When people start talking about the early days of hot rod competition, they usually don't stray too far from the subject of dry lakes and, occasionally, early drag racing. Even though track roadsters represent one of the most important historic chapters in traditional hot rodding-not to mention motorsports-they are also one of the most neglected chapters...unless it's Marty Strode talking. In that case, the subject stays on track roadsters and roadster racing. At the age of 50-something, Strode is too young for firsthand memories of the heyday of track roadsters, but his youth hasn't kept him from participating. For the last ten years he has been building real '40s-style track roadsters at his shop in Cornelius, Oregon, and racing them at local dirt oval tracks. Strode grew up a car nut. At one time he was into dune buggies, competing in sand drags. That led to drag racing and race car building. For a while he raced a front-engine Top Fuel car in nostalgia drag racing events. When his attention was drawn to Dwarf cars, he started hanging around dirt tracks in the Pacific Northwest. In 1976, his talent became his profession when he started Marty Strode Enterprises to build dragsters for others.
Strode's career turned a corner (get it?) in 1995 when a friend gave him a '49 Ford flathead engine and somebody else made him a deal on a quick-change rearend. "It turned out to be an early Ford unit that had been converted to a quick-change by rolling it over backwards, adding a plate to attach a rear cover, and installing a tube and lower shaft for the spur gears," he recalled. After a trip to Portland, Oregon, to see the Barney Navarro track roadster, which was being restored at the time, Marty started thinking about building a track roadster of his own, using the motor and rearend. After reading Gray Baskerville's article on track roadsters in the July '95 issue of R&C, he made up his mind and started collecting suspension parts.
Marty's friend Ernie, who raced dragsters and Dwarfs with him, decided to build a roadster too. "Our plan from the start was to build cars resembling those of the late '40s," Strode explained. "We wanted them street-legal and tough enough to remove the headlights and windshield, speed up the steering, and race them on the dirt." When the Strode Special was finished in 1998, it was almost immediately spotted by The Rodder's Journal, which featured the bright-red roadster in its Number Ten issue.
Since then, Marty Strode Enterprises has turned out five complete track roadsters, featured here. The sixth and seventh are under construction, but Marty is moving away from building turn-key cars toward providing hot rodders with a rolling chassis, complete with engine mounts, transmission mounts, and radius rods, and letting them complete their own roadsters. The majority of the suspension components Marty uses on the cars-early Ford axles, Model A wishbones, rear arms, '40 ford steering wheels and columns-are items that would've been found on the original track roadsters and are still available at swap meets all over the country. Marty gets fiberglass bodies from Speedway Motors. Most of his chassis feature quick-change rearends, which are probably the only part getting harder to find these days, though any Ford rearend could be substituted.
Maybe the best similarity between these five Strode-built cars and the original track roadsters is the fact that they were built for the same purpose-to tear it up on a circle of dirt. "I think we're probably some of the very few guys who build cars that resemble a track roadster and actually take them out and drive them on dirt," Marty said. "We run these cars maybe four or five times a summer in exhibition races on Northwest tracks. It's just for fun-we're not going fast enough to get in trouble. We pick the winner so that nobody gets hurt, and everybody else...well, they get to fight for second place."
In addition to the kicks he gets racing real track roadsters on dirt, Marty enjoys keeping a segment of hot rod history from going extinct. As he told us a couple times, "The most fun and satisfying aspect of this Northwest track roadster revival has been the chance to meet and become friends with a lot of the old track roadster racers who actually built and drove the original machines in the '40s and '50s." Thanks to the enthusiasm of Marty Strode and the owners of these roadsters, this part of hot rodding's past hasn't been forgotten.
Ernie Martin built the '52 flathead, with Offenhauser aluminum heads and an Edelbrock manifold with three 94 carbs. The headers were custom-built with exhaust pipes inspired by the car that inspired Strode the most: Dick Kraft's Highland Plating Special. The '39 Top-Loader transmission has a 10-inch '50 Merc clutch. Inside, a fabricated aluminum dash was filled with Mooneyes gauges from Classic Instruments. The Speedway aluminum race seat was covered in saddle tan vinyl, upholstered by Jim Enger, and Marty built a bolt-in rollbar and dash support tube. The steering wheel and column are from a '41 Ford pickup (with a VW bus box).
The flathead in Ernie's roadster is a '51 Merc mill, bored and stroked by Doug Luzon. Ernie did the porting, polishing, and headwork on the Navarro heads. Induction comes from a pair of 94s atop an Offenhauser intake. Trans and clutch are a '39 Ford and '50 Merc. Jim Enger also did the upholstery work on Ernie's T, taking some white Naugahyde with red piping to the modified Speedway buckets. Steering wheel is a '40 Ford standard, like you'd see on these cars decades ago. Ernie uses Stewart-Warner Wings gauges. Check out the hook-shaped latch for holding the shifter in gear.
Jim Enger has done a great job on the interiors of these Strode roadsters, and Van Gordon's '25 is no exception. It's the same successful combo: Speedway aluminum seat, clean aluminum dash, Classic instruments (these are the Hot Rod series), and a Schroeder four-spoke wheel-it's no-nonsense hot rodding the way it's supposed to be. This mill is so cool. The Chrysler Hemi was only a few years old when Dodge introduced its relatively small Red Ram version in '53. This '54 241 has been slightly bored with machine work by Virgil Hanson Machine and assembly by Ernie Martin. Three 94s on an Offy intake feed the motor, which is tied to a '68 Ford three-speed manual (also built by Ernie) with a Borg-Warner clutch.
The yellow exterior is complemented by blue vinyl throughout the cockpit, done by Gary Cler in Snohomish, WA. Other components include the Rebco three-spoke dish steering wheel with a quick-release hub and complete Stewart-Warner instruments. The car has also been specially equipped with a hand-lever to operate the brakes. Ted built up the Merc flatmotor in his '24 T, which is fed by Stromberg 97s through an Offy intake. His car also features a cutout exhaust system, whether he's in the mood for the sound of SuperTrapps or the roar of open pipes. The only automatic of these five cars, Weaver's roadster runs a Ford C4 operated by a Lokar shifter.
The '51 Merc flathead with Navarro high-dome heads, Stromberg 97s, and Navarro 3x2 intake manifold was built by Doug Luzon, who also built the motor in Ernie's blue roadster. Extensive porting was performed. The engine was dyno-tested prior to the buildup at the Portland show, and Lonnie reports horsepower at 225 hp. Chalk up another great interior for Jim Enger, including all the right Strode roadster components: Speedway seats (dressed in red leather), fabricated aluminum dash (this one housing S-W Wings gauges), and a four-spoke Schroeder wheel like the one in the Hemi car. Could you build this in four days?