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The Commuter story - Part 2
Continued from 21.9.04.
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.
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. 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.
The team thought long and hard about how they would achieve it. After all, this was unchartered territory, even in the US, with no experts to call upon. It was down to British ingenuity to make it work. To take the record, the team estimated they would need to hit between 220 and 260 mph over the flying kilometre. Clearly, they were pushing new boundaries, such speeds still being unheard of, even on US drag strips.
There were a number of major considerations to take into account, including engine cooling - the motor would need to run for well over one kilometre with the throttle wide open – aerodynamics, tyre size and fatigue, axle ratio, the additional fuel load, calculating the correct nitro percentage required to get the job done and stopping the car after each run.
In the end, the nose section of the car was designed to accommodate a custom-built radiator equipped with an electric pump and a larger fuel tank, while the rear axle was changed to a higher ratio. Larger diameter rear wheels and tyres were fitted to further raise the gearing, and an aerodynamic shield, or semi-canopy, was fashioned around the driver to direct the airflow over him. The secret ingredient – the amount of nitro required to generate sufficient power for the record attempt – remains a secret with the team to this day. As for special tyres, the team elected to run with drag racing slicks – and keep their fingers crossed!
So it was that on a typically damp and windy British morning in October 1970, a small group of British drag racers launched their attempt to try and rewrite the history books at a disused airstrip near the sleepy little village of Elvington, outside York. There was quite a turnout, as their attempt was part of an organised records weekend, which saw many previous benchmarks tumble in the car and motorcycle classes. In fact, the aptly named American driver, Wild Bill Weichelt, broke Densham’s old Standing 500 metre record, and also took the Flying 500metre record at 185mph in the wonderful-looking, American-built dragster, Asmodeous.
Commuter made a number of test runs so that the team could check engine temperature, plug readings and oil contamination. The team were using a high, 70 viscosity oil, with its greater film strength more resistant to breaking down under extreme loading, though this also necessitated new bearing clearances specifically for the record attempts.
The outright wheel-driven record was there for the taking, and watched by the UK’s media, the public, and special guests -including Leo Villa, Chief Engineer from Campbell’s Bluebird team - Commuter was push-started into life. The unmistakable crackle of nitro pierced the air and the tiny red dot roared in to view. Densham had just a 300 yard run-up before entering the measured kilometre and by the time he entered it was already pushing 200mph. As he blasted through the traps at the end of it, he had topped 260 mph.
To ratify the record, the team now had to repeat the run in the opposite direction. With just one hour to complete the return pass, time was against them, bearing in mind they would need to check the car over, change the oil and plugs, refuel, repack the chute and get the car in position for the return pass. Thankfully, the team met the deadline, and Densham and Commuter performed faultlessly for a second straight 200mph-plus return pass.
Once the two-way average was calculated, it was clear that at 207.6 mph, they had beaten Bluebird’s previous British flying kilometre record by a healthy margin. It was a fantastic achievement to take the record, and especially at Elvington because of its short unforgiving run up to the measured kilometre. It's even more amazing when you realise that the record has not yet been equalled to this day.
Densham is congratulated by the press and Leo Villa (right)
Even now, some 34 years later, Densham recalls the moment vividly, saying, “While you are in the car waiting to go, you have long enough to wonder why on earth you are doing it, but then it’s too late to do anything about it. It was scary going so fast in such blustery conditions, peering over the tiny screen while trying to keep the car pointing in a straight line. There was also a tremendous sense of achievement having realised we’d taken the record. We’d worked hard to get there, and it goes to show how much you can achieve when you want something so badly.”
Peter Billinton and Tony Densham at Santa Pod, 2003
There was more to follow. After the record breaking runs, the team entered the car at Santa Pod and there it startled everyone with a 205mph quarter mile pass – Commuter had become the first car to top 200mph on a drag strip outside of America. Anthony estimates that the car would have been pulling 1g for the whole quarter mile on this nine second pass.
Commuter had proven itself at the highest level, and in 1971 was retired from racing when Santa Pod Raceway revealed its replacement - the evil-handling Firefly slingshot – but that’s another story. Commuter was quietly forgotten, and rested under a tarpaulin for over 20 years, but it remained in the Billinton family.
Anthony’s long-term aim had always been to restore the car to its former glory, and to his credit, he has done just that. The car had been painted several times in its relatively short, active life, and Anthony was keen to return The Commuter to its original Metalflake paintwork, which was so typical of the era. After removing three coats of various shades of red, he discovered the original paintwork and used this to make drawings and tracings for the repaint, which would also include the original golf-leaf Commuter lettering.
The restoration job was started as long ago as 1993/4, and involved a meticulous tear-down and rebuild to original specification, or better. The specification now includes new, original-style Borrani front rims with Alf Hagon stainless-steel spokes, magnesium American Racing rears covered with new 10.5inch slicks, new chrome-plating on various components, new radius arms, new bell housing and a revised back axle. The 427 motor is irreplaceable, and apart from a clean, paint and polish, remains era-perfect.
The rebuild was completed just in time for The Commuter to be shown at Santa Pod’s 30th anniversary celebrations and at the NSRA Hot Rod Nationals at Knebworth, in 1995. Since then, Anthony has had numerous requests to display the famous car at exhibitions and has received very serious offers from prospective buyers in both the US and Europe. UK drag racing enthusiasts will be pleased to know, however, that as far as Anthony is concerned, The Commuter is staying in this country – indefinitely!
“To put a car like this together wouldn’t cost an awful lot, but it wouldn’t be the same," says Anthony. "This car is unique: it has such a strong heritage, it is a record-holder (McLaren tried to take our record with their F1 road car, but failed) and it has been part of our family since it first turned a wheel. What we’d all really like to do now is put the motor together so that it fires and run up the track under power. Maybe one day we’ll do it.”
One thing is for certain, The Commuter remains one of the best looking slingshot dragsters ever produced – either side of the Atlantic, and with such an illustrious history to boot, the combination is priceless.
Story: Andy Kirk
Photos: Peter & Anthony Billinton