I know very little about sports cars. Initially that was by choice. Strong choice. I was an American kid. I was a do-it-yourselfer. I naturally became a hot rodder. A devout one. Sports cars, which started showing up on U.S. shores in any significant numbers in the early to mid-’50s, were “Foreign Cars.” The earliest and most common, MG TC’s and TD’s, resembled our hot rod roadsters in many ways: 2-person, cloth top, “wing” fenders, lay-down windshield, multiple carburetors–in fact they were by definition roadsters. But there were two big differences. First, most came with tiny engines, 1500cc’s (1.5-L; 91 c.i.) or less. And much more important (to me), they were bought, not built. And they were relatively expensive. They were rich kids’ cars. At least that was my opinion, and that of my friends and those we hung around with.
So that’s why I couldn’t understand why Hot Rod and other (smaller) magazines I read as a kid kept showing examples of these sports cars: parts of them, full features on them, hot rods built like sports cars, sports cars with hot rod American engines. This last type, I must admit, did at least get my attention.
OK. Instead of a treatise on hot rods vs. sports cars (of which much more could be said), I’ll get to the point. Among my voluminous collected files covering everything from rods, customs, early dry lakes, drag races, Bonneville, circle track, car shows, and so on, there have been two lonely manila folders at the very back of one bottom file drawer marked “Chino Nov. ’53 Road Races” and “Terminal Island Road Races, Cars and Cycles, Jan. ’54.” I’ve pretty much ignored them for the past 30 or so years, being impressed mostly by the large number of prints, proofs, and negs in each, shot by a gang of photographers: Rickman, D’Olivo (RIP), Dick Day, Lester Nehamkin, Bill Southworth. I figured it was a chance for these (slightly older) guys to go see some hopefully exciting road racing, and get in close to the action, free. It wasn’t until I started doing this bi-weekly column that I pulled them out for a closer look, and was surprised they actually ran in magazines–the Chino races in the Nov. ’53 issue of Petersen’s short-lived HONK!, and the Terminal Island ones in its soon-successor, Jan. ’54 Car Craft. The editor of both was the notorious Dick Day, who was up for most anything. And when I told son Bill I was thinking of doing a column on them, he said, “Ooh, that sounds good.” So here goes.
What I happily discovered was that these articles focused on the larger “Unlimited” sports car class, many of which were stuffed with big hot-rod V8 engines, and both races were dominantly won by well-known Ford-aligned builder, tuner, driver Bill Stroppe in an American-built Kurtis 500-S powered by none other than a Mercury flathead V8. I’ll start with the Terminal Island race since it was bigger, more representative, and better covered. It was a 2-day affair, held on a recently closed Naval airbase on the large, flat island in the middle of the L.A. Harbor between Long Beach and San Pedro, as a money-raising benefit for the Navy Relief Fund. The magazine devoted four pages to the cars, which were divided into four classes–stock and modified under 91 cu. in, and the same over that. Of course it focused on the modifieds, which it called “backyard bombs and other specials.” Above is the starting lineup for Sunday’s Main Event, a 30-lapper of 69 miles. In the front row is an Allard powered by a hopped-up Lincoln, something I can’t identify, and then “another backyard job” powered by a DOHC Jaguar six driven by hot rodder/lakes racer Chuck Daigh. They’re followed by D Jags (including a coupe), an MG TC, a couple Kurtis 500s, and another Allard. Stroppe’s Kurtis is in the 6th row because he sat out Saturday’s qualifying. Further back is Ken Miles’ hand-built special which had won the under-91-inch race earlier that day.
“…Right behind him through the hole, past Allards, Jags, and all, came Miles.” The same issue of Car Craft devoted 6+ pages to Miles’ “Fabulous Diehard,” which he not only drove expertly, but also designed and built himself, starting with the proverbial chalk lines on the garage floor for the 3-1/2″ round tube frame, “using only a welding torch, power hand drill and grinder, together with the usual hand tools found in the average hot rodder’s tool kit” according to the feature. This is the same Ken Miles you saw depicted (correctly or not) in the recent film “Ford v Ferrari.”
The race copy goes on to state that on the first lap, by the back straight, it was Stroppe, Daigh, and Miles, in that order. But Stroppe pulled away to a one mile lead in three laps, leaving the real race between Daigh and Miles for second, well ahead of the rest. Rodder Daigh also turned out to be an expert road racer, driving for the Scarab team, then on to big-time Formula One. However, in this race his big Jag six apparently stuck a valve, causing him to fall off the pace, leaving Miles’ little 90-incher to outrun all the rest by dint of light weight, chassis design, and driving skill.
Speaking of chassis control, in this shot from one of the under 91-inch races, you can see there wasn’t much. The car acting like a dog at a fire hydrant is a front-drive Dyna-Panhard. But the understeering new MG TD doesn’t look much better.
Since we’re looking at small cars, 356 Porsches are my favorites from that era, especially coupes, but this was the only one I could find among all the proofs and negs. The current license plate, plus the taped lights and windows, indicate this is a street-driven car. I thought that might be an SCCA rule, like spare tires. But the little open-wheel, single-seat, 500cc Formula III Cooper about to pass by couldn’t meet that.
Finally for the small cars, one hopeful turning lap times close to Miles was this special built, owned, and driven by George Beavis with an Offy midget engine. Not only did he have to reduce it from 97 to under 91 cu. in., but he also had to adapt some sort of self-starter, which failed to start when the race did.
Sir Sidney Allard built the sports car bearing his name in England, fitting most with flathead V8s from Ford Pilots. The ones he exported to the U.S. came without engines, but apparently with left-hand drive. These are second-series J2X models, with slightly longer frames, noses, and hoodscoops. My files have only photos, no notes, copy, or race programs. And the article simply states there were three Allards in the race, two with Cads and “one which had a big, hairy-chested Lincoln stuffed under the hood.” You saw No. 12 in the front row in the top photo, for some reason with its grille removed for the race. Also, you can’t help noticing the big, mandatory spares mounted to the cars’ right sides. That’s because European-bred, right-hand drive sports cars race clockwise, turning right (unlike U.S. ovals, which turn left).
I’m pretty sure this is the No. 12 Allard seen above, with its distinctive porthole hood sides still in place. Although similar to a Cad, I also assume this is the “hairy-chested Lincoln,” given the distributor angle and the water outlets in the heads. The tag on the shiny aluminum firewall says “Allard,” and the car’s construction is very neat and tidy (note wiring block behind hand). The polished intake with two large 2-bbls looks like an Edmunds, and those rare finned vale covers have “Winfield” in script in the middle–I doubt meaning cam-grinder Ed or customizer Gene.
This is an action shot from early in the Main Event. What’s wrong with this photo? A Jeep, that’s what. Just because they named it a “Sportster” doesn’t mean it belongs in this class of racing company. But somehow it qualified for this race (as far as I could tell, anything could enter–there was no real definition of “sports car”), and at this point it’s keeping up with the front-runners.
So this is what got the Jeepster in the race–an early Studebaker V8, again with two 2-bbls on an Edmunds intake. Of it, the magazine said: “Punchy Studebaker V-8 gave the Willys Jeepster lots of acceleration and top speed.” However, unlike the Allard, this engine swap installation is anything but neat and tidy. Another caption states it “ran very well but threw a front wheel in the race.” Hmm, how could that happen?
Speaking of Jeep/Willys/Studebaker, this right-hand-driver that I’d guess had an inline flathead six, was I.D.ed as Jim Lowe’s Frazer-Nash, which “was quite potent but lacked the suds of the rapid Specials.” What I note is his casual one-hand steering.
Besides Stroppe’s Kurtis, there were two other 500-S’s entered, Frank McGurk’s with a Cad and another with a DeSoto Hemi. Both made the Main Event, but were described as “untried.” I have no idea which this is, nor can I identify the knock-off aluminum wheels–but I like ’em.
I wish I had more info (but they are cool photos). The cowl could be a Kurtis. The guy with the oily face has been driving. It has three 97s and a Vertex mag on an overhead V8. The water neck and oil filler don’t look like Cad, so I’m guessing this is the DeSoto. But it looks more hot rod than sports car to me.
As I said, Bill Stroppe’s flathead Merc-powered Kurtis won both of these races by huge margins. My big question was how could it be that dominant over much bigger OHV engines in identical or similar cars? Then I happened to spot this one image among all the proofs and negs. I could tell immediately what it was: these guys are mixing fuel…as in NITRO. There was no mention of this in either story. I don’t know who these guys are. But I’ve seen it plenty of times before–at drag strips and dry lakes. Even midget races. But I’d never heard of sports cars running nitro. Or even alcohol. But those drums on the truck spell it out. The one on the left clearly says “NITROMETHANE,” while the one on the right says “Mobile Racing Fuel.” Not gasoline, but fuel. Since it was totally left unsaid, I can’t claim that Stroppe was running a load. But here’s very visual proof that someone was.
Here are a couple more goodies I found:
This is a Glaspar G2, considered by some the first fiberglass-bodied sports car, but certainly one of the first ‘glass “kit car” bodies made to mount on your choice of chassis. I have no idea what’s under the skin, but given the license plate, it appears fully finished and outfitted for street, though stripped for racing here with small windscreen, headlight covers, and numbers on the sides. The V-windshield roadster next to it looks interesting; the Chevy tow truck looks old; but the new Ford woodie looks very tasty.
If I knew sports cars I might be able to identify this, but I haven’t a clue. It’s one good-looking piece. Check those low-mounted, faired-in headlights. Surprisingly, it’s left-hand drive. How it got No. 1 is further mystery. It’s not shown or mentioned in the story, nor seen racing in any photos. But I sure like it.
And this is the dramatic finish of the Terminal Island Main Event, with Ken Miles’ 90-incher appearing to edge out Stroppe’s Kurtis-Merc. But no…. The drama was whether Stroppe could catch and pass Miles, which he nearly did. If so, he would have lapped the entire field for his win. Perhaps more amazing is that Miles’ tiny MG special placed second, well ahead of all the much larger-engined cars. With Daigh’s ailing Jag fading, third place went to Max Briney’s Lincoln-Allard, but he was nearly another lap behind Miles. Amazing what can happen in a 30-lap, almost 70-mile road race. Car Craft’s closing line to this story was: “Who said the flatheads were through?”
OK, let’s jump three months earlier (Nov. ’53) when CC was still called HONK!. The scene shifts about 75 miles inland to the rural town of Chino. Besides prisons, about the only thing Chino and Terminal Island had in common was large, paved airfields. And besides cows, one thing Chino had no shortage of was hay bales, which were used to lay out a relatively short road course on the airport runways. Unfortunately this included one tight 90-degree turn that nearly all competitors, such as these two MG TCs, failed to negotiate at least once during the races. This didn’t make for good racing, but the photographers loved it, and it was the focus of HONK!’s 4-page story.
Although the story proclaimed “Anything from a Crosley to a Duesenberg could get out and go. On race day, everything but a Duesenberg showed up.”, it appeared that MGs predominated, more than one of which went upside down in this haystack.
However, with most photographers–and the story, titled “The Nation’s Fastest Hayride”–focused on crash corner, there weren’t a lot of other photos.
This handbuilt Crosley special owned (and driven?) by Dr. P.J. Young had some midget flavor, starting with knockoff Halibrand wheels, tube axle, and cross-spring (note right hand dead perch), with 4-bar rear. The mag’s only comment: “Was noisiest on course.”
In its brief early-’50s history, Crosley actually made a sporty 2-seat roadster called a Hotshot. Charles Gardner extensively modified the body on his, as well as hopped up the tiny sheetmetal engine, to win the Novice under 1500cc race. Note the polished midget Halibrands. It was featured in black primer with a curved full windshield in the July ’53 Hop Up. The trophy lady, in her white Capris, was considered hot for ’53
Though unshown and unmentioned in the magazine, I found this neg, which I’m pretty sure is a rear view of the No. 1 car seen above. The inset spare is classy. The single taillight is perfunctory. And it appears to have some tail damage from racing. I’d love to know what it is, because I love this car.
Here’s a nice portrait of Ken Miles’ home-built 90 cu. in. speedster at rest (sans grille for some reason). It easily won the under-91 c.i. race to qualify for the Main. This is also a partial look at the length and breadth of the Chino airport, which has for years hosted WarBird fly-ins and today includes an excellent vintage air museum well worth visiting if you’re in the area.
So let’s end this with a nice action shot of Stroppe speeding past the hay bales to win the Main in Chino. According to the copy, he was the only driver who didn’t hit the hay. And, again, his only close competition was Miles in his little hot rod MG, who had also passed everything else on the course. But even he, on the last turn of the last lap–with undoubtedly well-heated drum brakes by then–stuffed its nose straight into the hay pile, though he quickly backed out and sped to the line to finish second. However, by then winner Stroppe was no less than three laps ahead of everybody else. Pretty amazing. Was nitro his secret weapon?
But that’s it for my inventory of vintage sports car racing. Who knows what I’ll find for next time. I don’t…yet. Til then.