The Legend of Zach Reynolds and the Tobacco King
(This story originally appeared in Garage Magazine #18. Many thanks to Eddie Krusch, Dorothy and Kathryn Reynolds for images.)
It’s a bright Spring Saturday afternoon in Indianapolis, and I’m playing inside. More specifically, inside the pavilion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, at the prestigious Mecum Muscle Cars and More auction. The hall is a riot of rare, mint, numbers-matching machines from the heyday of Detroit excess; Yenkos, Cobras, ZL-1’s, Ford Cammers, Hemi Daytonas. Most of them are expected to fetch well into the six figure range, but every eye in the hall is transfixed on the car I’m driving onto the auction stage: a black 1964 Ford Galaxie 500.
In the rarified world of muscle car collecting, Galaxies are normally a dime a dozen, but this is no ordinary Galaxie. My hands are white on the wheel and my boot has the brake pedal pinned to the floor, praying its anemic drum brakes will continue resisting the massive torque of the blown 427 until I can get it into park. I’m also praying that my knee doesn’t accidentally hit the rocket ignition button.
Did I mention this car also has a rocket motor?
I know that the Galaxie’s rocket fuel tank is probably empty, but… still. It’s not a good idea to play with guns, especially when you’re the bullet. My head is filled with panicked visions of perforating a Galaxie-shaped hole in the far-side concrete wall, Wile E. Coyote style. And thoughts of Zach Reynolds, the man who dreamed this insane rig up.
What kind of man builds a rocket powered car for his own amusement? Obviously it takes a unique combination of money, technical prowess, and a wild disregard for life and limb. When Zachary Taylor Reynolds was born in 1938, those stars were in perfect alignment. The money came courtesy of Reynolds’ grandfather, Richard Joshua Reynolds. A humble tobacco farmer from the hills of south Virginia, R.J. left home as a young man after the Civil War to make his fortune in the cutthroat chewing tobacco business in the sleepy railhead town of Winston, North Carolina. Before anyone else had really thought about it, R.J. developed a genius for marketing and advertising. Around the turn of the century he emblazoned a tin of loose tobacco with the husband of Queen Victoria. By putting Prince Albert in a can, R.J. Reynolds created a revolution in the tobacco industry (not to mention a classic of prank phone calling), and amassed a sizeable fortune. A few years later R.J. invested heavily in the first industrial cigarette rolling machines; when the circus rolled through Winston he took a picture of “Old Joe,” the Ringling Brothers’ star camel. When he put it on packs of his Fine Turkish Blend, that dromedary became an instant icon and has graced billions of cigarette packs to this day.
Prince Albert and the Camel made R.J. Reynolds one of the richest men in the world, but he remained a bachelor until he was 50. He eventually married his cousin Katherine Smith, 25 years his junior, and sired four children. R.J. built a 60-room dream mansion named ‘Reynolda’ for his young family on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, but never had a chance to enjoy it. He died a few months after its completion in 1918. R.J.’s widow remarried and died in childbirth, leaving their four kids orphans.
That’s where the wildness gene first appeared. With million dollar trust funds and no parental supervision, the next generation of Reynoldses became young hellions in the wild jazz age of the 1920s, their hair-raising exploits chronicled in The Gilded Leaf, a family history written by Zach’s half-brother Patrick Reynolds. In the 1920s eldest son R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. – Zach and Patrick’s father -- moved to New York and became a fixture on the Gotham nightclub scene, driving flashy cars and operating a flying business whose clients included Mafia bootleggers. He romanced chorus girls, bummed around Europe and Africa, and, on a lark, created national headlines by notoriously staging his own disappearance.
Once Dick Reynolds had finished sowing his wild oats, he returned to Winston-Salem with intentions of joining the family tobacco business. Although he was by this time the company’s largest shareholder, he found himself shut out of the RJR boardroom. He ended up marrying Elizabeth “Blitz” Dillard, a society girl from Winston-Salem, and started the semblance of a quiet family life.
Zach was the third of their four sons, named after Dick’s younger brother Z. Smith Reynolds who died in mysterious circumstances in 1932. Like Dick, Smith was a wild man with a penchant for aviation; like Dick, he owned a pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright himself, and the Winston-Salem airport is named in his honor. During a failing marriage at age 20, Smith began an affair with Broadway superstar sex kitten Libby Holman and the two soon wed. To prove his love for Holman, Smith embarked on an around-the-word solo flight in his $50,000 Savoia-Marchetti amphibian. The harrowing journey included emergency landings in Basra, Burma, and the outback of China; they were reunited in Hong Kong, and returned to Winston-Salem. Less than a year later, Smith was found dead of a gunshot wound at Reynolda. The coroners declared it self-inflicted, even though a good deal of circumstantial evidence pointed to Holman as the culprit. The incident was a newspaper sensation, and served as plot inspiration for the 1935 Jean Harlowe- William Powell movie "Reckless."
With a young family Dick Reynolds was working to leave those earlier scandals behind and become a pillar of the community. A big supporter of FDR, he became involved in politics and by the time Zach was 3 years old he was mayor of Winston-Salem, Treasurer of the Democratic National Party, and a frequent visitor to the White House. At the outbreak of WWII, though, Dick Reynolds developed another case of wild oats. He left Blitz and the boys to join the US Navy as a navigator on a flattop in the Pacific Theater. After dodging Kamikazes in the Philippine Sea, he wound up in California and an affair with a beautiful Hollywood pinup starlet named Marianne O’Brien. When he finally arrived back in North Carolina he informed Blitz that their marriage was over, and she would be raising the four boys on her own.
The news came as a shock to Blitz. Unlike his two older brothers Josh and John, who were educated at posh private academies and boarding schools, she determined that Zach and younger brother Will would remain at home at the family’s rural 12,000 acre compound named “Devotion.” They attended local schools with the mountain kids. The huge grounds of the estate were an ideal environment for unsupervised fun, and by age 9 he had already developed a taste for motorcycles and firearms. Zach Reynolds might have had the bankroll of a billionaire, but his upbringing insured that he would always have the soul of a fearless Carolina backwoods boy.
By the time he entered R.J. Reynolds High School, the bikes and the legend of Zach Reynolds were beginning to grow. He was riding to school on Triumph Tigers and Harleys, and had formed a cycle gang named the Buena Vista Butt Busters. A local named Pop Taylor showed him how to juice his bikes with methanol and benzene. He won the 1955 and 1956 State Scrambles championships, and became a staple at Farmington Drag Strip and the street racing scene at a local cruise magnet named Staley’s. At an RJR High alumni website, classmate Lawrence Davis recalled Reynolds’ drive-in exploits:
“I shall never forget standing around in the Staley's parking lot and admiring Zach Reynolds' shiny new chrome motorcycle. It seemed like a fire-breathing monster… Zach roared out of the parking lot in a cloud of smoke and lit out toward town on Reynolda Road, peeling rubber three distinct times with loud squeals as he upshifted through three gears.
“I remember Zack fondly. He had some things the rest of us didn't have, but then most of us had some things he didn't have, such as two parents at home.”
It was aboard another race-prepped Harley that 18-year old Zach Reynolds solidified his own legend. One day at Merry Acres, another Reynolds family estate, he was racing the bike up the driveway on a full speed test run when he discovered that the brakes hadn’t been bled. Unable to stop he aimed it at the porch steps, crashed airborne through the glass entry door, and landed in the foyer. He walked away, largely unscathed, and some think the experience added to his natural sense of indestructibility.
Neither of Reynolds’ parents approved of his high speed exploits but there was little they could do to contain them. He seldom saw his father, who now lived on a private island mansion with a third wife. His mother did what she could to rein him in, including instructions to the Winston-Salem police to keep him in jail overnight after his frequent speeding tickets. Even having his driver’s license revoked had little impact on his behavior -- Zach discovered North Carolina law allowed operating farm tractors without a license, so he simply re-geared one to run 60 mph.
With that kind of mechanical ingenuity Zach planned to study engineering after high school, but his mother insisted he enroll at nearby Wake Forest U. which had no engineering program. Frustrated, he dropped out in 1958 to take the first and only paycheck job in his life – as an enlistee in the U.S. Navy. That stint at Virginia naval yard helped bring some discipline and honed his mechanical know-how. It also provided him a brief escape from millionaire notoriety. He told Navy shipmates he was a hillbilly moonshiner from the hills of Carolina, a fairly convincing story until his father appeared one day at the base in a chauffeured Rolls Royce.
During his Navy stint Zach’s fiancée Linda Lee Tise was badly injured in a car accident, nearly severing her leg. Zach’s long-absentee father reappeared and helped get Linda Lee life-saving medical attention. But it wasn’t to be a happy fathers-son reunion, and Dick Reynolds used the occasion to express his displeasure at Zach’s wild ways. Soon after his marriage to Linda Lee, Dick Reynolds disowned Zach and his brothers.
For 21-year old Zach Reynolds, marriage and the subsequent birth of a daughter had little impact on his appetite for thrills. Despite being disowned by his father he was independently wealthy though other family trusts. He started to collect high performance sports cars (Jaguars were a favorite) and resumed competitive motorcycle racing. A road racing accident in 1961 left him hospital-bound, and during his recuperation he ordered a ham radio to help ease the boredom. It became another lifelong obsession.
“His radio setup was amazing,” says Kathryn Reynolds, Zach’s youngest daughter. “We had a 300 foot transmitter tower and the equipment filled two rooms of the house.”
Before long, Zach was broadcasting world wide from his home station, and became radio pals with the Shah of Iran and Barry Goldwater – probably a giving a shock to his father, a financial backer of Lyndon Johnson. According to Kathryn’s mother Dorothy, Zach’s widow, the radio prompted frequent visits from the FCC.
“Zach broadcast at such high power that he got feedback from the signal coming back from the other side of the world, and it would interfere with commercial radio stations around Winston-Salem,” she laughs. “The FCC men were at the house so often, we got to be on a first name basis.”
After healing, and despite Linda Lee’s protests, Zach returned to motorcycle racing and set his sights on the European circuit. He raced at Le Mans and the Isle of Man TT in 1964, where, according to Dorothy Reynolds, a wrong turn robbed him of a trophy.
“He was leading his class when he got to a roundabout, and came out in the wrong direction,” she says.
Thirty-five years earlier, Zach’s father had spent an extended holiday in England in which he served a 6-month manslaughter sentence in a British jail following a drunk driving accident. Zach’s 1964 trip would generate its own notoriety. He hobnobbed with the new British rock aristocracy like the Beatles and the Who, and, according to Patrick Reynolds in The Gilded Leaf, he was also was introduced to hallucinogens. That account is disputed by Dorothy Reynolds.
“In all the years I knew Zach, and was married to him, I never saw him once use any sort of illegal drug,” she says.
When Zach returned from Europe, Linda Lee pressed him to tone down his thrill-seeking, and he reluctantly (and temporarily) agreed to stop buying motorcycles and sports cars. Like his 60 mph tractor the ever-resourceful Zach found a loophole.
“Linda Lee told Zach he couldn’t have any muscle cars,” says friend Will Spencer. “So Zach ordered a nice four-door family car, a Pontiac Catalina. He optioned it with a 421 Super Duty and a four speed.”
That was followed by another “non-muscle” ’64 Galaxie, the one that would became the infamous Tobacco King.
In the early 1960s a former aerospace engineer in Orlando, Florida named Gene Middlebrooks had created a company named Turbonique (Garage #14, “The Real Acme”) aimed at bringing rocket technology to the racing public. By 1965 he had introduced the Turbonique Drag Axle, a differential that came equipped with a rocket turbine capable of producing 1000 instantaneous horsepower at the touch of a button. A few of the units had been produced for exhibition drag racers and daredevils like Joie Chitwood, and the afterburning monsters were a big draw at dragstrips from coast to coast. It’s unclear how or when Zach Reynolds first learned of the device, but it’s clear he was the first person who though it would be a reasonable idea to run one on a street car. Come hell or high water, Zach Reynolds wanted the Galaxie transformed into the baddest-ass street racer in the world.
In 1966 Reynolds shipped the Galaxie off to Turbonique in Orlando for the transformation. Even by the extreme standards of the 1960s, the result was a shining monument to over-the-top automotive insanity: the stock 390 was replaced with a 427 side oiler, topped with a Latham axial flow supercharger with four side draft Carters. Stuffed under the rear, a mighty 1000-horse Turbonique Drag Axle, with a trunk full of complicated rocket fuel plumbing. To handle the extreme torque, the Galaxie’s frame was reinforced with sturdy crossmembers and ladder bars. In front, raised spindles with an extreme camber angle that would run straight during hard, nose-up acceleration.
Hugh Whited, a former Turbonique engineer who helped put the car together in the 60’s, says it was probably the company’s finest hour.
“The amount of detail and engineering that went into building the car was incredible,” says Whited. “Every piece on it is the best of the best. It’s the only street driven Drag Axle I know of, and Zach might be the only person who think to have one, and have the money to make it happen. It made Gene (Middlebrooks) nervous, because he never knew when Zach would burp it.”
The car met the letter (if not the spirit) of Linda Lee’s “no race cars” law, and retained much of its stock appearance thanks to the low profile blower and artfully concealed ladder bars. The only visual giveaway that this mild midsize FoMoCo packed a 1600-horsepower intergalactic warp drive was the eight-lug magnesium sprint car wheels, and a strange 4” pipe where the gas tank ought to be. Inside was a ham radio and an astonishing lack of safety equipment: no roll cage, and factory issue lap belts.
As best as I can determine, Zach Reynolds only made a handful of runs in the Tobacco King. According to legend, the first was an untimed test run at the eighth mile Farmington Dragway where it overshot the end of the track under hard braking. That incident required front suspension repairs and the hasty addition of a parachute pack. Another run followed on newly completed Interstate 40 outside Winston-Salem. Cooperative police cleared the road for Zach to cut the car loose for a long run, and every kid in town parked on the overpasses for a bird’s eye view. Eyewitness accounts say Reynolds was traveling over 180 mph when he cut the rocket fuel off and eased it to a stop after a mile.
Reynolds street raced the Tobacco King around Winston-Salem for a short time after that, but eventually parked it in his huge garage at Devotion with only 3000 miles on the clock. He didn’t talk about it much, but several people I interviewed for this article told me that the Tobacco King might have been his first encounter with fear.
“I don’t know if anything with wheels ever truly scared Zach Reynolds,” says Will Spencer. “But I saw the Galaxie in his garage when I was a kid and asked him why he didn’t drive it. He always claimed it was broke.”
After he parked the Tobacco King away, Zach reneged on his earlier agreement with Linda Lee and began amassing an arsenal of high performance machines. By the late 60’s his garage was stuffed with a fleet of sports cars, muscle cars, and the largest personal collection of motorcycles in the world. Most were bought on a whim, but at least one was bought to prove a point.
“There was a fella in Winston named Ronnie Joyner who had a real bad 427 Corvette, painted red white and blue. He called it the Uncle Sam,” recalls Will Spencer. “For a while it was the fastest car in town, and I think it kind of rankled Zach. Ronnie became Zach’s nemesis.”
Uncle Sam’s reign as the baddest car in the Triad was short lived. Zach bought a silver 427 Shelby Cobra, and after some modifications at a local Nascar shop he was ready to take on the ‘Vette. “Lord, that car was fast,” says Spencer. “In tests it would go from zero to 100 to zero in less than ten seconds.”
In the June 1985 issue of Super Ford magazine, friend Alex Gabbard recounted the classic Cobra-‘Vette showdown. After besting the Vette at Farmington Dragstip, they continued the duel on the street:
“Under total acceleration, quick gear snatching and in plain view of many people leaving the strip, the ‘Vette led the way. It drifted to the outside around the bend. Zach pulled up on the inside… the Cobra’s NASCAR 427 was screaming, but Zach showed no mercy—it was win or break. He held the hammer down and shot by the Corvette to lead by some eight to ten car lengths when the cars when out of sight at the treelined end of view.”
Other challengers followed, including an E-type Jag and a V-12 Ferrari Daytona, but they were also put in their place on a clandestine night race on I-40.
“My friend in the Jag was disappointed to have the Ferrari pass him [at 140 mph]. Then another pair of headlights appeared from behind… Zach. The lights in the rear became a thundering blast of raw power as the Cobra’s sidepipes nearly scorched the paint off his Jag. Then Zach changed gears! It was utter embarrassment to think his Jag was nearly topped out and the Cobra had 4th to go. All that could be done was watch the show of taillights as the Cobra streaked past the Ferrari and was gone at perhaps 175 mph.”
Never one for understatement, Zach embraced the excesses of the late ‘60s with a gusto. He grew his hair long and began wearing his trademark red jumpsuits, often with a skull-tipped swagger stick and a black cape. He began decorating his bikes with pictures of cigarette packs, and hieroglyphics that seemed to taunt death – black cats, skulls, demons, the ace of spades.
In 1967 Zach discovered a new arena for thrills in the air. While his father and namesake uncle were early aviation pioneers, he had never shown much interest in flying until then, but he determined that he wanted to be a stunt pilot. Within two years of getting into the cockpit for the first time, he was the National Aerobatics champion. Clad in red and billing himself as “The Red Baron” and “The Cigarette City Flash,” he seemed to revel in the attention.
“I’m the only man who ever got a zero for doing a maneuver so fast the judges didn’t see it,” he said in a 1968 Winston-Salem newspaper interview. He added that he was both an aerobatic and daredevil stunt pilot, and explained the difference: “An aerobatic pilot means a precision pilot, it doesn’t mean somebody’s out there trying to kill themselves. In the old [daredevil] days it might have meant that… and I reckon I’m one of the old kind. Being a devil myself I like to have fun.”
Reynolds owned five planes, all red, but his workhorse was the homebuilt “Pitts Special” biplane. Zach’s trick repertoire with the Pitts was legendary, including a reputed maneuver where he would fly inverted so low to the ground that he could snag a bandana off a 10 foot pole. But just as hastily as he took up the sport, he dropped it.
Some people say Zach took up stunt flying as a tweak to Linda Lee. Their marriage had been deteriorating for some time, accelerated by Zach’s free spirit and womanizing, which reportedly include a early dalliance with Jayne Mansfield. By 1972 the marital friction had reached a head, and they were divorced. A short time later he married a pretty brunette named Dorothy Sides.
Zach’s vehicular exploits and collecting continued, but the new marriage brought him a new sense of calm and maturity. He was close with Lee, his daughter from his first marriage, and adopted Dorothy’s daughter. After the 1977 birth of their daughter Kathryn, Zach had assumed the unlikely role of a genteel family patriarch – albeit one with a garage stuffed with rocket cars.
Zach’s once-ravenous appetite for danger became ambivalent after a few close calls. After a 7.92 152 mph 1/5 mile pass at Farmington on a nitro Sportster, the bike wouldn’t shut down and Zach went flying past the end of the strip and into the pines, prompting the track announcer to prematurely declare his death over the PA. Miraculously, he escaped with minor injuries, but the Sportster was retired to the front hallway of his house. He flew briefly after his marriage to Dorothy, but eventually gave it up altogether.
“I never really liked the idea of Zach flying, and he agreed to stop,” says Dorothy. “But it was his idea, because he was having dreams, premonitions, what have you, of dying in an airplane accident.”
Despite his flamboyant style and a raft of celebrity pals that included Keith Moon, Steve McQueen, and Bob Dylan (a frequent guest at the Reynolds compound), Zach never considered leaving Winston-Salem. A true country boy, he preferred the hills of North Carolina to the hills of Hollywood. This is where he would remain, a backwoods Great Gatsby. He traveled sporadically – mostly to national pistol competitions where Zach reigned as a champion marksman – and his closest friends remained local Winstonians. He formed another motorcycle club, the Asphalt Prophets, and he and Dorothy would ride with them to Daytona.
“When you were around him you really couldn’t tell that Zach came from money,” says Dorothy. “He was just a magnetic, fun loving person, and got along with everybody.”
Reynolds enjoyed being just another blue collar gearhead, but was generous with his wealth when a comrade needed it. “He was really a guardian angel with his friends,” adds Dorothy. “If someone had worn tire or a blown engine, he would always insist on taking care of it for them.”
At Devotion he became a Peter Pan for many of the local kids, who stood in awe of his legend as Winston-Salem’s perpetually adolescent emperor of daredevilry. “Zach would sometimes hire us to come over and wash his cars, even though most of us would have paid for the privilege,” says Will Spencer, who grew up nearby. “When I was barely old enough to drive he let me take his 421 Catalina out. I guess the best way to explain it is that when we were 10, Zach was 14; when we were 19, Zach was still 14.”
For Nephew Jason Barron, he provided a fast lane father figure. “Zach gave me my first gun and taught me how to shoot, and a Honda MR50 that he showed me how to do tricks on,” says Barron. “He was this larger-than-life person, like Babe Ruth, but was always happy to teach you.”
One of the lessons came at the expense of his Dodge pickup. Some of the kids had just seen a movie where a character was killed by a shotgun blast through the side of a truck. “Could that really happen?” the kids asked. “Let’s find out,” said Zach. He retrieved an arsenal of guns from the house, and to the delight of the crowd conducted a ballistics test on the pickup’s bed with successively larger calibers, finally piercing it with a .44 Magnum to wild cheers.
Zach relished his role as mentor to the local kids, often treating them to high speed carnival thrill rides through the mountain roads in a Hemi Cuda or Porsche. But it was that mentoring that unwittingly led to his end. Gary Cermak, an 18-year old neighborhood regular at the Reynolds estate, had just earned a pilot’s license and was eager to show Zach his flying skills. It had been several years since Zach had flown in a small plane, and according to Dorothy, he was still experiencing flying nightmares which had intensified after the death of Elvis. Despite his misgivings, he didn’t want to disappoint the young man and agreed to come along as a passenger.
On September 4, 1979, Zach Reynolds boarded Cermak’s small private plane at Z. Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem, along with Cermak’s 12 year old brother Glenny and another local teenager named Bill Roberts. “I was there at the airport that morning,” says Jason Barron. “Little Kathryn wanted to go up with her daddy, but for whatever reason he said it was too dangerous. He handed her back to Dorothy, kicking and screaming.”
The plane went wheels-up at 11 am. What went wrong is still a mystery, but twenty minutes later the plane was it trouble and plummeted into the woods at Pilot Mountain outside Pinnacle, NC. All aboard were killed, and the horrendous fireball left little forensic evidence.
“It was devastating for me,” says Dorothy Reynolds. “It happened 10 years to the day after Zach’s first National Aerobatics championship, and at the exact spot of our first date.”
Zach Reynolds received a military burial a few days later at the family plot, marked by an obelisk carved with his life’s passions – airplanes, motorcycles, cars, ham radios. It was a somber moment for Zach’s family and friends, whom were half convinced of his immortality after he numerous close scrapes with death. “I was pretty heartsick about it,” says Will Spencer, who was 19, and a close friend of Zach and the other boys. “I was working for Piedmont Airlines at the time, but I quit because I couldn’t bear to be around airplanes anymore.”
Nearly 30 years after his death, Reynolds still cast a long shadow in North Carolina’s Triad. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about Zach,” says Jason Barron who was only 10 years old the day of the crash. Today Barron works for a company that does promotional programs for RJR, and credits Zach for spurring his lifelong passion for motorcycles and guns. His proudest possession is a .38 with a diamond plated trigger, personally bequeathed to him by Zach.
Will Spencer credits Reynolds for his own lifelong car obsession and perfectionism. “Zach wanted everything immaculate, and had us cleaning those cars with a Q-tip,” laughs Spencer. “I guess it sort of stuck.” Today Spencer is the president of JKS Motorsports, which provides on-site media and communication services for Nascar. He also operates the gleaming new Winston Cup Museum, a tribute to the 33 years when Nascar’s chief sponsor was R.J. Reynolds.
Only a toddler at the time of her father’s death, Kathryn Reynolds experienced growing up the orphan of a legend; still, in some sense, it left her the one person most influenced by Zach Reynolds.
“I grew up amid all the stories about my father, his collections, and all the mystique,” says Reynolds, a commercial and fashion photographer in North Carolina. “It left me longing to understand him, and how my life would have been different had he lived.” It’s a theme she explores in “Zach Reynolds: The Father I Never Knew,” her documentary series of self-portraits set among Zach’s belongings.
While Zach Reynolds left an important legacy, he also left an armada of bikes, cars, and airplanes that Dorothy couldn’t cope with. “It was hard letting go of them because they were so important to Zach,” she says. “But without him around I really couldn’t take care of all of them.”
The collection was slowly sold off, starting with the motorcycles. Initially Zach’s friend Steve McQueen was going to buy the entire motorcycle fleet, but was diagnosed with cancer. They were auctioned, and now are in motorcycle collections around the world. The 426 Hemi Cuda and 426 Wedge Fury went to the museum at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and the fearsome Cobra now rests in the Ford Motorsports Museum. But the Tobacco King – the baddest one of all – remained in the Reynolds garage until 1994. Kathryn was a teenage equestrian at the time, and the family decided to sell the Galaxie to buy a horse. She admits some seller’s remorse.
“It was difficult selling my father’s Galaxie, and I often thought about it,” says Kathryn. “But I knew it would still be in the area in good hands.”
The car went to Reynolds family friend Tyler Worthington, and it remained with him for the next 12 years, although it was never started. In 2006, a Winston-Salem real estate developer and car collector named Eddie Krusch persuaded Worthington to sell it, and set about bringing it back to life.
Which brings us back to Indianapolis.
After Eddie Krusch bought the Tobacco King, he spent the next year getting it back to running condition (sans the operating rocket motor). A few shows followed, and he was contacted by Mecum to see if he would agree to bring it to Indianapolis as the star auction attraction. After a few restless nights, he agreed. In the course of his research he read a few of my articles about Turbonique; we traded a few phone calls and emails, and Eddie invited me down to Indy to see the car in person.
When I got to the auction hall, a large crowd was milling around the beast, heads cranked 120 degrees sideways, jaws hitting the ground as they spot the rocket motor. Even among this jaded crowd, dealers of gazillion dollar rarities, the Tobacco King invokes gasps -- followed by hushed reverence. Thanks to fastidious care, the car appears exactly as it did in 1966; original paint, original interior, only 3126 miles on the odometer. Eddie has assembled a display of the documentation; receipts and correspondence between Gene Middlebrooks and Zach Reynolds, and Zach’s carefully detailed work orders. The crowd mills, studying them as if they were hangings in the Louvre.
“I’m getting cold feet about selling it,” Eddie admitted to me a few hours before the Tobacco King was scheduled to go up on the auction block. “I agreed to bring it here, but I really can’t bear the thought of it going to a museum somewhere.”
“It belongs in Winston-Salem,” I agreed.
“That’s why I’ve decided to bid on it if it makes it past the reserve,” he said. “Since I can’t bid on it from inside the car, why don’t you drive it across the stage?”
“Uhhh… yeah,” I stammered. “HELLS yeah.”
Easier said the done. As the moment approached and the though of getting behind the wheel of that sinister psychedelic black death star from Mayberry LSD became clearer, bowel control became more and more difficult. Still, I was a trooper, and eased it up the red carpet under the television lights. The wildest 10 mph drive of my life.
The bidding went as fast and furious as a North Carolina tobacco auction. $200,000. $250,000. $300,000. $325,000. $350,000. $360,000. $375,000. Bang. Sold.
I cranked the 427 back to life and eased it forward, and when I looked out the window Eddie was giving a thumbs up. It cost him a hefty ransom in fees, but the Tobacco King was returning with him to North Carolina, exactly where it belongs. I did a double-take and saw next to Eddie my friend Hugh Whitted, the last remaining member of the team that built this monster back in ’66. Now a farmer in North Carolina, Hugh had driven up to Indy for the occasion; it was the first time in over 40 years he had seen it. I parked the car back in its display slot, and the three of us commenced bench racing.
“I brought along some parts in case you needed them,” said Hugh, handing Eddie a couple of custom impeller shafts he had machined for the Drag Axle. “These are an improvement over the original design, and should be good for a couple thousand more rpm.”
“Are you saying you could get the rocket motor going again?” I ask, incredulously.
“Sure, but there are safer fuels than n-propyl,” he said. “And it might need a roll cage.”
Eddie, Hugh and I looked at each other giddily.
A word to the wise: if you’re driving down I-40 outside Winston-Salem some night and you get passed by a 200 mph black blur shooting flames from the back, don’t be alarmed. It’s just the spirit of Zach Reynolds, rolling on.