Flat Out

Flat Out
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6-16-11

Book Review and photographs by Bud Lang,
Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz.

Flat Out is a compilation of exciting stories of early day hot rodders who abandoned the streets of Los Angeles for the dry lake beds of Southern California, where they could virtually “put the pedal to the metal,” in their quest for all out speed.  The author, Albert Drake, a Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University, and hot rodder for most of his life, spent untold hours, weeks and years, gathering the information and photographs that make up this fantastic book. Proof that he is one of us lies in the fact he still drives a fine ’29 A-V8 roadster, a car he built many years ago.  Over the years he has published a number of books on street rods and lakes machines, and has been published in many automotive magazines here and abroad, all dealing with “our” type of machinery.  Featured in this book are just about every car built to compete on the dry lakes of Southern California between the years 1930 and 1950, as well as their owners. Many youngsters in that era engaged in street racing, which wasn’t too safe as we all know.  Somehow, some of those early day hot rodders discovered Muroc Dry Lake, a place where they could drive their cars to the limit, and not be cited by police, nor risk being involved in an accident.  

In those early days on the lakes, car owners removed fenders, windshields, just about anything that might adversely affect the top speed of their cars.  As you might expect, some of these gents began developing custom cylinder heads, better ignition systems, improved camshafts, and more. Thus was born a new industry; speed equipment manufacturing.  Virtually all of the cars running on the dry lakes in those early years were “four bangers.”  And it wasn’t long before many were equipped with Riley or Chapel cylinder heads, modified camshafts, exhaust headers instead of mufflers, and more.  Many of these “race cars” were Fords or Chevys, most likely because the young owners couldn’t afford big Buicks and Packards.  While some of the guys ran on the salt just to see how fast they could go, many began competing against one another.  Soon, “timing clocks” were created, and the cars were timed in the final quarter-mile of a three mile course.  Most of this activity took place in the early morning, as temperatures would rise as high as 115-120 degrees in the afternoon.  Worse, there were no trees to stand under to avoid the searing heat.  The people visiting the lakes brought thermos bottles of cool water, which didn’t last very long in the searing heat.  But, the guys racing across the flats felt it was worth it. 

     The author discusses a number of racers we are all familiar with.  He states that Wally Parks credited a vocational automotive shop class with getting him directly involved with cars.  While attending Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, Wally discovered a couple of classmates were modifying their Model T’s, and he, too, was soon doing the same to his car.  Ak Miller remembers going over to Bell Auto Parts, where one could buy polished Cragar heads, intake manifolds, and more. Like many of the racers of that era, Ed Iskenderian was running Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels on his ’25 T-V8 roadster. Ed would later become “famous” for his line of racing camshafts, for all types of engines.  Another racer of that era was Sandy Belond, who was running a flathead V8 in his little Ford roadster. Sandy later developed a successful business selling mufflers and custom exhaust systems for all types of engines.  A number of pages are dedicated to quotes and stories about the hundreds of young men who engaged in street racing in the Los Angeles area, simply because there was no place for them to “test” their cars, no place to race safely. 

     Drag racing as we know it today wasn’t too far away, but it wasn’t available to the young men in the ‘30s and during WWII.  Ernie McAfee ran a Winfield flathead in his street rod, and almost lost his life when his brakes failed to stop his car one day.  Phil Weiand was crippled when he was involved in a crash, and later gained nationwide fame with the introduction of a full line of finned aluminum cylinder heads, intake manifolds and other accessories.  Another early day hot rodder who would go on to make a “name” for himself was Vic Edelbrock, who drove a full-fendered ’32 Ford roadster in the late ‘30s-early ‘40s.  It was in the mid-30s and later that many early hot rodders formed “car clubs in their own neighborhoods.  One such club was the Road Rebels, formed in 1938.  Some of its members were Bill Burke, Joe and Bill Hunt, Joe Reath and Jack Peters, all of whom attended high school together.  Burke would go on to build the first “streamliner” using an aircraft fuel tank.  Joe Hunt would go on to develop a line of magnetos.  Because so many of their members were not only getting cited for street racing, but getting injured and killed in accidents, some of these clubs banded together to form a single organization that would change the whole world for them. 

     So it was, in the Fall of 1937 the Southern California Timing Association became a reality, and took over responsibility of organizing racing activities on the dry lakes, as well as introducing their members to the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah.  A couple of the groups had timing lights, and these systems were improved over the years, too.  The SCTA set out to make activities on the lakes not only faster, but safer.  Racers appearing with their cars for an outing on the dry lakes now underwent thorough inspections, to guarantee the cars were safe to compete. After each car made two qualifying runs, they were assigned to Classes, designated by the type of “body” they had, stock or modified, and by their qualifying speeds.  Unlike modern day drag races, the SCTA members would run three and four cars at a time.  After all, they had miles of surface to run on.  After a day of racing, the first place winners received beautiful trophies, and the runner-ups received merchandise awards.  As you can see, the drivers were not just competing for trophies; they were “street racing” to prove who had the fastest car.  But they were doing so under much safer conditions.  One thing that we today might believe is “funny,” but in the late ‘30s they weren’t.

     As the author points out in his book, rodders in that time frame believed there were two obvious ways of making a car go faster.  One was to make the car “more streamlined,” and the best way to do that was to remove the fenders and running boards.  If the car was a convertible, then remove the windshield, too.  The other method was to hop up the engine.  Most of the car owners in the late thirties didn’t know much about modifying engines, and there were virtually no speed shops selling manifolds, cams, carburetors, stroker kits, custom clutches, etc.  So, many of the guys in that era simply had their cylinder heads milled a few thousandths to boost compression, changed carburetors, and built some simple exhaust headers.  In the late ‘30s there was some speed equipment available for the Model T Ford engines, but not a lot.  As the author points out, “An owner might install a Ruxtell two-speed axle for better gearing, Rocky Mountain brakes and a set of Buffalo or Houk wire wheels.  He might equip the engine with a set of Kant-Score pistons, a Bosch magneto and a Winfield carburetor on a special manifold.  He might remove the magnets from the flywheel to lighten it, or he could go a step further and have that reciprocating mass trimmed down; he might be able to have it statically balanced.  And if he had the bucks, he could go all out and buy a Frontenac OHV conversion kit.” 

     Of all the people involved in producing high performance parts for engines in the late thirties, Ed Winfield has to be “Number 1” on anybody’s list.  When Winfield was only 11 years old (in the year 1912), he acquired his first car, a Model T Ford.  He immediately stripped it down to its bare essentials, rebuilt the engine, and soon his “hot rod” could reach 60 mph.  Two years later, at the age of 13, he was hired by Harry A. Miller, who owned a race car shop, and was soon working in the carburetor department.  A year later, at age 14, he was grinding camshafts so they would lift the valves higher and hold them open longer.  Five years later, at age 19, Winfield began work on “his” carburetor design, as he felt the Miller carburetor had inherent problems.  It was at this time in his life that Winfield was racing a flathead Model T on local circle tracks, a car that proved to be one of the fastest on the West coast.  By the year 1925 Winfield carbs were on most of the Indy cars, they were that good.  All of this from a young man barely 24 years old.  A couple of years later, Winfield retired from racing, devoting the rest of his life to engineering better carburetors, cams and high compression cylinder heads for the Model T, A/B, V8, and true race car engines, such as the Offenhauser. 

     What with America’s entrance into World War II, all activity on the dry lakes ceased. Many of the young car owners were either drafted or they volunteered for active duty. The SCTA Racing News, edited by Wally Parks and Eldon Snapp, ceased publication. All during the ‘40s, there wasn’t one magazine aimed at car owners, or hot rodders, if you wish.  A year after the SCTA was formed, that group did publish a simple newsletter.   With the end of the war in 1945, hot rodders in Southern California, and elsewhere, began to “work on their cars,” and racing soon took hold again.  Finally, in January 1948, two young men, Robert Petersen and Robert Lindsay, introduced Hot Rod magazine to the world.  They appeared at local circle tracks, hawking the magazine to racers and spectators alike.  Within a few years Wally Parks would become Editor of Hot Rod magazine.  Whereas SCTA’s newsletter kept their members informed about activities on the dry lakes, Hot Rod magazine would soon be spreading the word to the entire nation.  In the process, auto parts stores in other cities and states soon became known nationwide, both through their advertising and being featured in the magazine. Honest Charley, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is one such person who became famous overnight.

     Before Hot Rod magazine became a reality, “speed shops” per se, didn’t exist.  Auto parts stores around the country sold glass-pack mufflers, chromed “echo cans” that guys attached to their exhaust pipes, etc.  And, it wasn’t too long afterwards, that Wally Parks would join Bob Petersen and his Hot Rod magazine.  One guy who really made an impression on a lot of hot rodders was Bill Burke, who built the first belly tank race car.  He used a Model T frame and early Ford running gear, with ’34 Ford 17-inch wheels and street tires. His engine was a ’34 Ford V-8 mounted up front, with a Thickstun dual intake manifold, milled heads and a Harmon-Collins cam.  Bill turned in a very respectable 137 mph in this machine on the lakes.  The next year, Burke found and used a larger 365-gallon belly tank (from a P-38) and built a rear-engined belly tank. Don Francisco built a 276-inch ’42 Merc flathead, running a Harmon-Collins cam, Potvin ignition, Grant rings, and dual Stromberg 48 carbs.  He ran this car for a few years, and by 1949 had realized a top time of 164.83 mph.  Not bad for a little flathead engine.   One situation that these serious hot rodders were facing was illegal street racing.

     A lot of street racing was still going on, and some individuals and groups were engaged in shutting it down.  Many of the drivers/cars involved in street racing were not owned or driven by serious hot rodders, but were stripped down jalopies.  So it was in late 1948 that all Southern California Timing Association clubs became associate members of the National Safety Council.  It was also in this period of time that SCTA members established the First Annual Hot Rod Exposition, a three-day event, at the National Guard Armory in Los Angeles.  This car show attracted thousands of visitors, many of whom knew little about what hot rods or custom cars were really about.  To show the public what really goes into building a hot rod, a ’32 Ford roadster was assembled from scratch during the three-day show, and was given away to a lucky ticket holder.  It was in 1949 that the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association held the earliest legal drag races on a half-mile long private road, followed by drag races at the Orange County Airport, near Santa Ana, California, put on by Frank Stillwell and C.J. Hart, beginning in 1950.  Needless to say, racing on paved drag strips soon took over the entire nation, as hot rodders everywhere began building and racing their cars.  The dry lakes are still there, but it’s a whole new world today.   

Bud Lang can be reached at [email protected].

Soft bound, 206 pages,

300 black and white photographs. Signed copy...$19.95

This Book Can be purchased from Flat Out Press Click Here