I was going to do a book called Dry Lakes Hot Rods.
Wait. Let me start over. I wanted to do a book called Dry Lakes Hot Rods. In fact, I wanted to use the punchier, gutsier title: Dirt Rods. But the publisher thought that was too vague, and one of the venues wasn’t dirt, it was salt. But it was a dry lake. Still, he didn’t want to do the book. Wouldn’t sell in Barnes & Noble. This was some years ago. Little did he know that pretty soon hardly anything would sell in Barnes & Noble.
So I can start off with a photo like this, even though it’s a bit fuzzy and the car’s dirty and rough, instead of the cooler, shiny, traditional Deuce I used to lure people in. See, that’s the best thing about this column. I don’t have a publisher, or an editor, and I can basically do whatever I want. Or, better yet, what I think you would like. And if you’re any kind of a real hot rodder, you’ve got to love the photo above. This is El Mirage, right after the War. They’ve just driven up the long, steep canyon road from L.A.–and they made it! They still have to strip off the headlights and windshield to get ready to run. But what sharp-eyed rodders have already spied is what makes this cool photo rare: the engine. It’s a flathead inline six (probably Ford), with a spit exhaust and a centrifugal McCulloch supercharger with one 97 carb bolted to the stock intake. You like?
This is to show, right off, that lakes cars came in all sizes, shapes, types, and colors–not just stripped down Ford roadsters with flathead V8s. Here’s the deal. I thought up this book idea about 30 years ago, and started a file in my archives. Next I divided it into eight chapters and made a folder for each: Muroc (pre-War); El Mirage (post-War); Crashes; People; Engines; Belly Tanks; Bonneville (’49-’50+); and Russetta Timing Assoc. (coupes; 1950s). And I dug through my archives, pulling out appropriate B&W photos to fill these files. Lots of photos. Some great; others maybe strange or even weird.
However, since the book wasn’t a go, over the years I knew where to look if I needed a good photo from one of these categories for some other project. For history and particular info, I was going to refer you to two major articles I did for The Rodder’s Journal, one on Muroc (starting in the ’20s), the other on personal tales of Bonneville from those who ran there. But I couldn’t find them. You realize there are more than 80 issues of TRJ now? (Congrats, Steve.)
So, yes, these files have been pilfered. I could say what we have here are the dregs of a good idea. But I think these are better than dregs. Remember, this was going to be a whole book. There are a lot of photos still in each of these files. There may be a few that got put back after use elsewhere, so a couple might look familiar, but I doubt it. Since most are “leftovers,” they’re not the classic ones seen many times. Some are pretty ugly. And there’s not a lot of information. This is primarily visual. But the idea is to give you an unvarnished look at who these gow job jockeys were and what they were racing on the dry lakes back in the days when it was truly “build what you can get,” and “run what ya brung.” Look and see.
Was there a difference between lakes roadsters and track roadsters? If you’re talking T-buckets, yes. Lakes racing bred the tall tires in the back, little tires in the front attitude (i.e., “rake”) to get a higher effective drive ratio without changing rear-axle gears, for higher top speed. Small tires reduce wind-resistance at the front. Likewise, parts like fenders, lights, windshields, etc., were removed for streamlining, not weight saving. Many even narrowed T bodies (making them “streamliners” in early days). Lightness at the lakes didn’t help. They didn’t race from a dead stop. They didn’t turn corners (like circle track roadsters). Many even added ballast for traction at high speed on the lake bed. Top end was the goal. So a big part of the look was form following function.
Here are two pertinent examples of creative lakes racers figuring (and building) ways to streamline boxy Model T’s. The one on the right might be a decade older than the one on the left. Both mount the engine in the rear for traction and further streamlining. This is the basis of hot rodding: Use what you can get (or make); try what you think will work; be creative; build it yourself (or with buddies); if it doesn’t work, try something better.Did I mention use what you can get and run whatcha brung? This looks like an Auburn boattail speedster body (streamlined, yes?), on who knows what ventilated chassis, running what looks to me like a Lincoln flathead V-12 engine behind a Deuce grille?
I know I mentioned ugly. You have to remember that most lakes racing–hot rodding–was a child of the Depression. The good part of that was that all kinds of “junk” was available: Auburns, Marmons, Cad V-16s, even Duesenbergs. The one on the left looks like a big V-12 of some sort. The one on the right?? It even has a pickup bed. And 1/4 of what? Wit and humor was also integral to rodding. This was strictly for fun…not money.
On the other hand, many hot rodders (though still not called that) were creative, meticulous, craftsmen, and engineers of high speed from lowly production engines. This isn’t a belly tank. This little torpedo was completely home-engineered and handbuilt, and young Bob Rufi, clearly seen in the open Plexi cockpit, was able to highly modify a Chevy 4-cylinder to hit 140 mph at Muroc before WW II. This also counts as a “People” picture.
During the War, rodders not only spread the word and shared wrinkled wallet photos, but also learned new technical tricks and talents, especially from aircraft. Bill Burke discovered bullet-shaped drop-tanks, or belly tanks, in the So. Pacific and thought, “Perfect for a lakes streamliner!” This was his first attempt, a small 165-gal. type from a P-51, with a V8-60 in front and a driver squeezed behind it. It hit 131.96 in ’46, but he had better ideas to come.
Eddie Miller’s dad helped Stu Hilborn hit 150 in his narrow hand-built ‘liner, but he kept dragging his feet “perfecting” this one, powered by an unusual Pontiac flathead six, for his son. Seen here in beautifully, finally finished form, it was literally a backyard-built engineering masterpiece. Thankfully it has been saved and recently restored.
This is dirty El Mirage, but Don Waite’s excellently engineered, rear-engine ’27 T was able to hit 162+ mph at Bonneville in 1950. And he raced beautiful and fast roadsters at both the lakes and the drags with unwavering success the rest of his life.
Rear-engine ’27 T’s were quite popular, until they were banned for spinning out too much. This one obviously predates rollbars. I can’t ID the car, and I’m not even sure of the location. It looks like the El Mirage starting line, but there’s no dust and the black line would indicate B-Ville. That’s Petersen’s panel at right, and dig the nice whitewalled ’34 street coupe on the left.
Bill Burke soon learned that the larger 315-gal. P-38 belly tank made a better “Lakester,” as they were classed, with the driver in front and engine in back. After teaming with engine-builder Don Francisco to build his original record-setter, Burke built about a dozen more, typified by this Stanford Bros, & Phy copy which turned 140+ with a little V8-60, and soon earned the no. 1 as El Mirage points champ.
This is obviously El Mirage, and you can see the tow-bar mounts bolted on the front axle. That means this beautiful black Deuce was not only flat-towed all the way from L.A., but also across a long, bumpy dirt road (behind another truck or car) just to get to the lake. So somebody thoroughly cleaned it just to get this glamour shot. Whew. I think Bill Likes owned it, but this was an Edelbrock team car. That’s Bob Pierson in the seat, and Bobby Meeks’ small class B flatty sat under the hood that ran 140 on a good dose of E-Brock’s once-secret sauce, nitro.
You’re probably noticing that with much-improving post-War economy, many lakes racers were being built to a higher standard. Sorry, I forget the name of this car, but I think it was from NorCal and Jack Haggeman formed the nose and pans. I know Bruce Meyer gave it his Preservation Award in nicely restored form at GNRS a few years ago.
I hate to dwell on race car wrecks. I’ve seen too many happen. But they were certainly a real part of lakes racing, and I not only have several photographic examples, but also many recorded stories from those who were there. That’s why I included a chapter for them. But most also served as “people” photos. These young guys are just a sample of early hot rodders.
I doubt you’ve ever seen Don Blair’s “Goat” looking this nice and clean. It ran a Mercedes roots blower on the Ford V8, and the narrow body probably came from an early sprint car. The fact that it doesn’t have a tail makes it a Modified. And Blair is one of the few seen here who turned his dry lakes hobby into a business–the still-going Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena.
There’s a famous photo of a young, lanky, grease-stained Dan Gurney, along with his buddy Skip Hudson, an overloaded roadster, and a sedan with “Bonneville Express” poster-painted on the back, leaving from Riverside for the salt flats in ’51. I’m pretty sure this is Skip’s roadster, being pushed off at B-ville, and that just might be Gurney at the wheel. The metallic blue roadster, cleaned up and with red trim, also appeared that year on Hot Rod’s first color cover (Apr. ’51).Another who made a good business out of his hot rod hobby was Barney Navarro, and his Engels-nosed ’27 Track T did compete on both dry lakes and circle tracks, with its pioneering GMC-blown flatty. So what’s with the cardboard taped to the rear quarters–more streamlining? Just the opposite. SCTA rules said bodies in Roadster classes (not Modified), had to maintain stock dimensions. Somebody protested that Barney’s was something like an inch too narrow in back, so he taped on the extra width and set records anyway.
Bill Burke was one of the first to experiment with fiberglass. He laid up this streamliner body over wood bucks and chicken wire in his backyard. It used a Harley V-twin for power. So how did it get the Hot Rod name on it? Well, instead of starting his own business, Bill became the Ad Manager for Hot Rod magazine for quite a few years, using the name on lots of subsequent Bonneville cars.
Here’s a good photo I don’t think has ever been shown, and it introduces the Russetta chapter. There was no Russetta dry lake, and contrary to myth, even the SCTA allowed some coupes to run before the War. But post-War SCTA was roadsters only, so by ’49 or ’50 RTA was formed to allow closed cars, like Jim Woods’ wicked-chopped, Ford 6-powered, American Bantam coupe to run El Mirage. Note the V-windshield. I know you’ve never seen this rear shot of the car before. That rear window is beyond wicked, and note the single cut seam. Even though they wouldn’t let him run their meets, he’s proudly showing an SCTA Road Runners plaque on the back. Fellow club member Bill Burke next got this car, followed by Mickey Thompson, who put two engines in it.
Another good, but enigmatic photo from the Russetta file. You see Woods’ Bantam in the distance. I have no idea whose ’32 roadster that is with the tall hood louvers and chrome side pipes. And the chopped ’34 3-window is either one run by two brothers from Santa Barbara with a GMC six, that later became the So-Cal (more chopped) coupe. Or it isn’t. I used to know. But there are only so many brain cells left.
OK, I’ve had enough. How about you? But I couldn’t leave the Dry Lakes Hot Rods story without showing this scene (even if a few have seen it). To me, this is the picture of hot rodding, just transposed from the backyard to a dry lake. Two young guys in T-shirts and Levis with a stripped-down and hopped-up ’34 coupe they’ve driven up to El Mirage (note headlights and front license still in place). Looks to me like they’ve blown the trans (or clutch), but the top of the engine’s off, too. Who knows? But they’ve got it fearlessly torn apart and are hopefully fixing the problem. ‘Cuz I have a strong hunch they have to drive it home. For us, it’s hopefully been a fun trip through some forgotten, but not lost, photos. Ciao!