Thirty-seven years later, it remains one of the most famous stunts in San Jose history. Atop an unfinished interchange at Highways 101-280-680, roughly 110 feet above ground, then-Councilman Joe Colla stood next to an old Chevy, his arms outstretched. "Where do we go from here?'' the caption read.
The caper brought national attention to California's highway problems and put pressure on Caltrans director Adriana Gianturco and then-Gov. Jerry Brown -- yes, the same guy who there's now -- to complete the stand-alone X-shaped cross in the air.
Over the years, a lot of versions of the caper have circulated. One story surfaced that a group of beer-soused ironworkers grabbed a crane and lifted an abandoned car to the top. Other versions credited Colla or union leader Mike Kraynick.
Thanks to the testimony of two surviving organizers, plus a trove of pictures taken that night in January 1976, I think I finally know the whole story.
Kraynick had an important role, as did Colla and an activist named Velma Million. But the stunt was hatched at a meeting of contractors and union leaders at Roger's Restaurant, a comfortable, old-fashioned place on De La Cruz Boulevard in Santa Clara.
The mid-1970s were not terrible times for builders in the valley. For critics of the governor and highway-skeptical Gianturco, however, the unfinished interchange at 101-280-680 stood as a symbol of broken promises. They felt strongly that state highway money was being diverted elsewhere.
Knowing that a decision by Caltrans to complete the interchange would mean a lot of local jobs, the people at Roger's Restaurant discussed a way of bringing pressure to finish "the highway in the sky.''
Million, a community activist who advised the contractors and knew her way around politics, suggested putting a cardboard poster of a car atop the unfinished overpass.
Then Tom Carter, a union representative of the operating engineers union Local 3, said the eight words that launched the stunt: "Why not put a real car up there?'' he asked.
It was one of those inspirations everyone realized was right. Carter, a craggy and fit 89-year-old now, remembers the moment with absolute clarity. "Right away, they said, 'OK, Carter, you're in charge of putting a car up there.' ''
Carter launched into action that same day, calling Don Incardona, another operating engineers union rep. The two met with Doug Beatty, an executive with Con-Mat, a construction firm. Beatty agreed to give them the car, which my sources say was a 1960 Impala.
Getting the crane
Incardona says the two then saw Charlie Giguere, the owner of San Jose Crane & Rigging. "We spoke to him about letting us use a crane to put the car on the overpass,'' Incardona wrote. "He got us not only the crane but also the operator and the ironworkers to do the job.''
Meanwhile, according to Incardona, Kraynick was enlisted to persuade Colla, a personal friend, to agree to be lifted atop the interchange by helicopter.
On the night of the caper, which Carter says took about two weeks to put together, the conspirators met at San Jose Crane about 2 a.m. They parked the crane well on the shoulder of Interstate 280, beneath the unfinished overpass.
The crane operator was Bob Marr, a veteran whose brother, Dale, was a San Francisco-based union leader for the operating engineers. An assistant engineer, Bobby Rivas, drove the crane.
Incardona and Carter strapped the cable around the Chevy, first through the windows, and then, when that didn't give them enough lift, around the belly of the auto. Under the direction of crane foreman Gene Wallace, ironworkers Jimmy Guerra and Larry Garcia rode up on a wrecking ball to help guide the car into place.
A CHP spotting
Did the cops ever stop them? Carter remembers that one CHP patrolman slowed below them on Highway 101 but apparently did not see the car being lifted to the top -- and dismissed it as late-night road work or towing.
Within a half-hour, it was done. "We ran like scared rabbits,'' said Million, who at 93 is still alive and remembers watching the car being hoisted. "We just took off.''
Early the next morning, Colla boarded a helicopter at Spartan Stadium for the ride to the top of the unfinished interchange. Carter remembers that the councilman, who suffered from a fear of heights, was given several brandy-laced coffees before the lift.
When the photo of Colla ran in dozens of newspapers the next day, the impact was almost instantaneous. Carter says that an irritated Brown called operating engineers union leader Dale Marr and said, "I know you guys put that car up there. I want it off.''
Unaware of the caper his brother was involved in, Dale Marr truthfully denied knowledge of the plot. I ran the incident past a spokesman for Brown but was unable to get any comment before my deadline.
And Colla? The councilman lost a bid for re-election in 1978 to Jerry Estruth. But Con-Mat's Beatty had the Chevy repainted and engine rebuilt before donating the vehicle to the pharmacist. Colla, who died in 1995, drove it around proudly. According to Million, he was irritated when he got a ticket in the famous car.
Eventually, in part because of the enormous publicity on the stunt, the interchange was completed, bringing relief to drivers exiting or entering 101 from 280 and 680. And the surviving conspirators can smile.
"We moved the dial,'' said Carter, who told me he had no problems with the interchange being named for Colla. "We really did.''