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Early rear-engine iron

16 Mar 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
(Above) "Ollie" Morris' back-motor Smokin' White Owl debuted in 1954 and tore up Southern California strips. (Below) Morris, right, and sponsor Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, worked on the car's flathead powerplant (inset).
The car got its nickname from its cylindrical shape and white paint, which reminded some of White Owl cigars, though he was never sponsored by the company.

Although the topic the last few weeks has been the 1970-72 transition from front-engine slingshot to rear-engine dragster in Top Fuel, I got quite a few inquiries and suggestions about other rear-engine cars that predated those discussed in the last two columns.

You don’t have to look through too many Hot Rod magazines from the 1954-55 era to see plenty of dragsters with the engine behind the driver. I even spied future Indy car hero A.J. Foyt at the wheel of Ray Harrelson’s rear-engine belly tanker dragster, which set top speed (121.73 mph) at the Safety Safari’s stop in El Paso, Texas, in the summer of 1955, and just from the photos I’ve perused, at least a half-dozen were at the first Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, including late-round finisher Harrelson’s Motor Reco Special, the Green Monster #5 of Walt and Art Arfons, and one of the most famous early rear-engine cars, the Smokin’ White Owl of George “Ollie” Morris, a car that’s truly worthy of our attention here.

Morris, a Navy veteran, spent his first years after World War II track racing and spent way too much time fixing bent chassis and tweaked body parts from numerous collisions, so when the famed Southern California dragstrip opened in Santa Ana in 1950, Morris took to the straight-line course, first with partner Harold Dawson with a hot-running B/Roadster that went 128 mph. To save weight, they removed the firewall, which led to the occasional oil bath. It didn’t take long for him to get that mess behind him – literally.

In 1953, Morris and Bruce Terry built the Smokin’ White Owl in his backyard, using '29 Ford framerails from his roadster, then added a hand-formed aluminum body that was ingeniously designed using a bathtub as an ad hoc wind tunnel. He’d make up scale models of his body design and push them through the water using a stick and observe the turbulence.

The car’s cylindrical body and white paint scheme reminded people of the White Owl brand of cigars and led to the car’s nickname, but he was never sponsored by the company. Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, was his primary backer.

The car notwithstanding, Morris himself already had a few nicknames, including “the Mad Chemist of Baker Street” (where he lived in Santa Ana), due to his experimentations with fuel. His favorite concoction was 97 percent nitro with dashes of methane, ethyl ether, hydrazine, and, finally, benzene, which he used to mask the scent of the other four and earned him his other nickname, “Stinky,” which he celebrated by painting a skunk on his racing helmet.

Initial motivation for the 1,550-pound machine was a 275-cid flathead engine backed by a ’41 Ford side-shift manual transmission, but by 1955, he switched to the new Chevrolet overhead-valve V-8. Smith was so successful at Santa Ana that he was able to turn his winnings into better parts, trading in dozens of trophies (at $5 a pop) to track manager C.J. Hart to buy a quick-change rear end and a better magneto. The car consistently ran more than 140 mph and won a ton of races against the likes of Calvin Rice, the Bean Bandits, and Jack Chrisman, the latter two of whom ultimately also built rear-engine cars.

Morris’ talents caught the eye of Fred Offenhauser Sr., and Morris ultimately became the head engineer for Offenhauser Equipment Corp. During his 30 years with the company, he designed some of its most successful products, including the Dual-Port 360, Dial-A-Flow, Port-O-Sonic, TurboThrust, and EquaFlow 360, and he worked with Carroll Shelby on the intake manifolds used in the 1960s Shelby Mustangs. He died in June 2008, at the age of 81, and left behind an incredible legacy.

A re-creation of Don Garlits' first rear-engine car, built in 1957.

Lest you think that “Big Daddy” arrived late to the rear-engine party in 1971, he and brother Ed, inspired by the success of Morris’ machine, set out to build their own similar car in 1957. Using Ford-T framerails and a 371-cid Oldsmobile engine, they built a high-gear-only machine that had a wheelbase of 100 inches. Ed sat in a surplus aircraft seat just inches ahead of the engine.

They never could get the car to go straight. In its maiden outing at the old airfield in Dunnellon, Fla., the car made hard right turns on back-to-back passes, carrying Ed off the track. They took it home, and at the suggestion of round-track friends, they quickened the steering and returned a few weeks later to Dunnellon, where the car did the exact same thing. The last time, Ed just barely missed hitting two parked cars and threw up his hands in disgust and surrender. “Big Daddy” also wanted no part of driving the evil little car, so they hauled it home and disassembled it, and eventually all of the pieces were lost. The car was re-created in the early 2000s and sits in Garlits’ museum.

The Coleman Bros. rear-engine car

Dennis Friend, proprietor of the Two-To-Go website, passed along a link to a recent eBay auction (since closed) for the Coleman Bros.' rear-engine dragster. According to the information accompanying the auction, the car was built by the Coleman Bros. Speed Shop out of Baltimore around 1960 using a Scotty Fenn/Chassis Research FL44 model and “shattered track records throughout the East Coast on its first three outings. On Sept. 23, 1961, driver Earl Howard broke 180 mph at an 8.91 e.t. at York U.S. 30 Dragway. Afterward Drag News proclaimed it to be the world’s fastest Chevy.

“In 1964, owner Duane Reynolds moved out west to Seattle, and it was raced at Arlington, Puyallup, and many other West Coast dragstrips. Sometime around 1965, the frame had been extended from the front spring perch some 48 inches. In this configuration, several drag papers stated times in the 8.70s and runs over 190 as late as 1967, which is around when it last ran.”

(Above) The Jones-Malliard-Chrisman rear-engine sidewinder was a terror in 1959. (Below) Jack Chrisman, far lane, took A/Dragster class honors with the car at the 1959 Nationals, defeating Don Hampton in Kenny Lindley’s Miss Fire III in the final.
The Mag-Winder never ran as good as it looked.

One of the wildest early rear-engine dragsters was the Chuck Jones and Joe Malliard-Chrisman sidewinder, which did some real damage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The car was actually a hand-me-down from Paul Nicolini, who had built the car in 1957 with his father-in-law, Harry Duncan, a wealthy Southern California contractor. After enough bent axles, broken chain drives, and aborted runs, in 1959, he sold the car to Jones, who was well-known in drag racing circles as a fuel coupe racer at Santa Ana and managing editor for Drag News.

Jones brought Malliard, who owned a machine shop in Long Beach, into the picture along with third partner Jack Reed. Jack Chrisman, a well-respected wheelman whose best days still lay ahead, was tapped to drive the car, having earlier wheeled some rear-engine cars.

With a supercharged Chrysler for power, the car won almost from its inception and even set the NHRA national record at 9.11 in May 1959. A second version was built, and Chrisman took A/Dragster class honors and nearly won the 1959 Nationals in Detroit.

Kent Fuller was hired to build a third version, lighter and longer. They commissioned Fuller to build the car using magnesium tubing instead of chrome moly and covered with a full streamlined body (made of both magnesium and aluminum by Wayne Ewing), leading to the car's name, the Mag-Winder. The car weighed just more than 1,400 pounds race-ready. It debuted in late 1960 and ran fast but never was as successful as its predecessors. The car was campaigned infrequently; Chrisman, meanwhile, had moved on to Howard Johansen's camp and the Howard Cam Twin Bears gas dragster, with which he won the inaugural Winternationals in 1961.

Paul Shapiro lit the M&Hs in the Cohen-Shapiro-Sonnenblick-O’Brien Israeli Rocket at Miami’s Masters Field, a Marines airfield used for mid-1960s drags. This was an early shot, with the blown Olds for power. Steering was rack-and-pinion with aluminum front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter. (Bill Bussart photo)
Shapiro left on Bob Hamilton’s Southern Pride AA/D at NHRA's Division 2 WCS event at Masters Field (note future NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch in middle). Hamilton’s former Garlits Swamp Rat V took the Top Eliminator win. The Rocket had bests of 8.46 at 185.50 in 1965 and won many Top Eliminator titles in Florida during the mid-1960s. (Bill Bussart photo)

Jim Hill, one of the Insider’s great sources of Southeast drag racing knowledge, passed along information about another great early rear-engine car, this one a Top Gasser from the mid-1960s known as the Israeli Rocket (long before Funny Car driver Leroy Goldstein had the nickname). According to Hill, the car recorded legitimate numbers (on certified Chrondek timers) of 8.46 at 185.50 mph, which were pretty good for 1964-65.

The diverse team consisted of driver Paul Shapiro, engine builder and tuner Howard Cohen, and partners Mike Sonnenblick and Tom O'Brien. According to Hill, the car's cowl carried a green shamrock and a Star of David, and this diverse group humorously called itself "Three Jews and an Irishman." The group had previously raced together, running a blown Olds-powered dragster and later the same Olds engine in an A/Roadster.

“The car was very soundly engineered and had many unique features not found on dragsters of the day,” Hill noted. “It was entirely homebuilt and boasted front rack-and-pinion steering (with the steer ratio slowed way down, for control), lightweight aluminum disc front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter, and loads of aircraft technology, components, and fasteners. As for handling, the car always went like it was on rails and never exhibited any of the spooky stuff that cursed early back-engine attempts.”

According to Hill, Shapiro, a certified aircraft weldor, assembled the chassis from 4130 chromoly and gas-welded the components. Cohen had degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Miami and built and tuned the big-inch Dodge. Shapiro and Sonnenblick both worked in the aviation maintenance industry at MIA. O'Brien was an elevator technician with a local Miami company. All four were dedicated drag racers, albeit, part-time, weekends-only types.

“As all had successful businesses or careers, they were unable to travel outside the Southeast, so the car was never actually tested at the NHRA national level,” Hill added. “It did challenge for and take the Standard 1320 Drag News Top Gas No. 6 spot in January 1965. Shapiro defeated Cleveland, Ohio's Dick Vest at Fort Myers, Fla.'s Buckingham Drag Strip to take the No. 6 spot. They later defended the 6 spot against Lanier Dickerson in the Tampa-based Blue Mist. In 1965, they ran off a string of six Top Eliminator wins in a row at Palm Beach Int'l Raceway, but business and work commitments prevented their venturing much outside their Florida area.”
 
The team's initial choice of power was Oldsmobile, topped by a chain-driven 6-71 blower and four-hole Hilborn injector, which was later replaced by a 480-cid Dodge B wedge engine that used a unique fuel-injection system made by Dayton, Ohio's Dr. Pete Orner. It was with this combination that it recorded its best numbers. The wedge Dodge carried ported heads obtained from the Ramchargers by Cohen's Tampa friend, a fellow by the name of Don Garlits, who had knowledge of these engines, having run one in Top Gas at the 1962-63 NHRA Nationals, before NHRA’s fuel ban was lifted in 1964.

According to Hill, Cohen still lives in the Miami area, and O'Brien and Sonnenblick survive. Shapiro passed away several years ago. After a search for authentic parts, the car was reassembled and is now on display at Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla.

Another of my great historic sources, Bret Kepner, weighed in with his pick for the first “modern” rear-engine car, (“whatever THAT means!”), citing Bob Lindwall’s Chicago-based Re-Entry car, which Wayne Hill drove. “It was, without argument, the first rear-engined Top Fuel car over 200 mph, having performed the feat at multiple tracks in 1966, including its 201.34 mph crash at Indy,” he stated.

To bolster his claim, Kepner pointed out that the car used a three-point roll bar, a spaced-tubing frame design, and drag-link steering. “Without its body panels, the car would not look too different than the 1969-1970 versions of Widner, Foster, Ong, Schacker, or Garlits.” he asserted.

At right is a great video of the car losing to Noel Mauer in the Mauer & Willis Iowa dragster in the second round of the 1966 World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova. According to Kepner, Hill had already qualified at 200.44 and ran 202.24 to defeat Doc Halladay in the Kinn, Manke & Halladay rig in the opening round. 

The rear-engine transition story would not be complete without more information on Bernie Schacker, who, as mentioned last week, had one of the earliest rear-engine Top Fuelers. Thanks to the ever-faithful Insider Nation, and Alex Ardizzone in particular, I was able to finally talk to Schacker a few days ago.

Schacker, an electrician in his mid-30s with four kids at the time, probably seems an unlikely candidate to make history, but I have confirmed that he indeed did make the first six-second clocking in a rear-engine dragster in mid-1970 and that he had been campaigning his car all that season, well before Garlits’ much-publicized accident with his front-engine car.

Schacker, who began tinkering with cars after getting out of the Navy, is a self-taught hot rodder who built his own race cars, including the historic rear-engine car. He had been competing in Top Fuel since the mid-1960s with front-engine cars and, despite their bad reputation, “didn’t see any reason why a rear-engined car wouldn’t work, and it certainly would be safer,” he said. To prove it to himself and others, he converted his final front-engine car to a rear-engine design by welding additional tubing behind the roll cage and moving the engine from his lap to behind his head. He used the exact drivetrain from the front-engine car, which is why the engine was so close to the rear tires, and the same steering ratio as the slingshot.

“People thought [rear-engine] cars were hard to drive because the driver wasn’t oriented to the attitude of the car and didn’t know when the car was out of shape," he said. "The first time I drove mine, at New York National [Speedway] during the week, I clipped a piston and got oil under the tires, but I knew exactly where I was. I was really happy to debunk that theory.”

This was all taking place at about the same time that Woody Gilmore debuted his ill-fated first rear-engine car, and when Pat Foster stacked up Gilmore’s car on one of its first runs, folks scoffed at Schacker’s efforts, too.

“My fellow racers thought I was nuts at first; they were writing my obituary,” he recalled with a laugh. “But everyone was interested in it because it was so different. Back then, the front-engined cars all pretty much looked the same.”

Schacker’s car also was outfitted with a rear wing from the outset, which also was a first.

Later that year, Schacker sold the car to Red Lang, of Dead End Kids fame, and continued to drive for the team through the 1971 U.S. Nationals, where they qualified but were unable to make eliminations due to engine damage.

Schacker was in and out of racing for more than a decade, dabbling here and there, but made a big splash in the late 1980s with a streamlined Top Alcohol Dragster that, naturally, he built himself with partner Rod Abrams. Inspired by the Top Fuel streamliners of Garlits, Gary Ormsby, and others, Schacker designed and built his car – including the body -- with an eye toward their slippery designs but with a shorter wheelbase of about 220 inches and some Funny Car ideas.

“It had a torsion-bar front suspension that I built, and the car handled real nice – it was smooth as glass at the top end -- but we were breaking a lot of motors, so we never really found out what it could do,” he lamented. “We wanted to go to A/Fuel, but the car was too heavy, so we parked it.”

Looking back over these past few columns, it’s clear that it was a long road to the success and acceptance of the rear-engine dragster as a viable and reliable design and that a lot of racers had a hand in bringing Top Fuel to its current state. Remember them the next time you’re sitting in the stands watching the cars practically defy the laws of physics. I’ll see you next week.