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A Munstrously Good Time

22 Dec 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Here's a fun little extended follow up to the Fun with Fotos article that revolves around the '60s TV show The Munsters. Brendan Tobin was among those who chastised me for not remembering that it wasn’t Herman that Grandpa raced at Lions Dragstrip (er, I mean, Mockingbird Heights Drag Strip) in that famous episode, "Hot Rod Herman," that originally aired May 27, 1965.

According to Tobin, Grandpa had to build the coffin-based "Dragula" dragster to win back the infamous Munster Koach that Herman had lost racing "Leadfoot" Baylor, the father of Sandy, one of Eddie's classmates and a local drag racing legend on the show (played by character actor Henry Beckman).

Eddie had bragged that Herman could beat "Leadfoot," and Herman Herman's wife, Lily, begged him not to race, but Herman, dressed for  all the world like Marlon Brando and affecting a New York accent, famously replied,  "I just can't, uh, fight it chick. I, uh, gotta get out there and drag it with the gassers. Otherwise, I might blow my cool."

Grandpa, driving the Dragula, beats Leadfooot, in the Koach, to win the race, but the fun doesn’t end there.

"Leadfoot stole Grandpa's chute and Dragula went up and down the track repeatedly until Herman grabbed the rear bumper and skidded the car to a halt using his giant shoes," recalls Tobin. "It's one of the funniest racing shows ever filmed."

I spent some time to try to find out more about the episode and the cars and, naturally, there are entire Web pages dissociated to these well-remembered vehicles – both built by custom-rodding maven George Barris -- including one that offers specs.

The Munster Koach (two of which were made) was first built in 1964 and cost $18,000 to produce; the second was built in 1985, led by Dick Dean of Barris' original build team. The high cost of the first Koach was probably attributable to the fact that a) the studio only gave Barris 21 days to build it and b) much of the work was very custom and done by hand. The brass radiator and fenders were hand formed and it took 500 hours alone to make the ornate rolled-steel scrollwork.

The Koach, designed by Tom Daniel, was built by Barris' gang from three '27 Model T bodies and was 18 feet long. The 133-inch frame was made by hand and the front end had a dropped axle, split radius rods, and T springs. The paint was Black Spyder Pearl with gold leaf trim (40 hand-rubbed coats!) and the interior was, naturally, "blood red" velvet "coffin liner." Interior goodies included a Muntz stereo tape deck, an electric shoe polisher, a Sony TV, and two antique French telephones. A special Autolite electrical system was needed to make these extras operative.

Power came from a 289 Cobra engine bored to 425 cid and fitted with Jahns high-compression pistons, an Isky cam. Ten -- count 'em, 10! – chrome-plated Stromberg carburetors sat atop a Mickey Thompson "ram thrust log" manifold (though Dean later revealed that "the carbs were phony. There was a 4 barrel carb under the box.") Bobby Barr Racing headers exited the spent gasses. Power was channeled through a four-speed manual transmission. TV Guide actually did some performance tests on the Koach in Jan. 1964 and reported a 0-60 time of 10-flat. Not too scary; no wonder Herman lost.

According to an April 1965 article in Model Car Science magazine, Barris used "an Ansen posi-shift 30-inch stick with four on the floor coupled to a 4:11 rear end for the sporty drive train. A front dago dropped axle and split radius bars held by T springs, and the Z'd frame with Model A springs and Traction Master stabilizers competently take care of any road condition. The wild new M. T. 11-inch racing slicks, mounted on wide-dumped Astro chrome spoke wheels give the Koach plenty of bite off the line."

Dragula also was designed by Daniel and built by Barris, featuring a antique gold fiberglass coffin (from Owens-Corning) trimmed inside with royal purple velvet silk atop a tube frame chassis.  According to an old interview with Dean, who died this past July, four Dragulas were built and the original car hangs from the ceiling in the Planet Hollywood in Atlantic City, N.J. "The first coffin was obtained from the prop shop and was first used in the movie Some Like It Hot," he said. "The next three I got from Mexico as you can't buy them in the States without a dead body."

The Dragula was powered by a 289-cid 350-horse V-8 Mustang with twin 4-barrel carbs feeding a 4-speed stick. Eleven-inch inch Firestone slicks on Reynolds aluminum Rader drag wheels hooked the Dragula, which was steered up front by Speedsport English buggy wire wheels on four-inch Italian tires. (Herman also raced the Dragula in the 1966 film, Munster Go Home, in which the family went to England after inheriting a mansion there.)

Sadly, no big-name dragster drivers were employed for the runs at The Beach; stunt driving was credited to Jerry Summers and Carey Loftin.