by Marcus Simmons
From the Editor: Marcus Simmons describes his love of cars and racing in this autobiographical story that marries passion with perseverance. He tells us of his adventures and accomplishments as someone who grew up deaf and later in life lost much of his vision. Here is what he says:
I am a product of the Detroit school system. I attended the Day School for the Deaf through the eighth grade. I then wanted to go to Cass Technical High School, at the time a premier college-prep high school in the city. No student had ever successfully made this transition. The administration refused to help me because several better-prepared students had tried in the past and had been forced to drop out. When it was apparent that I was not going to give up, the administration agreed to let me try, and I was admitted. One of the other reasons I wanted to go to Cass was that my older brother had gone to our neighborhood high school, and I was tired of following in his footsteps.
Attending this high school was my first real challenge. The Detroit Day School for the Deaf taught its students how to get along in society, not how to be prepared for college. I was in with the big boys now. My grades went from As and Bs to Ds and Es during those first difficult semesters. I developed better study habits fast. I graduated in 1963 in the automotive curriculum. In 1965 I purchased a brand-new high-performance Mustang convertible. I took delivery on my twenty-first birthday. I later learned that a subsequent owner of this vehicle was the Detroit chief of police, Ike McKinnon.
In 1966 I got a job at Bendix Industrial Controls on the drafting board, which prepared me to produce blueprints. For a long time my fellow employees thought that I was making my letters with a lettering template. Imagine their surprise when I told them I was doing it all freehand. I became a loyal Ford employee because my uncle put in forty-six years at Ford and my dad retired with forty-three years of service. A few years later, in 1967, I began designing my first drag race vehicle.
When I ventured into racing, I had a 1960 Falcon with a powerful V-8 engine. This vehicle was ironically named “Blue Magoo,” after the near-sighted cartoon character, since I did not then know what would happen to my eyesight in the coming years. In fifteen meets I only lost twice, and both times to the same car, a 1965 Mustang called “Cobra II” driven by Bob Corn, then the muscle parts program coordinator for Ford. He later went into partnership with Jack Roush at Roush Industries. One year he showed up running the quarter mile a whole second quicker, so I asked him what he had changed. Bob said it was the new Boss 302 engine to be released in 1969. My second new car was a 1970 Boss 302 Mustang ordered in November of 1969 for $3,258.
This vehicle was originally to have been painted Acapulco blue (medium metallic blue) with racing stripes, but Ford said “no,” and I had to pick a color over the phone without the benefit of actually seeing the pigments. I later learned that one other person ordered the same color on a 1970 model Boss 302, and it came through. If I had known about that person, I would have been more persistent. In any case, I picked bright gold metallic (called by some “baby-poop brown”). I was so excited about taking delivery that I was at the dealership less than two hours after it was unloaded from the transporter. The bribe of a six-pack convinced the dealership mechanic to stay late, and together we prepped the car for delivery that evening. At my first opportunity I switched the color to blue, and the stripes went to white.
Now my focus was on getting a degree to make myself a better hot rodder, so I went back to school. On my first attempt to enter Wayne State University, I was informed that I was not college material. The experts said that my best plan would be to complete a junior college degree and then reapply. In 1969 I entered Wayne County Community College. After two years and a 3.75 grade point average, I was allowed to enroll at Wayne State to pursue a degree in engineering, which turned out to be an even greater challenge. Landing on academic probation taught me that I had to develop more effective study habits. At this point attending school was a part-time proposition because I still had a full-time job at Bendix on the drafting board.
In 1971 I was laid off from Bendix, and to my joy I then found employment with Ford’s Engine Electrical and Engineering buildings Diagnostic Lab. The head of engineering said that Ford would plan my work around my classes. But apparently this message didn’t filter down to my supervisor. After I had put in a few years at the Diagnostic Lab, the supervisor asked me what my goal was. I responded without hesitation or consideration of the consequences, “ I want to be the diagnostic lab supervisor. ” I doubt that sat very well with him.
Then there was the time he came to me, voice dripping with smug condescension, to inform me that I had to replace an engine I had serviced the week before. The oil filter had been installed with both the old and new gaskets. While the owner was driving the car over the weekend, the old gasket failed, dumping the oil out, and as a result the engine had died. Since I had worked on the vehicle, he demanded that I replace the engine on my own time. However, I directed him to the work order, which showed that I did not do the oil change. The technician on the next shift had completed that task.
Later he approached me again. This time the question was, “ What is your focus, Wayne State or Ford Motor Company? It has to be one or the other, not both.” I picked a third option, an educational leave from Ford and a full-time load at Wayne State. Graduation from Wayne State and a B.S.M.E. came in 1977, another goal accomplished.
At the time the Boss was a street cruiser with 100-watt headlamps (regular vehicles use 55-watt lamps). Since I had no night vision, driving the Boss was the way I adapted to my changing vision. In 1972 I rebuilt the engine for more performance. Soon after the rebuild I broke in the engine on Route 66--start (Chicago) to finish (Los Angeles). On the return trip I soloed from LA to Detroit in thirty-three hours; however, I was still one day late for work.
After my employment with Ford, I moved to GM Truck and Coach in 1976 because they had a project engineer’s position available, whereas Ford did not. This job lasted until 1980 when GM laid off thousands of employees with less than five years of seniority, and I was furloughed. Until then driving to work consisted of 50 percent what I could see, 25 percent what I remembered, and 25 percent Lady Luck. It was a perfect time to quit driving. I gave up driving because of failing eyesight from retinitis pigmentosa.
This should have been the end of my story, but it is actually where it gets interesting. My next goal was to use my degree and build a car from scratch. I chose a replica 1965 427 Cobra. After a year of research I was ready to start. I welded together a frame of two-by-four steel tubing. I bought a fiberglass shell and prepared it for the frame and drivetrain. I decided to use the spare parts motor and transmission from my Boss 302 Mustang for this project. To add emphasis, I included a 600-horsepower Gale Banks twin turbocharger induction system. I also assembled a MGB front suspension and a Jag rear end because they contained knock-off wire wheels, much like the real Cobra used from 1962 to 1964.
The vehicle was designed to win on the show car circuit, not to compete. I got to the shows on Thursday night (move-in and set-up-your-display night). The shows are open to the public on Fridays, so by evening I had my first-place trophy. On the circuit I got first place in twenty events and missed the mark only three times. That feat earned me the class championship in hand-built sports in the Great Lakes Division of the International Show Car Association (ISCA). My four consecutive first-place wins at the prestigious Detroit Cobo Autorama inspired others to try to duplicate my feat. There got to be so many Cobras in the hand-built sports class that they had to create a special class for Cobras separate from the rest.
In 1985 I was hired at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. I got hired for this position strictly on the strength of my résumé. My first job at Truck and Coach had been as a sighted engineer. This time I came to work as a blind engineer. GM did not know I was blind; however, they figured it out when I reported to work, white cane and all.
The position had opened rather unexpectedly. The federal compliance coordinator developed a serious health problem and had to retire immediately. This caused some concern because GM needed a replacement in a hurry. The federal compliance coordinator is responsible for assembling all of the documentation so the automaker can sell vehicles to the general public. At the time no one but me was available who had this specialized knowledge. The department boss didn’t know the job; the other workers didn’t know how to do the job either. So I came in the door, tapping with my long white cane.
Shortly after that a Detroit businessman asked me to build a 1931 Chevrolet sedan for the ISCA show car circuit. The construction took me three years working at night. This vehicle was also a winner and not a competitor. We won every class we entered, finishing twenty-fifth in the nation. We traveled to shows from Chicago to Texas and to London, Ontario.
I decided to return to drag racing, so my next project was a Boss Mustang. I stripped the Mustang down completely to a bare shell, replaced all rust panels, and modified the car for very large (fourteen-inch-wide) rear tires. When I was finished, the Mustang sported a 560-horsepower Ford Motorsports crate motor. Best time was 10.79 seconds at 126 miles per hour in the standing quarter mile.
I then decided to open an engineering agency called Simmons Boss Creations, where I provide services to the show car, street rodder, and drag race community. Today I travel to local schools with one of my vehicles and offer presentations on topics such as goal-setting and careers in the motorsports field.
Sometimes my presentations seem unbelievable to the students. Animated discussions with teachers revealed that students were convinced that a blind person could not build a car. With the slogan in mind, a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still, I have changed my presentations a little by including this statement, "In my hand is a $50 bill. If someone can ask me a question that I can’t answer about this vehicle, the money is yours.” Since I have had and worked on this vehicle for over thirty-eight years, my money is safe. I don’t try to change students’ minds; I let them reach their own conclusions.
The Mustang has now been upgraded to a Pro-Streeter. It carries all of the required appendages: windshield wipers, turn signals, and a full exhaust system terminating under the rear valence panel.
In order to give back to our community, a group of businessmen including me from the Motown Automotive Professionals Car Club decided to create a 501(c)(3), public charity called Motown Automotive Professionals nonprofit (MAPn). You can see our video at <http://www.carcrazycentral.com/Video.aspx?VideoID=306>. This is an automotive vocational training facility that provides a route for economically and socially deprived youth, including the blind, as they leave the public school system. MAPn will provide them a way to become productive members of society. This facility will provide no-tuition training for the youth to obtain the skills of an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), nationally certified technician. This is our way of improving the aggregate value of the neighborhood. By providing a productive outlet for kids who don’t finish school, we reduce the number of young adults who get into trouble. It is up to all of us to do what we can to leave this world better than we found it, and this has become my way of using my lifetime love affair with cars to do just that.