The first full-size magazine I bought off the shelf was the Jan. ’60 issue of Car Craft with Roth’s Outlaw on the cover. That car blew me away. But I was his target audience. I turned Teen later that year. I then subscribed to Hot Rod with the March ’60 issue, and this was the realm of Wally Parks and the NHRA with its Safety Safari and the fuel ban in full swing. So I didn’t know much about Garlits, Art Chrisman, The Greek, and similar fuel-burners, especially from the East and Midwest. I was a California kid.
So the Dec. ’60 issue of Hot Rod was filled with coverage of The Big One–the NHRA Nationals. And that one dynamic photo of the Albertson Olds with Leonard Harris blasting off the line, peering around the 6-71 blower with its huge, gulping injector scoop, is seared in my memory. I’ve mentioned before how I laboriously copied that photo in a pencil sketch and tacked it on my bedroom wall. Of course that car, in its brief life, became one of the winningest dragsters of all time. Gene Adams was my first real hot rod hero.
Of course I got to watch his subsequent dragsters–Adams-McEwen, the amazing Shark Car, and so on, both in magazines and from the stands. But the one car that I never saw or knew much about was his also legendary blown and injected ’50 Olds fastback. It was before my time. In fact, I only knew it from small Engle Cams ads in the back of Hot Rod. Plus people who had seen it told me it was not only fast, but it was one of the loudest cars at the track. It had a huge sound all its own.
Let me digress for a second here to tell a very short story. I actually met Gene years later, through driver/tuner Bob McKray, when I was building my Low-Buck Special Altered for nostalgia drag racing at Fremont in the early ’80s. Gene not only came over to my house to check out all the injected Chrysler Hemi parts I got with it, but even helped assemble it. But he had no interest in nostalgia racing. “Been there, done that.” Then Art Chrisman got a bunch of rooms at Fremont, and urged Gene to come up, just to watch. So he did. Bob and I were running the Low-Buck car, smoking the tires to 150 mph, and when Gene saw it, his immediate response was, “Damn, that car shouldn’t go that fast.” Later, Gene and I went over to the fence to watch the fuel dragsters run. I don’t think there were any eliminations yet. It was just run your vintage car, burn rubber, see what she’ll do. Times weren’t real important. Many cars had a hard time getting down the track. So Gene leaned over to me and said, “If I was going to build one of my old cars, you know what it would be?” So I immediately replied “I would hope it would be your blown ’50 Olds.” That’s the real point of this story. But he said, “No, it would be that little A/Fuel car we won the Championship with.” (Meaning the Adams & Enriquez Comp Eliminator injected Chrysler rail.) “And I think we could beat these guys with it.” He had a gleam in his eye that said he meant it. So I replied, “Gene, you build the engine. Get Don to drive it. And I’ll build the car.” So he did, I did, and we did. But that’s another story.
The initial purpose of this bi-weekly column was to show you lots of otherwise unseen photos from my huge collection, and maybe tell stories pertinent to them. So in this case I’m showing photos blown up from two 12-shot proof sheets Eric Rickman gave me decades ago. One is all detail shots of young Gene building the engine for his ’50s Olds in the family driveway, for use in a 2-page feature on the car in the March ’58 Hot Rod. The other, besides a bunch of kids in quarter midgets photographed from a crane, has 5 shots of Gene with the car, in the same driveway, after he got the engine back in.
None of Rick’s overall shots were used in the feature, Instead, it started with this great photo of it slightly smoking the Inglewood slicks at the ’57 NHRA Nationals in Oklahoma City, where it set a new B/Gas world record of 111.24 mph. It ran a best E.T. of 13.19 sec. there, but Gene said it later got in the 12’s. Another reason I’m showing this first page of the feature is that it shows the Moon fuel tank in the front seat area, along with extra gauges under the dash and the long Cad-LaSalle shift handle. I don’t have these photos. The copy on this page is all there was, other than four captions. In discussing this with Gene recently, he verified it was correct, including the two manhole covers bolted in the trunk. One discrepancy in the Nats coverage in the Nov. ’57 issue says the car weighed 3700 lbs. while the Engle ad in that issue says 4150 lbs. The latter is probably correct because the car had to make C/Gas weight, since the blower bumped it up one class.
Here are a couple shots clearly showing what “backyard built” means. And yes, this was his father’s Oldsmobile. Gene says his dad bought it slightly used in 1950. It was factory gray and had a Hydramatic. He said he and his dad (who was a test-pilot for Douglas Aircraft) drag raced the car together (Gene got his license at 14, one of the last in CA to do so). He said they also found a rare stick-shift ’49-’50 Olds in the wrecking yard, and swapped in the trans, pedals, and column linkage (which Gene said was junk). The ’37-up Cad and LaSalle stick transes were the same as the Olds, but the ’37 was the only year with the built-in floor shift. So that’s what Gene swapped into the car. As most rodders knew, they’re bullet-proof. “Except for the synchros,” said Gene, “Which went out regularly. But I’d just go to the junkyard and get another whole trans. They were cheap.” Those were the days.
When I said backyard building, I meant it. I don’t know what Gene had for a hoist, but he didn’t have an engine stand. Albertson Olds was four blocks from his house in Culver City, where he went to buy some parts. But he said he got this near-new ’57 Olds 371 at a wrecking yard. Of course he tore it down to modify most of it. In this photo you can see the slicks and a large battery in the corner of the garage.
This is a cool photo of Gene mounting Grant rings on one of the Forgedtrue pistons. He used stock rods. When you’re building an engine in the driveway, there is no such thing as a clean room.
I’m running this photo large because the magazine mentions how “copper weights were bolted to the crankshaft for balance.” It’s even hard to see here, but on the inside of front and rear counterweights you can see flat, semi-circular copper weights held on with counter-sunk screws. I’ve never seen anything like this before and I’m surprised it worked. Today we use Mallory metal plugs.
The text also talks about extensive headwork, including larger valves from a Chrysler and GMC. Gene said they had to off-set bore the valve guides to fit these in. It also talks about how he had to weld a divider plate into the center exhaust port to separate the two cylinders. I thought by ’57 Olds had done this, but Gene said no, not until the 394. You can see the center divider and that ports and chambers are significantly enlarged and polished.
Of course the GMC blower is what made most of the noise in this car, but these neatly fabricated headers with huge 4-inch collectors dumping right under the car probably gave it its distinctive roar. Gene said they were fabricated by his good friend from high school, Ronnie Scrima, who was then working at Engle cams. The other thing that surprised me about this photo is how clean, neat, and detailed things are in this 7-year-old race car’s engine room. Gene was working at Douglas as an aircraft mechanic at the time, and said he asked a painter there to come over and spray it, along with the dash and some other parts.
Gene said his dad gave him the Olds when he turned 18 (in ’53). He also mentioned that he had Hilborn stack injectors on it before adding the blower. I’m not sure where the scoop came from, but you can see the hood is partially shaved, as was the deck. What surprised me was that Gene had the car painted ’53 Dodge Royal Blue at Albertson Olds, his favorite color and a popular one on rods at the time. You can see Traction Masters on the rear, and those are his towing tires in back.
I’ll add this photo because it was mentioned in the magazine, but not shown. It said Weber made the clutch to Gene’s specification, including eliminating the springs in the middle of the disc, as seen here. I’ve never understood exactly what those little springs do, anyway. Newspapers were the method for keeping the work area clean. Still works for me.
I think this is my favorite photo of the proof sheet (not used in the mag). You can see the neat trunk still has the factory cardboard paneling. The battery mounts over the rear axle. And that very clean 4-71 GMC blower with multi-V-belt drive looks like its inlet has been slightly enlarged. Don’t know where the 2-port Hilborn injector is. Do you suppose the manhole covers are under those towels? Neat, tidy, orderly–that’s the way Gene has always done things. And is still doing in his fuel injection shop up in Anderson, CA.
So much for details, here’s the story. Since the car was running nearly a second quicker and 5 mph faster than the national record, Gene, his brother Gary, and good friend Ron Scrima decided to take the car back to the National Drags in OK City. We’re talking flat-towed all the way from the California coast, with a tow-bar. Gene said they took turns, but someone always rode in the Olds, mainly to step on the brake, if needed.
When they got there, the car was running great and consistently, in the low 13s at over 110 mph. In those days, you could only set an NHRA record at “Record Runs” held at specific times at specific tracks. One day was set aside for this at Oklahoma, cars running singly in various classes. For some unexplained reason, only mph records were taken. And Gene’s 111+ upped the B/Gas record by more than 5 mph. So next, of course, came class eliminations over the next two days.
Gene said he waded pretty easily through about six rounds of B/G races. But he said the track had a slight downward slant, or something, at the starting line, and every time after he staged the car, and took his foot off the brake to bring up the revs to launch, the car crept forward a few inches. He didn’t have a hand brake, or any other way to hold it, because he said “I never had that problem at any other track.” This was way before starting lights or staging beams, and it didn’t seem to be a problem with the flag starter, until the final round, seen above. The Olds-powered ’38 Chev is blasting off the line, while Gene’s is obviously at rest. You can barely see the guy in white, with the hat, waving him back. He had been red-flagged for the creep. The winning Chevy was timed at 14.07 at 85.95 mph, which Gene would have easily beaten. Of course Gene was livid, and got out of his car to tell the starter so. But, Gene just told me, seemingly out of nowhere, Wally Parks suddenly appeared, and pushed him back in the car and told him to leave. Which Gene did. Can you imagine? And they still had to flat-tow all the way home. Today Gene is surprisingly calm about it, saying, “Hey, we got the trophy for the World’s Record.”
Besides, he had plenty more Top Eliminator trophies to win. He just didn’t know it yet. When they got home, Gene decided to return the Olds to street with a 303. Scrima had ordered a K-88 dragster frame kit from Chassis Research, and Gene said he could use the blown engine out of the Olds. But Gene got drafted and went in the army for two years starting Jan. 1, 1958. While he was gone, Scrima and his boss, Jack Engle, put a stroker crank in Gene’s 371 for 407 c.i., ran it a few times in Leonard Harris’ Fiat Coupe, then dropped it in the dragster that Scrima finally finished, as seen below.
Note the 4-71 blower and 2-port Hilborn, as well as the unlettered body, in this photo taken at a Record Run meet at Inyokern, its 5th time out, where it set the record, then blew the 407-inch motor. Gene, back from the service by then, was already building a 448-incher, with a 6-71 and 4-port Hilborn. This of course was the Albertson Olds in its infancy, which won Top Eliminators and set track records from its very first meet, and well through the 1960 NHRA Nats. It’s still one of the winningest dragsters of all time. But you can read plenty about that elsewhere. And it was certainly more than vindication for Gene Adams for one cheap NHRA loss.
And what became of that blue, bad, fastback ’50 Olds? Gene did put a 303 back in it and gave it to his brother Gary to drive on the street. Which he did happily for a year or two, until some nitwit flew through a red light and T-boned it in the passenger door, bending the frame and totalling the once-wicked car. Not a happy ending, but a pretty good story, yes?