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TV Tommy Ivo - Part 2
TV Tommy Ivo - Part 2
Did you build your own cars?
TI. At one time, I had a chassis shop and we built about 10 cars for other people – including the car we brought to England. We built one that was 150 inches long, and when I pulled on the brake, the frame rails were so close together the engine pan would drop down and hit the ground. I came to the conclusion it was just too long and that no one would be able to build cars of this length, so I went back to 124 inches. Now, of course, they’re 300 inches long, but the configuration is a lot different.
Tommy's first dragster was built in 1958 and was the world's quickest gas dragster when the NHRA banned nitro. The red and white '55 Buick in the background is the car he used to win his first drag racing trophy - which led to this dragster
When did you build the twin-engined car?
TI. It was the first car I toured the country with, and it was built in 1959-60. Some tracks back East said they needed to get some West Coast cars to run there. I always tried to build pretty-looking cars, and they always got good coverage in the magazines, so they became well known. As a result, I’d get calls from track promoters asking me to go back East to run, so that’s what I did, and got paid $500 per stop.
Ivo toured the US with this twin-engine dragster
A lucky escape for Ivo after running off the track - that's Don Prudhomme walking next to the dragster
While we were touring, I had a nice kid working with me who had painted my race cars – he was just a good buddy of mine. While we were touring, I suggested to him he should try drag racing, as it was a lot of fun, and I lent him my first single-engined car, which I still had in the garage. The young guy’s name was Don Prudhomme, and that’s how he got started in drag racing. That was in 1960, and from there he went on to become the awesome “Snake”.
I sold the twin-engined car while on tour, and went back home thinking there was going to be some business coming through my door, as the fans had jammed those drag strips. I thought, “Boy, if they like two motors, they’ll love four.” I always liked to do things different.
That said, the four-motored dragster, christened “Showboat”, was easy. After I had gotten the knack of running multi engined cars with the twin, we made a V16, by putting two motors together at the crankshaft with direct drive through a clutch on the back of the rear motor to an offset rear end with unequal length axles. Then we put the other two motors in backwards, so the clutch was at the front, which drove through another differential. We took the ring gear and moved it to the other side of the pinion, which made it run backwards - but was now forwards. We used four 401 Buick nailheads bored and stroked to 464cu in, and they developed about 1800 hp.
Ivo on the Margie TV set with his latest creation
The trickiest piece to get our hands on was a Halibrand quick-change diff. An Indianapolis car called a Novi Special was the first front-wheel drive car at Indy, and it used this special Halibrand item. There were only six made, and I bought the only two spares. I was always afraid of breaking them.
The idea of putting two engines in backwards and two forwards was to minimise the torque effect. When you sit in a regular automobile and hit the accelerator, the motor usually rocks to the right a little. Well, in the four-motor car, both engines torqued upwards, so when you hit the throttle on the start line, the car would torque upward. It was a strange sensation. If you backed off, you’d come down, so you would get the sensation of bouncing the car up and down with the throttle – it was a strange kinda drive. When you buried your foot, the front tyres would just engulf you in smoke. You couldn’t see for about 50 feet, until you got a little wind blowing. The exhausts running down the centre helped a little bit, too. If you really wanted to, you could smoke the tyres for 200 yards! It was steered by a one-ton, 4x4 army truck front axle that we’d fitted.
The four-engine car in full smoke-em! mode
When we built the car, the NHRA saw how successful the twin-engined car had been, and they were worried that if this new four-engined car was equally good, it might start a new trend. They were also worried about the guardrails withstanding an impact from a 4000lb four-motored car. In the end, the NHRA allowed me to run the car, but they wouldn’t let anyone else build one, so that was the end of my great marketing idea. However, it did work in my favour as a marketing tool as I owned the “one and only” four engined car.
When did you switch careers?
TI. I had started to do the Margie series in 1961 when the four-motored car was built, and Hot Rod magazine wanted to take some pictures of it for their cover right outside Margie’s house. I had told the studio I did a little drag racing from time to time, but when they saw the four-engined car, they said, “Well, it’s time to make up your mind which career path you want, as we can’t endorse your racing.”
I got out of the movie business when I was 26. I was playing the part of a 17-year-old high school kid called Haywood Botts – a 10-thumbed bumbling boyfriend – in the Margie show. When we lost the series in ’62, I was jumping up and down in my dressing room saying, “Boy oh boy! I get to go racing.“
I’d done movies for 20 years, so drag racing was new and exciting. I was about 5 ft 9 ½ inches tall and weighed 115 lb – all breath and britches – and they’d tease me about running around in the shower to get wet. At school, I was always the last guy in line to be picked at gym class, and that was an insult, but with drag racing, I could strap on my Robocop outfit and go punch it out with the big guys. I took to it like a duck to water.
The summer reruns were on TV, and at weekends I’d be off driving my race car. Of course, the networks would advertise on TV that Haywood from the Margie show was going to be in town with his race car, and they kinda picked up on the idea that I was a rich millionaire playboy movie star who also drove race cars, and that I had guys fixing cars for me all the time. It was a good PR thing for the public, but in reality, I built all of my cars. I enjoyed the mechanical part of it more than the driving.
It was an interesting period in my life because, at the time, I was a flourishing, working actor. Now I’ve got a comfortable retirement out of it and a health plan, which kinda shows how serious I took it.
When did you retire from drag racing?
TI. I didn’t really want to drive that four-motor car, but for my 30th anniversary, I thought it would be slick to take it out and run it around, as it was sort of my signature car. Every time people did a story on me, they’d mention the four-motor dragster, as it was so unusual. I built the car with Kent Fuller originally as a dragster and then sold it. The new owner had Tom Hanna create a Buick station wagon, Riviera-style body for it in aluminium, and the car was renamed Wagon-Master.
So we took the Wagon-Master out for my 30th anniversary tour, and on my third stop, which was in Saskatchewan in Canada, we had a frost heave on the track that lifted up the surface. The problem was, you didn’t see it until you drove over it. Well, the car was solid sprung and it was like driving a 200-mph Sherman tank. I ran across that bump, the car bottomed out and the concussion of hitting the ground crushed three vertebrae in my back. That spelled the end of my drag racing career, in 1982.
It’s been almost a quarter of a century since I set foot in a car, and you tend to lose touch with people. That’s what’s so nice about the reunions – you get the chance to meet up with lots of friends you haven’t seen in ages. The little thorn in my side, though, is that people often don’t realise I was the guy who screwed the cars together. We didn’t have crew members and crew-chiefs, and people like that, when I was drag racing. You did it yourself. I largely built, drove and tuned my cars – I think it was only Garlits and I who did that sort of thing way back when.
What happened to all of your old cars?
TI. I had 36 cars in 12 different classes over a 30-year period. We had one, two and four-motored dragsters, funny cars, jet cars and roadsters. That was what was so much fun – we kept changing, and we also ran research and development programmes.
Not only did Ivo build the first side-by-side twin engined car, but he created a twin in-line version too
Ivo revealed this beautiful streamliner in 1965. The car was designed by Steve Swaja - Tony Nancy's pit man for the England trip.
Another mount which appeared late '65 was this novel, winged T/F dragster
Ivo smokes the hides at the 1966 NHRA Winternationals
Another shot of the Chartrous car at Bakersfield in 1966
The aptly named Giraffe T/F dragster of 1967
Ivo liked to do things in style and it doesn't get any better than this 1969 combo. The Corvette went on the roof of the truck!
Ivo the showman was the "king of the fire burnouts" circa '72
Once a showman....Ivo gives the fans their money's worth in 1973
The beautiful "Sikora" built dragster of 1974 before.........
.............giving Ivo this wild ride
Ivo aboard his Rod Shop T/F dragster in 1975
The Rod Shop-backed Duster funny car of 1976
Another wild ride for Ivo in 1978 when he was tagged at the top end of the track
Ivo gets ready for blast off in his 1981 jet dragster
I don’t own any of my cars now, as every car I built would be sold to support the build of a new one. Of the 36 cars, I only know where four of them are. The twin-engined car is in the Garlits museum in Florida, the original T-bodied roadster and four-motored car are in the NHRA museum in Pomona, and a guy in Boston owns my last front-motored car, which is being restored to run in cacklefests.
Tommy and his three car exhibit at the NHRA museum, Pomona for the 50th Anniversary celebration of the NHRA
Life has been good to me, and I don’t think I’d trade the good times we had for the money and the pressure that the top fuel racers have now.
I had the phone call of my life in January. They called from Detroit and told me I was going to be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame www.mshf.com in August. That took the wind out of my sails. A little akin to someone dropping a house on you, but I'm going to enjoy this one for all it's worth.
It's a humbling experience to say the least and the crowning experience of my life! I've come so close to the top so many times --- but just not quite there. I speak of this from the "In my own heart" point of view. But with this latest turn of events, I'm now able to see what the view looks like from the top of the mountain ---- and it's breathtaking!!!
When I was five years old in Denver, Colorado, where I was born, I use to peddle my "sidewalk peddle car" as fast as I could go, and I use to tell everyone that I was racer Barney Oldfield. Now, 63 years and a life time later, I'm in the Motorsports Hall of Fame with him. Now that's something special.
Tommy at the 2004 CHRR proudly displaying the prototype metal model of his twin-engined car by GMP, which has just gone on sale. The four-motored car is to follow later this year
Story: Tommy Ivo & Andy Kirk
Photos: Tommy Ivo collection