I think it’s time for something old. Really old. Like 1930s and pre-War ’40s old. We’re talking Muroc dry lake and the birth of hot rodding–though not by that name, yet. The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), the first “umbrella” organization gathering dozens of already existing roadster clubs, was formed in early 1938.
Also, for me, it’s time for something a little simpler. It just is. So what I decided to do was another “one proof sheet” column. That is, all the photos you see here today came from one roll of 35mm film, in this case 35 exposures, contact-printed (actual film size) on one 8 x 10 sheet of photo paper. These are analogous to thumbnails on your computer. They’re about an inch wide, and you really need a loupe magnifier to see them clearly.
So I went to my files, opened a drawer marked B&W Negs, and then selected a file marked “Early Lakes.” There were about 100 proof sheets in it. But I know what most of them are, and what I was looking for–an old one with notes written on the back. I’m really not into doing research this week.
I found it quickly, and the first note on the back said, “All photos ’39-’40.”
But a quick scan through them showed me that wasn’t quite correct, since the photo above was listed as “Strokers club from Whittier/La Habra at Irvine Park ’47(?). All cars raced lakes, too.” That’s probably correct. You’ll note all are A and ’32 Ford roadsters. There were more in other shots. And I’m pretty sure this was Frank Currie’s club, and also pretty sure that’s who had all these photos and let me copy them with my camera. Besides building 9-inch Ford rearends, Frank was a consummate hot rodder all his life.
I should also explain that (a) I shot this roll of film, developed it, printed the proof sheet, and wrote the notes on the back 45 years ago. Wish I had a loupe that would sharpen my memory. And (b) not only are some of the notes hard to read, but some photos don’t have any. But given those caveats, let’s just dive in. This will be primarily a picture show, and I’ll relate what I know (or don’t) as we go.
And anything goes. This is a bad photo, but I copied it because it has some cool cars in it. It’s post-War. I see one ’39 Merc coupe. And a gaggle of roadsters, Wish we could see more of that tasty chopped-top ’29 in front.
Kenny Vorce was a good friend of Currie’s and his note says this ’30 A was a Cragar street rod and he made his own V-windshield. This is probably ’46-’47, since it’s still on A rails and those are chrome mechanical brake rods we see alongside the frame. That appears to be some type of magneto between the twin carbs.
I might as well include this photo now, since it’s listed as “Strokers Club, ’47?” I’m not sure what all the trophies were for, because they’re not the well-known SCTA ones. But what I think is most interesting is that these guys aren’t teenage kids.
So I said early lakes, didn’t I? You can see from cars in the background that this is mid-’30s at the latest. Since both of these racers have narrowed bodies, with no tail, they’re Modifieds. No. 117 is Model T-based, complete with transverse single front and rear springs. No. 3 is a “3-springer” possibly using Essex frame rails with parallel springs in front. My notes say it has a Cragar overhead A or B engine with a Hallock dual-carb manifold. The grille is the popular, rounded Whippet. And the thing to note about both cars is that they’re not stripped-down streeters; they’re purpose-built race cars, and both wear shiny black paint.
No note to identify this Modified, which appears to have a four with a single carb. Given the body shape and the bellypan, this could well have been an oval or board track race car from the ’20s, plenty of which were for sale plenty cheap when that previously popular racing crashed along with the stock market in ’29. Rodders could buy them, along with all sorts of OHV T heads and other racing goodies at places like Bell Auto Parts.
Speaking of which, the car in this non-I.D.ed photo, given its Miller-type grille, Rudge knockoff wire wheels, dual-spring front, and some sort of overhead with Winfield carbs, could very well be what much later became Art Chrisman’s No. 25 dragster. No-one seems to know its true origin, but I’ve seen photos of it sitting in the Bell Auto showroom, in white paint, in the ’30s.
Check out the handmade knockoffs, and probably handmade grille, on this narrowed T Modified. You can see from the name on the cowl that this car is from the Mercuries club, which Currie noted was “Mostly black, with members like Rajo Jack and [SCTA Treasurer] Mel Leighton.” Since it also says “Rajo” on the cowl, I’d guess this is Jack’s car.
And speaking of narrowed T Modifieds, I’m showing this photo again because (a) it’s on this proof sheet and (b) I just love it. The car is classic T roadster with its big-n-little tires on Kelsey-type wire wheels, round gas tank on the back, flathead V-8 headers poking out the bottom, and rules-required hood. The unusual part–and it’s great–is the raked ’34 grille. Then add the nonchalant young driver with a big grin on his face and goggles on head…and it’s perfect. Build a street rod like this!
Since it has a tail, the nicely designed, built, and detailed West-Rubsch Cragar was classed a Streamliner. With ’34 Pontiac hood side-vents, scallop stripes, and some chrome and upholstery it looked great. But at 114 mph in 1940, it wasn’t fast.
Proving you don’t have to look good to go fast, Road Runner Ernie McAfee’s contraption wears No. 1 because it was 1938 SCTA Points Champion, plus it ran the fastest speed–130 mph–in 1939, with a Winfield flathead four, no less. Dig the Model T ice cream truck behind it.
Squint your eyes and picture Bill Warth’s Streamliner in black instead of white. Don’t know how fast he went with his Winfield flathead four in the ’30s. But Stu Hilborn got it just after the War, dropped in a 21-stud V8 with 4 Eddie Miller carbs and hand-filed cam and ran 139.96, then designed his first fuel injection and was the first lakes racer to crack 150.
Speaking of speed, how about some action shots? The earlier, blurrier Model T at top might have been doing some off-course horseplay. Given the direction they’re going, I’d say the two sharper pics were return runs; they were taken with a better camera; and it’s probably around 1940 given the Patrol coupe and the Woodie wagon seen on the spectator side. No notes; no further info.
There’s nothing unusual or particularly interesting about this typical ’40s ’30 Model A with a Deuce grille and what appear to be V8 pipes poking out just under the hood. What got my attention was the note on the back that simply said: “Nightriders–Earl and Evie Haskins leaning on car.” The Nightriders were a Fullerton-area club whose members built 3 or 4 similar ’29 roadsters with Duke Hallock V-windshields. I’ll do another column later showing this. But Earl Haskins had one of them. He also, in the later ’40s, had a T track roadster with a Wayne 12-port Chevy six in it. So it must have been Frank Currie who told me that Earl had passed, but Evie still lived in the area (this being the late ’70s), and she had both the ’27 T roadster (then with a flathead Ford V8), and the Wayne Chevy stashed in a small Sears garden shed in her backyard. It’s too long a story to tell here, but I went to check it out, and that Wayne Chevy is now installed in the Spalding Bros. track roadster duplicate nearing completion in my garage.
You might notice that’s the same no. 27 roadster in the background. And perhaps the coolest thing in this photo might be the guy in the stroker cap wearing the white shirt with Hot Iron Club embroidered on the back. But what I’m actually showing here is the type of car that too many upright (uptight?) citizens saw as a typical hot rod. It’s a ’32 (or later) Ford frame, with a ’23 T body, a too-tall Deuce radiator/grille, and what looks like a stock, single-carb flathead V8. These guys got the “stripped down” part of the hot rod equation, but missed the “fix up” and well as the “hop up” parts. Maybe the worst thing is what appears to be a license plate on the front.
Remember when photos looked like this? Well, maybe your grandparents did. Karl Orr built a very meticulous Modified that appears to have a 4-banger here, but won the SCTA Championship in ’42 with a ’40 Merc V8, and held the class record (under 260 c.i.) at 133 mph. He also opened the first so-named “Speed Shop” in Culver City in the early ’40s. And his wife Veda beat the pants off plenty of lakes racers with her own roadster, built speed parts, published the SCTA Newsletter during the War, and even wrote her own book. I was lucky to meet her. She was a cool lady. (Note “Muroc” written on the sedan in the background.)
While Bill Burke didn’t introduce his belly tank lakesters until after WW II, Bob Rufi and his good buddy Ralph Schenk both worked in the aircraft industry in Burbank well before the War, and used their skills to build these sophisticated, teardrop-shaped, aluminum-bodied, enclosed cockpit, open wheel “Streamliners.” Both ran similar 186 c.i. Chevrolet 4-cylinders with 3-port Olds OHV heads. But Rufi’s was incredibly fast, running 143 mph one-way, and setting the first-ever 140 mph long-standing speed record in 1940. Note the contrast of quality of cars in the upper photo.
Shenk’s was arguably the even better-constructed car. And the engines were near-identical, running Ed Winfield carbs and cam. Look at the workmanship and design just on that small fuel tank, let alone the windshield/cab. But for some reason Shenk could only coax 126.89 out of his.
And I’ll end with this, because we’re probably nearing TMI territory, right? There are more pictures on the proof sheet. But this one is another classic. I used it in one of my “Gallery” books. Somebody with a good camera got this sharp shot of Shenk nearing the finish line at close to 130 mph. You have to imagine the speed and the sound. But the pose of the guy with the cocked camera in the Road Runners jacket, plus the bare-backed focused onlookers, all add to the “action” of this still photo, especially with the bare, vacant, pure flat expanse of dry lake as background.
Enough? Enough. Plenty more to come later.