NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

More cool old rear-engine cars

03 Apr 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

My columns a few weeks ago about the transition from front-engine to rear-engine Top Fuelers brought a lot of email and a slew of interesting photos about more of the earliest rear-engine attempts as well as some who took the rear-engine design to the next level with two engines behind the driver.

Lest you think that rear-engine cars started on the dragstrip, or even a paved racecourse of any kind, our ol’ buddy Steve Reyes dredged up a couple of photos to prove otherwise. Above is a car called the Buggly Woggly, which was steam-powered and ran on a half-mile circuit on the beach in Ormond Beach, Fla. (because, of course, there were no dragstrips back then). According to Reyes, the car had two engines -- one attached to each rear wheel -- and had a tiller to steer. Below is the Stanley Steamer-powered rear-engine car driven by Fred Marriott. Dubbed the Rocket, it also raced down the sand, and it set a world record at 127 mph, then flew and crashed at an estimated 150 mph in 1906.


Troy Cagle sent this drag-mag clipping with a photograph of the wild rear-engine fueler driven by his father, Gary, in the mid-1950s. Dubbed Half Fast, it was built by the senior Cagle and Don Hampton. Incorporating a swing-axle suspension and powered by a 353-cid Chrysler, it hit 121.57 at Lions. Cagle also ran a belly tanker at Bonneville that was called Half Fast as well and got him into the 200-mph Club.

Steve Gibbs, whose 75th birthday we’ll be feting (along with the 50th anniversary of Irwindale) Saturday at the NHRA Museum (details), sent these two photos of a rear-engine machine concocted by 1958 Nationals champ Ted Cyr and Emery Cook. His lone comment: “Evil-handling experiment.” I can see that.

I don’t know anything about this car except that there’s no way I would ever drive it. Kind of a similar approach to the Cyr/Cook car with a tricycle-style setup, but with four tires, and treaded ones at that.

Jim Quatrale, of Sterling, Mass., spotted this car at the inaugural NHRA Motorsports Museum New England Hot Rod Reunion presented by AAA Insurance at New England Dragway in 2013. The sign accompanying the display says that it’s a re-creation (by Steve Rutkowski) of the Warren, Coburn & Crowe B/Fuel Dragster, circa 1958-59. That would be the legendary James Warren and Roger Coburn and driver Bob Crowe. The car initially was powered by a 354 Hemi from a Fiat Altered that Coburn ran, which was replaced by a 459 sporting six Stromberg 97s that was linked to a Halibrand Quick Change. The car was dubbed the Chaise Lunge because of the lay-down driver position (sticker on the car: “Lying down on the job works best") and weighed just a tick more than 1,200 pounds. According to Crowe in an interview with Hot Rod, “It went straight and true, except for one sideways trip through the lights.” The car ran for about two seasons and, by all accounts, was a winner. Eventually, the drivetrain went into the team’s twin-engine dragster. Crowe moved on with his own Allison-powered dragster while Warren and Coburn went on to great success as the Ridge Route Terrors of Top Fuel. 


Chet Herbert was no stranger to experimentation, and one of his wildest cars was this rear-engine sidewinder dragster, which ran in 1962 with Zane Shubert at the wheel. The side-mounted 450-cid Chevy channeled power to the axles through three flywheel gears. Shubert has said that the car launched great but randomly would hook hard left or right a couple of hundred feet downtrack, so the car was parked.


This is another weird one, known only to us due to an undated Custom Rodder article. The Cannonball Express, run by Johnny Sableton out of Bay Shore, N.Y., originally was a single-engine car powered by a flathead; Sableton later added a ’55 Chevy V-8 to make this unusual entry.

Twin-engine dragsters are nothing new to drag racing – they were most popular during the front-engine Top Gas heyday and even tried in a few Top Fuel slingshots – but sticking twin engines behind the driver was a whole ‘nother thing. Dennis Friend, who runs the authoritative twin-engine site Two To Go, shared some images and info with me.


This is Don Jensen’s Head Hunter, which he hand-built beginning in late 1955. As you can see, it had an engine both in front of and behind the rear tires. Jensen tried several configurations and powerplants before settling on a pair of 370-horsepower, gas-burning engines, each displacing 364 cubic inches. He set his sights on Fritz Voight’s 141-mph record and easily surpassed it with seven runs in excess of 150 mph, including a best of 155 at California’s Kingdon Dragway in February 1957. After being drafted, he didn’t get back to the strip until the following summer, and his return to Kingdon didn’t go nearly as well; the car rolled at 140 mph, sending both engines bouncing “like basketballs” down the track. Damage to the car was surprisingly limited (and Jensen suffered only a chipped tooth), but the cost of repairing the engines was beyond his means, and he sold the chassis. More at http://twotogo.homestead.com/TTGHistoryDonJensen.html.


Ken Miller, an engineer by trade, built this car, dubbed the Tiller Miller because it featured tiller-style steering using a motorcycle-style front end. The two Pontiac engines were connected in the middle to a one-ton Ford rear end that Miller had fabricated with two pinions, one in each direction. The car, which ran around 1960, only made a few passes, according to his friend Ron Johnson, due to oiling problems with the rear engine that led to failure. Miller simply unbolted the rear chassis/motor assembly and ran the car with one engine.


Rick Clark’s twin, built by him and his dad, had Oldsmobile power.


Friend did not have an ID on the car in the near lane, but you can see the second engine through the tire smoke. That’s the Franks & Funk twin slingshot in the far lane, which dates the image to 1968-69. 


The end of Top Gas (1971) probably came too soon as far as Rico Paris was concerned. Along with his brother, Peter, Paris built this dual-engine Top Gas dragster out of their Rockford, Ill., base. Powered by dual injected 465-cid Hemis on gas, the car was competitive but not capable of outrunning the slingshots, though it did qualify at the last Top Gas race in history, the NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1971. Paris’ son, Dom, restored the car years later and ran it on the nostalgia circuit.  (Steve Reyes photo)


And finally, certainly one of the most heartwarming tales of twin rear-engine lore is the story of this car, owned by Northern Californians Rich Brunelli and Leo Dunn. Dunn had driven the team’s cars, which included front-engine twins in Comp eliminator, before relinquishing the hot seat to Joe Ortega. The twin-Chevy machine had failed to qualify at the 1975 SPORTSnationals at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Kentucky and stopped in Columbus on the way home for the NHRA Springnationals. After qualifying just 15th in Pro Comp, Ortega stunned the field by defeating two of the best in the business: low qualifier Dale Armstrong in the semifinals (pictured) and heavily favored Ken Veney in the final. Dunn was quoted in that week’s National Dragster: “In 20 years of racing, I’ve never even qualified for a national event much less won one.”

OK, that was fun. … I appreciate all of the input and photos. Thanks again for stopping by.