60′s Racing Memories
by Jim Davis
Back in the late ‘50’s and early 60’s I had a 1932 Ford 3-window coupe that I ran at the drags. I ran the car from about 1955 or ’56 up until 1963. When I first took the car to the drags it had a 286 cubic inch flathead in it with a Navarro 3-carb manifold and, I think, Weiand heads. I was running an Isky 400 Jr. cam in it. It had all the usual tweaks that guys were doing to flatheads back then. I was running the car in an NHRA class called B/Gas Coupe & Sedan. The class had a minimum cubic inch to weight classification of 9 pounds per cubic inch. So the car could have been as light as 2,574 pounds but I couldn’t get it that light. It typically weighed right at 2,700 pounds.
So the obvious solution was to build a bigger engine. I can’t remember exactly what the bore and stroke combination was but I eventually got it to 300.5 cubic inches, which then matched my car weight. This was considered a very large inch flathead at the time and I do remember that whatever I bored it out to, everyone told me you couldn’t bore a flat head that big.
The car was very strong for its day and I won a lot more races than I lost. I was running a ’40 Ford gear box with column shift and by keeping the shifter linkage bushings very tight I could slam shift the devil out of it.
At one race I managed to blow the clutch and it shattered the bell housing. I had so much tied up in the block what with the magic overbore and big valves and a relieved block that I didn’t want to throw it away. So I made a template of the remaining part of the bell housing and cut off a bell housing from another junk block. Then with a hand grinder I ground the cut off bell housing to exactly match my template. Then we used a transmission to line everything up and my good racing buddy, Bob Bernardon (now deceased) welded the new housing onto the block.
I continued to race the car with a lot of success but decided I had to move up to a more modern engine. I went to a Chevy dealer and bought a 270 hp ’57 Chevy long block assembly. I think the price was about $250. This was the engine that came with the famous “Duntov” cam. I put a six carb manifold on it which never really worked very well so I ditched it and put a three carb manifold on it.
I had been running high thirteens with the flathead but couldn’t break 14 flat with the Chevy. I was still running the ’40 Ford tranny and by now had a Halibrand V8 quick change rear. So I started messing with the Chevy. I can’t remember the exact sequence of changes but I put a Harmon & Collins roller cam in it, a Flamethrower ignition, a set of killer heads that Racer Brown sold me, and a Hilborn injection system. Later I switched the cam out for the latest trick model from Racer Brown.
Unfortunately this was too much power for the tranny and I kept blowing them up. So I got an old ’39 Caddy trans that a lot of guys were running as they were almost indestructible. But I could never get the damn thing to shift as fast as the ’40 Ford tranny so I decided to put a Hydro in it.
That’s another whole story but eventually I ended up with a B&M 4-speed Hydro-Stick with a homemade floor shifter. I figured I could just bolt that puppy in and keep all my regular combination of parts and go racing. But the 4-speed Hydro was a whole new ball game.
It took me a while to figure out a combination but I did a bunch of stuff that was more or less unheard of at the time. Back then most of the gassers were running 8 or 9-inch slicks as was I. But once I realized the Hydro had a 3.82 first gear ratio (compared to a TH-400 of 2.5), which is super low, I came up with a concept that turned out to be the right combination. I shucked my 9” M&H’s and went to 11-inchers, which, I think, was about as wide as you could get at that time. That was a dragster tire. Maybe they had some 12-inch wides back then but that would have been the max. Nobody ran 11-inch tires on an un-blown gasser at that time.
I also put a 6.44 final gear in my quick change. This gave me nearly a 25 to 1 starting ratio off the line. I welded a pair of 2” x 4” steel tubes to my axle housings and hinged them off the frame for traction bars. I was still running the single buggy spring in the back, which was out of a Model A to provide clearance for the quick change. Now this was a lousy setup since there was almost no provision for one rear wheel going up higher than the other since the entire rear assembly was hinged at the front. Over time this came back to bite me because on one particularly hard launch the welds ripped out of the axle housings. But forgetting that the setup had little room for error, it did provide the kind of launch I needed.
The old four-speed Hydramatic did not use a torque converter. It had a straight fluid coupling between the engine and trans. The difference is that the later model torque converters had the ability to actually multiply the torque at launch. I think you could increase the torque from the engine into the tranny by about 50% at launch, which is huge. The faster the engine turned the less torque multiplication you got and by the time the engine reached the stall speed there was no torque multiplication at all. My info on this might be a little off base but basically you get the idea.
Anyway, the Spar brothers, owners of B&M, came up with the idea of machining away the fins in the two torus members that made up the fluid coupling on the Hydro. At the time I was their fair-haired boy as I was one of a very small number of guys having any success with automatics in the unblown classes. So they suggested that I try one of the machined torus assemblies, which basically increased the stall speed and provided a launch at higher rpm where more power was available. When I got the parts I couldn’t believe my eyes because they just put these things in a lathe and started cutting away. This also caused the fins to literally lay over at about a 45-degree angle. About 80% of the fins were gone. I didn’t see how this could possibly work.
I called Bob Spar at B&M and asked him if this would actually work or had they accidentally sent me something that should have gone in the trash as a failed experiment. Bob assured me that it would work and I was praying that he was right because it was a bitch pulling the trans to replace the coupling.
We finished up making the switch at about 2 am one morning so I took the thing out on the street to try it out because there was no way I could wait until we got it to the track. I was shocked at how much harder the car launched. As it was no one could ever beat me out of the hole. They might pull me mid track or so but I was unbeatable from off the line. And now the car launched maybe 25% harder than ever before. So I was one happy dude.
I used to sit at the starting line at dead idle and when the flag went up (or later when they switched to a tree and light went green) my foot was to the floor and that puppy launched like nothing else. It launched so hard and so quick that I could not take off in 1st gear because by the time my mind went from “go” to “shift” it would be too late. So I would take off with the shifter in second and let it shift automatically from first to second and even then the thing launched so hard and so quick that I had to really be on my toes to make the 2-3 shift before floating the valves.
By now I had punched out the original 283 Chevy to 301. The car typically ran up over 9,000 rpm going through the gears. I had what they called a “rev kit” on the cam which was an extra set of springs that basically sat on the top of the lifters inside the valley chamber and then two more springs up on the heads.
However in looking back, the amazing thing is I was running stock rocker arms. They didn’t have roller rockers then. I had to grind out the slots in the stock rockers to accommodate the higher lift of the cam. It also had Racer Brown pushrods which were a lot better than stock but I still have a hard time believing that I could constantly rev that engine over 9,000 rpm with stock rockers. I did have the studs pinned to the heads because this was also before screw-in studs. The stock studs were just pressed into the heads.
While the car really et’d well for its day, it never ran much speed because of the 6:44 ring and pinion. Typically it ran around 110 in the low twelves or high elevens. Not fast by today’s standards but right on the NHRA record for the class back then.
Then I got greedy. I wanted a bigger engine so I eventually managed, between a stroker crank and more bore, to get that original 283 out to 365 inches. This is small by today’s standards but huge back then. I had to add a lot of weight to the car to run an engine that big but I was able to add it all over the rear tires, which helped traction.
Now here are a couple of crazy things that I did that worked. Part of the weight was I had two huge 12-volt truck batteries sitting right over the rear end. The ignition and lights and stuff were wired to 12 volts but the starter was wired to 24 volts. That setup made the starter spin twice as fast as stock, which always guaranteed a quick start. However that extra voltage to the starter solenoid played hell with it. It never hurt the starter itself but the solenoid would burn out fairly frequently. I could double its life by flipping around one of the copper elements inside of it but I had to carry a lot of extra solenoid parts with me. Fortunately I could change it out very quickly.
One of the reasons I needed the extra starting power was because I was running 65 degrees of total timing on the engine. I know that sounds crazy and looking back I can’t even imagine that the engine would run. The only thing I can figure is I had so much overlap on the cam that I could do it. It was one of those things where I just kept putting more and more timing into it and amazingly enough the car kept running quicker. Finally at 65 degrees it hit the wall.
When I finally retired the car in 1962 or maybe it was ’63 it was running in the low elevens at about 119. I think by then I was running a higher gear. The car consistently ran under the NHRA record at that time and I would have owned the B/Gas record at the ’61 Nationals as every run during eliminations was .3 to .4 under the record but back then you could only set a record during a special period. I attempted to set the record but managed to blow out the quick change rear which sent me home.
I did run the car in C/Gas Automatic for a short period while that class existed. I think NHRA only had that class for one season. I did get both ends of the National Record in that class.
Then I had a very brief foray in C/Gas Supercharged. I had blown up my 365-inch engine and a buddy of mine loaned me his engine to run the Nationals. I think this was in 1960. He had this bizarre little motor that was a destroked SB Chevy that had something like 235 cubic inches. It had a 471 GMC blower on it with a Scott 2-hole injector and a Howards enclosed chain drive for the blower. At the time the record in C/Gas Supercharged was really nothing special. I think it was 12.05 or maybe 12.15. Low twelves anyway.
The very first time we ran the car at a local track it went 11.60. I made two passes and put it on the trailer and figured we were good to go at Indy. Or maybe the ’60 Nationals were in Detroit. Wherever. We were very happy campers. I figured running that far under the record we would have the field covered.
So we got to the track and made a pass and as soon as I pulled it to the line I knew something was wrong. It ran in the mid 14’s and frankly felt like the timing was terribly retarded. So we checked the timing and it was fine. We made three of four passes and never got it right. By now I was good friends with Bob and Don Spar from B&M as well as K.S. Pittman, a famous A/Gas Supercharged competitor at the time. All three of them tried to help me find the problem but we never did.
When we got home my buddy wanted his engine back and when we took the cover off the blower drive we discovered that the cam had been walking forward, which dramatically retards the timing, and the timing chain was rubbing against the blower drive chain. The heads of the rivets on both chains were almost worn off so another couple of runs and the timing chain would have broken and there would go all the valves and pistons. I knew nothing about a cam button at that time as I had never used one on any of my unblown engines.
Even more frustrating was that someone else lowered the C/Gas Supercharged record to 11:85 so I would have had the field covered by a good two tenths, which would have been huge. Oh well, lots of “if only’s” in drag racing.
Many years later…about 14 to be exact…I went to work for the Spars as president of B&M, a post I held for 18 years.
When I started Super Stock magazine in 1964 I sold the coupe (less engine and trans) for $1,500. The car passed through a couple of different people and the last I saw it, which was around 1993, it was a real nice looking street rod painted a burnt orange with a nice leather interior. The man who owned it at that time, Ronnie Bohn, has since passed away so I don’t know what happened to the car since then.
About the Author: Jim Davis was the founder and publisher of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated and Stock Car Racing magazines. He was formerly President of B&M Racing & Performance for 18 years and is now Chief Operating Officer and Partner of Professional Products. Jim is an ardent street rodder with two Brizio built cars; a red ‘32 full fendered roadster and a fendered 3-window ‘33 coupe.
* Here’s an update to our story:
Jim Davis’ former ’32 3W coupe, is now owned by Tony Smoot, and was restored recently and painted red. The new owner duplicated the lettering originally on the coupe but changed the paint color from blue to red. Other modifications include a dropped headlight bar, different wheels, and restored bumpers. Jim commented after recently seeing the update, “thank goodness, he left off that ugly hood scoop”.