They say timing is everything. Our timing couldn't be better.
Last month we showed the back rooms at The Smith Collection Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska. The story was actually the fruit of a very long coordination—it seemed to take forever to find a time slot amenable to all parties. It almost didn't happen; though intended for Street Rodder Premium, its unexpected demise forced us to split it up and find a new home here.
Typical for these series things we saved the gold for last. Gold in this case was an expansive interview with Speedway Motors' founder "Speedy" Bill Smith. I'd heard a lot of Speedy's stories but never had I heard what possessed one of the most successful purveyors of speed parts to collect a bunch of obsolete artifacts. So I asked. I didn't even have to hold him to it; he explained as if he'd waited decades for such an open invitation. Nor did I have to twist his arm to let me photograph him, a feat by others' accounts.
Little did we know that interview and portrait would be Bill's last. Though in good spirits and as sharp as a tack, the loss he suffered upon the death of his wife, Joyce, last August left a mark that anyone could see. Speedway Motors may have been Bill Smith's life but there was something more important. And he missed Joyce greatly.
We knew it wasn't by accident that Bill Smith donned black that day but in retrospect we suspect that he knew something that we didn't. Though never somber, there was a gravity to the atmosphere. Whatever the case, we couldn't have timed it any better. And we couldn't have been any luckier.
Thanks again, Bill.
Last month the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed granted us a rare glimpse of what it takes to run a museum. But it raised as many questions as it answered.
Among them, what on earth inspired Speedway Motors' founder Bill Smith to begin collecting artifacts? He's many things, a racer and entrepreneur among them, but a textbook example of a curator he shouldn't be. Racing and business thrive on progress, evolution, and technology; the one who forges a better path beats the competition to the finish line. But curation is reflective. How does one focus on the future if steeped in the past?
Easy: Past is prologue. Rather than mutually exclusive, history and future are inextricably linked. In fact, some maintain that it's impossible to consistently move forward without knowing the past, if only to avoid repeating ideas that didn't work. And Bill Smith knows the shortcomings of the past firsthand; his first endeavor in the go-fast world was with an obsolete speed part.
"A buddy of mine found a single overhead cam HAL head," he recalled. If that's not a familiar term, then let us explain. In the early teens, Peugeot revolutionized the racing engine by doubling the camshafts and relocating them to the cylinder head where they drove the valves directly. The reduced mass and greater design freedom put Peugeot at the front of the pack.
Naturally, everyone wanted a slice of that high-performance pie. So various pioneers tooled up and sold versions that ordinary folks like us could use to transform our Flivvers to Formula 1 cars. Well sort of anyway. Harold Hosterman, HAL's founder, was one of those pioneers.
Though advanced for its age, the biggest asset that the head had by the time Smith found it in the late '40s was affordability. But it intrigued him, particularly its creator's resourcefulness. "(Hosterman) didn't have provisions to make a complete cam, so he just took a steel rod and welded plates to them to make the lobes. He'd punch those plates out and stack them on the steel rod to make the camshaft." He knew that because one of those lobes broke loose rendering the head junk to its previous owner. Smith reattached the lobe. "I worked on it for a year and thought I had it figured out. I put it on my Model A and asked my dad to pull start me. It started to run at about 30 mph but when we stopped, my engine stopped too." Unfortunately he never got it to run right.
But Smith said he didn't consider it a failure. "All of these things are learning experiences," he observed. He maintains what it taught him was the significance of every achievement in the speed parts industry. And as a teenager in a rural setting failing to make a broken head work, he could identify with the relative vacuum that people like Harold Hosterman operated in. Though it isn't readily obvious, the museum honors the failures with about the same respect as the successes.
1. It's debatable whether the carburetors John Robert Fish designed were truly better than conventional ones, but some swore by them (like Fireball Roberts but he was paid to do so). Their production from the late '40s through the '60s, and a second run in the '80s, suggests that they at least worked.
2. Without a doubt the carburetors that Ed Winfield made worked, well but we're not sure about the seller's paperwork that proclaims these SR-series units came from one of Bill Vukovich's Indy cars. We shouldn't let that get in the way of a good story though.
3. If you had the need for speed but not the bucks for a special manifold, Gotha had the answer. Just bore the ends of a stock Ford manifold and braze on the company's cast-iron bosses. Though probably not ideal, these modified manifolds represent a real part of history that most have forgotten.
4. Others got even more creative. Smith remembers this one from the day. The jalopy classes required stock manifolds and single carburetors, a rule by which this setup seemed to abide. When the inspectors objected to the extra breather just beyond the regular one, the racer explained that the engine needed the extra capacity.
5. What the racer left out was that the extra capacity was for the carburetor base that mounted under the manifold. Smith says it explained why it ran so poorly at anything short of wide-open throttle.
6. Four carburetors are excessive for all but the nastiest Flatheads, but not so when each barrel feeds its own cylinder. In fact the bigger Stromberg 48's venturi is just large enough to satisfy a stock Flathead, one reason E&S's Supermarine manifold didn't set the world ablaze. But man is it neat lookin'.
7. Conversely, two of the smallest carburetors can turn a strong Flathead to mush when they feed a single open cavity. The combined venturi area and plenum volume kill air speed. That explains why the Shanafelt and their Columbia successors hardly made it past their Portland, OR, origins.
8. The Dragster 500 supercharger doesn't rely on belts, chains, or even exhaust to drive its impeller. Its locomotion? A starter motor. Ads from the late '50s explain how an electro-pneumatic load-balance system (a pressure switch) automatically met the engine's needs. Uh huh.
9. Nash's twin-ignition eights from the early '30s sported dual plugs making its dual-coil, 16-terminal distributor the darling child among early speed merchants. That's a stock one to the right but Robert Roof modified the left one for one of his twin-plug Flathead Ford conversions.