Gone Racin'…to see Bob Morton. Story by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
Bob Morton was born on January 5, 1931 in Los Angeles, California to Robert A. and Margaret Morton. He attended John Burroughs Junior High School and Los Angeles High School. He took wood and electric shop in high school and when he was fifteen, he entered a work/credit course and went to work for Lou Senter and Jack Andrews at Ansen Automotive. Ansen was just getting started and Morton would find that his experiences at this garage and speedshop would change his life. The garage did repair work on cars during the day to earn enough to keep going and sell speed equipment when they could as an added bonus. Soon the speed equipment business would begin to grow and shops would find it more profitable, but that would come later in the 1950's. Jack Andrews taught him how to port and relieve on a Flathead engine. He learned how to work on valves and build engines. The shop was very busy doing work on V-8 engines for Midget racers. Although Morton was one of the youngest workers at the shop, he was actively racing at the dry lakes as well. He began racing at the dry lakes in 1947 in the Russetta Timing Association (RTA). That year he drove Tom Singer's '25 Model T roadster powered by a Flathead engine. For the 1948 racing season he drove his own Ford Model A-V8, which he raced in the Mojave Timing Association (MTA). He was a member of the Lobers Car Club. Some of the Lobers included; Lou Senter, Jack Andrews, Tom Singer, David Walsh, Kent Huggins, John Mogge, Steve Joseph and Dick Guldstrand. Guldstrand would later achieve fame as a driver for the Corvette racing team and he now owns his own specialty speed shops.
Bob was racing his car at the last meet of the year for the MTA in October 1948, when the rivets sheered off a rear wheel. His car went end over end on the soft dirt of Rosamond dry lake. He was not seriously hurt and attributes his good fortune to the fact that he was wearing a crash helmet and Air Force seat belts. There was no seat in the car and he was sitting on the floor. In those days there were no roll cages and enclosed safety devices like there is today. The helmet protected his head and the seat belts held him secure as he rolled backwards into the turtleback (trunk) of his car, which formed a protective roll cage for him. He had welded the trunk solid and this also helped him. Jack Purdy drove his delivery van ambulance up to the scene of the totaled car and expected to take Morton to the morgue instead of the hospital. Purdy stuffed the shaken young man into his truck, but Morton was too tall at six foot five and Purdy couldn't shut the back door, so Bob's feet hung out the back of the van. He was okay and the Timing Associations all learned valuable lessons. Seat belts, crash helmets and enclosed areas were lifesavers. They also required racers to weld the wheel centers to the rims. The MTA raced at Rosamond Dry Lake because of the congestion at El Mirage Dry Lake. Morton graduated in 1949 and went on to Los Angeles City College taking business courses and also working for Ansen Automotive.
There were many Timing Associations in the years after World War II, but the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) was the largest and they set their schedule in January and the other timing associations took what dates and dry lakes that were left. El Mirage Dry Lake was shorter but the hard packed dirt surface was superior for dry lakes racing. Rosamond Dry Lake was longer and away from the military at Muroc Dry Lake, which was also called Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. The surface at Rosamond was softer and more dangerous to run on. After WWII ended, the military sold massive amounts of war surplus material for next to nothing and Morton explained how the racers would buy flight helmets, pilot's jackets and hats, gas tanks, belly tanks, airplane seatbelts and aluminum seats and other equipment. A favorite was Palley's War Surplus in San Fernando Valley. His parents picked him up from the hospital in the little town of Mojave, California and asked their son not to drive again. Bob Tattersfield called Morton while he was still recovering from his injuries and asked if Bob's engine was still okay. Frank Baron and Bob Tattersfield had just finished their new Bill Burke built belly tank. A belly tank is a spare gas tank used by military fighters and bombers to hold extra fuel. It was made to be aerodynamic and expendable. After the war the dry lakes racers realized that these belly tanks made excellent bodies and made frames to fit their dimensions. They looked like a flattened egg but they were fast, even if the drivers could barely fit inside the cramped new cars.
"We're having a problem with our tank engine," said Tattersfield. "Can we use your engine from your wrecked car," he added. Morton agreed, and Tattersfield and Baron put the engine in their belly tank. They added Tattersfield heads and a 4-carburetor manifold. At the last RTA meet of the 1948 year, the Tattersfield/Baron belly tank set the land speed record in their class with George Hill driving. The team raced several times with Morton's engines during the 1949 season in the SCTA dry lake meets. Bob had recovered from his crash and met George Rubio of the Road Dusters Car club. Rubio had a '29 Ford Model A on a '32 Ford frame, using a Flathead engine for the powerplant. Both Morton and Rubio would take turns driving this very successful car. They joined the Road Runners Car club for the 1949 SCTA racing season. The Road Runners was one of the oldest and most recognized car clubs in the nation. Members included Randy Shinn, Wally Parks, Ak Miller and a host of famous names. The pair also raced in the Mojave Timing Association. "Our speeds at the SCTA meets were in the 145mph range and we did a best of 144.16 at the MTA dry lakes meets. Then we took the car to Bonneville for the first Speed Week ever held at the Salt Flats and made 23 runs in 5 days. We took 3rd place in the C Roadster class at 135 mph. We just couldn't compensate for the altitude and nobody had learned very much about Vic Edelbrock's secret of mixing in a bit of nitromethane for more power," added Morton.
Third place at Bonneville and 145 mph at the dry lakes put the partners at the top of the landspeed racing fraternity in those days. That was fast and the car was consistent, but George decided to sell the car at the end of the season and they built a car designed only for Southern California dry lakes racing. It was a '29 body on '32 rails, similar to the previous car but pretty rough looking. At the first MTA meet they were testing the car and running impressively in the 140's, sorting the car out and seeing what improvements needed to be made. At the next SCTA dry lakes meet the competition became fierce with Bill Likes running the Pierson Brothers engine, Pat O'Brien and others all running nearly identical 144-145's. Bob and George had made run after run and they were tired and the car seemed stuck in the mid 140's like all the other drivers in the roadster class. Bob Robinson asked if he could make the last run in the roadster and see if he could do any better. "I think about that decision all the time," said Morton. Robinson was no rookie. He worked for Senter and Andrews at Ansen Automotive and he had driven short track roadsters, midgets and other dry lakes cars and he knew what he was doing, but this was his first ride in the almost new Rubio/Morton car. "It was dusty and the wind was blowing and visibility wasn't all that good out there," said Morton. The announcer read the results from the timer and said, "the Rubio/Morton car has just set a new stock bodied roadster record and is the first car to go over 150 mph at a speed of 151mph."
But there was silence on the other end and no one could see the car turn out due to the visibility and the distance. Much of what happened was speculation. It appears that Robinson didn't see the cones and the markers at the end of the timing traps and kept on going on the short dry lake until he hit a sand dune that propelled his car into the air. Sand dunes at the far end of the dry lake form around sagebrush and can be particularly dangerous at high speeds. "The car was breaking loose, the conditions were windy and dusty and Otto Crocker told me that he thought that Robinson may not have seen the markers and felt he was still on the course and didn't shut off his engine," said Bob. "Robinson hit one of the sagebrush mounds and the car went 184 feet in the air before it plummeted nose first into the dirt, broke the seat belt, crumpled into a ball of metal and rolled for about a quarter of a mile before it came to a stop. I got to the end of the track just as Jack Purdy was draping a sheet over Robinson's body. You can see pictures of the car on www.ahrf.com under Bob Morton. That took the wind out of our sails and Rubio and I decided not to build another car for the dry lakes," he added.
However, Ak Miller lent his dry lakes car to the partners for a couple of meets. It was a '27 Ford T Roadster with a belly tank nose and belly pans for aerodynamic efficiency. The car was built by Kenny Parks, the younger brother of Wally Parks, past president of the SCTA and founder of the NHRA. Ak was a legend in landspeed racing and excelled at road rallies and Pikes Peak, but he didn't have much success with this car, although it ran consistently in the 140's at the dry lakes. They raced the car at the SCTA/AMA challenge at the Blimp Base in Tustin, California in 1950. The AMA had challenged the SCTA to a car versus bike dragracing speed contest and the turnout was huge. Morton recalls that the cars beat the bikes consistently that day and the Miller car ran exceptionally well, "beating all comers," he said. "We were turning 10.8 seconds at 115mph in the ¼ mile with dry lakes gearing and no quick change rear-end. Drag racing was a new thing to us. George did very well drag racing and drove the car that day," Bob said. Morton borrowed a '32 chopped highboy 3-window coup and raced it at the new Santa Ana Drag Strip that was just opened up by CJ Hart in July of 1950. He went 118 mph in the ¼ mile, which was a very good time then. George and Bob returned to Bonneville in August of 1950. Ak Miller borrowed Don Baker's car for them, a rear-engined '27 T roadster. They were sponsored by Ansen Automotive and used Howard Johansen's fuel injection system. Rubio and Morton shared the driving duties and their best time was 143 mph across the Salt Flats.
Morton borrowed David Bourke's car in 1951, using his own engine. Dick Senor drove this same car to a speed of 145 mph later that summer in the SCTA dry lakes meets. He had joined the Air Force Reserves and his unit was activated for the Korean War on March 17, 1951. At the induction station, the commanding officer at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California took an interest when Bob mentioned that he was a hot rodder and asked Morton if he could do an engine swap and put a new Cadillac engine in his car. Bob assured him that he could and was soon assigned to March Air Force Base, which allowed him to continue his racing career. After initial training, he was assigned to the Lake Charles, Louisiana SAC Base (Strategic Air Command). New bomber bases were needed in those days to counter a threat from China and the Soviet Union. Morton worked on extending the runways for the big B-29 bombers, doing maintenance work and certifying the safety of the engines after maintenance before they were allowed back into service. He left the Air Force in December of 1952 and enrolled in Santa Monica City College. He transferred to the University of Arizona and went to work for GM's Allis/Chalmers Tractor Division, located in Sonora, Mexico. In 1956, Bob married and had two children, Robert Marshall II and Laurie Ann Morton. In the late 1950's he went into a partnership and farmed land around Blythe, California for the next twenty-eight years. He grew cotton, wheat, alfalfa, vegetables and other crops. In 1985 Bob moved to San Diego and was involved in real estate and construction. He and his wife Charlotte have ten grandchildren.
Bob Morton had a short but full racing life. He was there at the beginnings of the dry lakes and at the first two Bonneville Speed Weeks. He dragraced at the Blimp Base and Santa Ana Dragstrip in 1950, qualifying him as a pioneer among drag racers. He worked for Ansen Automotive, another pioneer in the speed equipment business. He built race engines for track roadsters and midgets, including Dempsey Wilson and Andy Linden. We even did engines for boat racing. "We had built engines for a Crackerbox boat called the Screamin' Demon, which was owned by George Zimmer," said Morton. "Lou Senter was the riding mechanic and George eased off the throttle. Lou reached over and pushed the throttle down and George was stunned. A bit later while leading the race, they hit an object and ripped out the bottom and the boat sank with Lou hanging on the bowline for dear life. I dove down and tied a rope to the boat and we pulled it out before the salt water at Marine Stadium, in Long Beach, California could ruin the engine. When we opened up the pan we found a pair of scissors and Zimmer said this was the reason for the sinking and sued Lou for negligence. He lost the case though," said Bob. Gone Racin' is at [email protected].