Roadster racing history is essentially hot rodding history. Long before hot rods were even known by such a term, before they became fad-driven expressions of post-war teen rebellion, roadsters were being stripped down and hopped up for a singular purpose: speed. Competition inevitably followed.
Speed contests date back as far as the automobile itself, but organized dirt track and dry lakes competition really started kicking up dust in the '30s. Timing wasn't the only common bond, especially when you compare stripped-down dirt trackers with their elemental straight-line counterparts, Lakes Modifieds. Both provided enthusiastic, lead-footed, penny-pinching average Joes a means for mixing it up like big-time racers. Both thrived on crude and cheap cars-primarily Model Ts-built using whatever parts their owners could scrounge, beg, borrow, or modify. Both had significant influence on street-bound hot rods.
Circle-track roadsters went round and round in virtually every state of the nation, tearing up tracks at fairgrounds, in open pastures, or wherever else you could carve an oval in the soil. Lakes racing was basically a Southern California thing but got serious enough to support several sanctioning bodies such as Bell, Rusetta, and the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). Both sports gained ground as the '30s became the '40s and really exploded when gas rations were lifted and G.I.s came home after World War II.
The glory years were short lived, however. The SCTA abandoned its Modified class in 1947, although some of those cars continued to race as Streamliners. Dual-purpose street-and-lakes cars were generally less common and certainly less competitive as the '50s dawned, and many lakes racers turned their attention to a new straight-line challenge-the drags. Interest began waning for track roadsters in the early '50s as well, with many hobbyist drivers bowing out as true hotshoes graduated to midgets, Sprints, or even championship cars and stockers. Yet both roadster forms left lasting street legacies before roaring off into the dusty sunset.
Small Cars, Big KicksWhy roadsters? Isn't it obvious? Roadsters were always the smallest and lightest cars in any manufacturer's lineup, and it was (still is) easier to make a light car go fast. There was also something inherently racy about an open two-seat car that only had room for you and a co-pilot, or maybe just you and your courage. Most importantly, these cars made cents; for decades there was no cheaper used jalopy than a Model T roadster.
Henry's horseless carriage and other early roadsters were easy to modify and manipulate. Strip off the fenders and you had a truly elemental vehicle: a small body, a simple chassis, and an engine. Bodies were easily swapped and adapted to different frames and were simple to carve up and cut down in your quest for speed. Mess one up and there was probably another available at the salvage yard or in your neighbor's backyard.
Racing roadsters took on countless forms, but several standards emerged. Lakes Modifieds were found in two basic configurations: full-width and narrowed "one man" versions. Both typically had shortened frames and truncated bodies, with nothing but fuel tanks and rear axles hanging out behind the cockpit area. Many had bellypans and custom noses. Engines ran the gamut from hopped-up four-holers to Chevy sixes and other overhead concoctions, but it's safe to say that Ford's venerable flathead V-8s was a perennial favorite.
Flatties were favored in many left-turn burners as well, since they were cheap, available, and easy to hop up. Overall, oval-track cars were generally a little more thought out than their lakes counterparts. They actually had to handle and turn left, after all, and mixing it up with other racers called for protection-nerf bars, grille guards, and so forth. Ironically, these cars probably had less need for aerodynamics, yet they were still likely to have slippery "track-style" noses. This was probably more a function of mimicking the midgets, Sprint Cars, and sophisticated "big cars." Track roadsters were also a little more full-bodied. "Almost without exception," says Darrell Zipp of Zipper Motors, "every roundy-round roadster that had a track nose had a turtle deck in back."
The Next WaveStreet-bound tracksters and modifieds have always been popular, thanks primarily to their fun factor. We've seen great examples in every decade since the '40s, including most early America's Most Beautiful Roadster winners and such seminal rods as Frank Mack's '27 T, the Kraft/Highland Plating T, and the Dick Flint Model A. However, there are several factors that make these machines especially a-track-tive in 2004.
For starters, many rodders are empty nesters who no longer need to sweat stuffing the whole family into a "practical" rod. Modified roadsters are a great means for escaping the closed-car world and discovering wind-in-your-face rodding freedom. You really don't drive these cars-you strap them on and ride 'em like a four-wheeled motorcycle. Sound fun? You bet!
Cost is another factor. Modifieds and tracksters are dollars-down alternatives to the big-buck brand of street rodding. It's still possible-honest, it is-to find rough but reasonably priced steel bodies, while 'glass Ts are the most affordable repop shells in the industry. Couple this with simple chassis designs, and these cars make great learning tools and entry-level rods. Kits and component packages are also available if fabrication isn't your forte (R&C's "My First Roadster" project is a great example). Best of all, there's less pressure for the cars to be perfect, since a few nicks, scratches, or unmatched parts simply add authenticity to the track or lakes style.
Finally, competition-style roadsters are poster rods for creative freedom, embodying a true do-your-own-thing attitude. Bodies can be made from almost any car brand or body style-cut-down tourings, pickups with the tops whacked off, you name it. A few homemade parts are almost mandatory (a great way to hone your fabrication skills) as is adapting cheap (or free) parts scrounged from friends, swap meets, and salvage yards. Drivetrain alternatives abound since these featherweight flyers need little power to blow some serious wind across your noggin. Four cylinders to eight, vintage to modern, domestic to foreign-powerplant options are wide open.
Just Do ItA few modern street-bound roadsters stay true to specific racing roots, but more often they're an amalgamation of styles, mixing and matching elements from various eras and disciplines. Most also incorporate at least a few modern safety and convenience cues. Thankfully, lakes scorchers and track burners are well suited to such creative interpretation, so long as there's a competitive aura. "You've got to maintain the spirit of the race car-visually, audibly, or by g-forces," says Greg Peek of American Track Roadsters. "There's got to be that sensation that the thing was conceived from a racing heritage."
In other words, build what you want, but it better look racy and be able to shove your spine into the seat. You want to put a Toyota four-banger or Olds Quad 4 in your track T? No problem! How 'bout using a '29 Nash as a foundation and stuffing a Chevy six between the 'rails? Go for it! There really are no limits.
Now that we've got you all hopped up on hop-ups, where do you start? Right here is a good place-we've gathered some excellent examples to gawk at here and throughout the issue. We've also compiled a handy source list concentrating on manufacturers of T-based bodies, components, and kits that'll help you get out of the pits and onto the track. Of course, you can always scour swap meets, farm fields, and cyberspace looking for that forlorn project body or cast-off chassis elements. We'd also suggest the inspiration found in books like Tex Smith's Roaring Roadsters series and Don Montgomery's Hot Rods as They Were.
So wipe the dust off your goggles, strap on that leather helmet, and hold on for dear life. It's time to kick up some dirt!