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The Commuter - Britain's Forgotten Hero

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon in 1969, it was (and still is) the most amazing thing anyone could have imagined happening in their lifetime, especially when we now look back at the paper-and-string technology used to put those intrepid astronauts on that crater-strewn landscape.

Fast forward just one year, to 1970, however, and in an automotive sense, the British record-breaking land speed runs of The Commuter, Britain’s first nitro-guzzling Fuel Dragster, which topped a remarkable 260mph over the flying kilometre, seem almost as implausible. Even more amazing to contemplate is the idea that a hastily modified dragster could wrest the British record from Sir Malcolm Campbell’s purpose-built Bluebird – and then retain it for some 30-plus years.

Early days at Santa Pod and The Commuter has already attracted a crowd

The achievements of The Commuter, arguably the best-kept secret in Britain’s illustrious record-breaking past, were largely down to the nous and inventiveness of Britain’s drag racing pioneers. The Commuter was built by a consortium of enthusiasts keen to help put drag racing on the map in the UK, following on from the legendary US Drag Fests, which saw some of the top American drivers competing in the UK. Bob and Roy Phelps (familiar names in British Drag racing as the driving force behind Santa Pod), electronics engineer, Peter Billinton (G-Max fuel founder), and engineer/drag racer, Tony Densham (he’d been campaigning a Ford four cylinder dragster since 1963), were all responsible for The Commuter.

Tony Densham, who drove The Commuter throughout its short yet successful life

The fact that the car looks even better today than it did over 30 years ago is largely a testament to the efforts of Anthony Billinton, Peter’s son, who has lovingly restored this family heirloom to its former glory. It’s also thanks to Anthony’s uncanny memory and almost unlimited supply of Commuter drag racing memorabilia that we can tell The Commuter story here.

In the beginning…

According to Anthony, The Commuter was inspired by Mickey Thompson’s Harvey Aluminum Special dragster, which came to the UK in 1963 and performed demo runs in front of awestruck spectators. In fact, blueprints of this car were used in the creation of The Commuter, which shared a similar chassis and Ford motivation – a 427 Wedge. Unlike the HAS car, however, The Commuter was clothed in a hand- built body (by Bob Phelps’s Fibreglass Repairs shop), styled along the lines of the infamous Stellings & Hampshire Pink Stamp Special AA/FD built by Kent Fuller. This full-bodied car had a swoopy moulding around the cockpit that extended rearwards to form an enclosure for the parachute - a design feature repeated with The Commuter.

 

Early colour photo shows off the swoopy Kent Fuller-inspired bodywork - on a main road!

Innovative touches by FGR, however, were the twin air vents built in to the tail, to help relieve air pressure, and the cosmetic, shark-style gills in the bodywork under the engine. At the time, the fully enclosed body style was the way to go in drag racing, and resulted in perhaps some of the most beautifully proportioned cars ever to appear – The Commuter was no exception.

The chassis was fashioned from high-tensile steel, again by Fibre Glass Repairs in Bromley, and initially measured 144 inches in length. The narrowed 1955 Oldsmobile rear axle was equipped with 10x15in American Racing magnesium wheels (from the HAS) and M&H slicks. At the front, 18-inch diameter Borrani spoked, spindle-mounted wheels and Goodyear 2.25x17in tyres were hung either side of a dropped tube axle.

 

Rare Ford 427 Wedge with 4-bolt mains

The engine was undoubtedly the most unique aspect of The Commuter at the time, and remains so to this day, thanks to its extreme rarity. Apparently only a thousand or so, 4-bolt mains, Ford 427 Wedge engines were built, and Mickey Thompson was the man with the reputation for making them perform on the drag strip. The 1965 example used in The Commuter was assembled using Mickey Thompson know-how and delivered between 1500 and 2000 hp. It featured his own brand of connecting rods and slipper-type pistons, together with an Iskenderian roller camshaft, GMC 6/71 blower, Cragar inlet manifold and Hilborn four-port fuel injection. In true early dragster fashion, the engine hooked up by direct drive to the rear axle via a Schiefer sintered bronze, twin-plate, 11-inch clutch, so the only gearing effect was the growth in tyre size at high rpm. Fuel was a mixture of nitromethane and methanol blended according to how fast you wanted to go.

The completed car rolled out of the FGR workshops just in time for the Racing Car Show in January 1967, where it was displayed to an enthusiastic crowd on the British Hot Rod Association’s stand. After that, it was shipped to Sweden for another event where it won the ‘Best Car in Show’ award. The Commuter also put in an appearance at the Paris Motor Show with an eye-catching, open parachute display. Additionally, Peter Billinton recalls a unique publicity stunt which saw the car driven under its own power through the Marble Arch underpass early one Sunday morning, with the road closed – imagine that on open headers!  Further appearances at Silverstone and Crystal Palace – when the track was still there – were to follow.

Commuter puts on a show for the fans at Anderstorp, Sweden in 1969

Teething problems

Getting the car to look right was one thing, but getting it to run correctly was a completely different matter with no UK Fuel dragster experts to call upon. Fortunately, American Commando Team chief mechanic, Bob Gladstone, was able to oversee initial attempts to get the engine running. With Gladstone at the controls in the cockpit, the car was pushed up the track until the correct oil pressure was reached. He then dropped the clutch and the engine exploded into life for the first time.

 

Bob Gladstone (left) Dick Lawrence, Densham and Peter Billinton (right) check over the motor

It wasn’t to be that simple, however, as a problem with centrifugal force on the blower belt brought it in overly close proximity to the magneto. The belt would touch the magneto body, turn it and alter the timing. Unfortunately, the problem wasn’t discovered for some time, and in the intervening attempts to get the engine running smoothly, the cam drive sheared. On a subsequent run, it was discovered that, because of this, two valves had made contact with a piston.

Classic action shot by former Custom Car photographer Norman Hodgson 

Despite the problems, however, Commuter did eventually run properly in 1968, clocking an 8.45 second ET at 180 mph over Santa Pod’s standing quarter mile, and then lowering this to 8.22 seconds a year later. It is probably true to say that The Commuter was largely responsible for putting drag racing on the map in the UK during the late sixties, and for enticing a whole new group of fans to this spectacular form of motorsport.

Tudor Rose smokes its way to a 8.46 sec et while Commuter red lights

This time it's The Commuter's turn to lose traction

Initial record breaking runs

The first land speed record runs by Commuter were recorded at Elvington, North Yorkshire, in 1967, as part of the International Sprint Organisation Records Weekend. It was clear that The Commuter’s aerodynamic body and muscular Ford V8 powerplant would help to provide a worthy challenger for Alan Allard’s existing 9.37 standing quarter mile record time.

The business end!

Densham recorded runs of 9.41, 9.18, 9.21, 8.81 and 9.08 seconds. The final runs, recorded in both directions, were bracketed together to result in a time of 8.91 seconds, well inside Allard’s previous record. Densham also went on to take the standing 500-metre record, which previously stood at 12.66, with a two-way average of 11.20 seconds.

Promotional shot at Elvington for drinks manufacturer who sponsored the event

Commuter had entered the history books. The initial success got the team thinking, and what they were really interested in now was taking the official British wheel-driven record over the flying 500 and kilometre distances, held by Sir Malcolm Campbell with Bluebird. Amazingly, his record of 174.883 mph, set on Pendine Sands in 1927 had never been broken.

To be continued...

(Record attempts and the car today to follow next month)

Story: Andy Kirk

Photos: Anthony & Peter Billinton

 
 
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