13-14 August 2004
1955 Buick "Nailhead" Dragster
Sold for $34,100
EARLY SPEED TRIALS
American straight line speed competitions began on the dry lakes of the Mojave Desert as early as the 1920s. Some of the better known dry lake tracks were Rosamond, Muroc and El Mirage. The Mojave Desert is a foreboding and desolate place, so vast and isolated that it later became an atomic bomb testing site. Ford Model T Roadsters were the overwhelming weapon of choice for these early racers – they were light, cheap and easily modified, courtesy of an amazing variety of aftermarket speed parts that could triple the original factory horsepower.
After 1932, when Henry Ford’s powerful V8 was introduced, these began to replace the four-cylinder Model T and A engines, especially when equipment manufacturers came up with speed parts for the flathead. Henry’s beautiful 1932 Roadsters were stripped and modified – headlights, fenders, bumpers and windshields were sacrificed on the altar of speed. A stock Deuce Roadster, however, had all the aerodynamic qualities of a brick and soon modified classes were created which allowed Henry’s tin-work to be sectioned, chopped and channeled in an effort to reduce wind resistance. In the 1950s the Model T came back into fashion as they were lighter, narrower and better suited for low-drag modifications. In addition, they were inexpensive too – even more so than in the prewar period.
Creative experimentation was still the cheapest architect of speed and rear-engined modifieds with streamlined nose cones, some adapted from war surplus aircraft fuel tanks, began to set records. Placing the engine in the rear gave at least two advantages – the extra weight over the rear driving wheels offered better traction and a streamlined nose-cone reduced the drag immensely.
EARLY DRAG RACING
In the late 1940s the popularity of dry lakes racing began to fade and organized drag racing took over. The blinding sun, intense heat and choking dust of desert racing was tolerated for decades, but the long travel distances often meant “calling in sick” when competitors could not make it back for work on Monday morning. Drag racing changed all of that as strips proliferated all over urban North America. The first drags were clandestine affairs held on airports, blocked off public roads and even on the paved over LA riverbed, such events often being hastily concluded with the arrival of the local constabulary.
Organized drag racing began with the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association’s Goleta Airport events in 1949 and later CJ “Pappy” Hart organized his first Drags at the Santa Ana airport on an abandoned taxiway. Unlike the Goleta strip, the latter featured conveniences such as timing equipment and a standby ambulance! Early drag racers were rude, crude and dangerous devices, often being nothing more than a big V8 engine welded between a pair of chassis rails with a war-surplus aircraft seat containing the hapless pilot seated between the rear wheels.
By the 1950s inventiveness and technology combined to create more sophisticated 1/4 mile speed missiles just as had previously occurred in the dry lakes era. Rear-engined cars, superior for the same reason as before (extra traction and good air penetration) now became the norm in some classes of drag racing. Racers were not the least bit nostalgia-prone and Henry’s faithful flathead was quickly abandoned when lightweight American OHV V8s became available in 1949. Buick’s first V8, nicknamed the “nail-head” for its odd looking valve placement, came out in 1953 and was a winner right out of the box, courtesy of its 8.5 compression ratio, the highest in the industry. Originally displacing 322 cubic inches it was easily bored out to 400 cu. in., a fact not lost on mid 1950s hot rodders.
THE HENSLEY DRAGSTER
This historical drag strip roadster was fitted from new with just such a Buick nail-head mill. According to information supplied by the current owner, it was built in the 1954 to 55 period by Tom Hensley of Phoenix, Arizona. Nicely restored a few years ago, this iconic machine reads like a blue print for the successful 1950s drag racer – rear-engined, tube-chassis, Model T steel body with anteater nose and a Buick nail-head hooked to a Halibrand quick change rear. Tom raced this car well into the 1960s, winning first in a A-modified Roadster at Mel Larson’s Phoenix Raceway which netted him a trophy and a Mel Larson award jacket, both of which accompany the sale of this car, in addition to other trophies. When Tom Hensley passed away his son inherited the car and eventually sold it to family friend Bill Shaw, who passed it to the present owner last year.
Eminently suitable for the newly popular sport of nostalgia drag racing, or as a must-have for a serious collection that showcases various aspects of American motorsport, this historic A-Modified Roadster is worthy of a purchase consideration.
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