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Lights, Camera - no Action!

23.2.06. If you are into American car culture, and I’m assuming you are since you are reading this, then you’ll know how difficult it is to kick the bug.  Like me, you probably scour the ads in the specialist magazines before reading the editorial and easily get carried along on a wave of enthusiasm looking at the cars for sale.

Fuelled further by my brother’s keen interest in drag racing, it was perhaps inevitable that our shared enthusiasm should lead to something more tangible. We regularly attend drag meetings throughout the year and this is when the trouble began – back in the summer of 2003. 

While visiting a Drag meeting at Shakespeare County Raceway, we spied what we felt was a potentially great looking nostalgia rail, equipped with an original all-steel Fiat Topolino body.  With images of the fabulous Topolino-bodied Chicken Coupe dragster from the ‘70s, and Frank Pedragon’s similar bodied dragster from a decade earlier immediately coming to mind, it didn't take long before we were thinking how the car could look with a little "tlc" - and of course money - invested!

This particular Topo was owned by Ron Roper, and it ran in the Wild Bunch circus.  On the day in question though, Ron was having trouble firing up the car and looked decidedly hacked off.  I approached him and asked if he’d be interested in parting with his pride and joy.  My question was met with a resounding  “No thanks” and more than a little disappointed, we moved on.

This nostalgic rail,we figured, had lots of potential and would serve as our introduction to drag racing

Fast forward a month or so and we are sitting on the grass at the NSRA Nationals watching the cars rolling into the arena.  In comes a neat looking red gasser-clone with a dragster in tow.  Now this was not just any dragster, but the same one we’d tried to purchase a month earlier – and it had a "For Sale" sign attached.  Understandably, the owner was a little more communicative this time, and within a couple of hours, the dragster was ours.

What had we done?  And more to the point, what had we bought?  The first thing we did after purchasing the car was to go and get it checked out professionally at Hauser Race Cars.  The mild steel chassis had been built 10 years previously by Bob Nixon and featured a nostalgia-style, drilled ‘I’ beam front axle with single leaf spring.  The motor was a mild 350 Chevy, hooked up to a two-speed Powerglide, while the rear end was a Ford unit, narrowed and equipped with Granada disc brakes.  The front wheels were rare magnesium ARE five-spokes, often found on 70s funny cars and altereds, while the rears were pretty sad looking Keystones equipped with Mickey Thompson slicks.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the package, though, was the body, which was first used in British drag racing in 1966, initially I believe by Ian Garbutt on a short wheelbase chassis and by a succession of other racers in the intervening years.  

The steel body was first used in 1966 on Ian Garbutt's machine 

When Geof Hauser first set eyes on the car he was disappointed to say the least and I seem to remember his words were “throw it away and start again.”  This advice was from a man who builds state-of-the-art, cutting-edge dragsters so, to some extent I could understand his reaction.  We didn't have the option of throwing away our newly puchased Topo, however, nor did we want to, so we talked the project through and planned a series of modifications to make the car both more driveable (at 6ft 4in I was just a little too snug in the cockpit) and safer.  Specifically, the seating position was lowered, the pedals were relocated along with the braking system, which was also altered from lever to foot operation, and the ignition cut-out switch location was changed.  

First thing to do was check out the chassis and move the pedals and seating position to accommodate a 6ft 4in driver

After some careful consideration, we also decided that to achieve the right "look", the rear bodywork would be significantly improved if the cut off section that had been removed at some time in the car's past was reinstated.  To fabricate it professionally in metal, however, would have cost a fortune, so Geof thumbed though his trusty address book and found the telephone number for ex-drag racer Pat Cuss, who is still producing high-quality glassfibre Topolino bodies (amongst others) from his Wiltshire premises.  He had one bodyshell from a cancelled order still in the mould, which we could have immediately.  It was quickly collected, dropped off with HRC for fitting and then returned to Pat to be chopped, reinforced and equipped with the necessary brackets to mount it to the dragster chassis.   

The bare body is measured up for fitting to the chassis.  Rear wheel cutouts were filled and a new firewall was created

At around this time, Geof was heavily involved with the TV programme “Monster Garage”, and had been tasked with turning a milk float into a drag race vehicle for the programme.  They needed a suitable challenger to race against and Geof kindly volunteered our dragster – Gulp!  We were now in an unexpected race to  complete the car in time for filming.

Eventually, we achieved a good body fit and stance

It's starting to come together, but that engine looks tiny!

We ordered up a pair of new ARE 10x15 wheels from USAutomotive, suitable "piecrust" slicks and a number of other speed items which we hoped would arrive in time for the big day.  Sadly, only the wheels made it in time for the filming session, which took place on a very cold winter morning in February 2004.  As it transpired, though, the late arrival of the parts was the least of our worries. 

The body was painted black in record time and the ARE rear wheels arrived just in time

Geof had massaged the dragster into reasonable shape.  The new body had been painted black and fitted to the chassis, and the whole car was beginning to look good.  The fuel system had been upgraded with the addition of a new fuel pump to help try and cure a mysterious fuel cut-out, but in truth, we were still at the first hurdle in terms of how we wanted the package to look and perform – and we still hadn’t driven it!  To cap it all, we were now about to get our baptism behind the wheel in the TV spotlight!  We were learning though, and as events were to unfold, we’d learn a lot more in a very short space of time.

“Action” came the call from the producer as we tried in vain to start the car and bring it into the staging area at SCR.  It started, it stopped, it started, it stopped and by the fourth or fifth attempt the engine was seriously flooded as witnessed by the copious amount of fuel shooting out of the headers.  Eventually, after changing the battery and letting it dry out a little, the engine fired up and actually kept running – whoopee!  

Here's the competition - it should have been a walk over!

We got the car through the staging area and onto the track.  The engine sounded strong and we were ready for the first encounter with the milk float, which, it should be added, now sported a nitrous-equipped 350 Chevy. 

There were just seconds to go before the race... but then it all went quiet.  The motor had stopped – again!  Considerable frustration set in for all concerned as helper after helper tried to re-fire the engine.  Eventually, there was one glorious moment when the "mouse" motor re-ignited and proceeded to emit that magical Chevy yowl - before a distinctive metallic thud and a deathly silence descended on the track once more. 

Not quite the ideal drag racing debut!

With a small pool of oil dripping onto the track, a quick survey revealed the shape of a con rod sticking through the side of the sump.  That was it, the end of our drag racing nirvana. We’d managed about 2ft 6in on track and to cap it all, the entire embarrassing episode had been captured on film!  “How do you feel Andy?”  came the question as the interviewer's microphone was thrust in to my face and I tried to disappear into the ground – “Err, gutted”, came the reply.  In truth I had every reason to feel much worse than that. 

Subsequent inspection of the engine with the oil drained, revealed massive fuel contamination, reducing the oil to a water-like fluid with very little in the way of lubrication qualities.   Much later, when we had the chance to tear the engine down completely, we discovered that the block and one cylinder head had been welded up.  It was clear, even if it hadn't been in the immediate aftermath of "The Great Race" that the motor was now junk.

Hmm! Something's not quite right here!

The result was that we had a dragster with no engine, which, in one way, was something of a blessing in disguise. What we had really wanted all along was a big-block Chevy, either injected or blown to help fill out the engine bay and to achieve the seriously "bad" attitude we were after for the car.  Now we had the reason needed to go out and find one. 

Legendary engine builder Don Green

Good friend Ron Hope, who owns and run the Rat Trap fuel altered, suggested we talk to engine builder Don Green about our requirements.  Don built the original Rat Trap and all subsequent engines for it, so we were honoured to have such a maestro willing to prepare an engine for us.  The proviso was that it had to be strong, reliable and require low maintenance.  Most engine builders would ask “how fast do you want to go”, but for us a big block Chevy in a mild state of tune would be ample.  Some weeks later Don located a 468 cubic inch big-block that was in need of a refresh, but which could be ours for a not unreasonable sum.  A deal was done, he organised  the components needed to refresh the motor, while we took the plunge and ordered up a brand new, period-style, Enderle mechanical fuel injection system, which Don duly fitted. 

era correct M/T rocker covers were source on e-bay

The specification sheet for this motor reads like a who’s who of the speed shop world, but more to the point, the new power unit should give our Topo the desired kick with the looks of a period-perfect engine. Much to our relief, the engine arrived in the UK in June 2004, by which point we’d amassed a reasonable number of components to move the project on to the next stage.  

 …….to be continued

Story & photos: Andy Kirk

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