the Monte Carlo taillights, the three wipers, the skirted wheels, everything.
It’s wonderful and terrible all at once, like everything that makes an impact.
The second owner — who Jim bought it from — was never really able to get the car running properly, but Jim’s a guy who’s been playing with cars for over 50 years and was able to get it actually running.
Mechanically, Jim overhauled the engine and re-located the radiator from its former horizontal position to a vertical location under the excitingly three-wiper’d windshield, with airflow ducted up from below.
The original cooling configuration Jim felt would have been completely inadequate for regular driving in Tucson; when the car was being used by Harlow in the ’70s and ’80s, it was in Michigan, which, as you know, isn’t the same as Tucson, heat-wise.
Jim is about six feet tall, but fits in the car fine, especially after adding a 2×4 under the front seat mount to tilt it back a bit, and for the purposes of the LeMons rally, he converted the passenger seat into a lockable cargo area.
On the way to the start of the rally, the Wedge drove surprisingly well, with really only one major breakdown. On the way to Chicago, he felt something off with the breaks. Jim parked at a farm store and checked the rear brakes, only to find the issue was a failed rear axle.
While looking at his borked axle — something that can only be replaced with a ’61 to ’63 Pontiac Tempest or early Corvair rear axle, not exactly Corolla-levels of common, a local came up to him, attracted by the weird car.
Jim told him his predicament as they were talking, and, by amazing chance the guy had a friend with a junkyard that had just gotten a ’61 Tempest, so the kind stranger drove him to and from the junkyard, 30-something miles each way, so Jim was able to get the ’61 axle, and, with some control arm modifications, was able to get it on the car.
I like thinking about all of the improbable odds and fortunate chance that had to happen to make that fix possible.
The Wedge was back on the road, and made it to the start of the rally, with the only other real mishap being when Jim realised how crappy the rear tires really were and spun off the road during bad weather outside of Amarillo.
In the end, Jim was declared the winner of the LeMons Rally, in large part an honour bestowed on the person driving the strangest, most improbable and difficult car, which the Wedge certainly is.
Jim is selling the Wedge now, because, as he told me, “I don’t really want to be in it anymore” after the long, long rally. I also asked him who he hoped would buy it, and was told he “doesn’t care at all,” but then relented a bit and admitted it would be pretty cool if someone wanted to daily drive it, like that GM engineer did so long ago.
“It is wonderfully terrible. That’s a good description of it,” Jim told me, and I really can’t think of a better enticement for the right person looking to add some more idiotic excitement to their lives. Jim’s two months of wedge ownership were a concentrated dose of wonderful terribleness, but I’m hoping someone out there can provide a longterm home for all the wonder and terror.