The Dragster story by Al Howlett

Dragster

The Dragster 1955 –57 - Part One, Building of the chassis by Al Howlett / 2018

A regular club meeting at the Delta Park clubhouse on October 18 1955 resulted in a proposal that the club look into the possibility of building a dragster. It was decided it would be a club project and volunteers for the project were called for. The following members volunteered to assist in the project. Bob Dykeman, Ron Silk, Frank Trevor, Jim Watson, Tom Williams, Andy Marsh, Bob Young and Al Howlett. This would prove to be a continuing topic at subsequent meetings in the weeks and months ahead.

It should be noted that sometime later in 1955-56 the idea of a dragster rail job was dropped in favor of a competition Coupe. A donation fund was set up to purchase a 1932 Ford 5 window coupe for this project. Bob Young was negotiating this purchase but the chap who owned decided not to sell. So it would seem that the idea of a rail job took hold once more. From then onwards it was scrounge the necessary parts and material to build a rail job. Jim Watson obtained all new tubing through his job connections at Royal Metal manufacturing. It would be prudent to slip over to the plant dock just across Dundas Street, rather late to pick up the tubing. The tubing cost 31$.

The matter of engine choice was debated and a Ford flat head was considered. Someone had an Arden hemi conversion for the Ford engine and all the parts for this arrived on site. Doug Lovegrove who was a mechanic at the local Chrysler dealer had other ideas and as a result a DeSoto hemi was obtained from an auto wrecking yard in Hamilton. Doug had access to tools and parts for this. The rare complicated Arden was sold to some stock car guys.

Dragster

Doug Lovegrove became one of the major tuner and wrench twisters in the project from then on. As the rail took shape a lot of others became interested and joined in. Dave Beattie, Harold Dale, John Corbett, Bob Drew, Norm Whitlaw, Doug Crawford and many others whose names have faded from memory. Two young lads showed up on their bicycles one day and were invited to join in to help out. They later became members of the club. Skip Mathieson and Keith Rowsell

I don’t recall where most of the engine parts came from but Gray Yanocko had become a honorary club member and may well have had a hand in this. I do remember ordering a Vertex magneto from the builder of these units in Europe. The mags were used on the Hemi’s in industrial power plants or water pumps back then.

During this time the club was involved in many other events and organizations. Some of this involved setting up drag racing at Kohler near Cayuga. Four members Frank Trevor, Bob Young, Gray Yanocko and Al Howlett convened a meeting with L B Mellenbacker at his home in Kohler to see if it would be possible to use the Kohler airstrip for drag racing. LB and his friend James Allen the treasurer of Ontario sat there looking at these young guys with the big ideas. But they did consent to the idea and the rest is another history story.

Dragster

The Strokers club had some shop tools for use by the members. Buzz box welder, oxy acetylene torch, drills, grinders, floor jack plus an assortment of hand tools. Besides that we could also borrow tools from members and friends needed for building of the dragster chassis and body that would come in the second year of building.

The costs of building were assessed to club members as an addition to the regular club dues. And as you might expect this caused some friction and hazing those who were a little tardy in paying. For the most part this was not a big problem as there was a lot of interest in the project. The resourceful members got a lot of materials and parts to help out by the method of scrounging the scrap yards and bins at their workplace. Aluminum signs and steel rods to name just a few that arrived for use. Many people contributed spare parts such as axles, wheels and steering to the project.

Plans of any formal nature were not available. Most of this was by discussion with ideas coming from various individuals with some experience and mechanical ability. Of course some of it was by guess and by gosh with a lot of work added in. In those days you would or could not run over to the local speed shop and order a kit of parts to build a dragster. Reading hot rod magazines you could get some ideas on the type of build you wanted.

Some bends were needed in the tube frame so the necessary lengths of straight tube were cut and filled with sand for bending. After heating red-hot the pipe was wrapped around any convent object to hand. One such bend resulted in a late night call to the fire department to put out a blaze on a nearby telephone pole. Of course what caused the fire was a complete mystery.

Dragster

A trailer was needed to transport the dragster and club members using scrounged and purchased materials built this. Some of the metal work was done at a local industry, after hours, using bending and forming machines.

A lot of midnight oil was burned building the rail in the clubhouse. This late night work was sometimes rather disturbing to the neighbors who would call the police to complain. A portable (borrowed) welding generator roaring away at midnight was not appreciated. On one occasion the dragster was loaded on the trailer and taken to a nearby grocery parking lot to complete the job; so we could head for Kohler the next morning. This lot was also used to test out the engine a couple of times.

The dragster sporting a small cowl section was first taken to Kohler in 1957. There were a number of trips and the race results were not often a full success due to things breaking or due to a lack of engineering. At first a full width Ford rear axle was used but was later narrowed. The fuel feed system was a small vacuum tank from a Prefect car pressurized by a hand pump on the dash; The tank was not large enough and we kept running out of gas. And so the learning curve went on in the early days but the members forged ahead with improvements as events dictated.

Dragster


The Dragster 1957-58 - Part Two, Building of the fiberglass body by Al Howlett / 2018

Most of us that were involved with the building of the Strokers dragster thought that we could with a little work create a streamlined body for the dragster by using fiberglass. At that time there were other dragsters mostly in California using this medium to create cars more streamlined. One of these was the Glass Slipper. This car still exists today, now in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, and was our inspiration to make a body for the dragster.

Glass Slipper

"The Glass Slipper Fuel and Gas Dragster was the first enclosed canopy, fiberglass bodied dragster. It was the fastest Chevy powered dragster at the NHRA Nats in Kansas City in 1956. In 1957 it won the Oakland Roadster show in the America’s Most Beautiful Competition Car. It continued to be a consistent winner through 1962."

Several of us were acquainted with Ron Coleman who was in the business of making fiberglass canoes. We had looked in at his shop and had observed the process of making a fine durable canoe. Knowing what we now wanted, we decided to build a mold using wire mesh over a shape created by ¼ inch rods welded temporarily to the dragster frame. A visitor from England came by the club shop one day to see what we were doing. It turned out he was an engineer involved with Formula One Racing over there. He gave us a lot of advice about aerodynamics improving a cars performance. One thing mentioned was a full belly pan. Andy Marsh who had tin bending skills said he could do this using aluminum over a tube frame.

Dragster

The project got off to a good start in late 1957. We had located some light channel rods that were ideal for forming the support for the belly pan. I welded these to the frame after bending them to shape. Andy did the installation work on the belly pan with aluminum from signs formerly on a coal dealer’s fence. Meanwhile work was ongoing on the nose and upper body shape with the ¼ inch rods and plasterers wire mesh wired to the rods that outlined the shape.

We used some plaster of Paris over the mesh but found it dripped through the mesh and was hard to get the correct shape before it set up. It was suggested that plasters often reinforced plaster with horsehair to prevent this happening. Well the horses had long since left the stable that we were working in and a better method was needed. There has been a rumor that we used hair from a club member’s barbershop. Not so.

Powdered Asbestos was the answer and when mixed with water took a long time to set up; therefore making it easy to work to shape. The surface was scraped to shape using an assortment of tools. Old garden hose was used to make the rolled edges of the mold. When this was completed we had a male mold. The normal method would have been to make a secondary female mold of this. However we thought we could do the job without going this extra step.

Dragster

We went over to Guelph to the city dump and scrounged fiberglass that was made in Guelph and the ends were discarded in the dump. This was all mat and no cloth turned up. The resin and catalyst was bought from Ron Coleman and this is what we layered up on the male mold. We took steps to keep the outside surface as smooth as possible. Knowing that it would take a lot of sanding to make the finish smooth. The result was a shell that was very thick. It would have been better if we had used some mat and cloth. There is quite an art to fiberglass construction but being novices I think we did quite well considering the body is going to be used after lying in the bush for 60 years.

I used this same method to build a tilt hood for my 1933 Ford rod, but kept it thinner.

There you have the method we used to build the body. There were a few adjustments to some of the panels and nose section. I am amazed that the amateur work we did building the body lasted for so long. Fiberglass tends to continue hardening for a long time. This results in a crazed surface as time goes on; but maybe our use of minimal catalyst helped to preserve it.

The purple paint that I used was a color to match the jackets the club members all wore. Barton’s men’s wear had the jackets made in leather dyed to a reddish purple, as this was the clubs official color. The plaques we attached to our cars were also this color. A club member hand painted the Strokers logo on the body.

Dragster

Sometime in about 1958 or later and maybe after the popular Purple People Eater song came out; an offer to paint the car in flames was accepted from Choc & Johns custom car shop in Kitchener. This was a very nice piece of work, however personally I much preferred the all purple paint job.

Dragster

One regret that I have is that there were and to my knowledge no pictures of this build process taken. But we must remember that digital photography was not around in those days. Each slide film or print picture could cost up to 1$ and we needed all our money for building our hot rods.

We did take the car to several car shows in London and Hamilton and won some trophies for our work. In London an artist who did line painting decorated some of the purple paint for us. The Hamilton show was in the Copps arena and took place on boards over the ice surface. We wanted to have a nice display so Frank Trevor rented some palm trees for this. After the show the trees were returned to the florist who discovered that the palm trees did not take kindly to sitting for a couple of days on top of the ice. Must have been poor stock or something?

Dragster

In part three, I will share my memories of the dragster going to the races and the final end of this special project of the Galt Strokers.


The Dragster 1958-61 - Part Three, The Drag Races by Al Howlett / 2018

This was a time of triumphs and defeats. I wish I had more information from this time but as usual photos and records are sketchy. However it was a time of trying to keep interest among the members and sufficient cash on hand for upgrades and repairs for operation.

During this period the Strokers like some other clubs tried their hand at running our own drags event at Kohler. The idea was to make a little money to help run the dragster plus keep members involved in drag racing. We did run several races sometimes with another club. The Barrie Challengers was one of these. It was noted in the club minutes that these were a “Bust”

Dragster

At one point having a day when Members could try their hand at driving the dragster was tried. I tried this but was always more interested in working on the car. My run resulted in a broken brake drum when I hauled the car to a stop. Andy Marsh was the preferred driver and resulted in some decent times for that period. Back then smoking tires and wheel stands were rare. No such thing as glue at the start line and most drag tires were very hard rubber slicks. Often these were tires from stock car racing.

Dragster

Stroker Bob Young announcing the races

October 12th 1958 Ron Prost of Detroit driving his Chev. powered Austin Healy was defeated by the Strokers. Ron was a fast runner and often the top eliminator at Kohler in those days. But not this day.

During 1959 the dragster did its best in spite of blowing a motor at an early meet. We took the car to Dunkirk NY for a race, but had trouble with spark plugs fowling. This was a long haul and the results were less than good. To the best of my knowledge we only made that trip once. I remember the military police allowing us to sleep under the porch of one of the barracks for the night. Then as we returned through Buffalo some local boys wanted us to unload the car and make a street run. `Declined!

We regularly bought 100 octane Ave. gas near Simcoe thinking it would provide more power. A lot of time at the drags was used changing the main jets in the multiple (6) carburetors on the Crower manifold. This did help with better times occasionally.

Dragster

October 12th 1959 The Strokers were narrowly defeated for top Eliminator by Don Swanson in his coup body rail. Don’s time was 125.00 / 11.31, Strokers 123.28 /12.06. September 26th 1959 The Strokers ran 128.571 /11.59 I think might have been our best time ever.

Dragster

At a later race in 1959 the dragster with Andy driving blew the clutch and the result knocked out the steering. Andy left the track at about the ¼ mile mark running into the adjacent cornfield. Andy was not hurt but the fiberglass nose and body suffered damage from hitting a steel fence post on the way in.

Dragster

Over the winter and into 1960 the body was removed and sold or given to Grey Yanocko who pieced it together and used it to promote his speed shop business. Gray eventually moved the body shell up to his cottage near Collingwood where it languished in the woods for many years. There is another story of how it was discovered and brought back to London and is fitted to a new build chassis 58 years later.

1961 came along and since other Strokers were building a car for racing it was decided to part the dragster out and sell it off. Current Strokers would have first choice of the parts and engine etc; In 1960 Andy Marsh and myself had been attempting to keep the dragster running. We installed a race flywheel and clutch. And made other improvements to the car. The dragster now without the fiberglass body did not see much action this year. We did take it to Detroit Dragway but were unable to race it, as it did not pass inspection due to the lack of a closed frame area behind the driver. We determined that a lot of money would be needed to keep the dragster competitive. Both of us had a family to support and decided that we could not afford it.

Dragster

There was much discussion around this time by Strokers members including a vote about keeping the project alive. Eventually it was decided to sell it complete or in pieces. Preference would be given to club members to purchase all or parts. Final disposition of the dragster or parts did not occur until around August 1961. The remaining parts frame etc; were sold to a couple of lads from Fergus I think who fitted a flat head Ford and may have raced it at some time.

It can be said that the Dragster project was the glue that sparked the interest of the young Strokers at that time. It provided the opportunity to learn skills that would last for many years in later life. Money was always an issue and still is, where any racecar operation is concerned. Many club members found it difficult to provide the financial assistance required to keep the project up and running. The project did however give direction to many young men who would become good mechanics and business leaders in later years.

Dragster

Looking back in remembrance at what we accomplished with so little, I feel rewarded to have been part of those adventures so many years ago.

Al Howlett 2018

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