September’s Fast Talk With Jeff Smith: The Starliner And The Cammer

NASA announced recently its new Boeing-built spacecraft that will make commercial flights into space. They named the craft the Starliner. I’ll admit I’m a bit long in the tooth. When the newscaster first mentioned the name Starliner, my head immediately went somewhere else – to a ‘61 Ford of the same name.

Not Just Any Starliner

This story focuses on a special night in 1981 when I was a cub staffer at Car Craft. We had been running a series called Cruisin’ USA, but all the stories had been written in third person – detached as if we weren’t really there – and I wanted to do a first-person story. The plan called for me to fly to Detroit and hook up with a legendary Ford man whose name you probably don’t know – but should. I had met John Vermeersch a year or so earlier when I had questions about big-block Fords. When I questioned other Ford guys about FEs, the answer was usually, “Just talk to Vermeersch.”

This is NASA’s Starliner – it looks a little bit like the pod used in 2001: A Space Odyssey and therefore high-tech and cool. But it’s just a pod. Vermeersch’s Starliner has far more style.

We struck up a friendship and that’s when I learned about his orange ’61 Ford Starliner. Orange is hardly an unpretentious color, yet it was what was under the hood that poked you right in the eye. Settled into the engine compartment was a twin-four-barrel 427 Single Overhead Cam (SOHC) engine.

This was the engine that struck fear into the heart of Chrysler’s NASCAR program when the Pentastar people learned Ford was about to unleash the Cammer on the NASCAR speedways. Chrysler had to resort to influence and subterfuge to coerce NASCAR into banning the Cammer before it ever turned a rev on a track. This left a bunch of these big-block Fords looking for a home. Sometime in the ‘70s, Vermeersch decided to stuff one into his Starliner – just because he could.

One late summer afternoon I flew into Detroit and found my way to his shop in Mount Clemens and walked in to find the entire steel front clip unbolted off to the side of the car with Vermeersch straddling the front of the engine, deeply enmeshed in what looked like a half-mile long bicycle chain. “It broke the chain again,” he told me. At that moment I assumed our reconnaissance-in-force of Gratiot Avenue plan was stillborn – I was crushed. “This?” Vermeersch said. “We’ll have this back together in no time. It happens all the time.” He was right, with some help from his guys, the ‘Liner was quickly reassembled and fired, sounding suitably nasty.

“You have to check the chain tightener about every hundred miles or so. Otherwise, stuff breaks.” Compare that against engines today with 100,000-mile spark plug durability. It sounds absurd today to think you’d have to rip that Cammer apart every 100 miles. It was a different time.
When the engine lit, it sounded like Vermeersch had just dropped 16 stainless steel balls into his wife’s blender – the cacophony was horrendous. With a look of abject horror on my face, Vermeersch just smiled and said “Don’t worry about it. It always sounds like that. You get used to it.” I was considering a flak jacket when John said, “Let’s go have dinner.”

I don’t have a photo of Vermeersch’s Starliner, nor of his carbureted Cammer. This is as close as I could find – an injected version in a tribute Fairlane. Cammers will always be cool.

The action on the boulevard didn’t start until around midnight when John, his wife Elain, and I pulled into a Burger King in the ‘Liner. As we’re exiting the car, a couple of kids are hanging round outside. The license plate on Vermeersch’s ‘Liner proclaimed simply “S O H C”. One of the kids spotted the plate.

“Hey, what does ‘so-hic’ mean?”

His buddy pipes up “That’s not so-hic – that stands for single overhead cam.” But that thing doesn’t have a Cammer in it. No way…”

Vermeersch hears the comment and casually walks over to the front of the car and pops the hood. He doesn’t say anything – he just stands there. The somewhat better informed kid’s eyes expanded about an inch when he proclaimed…

“Holy s%*+, that’s a Cammer!. Holy s%*+.”

The previously unimpressed now have all kinds of questions.

“What’s a Cammer?”

Vermeersch is like the Blue Oval’s pied piper. This night he’s subtly indoctrinating these peddle-pumpers so that one day they will be hot rodders and Dearborn iron will be their poison of choice. The seeds have been planted. It might take a few years but it might just have all started with that episode in front of the Burger King.

Many years later I ran into Vermeersch at the big Knott’s Berry Farm Ford show they put on every year in Buena Park, California. He told me he took his Cammer-powered Starliner wagon on a multi-state tour all the way out to the West Coast and was gonna drive it back. I’m going to assume that Vermeersch figured out how to make those chain tensioners live a little longer than 100 miles.

So now NASA has come up with a Starliner that they’re planning to put into space. Likely it won’t be powered by a 352 FE engine or even a Cammer. I looked up the dimensions of NASA’s star ship and it’s about as wide as a ’61 Starliner. It is designed to carry up to seven passengers and / or a mix of passengers and cargo. I’m pretty sure Vermeesch’s Starliner could comfortably hold seven passengers – and the trunk on that big Ford is huge.

The biggest change is that Boeing’s Starliner is completely autonomous. There’s a backup manual system should it ever be needed (my guess is it will) and perhaps that’s where the old Starliner and this new one really part ways. If I was suddenly offered a ride in either of these Starliners – that would be a tough decision. Especially if the offer was a ride in John’s Cammer.

About the author

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith, a 35-year veteran of automotive journalism, comes to Power Automedia after serving as the senior technical editor at Car Craft magazine. An Iowa native, Smith served a variety of roles at Car Craft before moving to the senior editor role at Hot Rod and Chevy High Performance, and ultimately returning to Car Craft. An accomplished engine builder and technical expert, he will focus on the tech-heavy content that is the foundation of EngineLabs.
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