The builder and owner of the legendary GMC inline-6-cylinder-powered No. 659 black and white 1936 Chevrolet five-window coupe, Tom Skinner (1930 – 2006) of Hammonton, New Jersey, took the path less traveled and he was mighty successful at doing so.
A race-car owner because he loved the sport, Skinner began building inline engines in 1955 because it was more of a challenge than it was to make an overhead-valve V-8 run.
The key to the 659’s legendary success, however, was that Skinner really worked at making his engines perform. And this included the fact that most of the things that went into the engine – a 1954 GMC inline-6-cylinder truck engine of 320 cubic inches that usually ran with three 2-barrel sidedraft carburetors – were homemade.
Sure, a lot of guys make their own headers. But Skinner also made the molds for his engine’s heads and its later fuel-injection system which he had cast at a foundry in Pennsylvania.
He even made the mold for the front of his engine and the fuel pump, cam and everything else that was found up there was all gear driven.
Everything else, that is, except for the water pump which was belt driven and that rubbery item has an important part in the 659’s history as the identifying figures on the doors of this winning series of cars was taken from the Dayco drive belt’s part number.
The first driver to sit behind the steering wheel of the 659 – which raced on dirt and asphalt – was Henry Doerr. Sal Moschella also had some time in the car and EMPA Hall of Fame member Carl Van Horn was its chauffeur before another EMPA Hall of Fame driver by the name of Parker Bohn began his 17-year tenure (1961-1978) in the legendary machine.
Although Skinner wanted his car to win every time that it went out to race, he had an unassuming personality that made him easy to talk to. If someone had a question he would answer it to the best of his ability no matter who was doing the asking or how that response might help another competitor the next time that the green flag flew.
In that regard, Skinner was also not afraid to take his car to places where it might be considered an underdog. He did so when it was taken to the old one-mile asphalt Trenton (N.J.) Speedway for the big Modified race there, or when it went to the old half-mile asphalt Beltsville (Maryland) Speedway where the top touring NASCAR Modified racers competed each October from 1967-1970, or when he made the trip to the old three-quarter-mile asphalt track that used to be located in the infield at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
When Bohn retired from racing, Skinner and his former driver serviced Wall Stadium with their Hoosier Tire operation. Skinner also built an occasional racing engine – and V-8s at that – and the talented Tony Siscone drove the old coupe to quite a few victories at the old half-mile asphalt Atlantic City Speedway in Pleasantville, New Jersey.
As someone deeply interested in the development of the GMC’s inline-6-cylinder engine, Skinner had a big supply of racing parts – especially the heads that he designed and had made. And one of these items found itself in the engine compartment of a slippery 1953 Studebaker coupe that stopped the clocks on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah at over 260 miles per hour.
Quite simply, Tom Skinner was the 659 and the 659 was Tom Skinner.
One of the most famous Sportsman-Modified Stock Cars in history, each edition of the 659 was taken to the track on the back of a 1953 Chevrolet 1½-ton flatbed truck. In tribute to Skinner, the light-blue truck and the 1936 Chevrolet coupe have been restored by Charlie Santilli and the entire package is just as impressive today as it was many years ago when the unusually-powered car was doing more than just holding its own out on the race track.