It's just possible that there could be people in street rodding today-those without a knowledge of hot rod history, that is-who think blown, Hemi-head Mopars came as standard equipment in the '33-42 Willys. This scenario sounds almost believable enough to buy into if we absolutely, positively, didn't know better-as most such cars we see today in street rod guise or at the nostalgia drags are so equipped. And if it weren't for John North's Willys' small, lightweight, short-wheelbased, and economical people's car being just exactly what drag racers were looking for in the late '50s, the little Willys would have become just another interesting footnote in the annals of automotive history.
Although there has already been a lot written about these quarter-mile warriors, kind of a WWF for the sport of drag racing, this isn't the same old story. However, to be true to why the Willys became the most famous marquee ever associated with the Supercharged Gas Coupe class, there must, of necessity, be some historical reference. What we present to you then, in brief summary, is documentation of the Willys in gasser livery from those glorious days of thunder on the old 1320 (the number of feet in a quarter-mile to those not into the competitive end of rodding). We hope this essay will not only entertain and enlighten but should leave no doubt in your mind as to why this particular breed of automobile has not only acquired a cult-like following and has also become one of today's hottest choices when building a non-Ford street rod.
The short version of Willys history as a hot rod is as follows: Everything can be attributed to drag racers in stock-bodied classes and their unending search for lighter cars that would suit their needs. As you probably already know, the year 1957 was just about it for what is now considered classic, or nostalgic, rodding and customizing, and so it was for quarter-mile racing fraternity, as well-even though experiments with supercharged engines by hot rodders (some successful, some disastrous, at least for the owner of a scattered motor's point of view) had been going on since the '30s. It all came to a boil in 1957, as huffed motors in coupes and sedans were finally starting to set records (as purpose-built dragsters, or "rail jobs," had been seriously doing at least since the previous year). Glen Ward and Carl Taylor added a blower to their A/G '34 Ford and turned 118.11 mph, while Gene Adams, running a blown '50 Olds in B/G, turned 112.77 mph (talk about a heavy car). Other makes and years in this mostly street-driven mix were Eddie and Junior Thompson's '41 Studebaker running a supercharged Chevy in B/G, and "Ohio George" Montgomery wheeling a blown Cad-powered '34 Ford. "Ohio George" campaigning a '34 Ford? Yep, but this was all about to change. Glen Ward and Carl Taylor swapped their 402-cid blown Caddy into a lighter '35 Willys and recorded 123.28 mpg in 12 seconds flat. (Note: This car was later sold to C.J. "Pappy" Hart in 1958, and both he and his wife, Peggy, drove it at Santa Ana-Peggy to a speed of 127.62mph.) Suddenly, previously competitive cars, like Doug Cook's '37 Chevy coupe and Howard Johansen's '55 Bel Air, were becoming obsolete because of their weight. Practically overnight the topical question became, "Say, does anybody know of a really straight '33-42 Willys coupe for sale?"
By 1960 the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) created a separate Supercharged Gas Coupe class-the race was now on across the land's sanctioned drag strips, and there was no looking back-the lid was off! The hope was that enough Willys coupes (and for a lesser part, sedans and pickups) had survived abuse and WWII scrap drives to fill the dreams of hundreds of racers-fortunately it appears this was so. Of course, fiberglass parts were soon to follow, with everything from tilt noses to doors, decklids, and rear fenders, making the little stormers even lighter yet.
Realizing that most of these "street legal" Willys had become true, race-only vehicles, NHRA changed the rules in 1962, adding safety regulations to reflect their ever-increasing speeds. Also, some street equipment, such as mufflers and horns, etc., was no longer deemed necessary. This was also the era when speed equipment manufactures began to realize an opportunity when they saw it and jumped on the sponsorship bandwagon. Sponsored teams then began to tour the nation's drag strips (which were anteing up appearance money), even traveling overseas, as in the case of K.S. Pittman and George Montgomery who took their show to England. And "shows" they were too, with these promotional-savvy racers making outlandish statements to the press for pre-race hype. It was little wonder that drag strips now had more money to lure teams to their tracks, as the grandstands were full and overflowing. Speed equipment sponsors also jumped in the fray in their print advertising, attacking the competition and touting their sponsored quarter-mile champions. These drag-racing pilots had become household names among fans, who either attended races or kept up with current events through Drag News and the numerous other enthusiast publications such as Hot Rod.
For those hallowed names who were bestowed the mantel of enduring racing fame, I'll refer directly to an article titled, "World's Fastest Street Rod...Yesterday," by Don Montgomery, which appeared in the August '85 issue of STREET RODDER. Referring to the "Glory Years" of '64-66, Don said the following: "Among the more exciting A/GS Willys racers of this era were the Southern California teams of Stone, Woods, and Cook; 'Big John' Mazmanian; Bob 'Bones' Balogh, Gary Dubach, and Joe Pisano; Gene Ciambella; the Dempsey Bros.; and K.S. Pittman. Others included Northern California's Hamberis and Mitchell; New York-based Eddie Sanzo and Jack Merkel; Oregon's Jack Coonrod; and 'Ohio George' Montgomery. Popular B/GS and C/GS competitors were the Southern California Willys of Junior Thompson; the Mallicoat Twins; Charles James; and the Marrs Bros. Billy Holt represented Alabama, and Ron Nunes and the Airoso Bros. ran their campaigns out of Northern California." And this is just a handful of the hundreds who campaigned such cars across the nation.
Many teams came up with new cars over the course of the "Willys Decade," some even fielding more than one at the same time. This upgrading, possibly even moving up in class, usually meant building a lighter, better handling version of their old car with considerably more horsepower as technology improved and sponsors stepped up. Heck, sometimes it even was their old car, just freshened up and ready to go again. One such team, also one of the most well known, was Stone, Woods, and Cook. The team had several cars, starting with the Olds-powered '41 Willys first chauffeured by Doug "Cookie" Cook at the '61 Nats (Tim Woods had earlier converted to Willys after running a Stude Champion). This, the team's first Willys, the light blue B/GS "Swindler II" car, was my favorite as it ran an R&C Dream Truck-inspired exhaust tubing grille with plastic ends. In 1962 Swindler II got a bigger Olds and moved into A/GS class. This was followed by a lighter "Swindler A" running A/GS (Swindler II remained in the teams racing stable, returning to B/GS). In 1964 the team switched to a Chrysler Hemi, as did others still running "alternative" powerplants. Their black A/GS car, a revamped Swindler A, was also equipped with new lightweight 'glass body components from Cal Automotive. It might be pointed out that the team also ran an Olds-powered '33 Willys coupe, "Dark Horse," in A/GS in 1963, also in blue paint. The "Swindler A" stayed in the heat of competition through 1968 (repainted in blue team colors as black wasn't exactly the most photogenic finish from a magazine photographer's point of view), when it recorded a best of 158 mph in 8.90 seconds in AA/GS class, with Chuck Finders doing the driving. By then, the team was moving into the new Funny Cars, and a new "Dark Horse II" was built in Mustang guise. In 1967 Doug Cook crashed the Funny Car at some 180 mph, bring an end to his driving career.
In closing, just imagine what other popular street rod-building choices there would be today with readily available repop 'glass bodies, chassis, and most everything else available for a complete package if, oh say, Crosley would have had as good a group of public relations spokesmen way back when. So, what ended the reign of Willys as the darling of head-to-head quarter-mile competition? Well, as we all know, nothing lasts forever, give or take a pyramid or two. It wasn't beauty that killed the beast but a combination of rule changes and "alternative," lighter cars with everything from Austins, Anglias, and Opels being tried-some having their own day in the sun as successful race cars as well (and by some of the very men already mentioned). As you know, the '60s was a tumultuous decade, no matter if you're talking war in South East Asia or unrest and the rethinking of social mores on the home front or on the drag strip. Did some good come out of that decade that is remembered by its many survivors in as many different ways? I would certainly hope so. One thing I think we can all agree on is our acceptance of a homely little car that was not only brought to our attention as a drag racer but, afterwards, as a viable alternative for a street rod choice as well.
Following are some images from Don Montgomery's Book No. 4, Supercharged Gas Coupes. So check out these photos of famed Willys drag cars that, even though covering only a decade of manufacture, transcended from skinny to fat fenders, and in several body styles. After reviewing what was done with these cars on drag strips across America 30-some-years ago, it's just possible you may wish to replicate that same look and feel in today's street rod scene.
Lil' GassersFor Those Of Us Who Wish We Could, But Couldn'tIf you ever went to the drags in the '60s, you surely remember seeing one of the famous Gassers that lit the strip. You know the names: "Big John" Mazmanian, K.S. Pittman, and Stone, Woods, & Cook to name a few. You can have your own version of these wilder-than-wild '41 Willys coupes. Well, sort of!
Supercar Collectibles, Ltd. has rounded up these and other gassers from the '60s in 1:18 scale. As a tease we have included in our historical piece on the Willys the following three examples of some of the best of the '41 Willys ever to squirt down the quarter-mile.
First is the famous Stone/Woods/Cook '41 Willys Gasser, the "Swindler II," in it's light-blue metallic paint, supercharged Olds motor, custom grille, and more-some of its features include an opening hood, doors, and trunk. Next up are the equally famous '41 Willys car of K.S. Pittman in a redish-orange and the always popular candy-red car of "Big John" Mazmanian. Both cars have several casting changes (new molds) from the Stone-Woods-Cook car. They have their correct mesh grille, additional (side) hood hold-downs, rear (upper) trunk hold-downs, the pipe-style rear bumper, and also a parachute. All of the cars are Limited Editions produced by Precision Miniatures, made for Supercar Collectibles.
If you like what you see, then check out their Web site at www.supercar1.com. However, you will really get into trouble the moment you realize there are numerous vintage cars ready to capture any deep-seated love you may have for one of many different styles of racing, street machines, or hot rods.