Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Altered Wheel Base Story - Part 1

I thought I’d write a little about the altered wheel base cars that came about in the mid-sixties because of a few discussions I was involved in at a model car show the other day.  Let me start by saying that this is by no means a complete history of these cars because I’m sure the whole story is lost to time, things were changing rapidly during this era and several ideas came about in different places at about the same time.  It would be hard to say exactly who had what idea first so I’m going with the general consensus.  The story of drag racing in the early sixties is secondary to NASCAR because NASCAR sold cars, you could see your car on the track beating other cars and then go buy one the next day.  Drag racing was still a bunch of hoodlum teenagers making racket. In the late sixties that began to change as drag racing began to mature and gain a following, partly because of the stock and super stock classes that looked like the cars you could buy at the dealer, but mostly because of the show that the “funny cars” put on around the country.  Altered wheelbase cars are the embryo that grew to the fire breathing, tire smoking, flip tops that ruled the early seventies. So let’s start at the beginning.
In the beginning there were two classes of cars; stockers and dragsters.  Stockers had fenders and doors, dragsters were all motor and frame and were specially constructed to race.  Then guys began to modify their stockers a little while still staying within the rules, so to even things up a new class emerged: Super Stock.  Which was like stock with a few modifications.  This class started in about 1957 and opened the door to the idea of power to weight to set the classes.  1960 allowed any engine from that manufacturer in a car, any “non-visible” changes, and the next size larger tires. 1961 allowed floor shift conversions, ignition upgrades, and open headers. 1962 introduced the FX classes and allowed any size tire that would fit in the wheel well.  1963 set the cubic inch limit at 427.2, 1964 saw rules to keep the current model cars competing against themselves and older models in their own class, and 1965 saw the 2% wheelbase rule come about and some relaxing of the camshaft rules.  All of these changes led to some pretty wild cars by 1965, so let’s look at the effect of these rules.
In 1957, Chevy and Ford were battling on the big ovals of NASCAR with their latest hot rods: the 57 Chevy “Black Widow” with the 283 fuel injected V-8 and Ford’s 57 Supercharged 312 “Thunderbird” V-8.  Somebody figured out pretty quickly that if they were fast on the ovals, they would be pretty quick at the drags. Then came the dreaded AMA (Automobile Manufacturers Association) ban, no more hot rods were to be built by the big three.  That lasted about 15 minutes. Every manufacturer broke it repeatedly, even Chevrolet who still tries to maintain the higher moral ground.  Anyhow, in 1960 the horsepower game starts in earnest with Pontiac’s 389 Super Duty winning at Daytona and an all Pontiac final at the NHRA Nationals at Detroit.  The NHRA relocated their national event from Kansas to Detroit and the Big 3 saw an opportunity.  
Since a big drag race was right in their backyard, all the manufacturers got involved.  With its Super Duty program Pontiac also offered special lightweight aluminum bumpers, Chrysler stuck its 350 cid SonoRamic Commando motor with its long tube intake manifolds in Plymouths, Chevy stuffs its 348 cid truck engine into its passenger cars, Ford steps up its 352 cid “Police Interceptor” motor for more power. 1961 and ‘62 see improvements in power and cars begin to lose weight, but something interesting happens in 1962.  The big hulking Pontiacs shrunk to Tempest size. They stuffed a 421 cid Super Duty motor in a tiny little Tempest and ran A F/X class.  Mopar switched from full frame cars to unibody construction to save weight and began the “Max Wedge” engines that were predecessors to the Hemi.  Chevy’s 409 motor is the one to beat for a while.
Next time we'll discuss more of the evolution of drag racing and altered wheel base cars, until then keep modeling!
"Rat Fink" Ron

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