LITTLE BLUE COUPE
The Saga of Its Glorious Return
SINCE ITS INCEPTION, DRAG RACING HAS BEEN VIEWED AS A COUNTER-CULTURE SPORT. Devoid of the traditional stick-and-ball mentality, it attracted a more rebellious bunch—those who were willing to step outside the lines and employ senseless wonderment. There has always been a genuine underground feel to the blue-jeans-and-T-shirt-clad teens and young adults who were drawn to the speed, smells and daring. For these soulful travelers, there once was a secret roadmap, a trail dotted with old airstrips and makeshift race tracks that stretched from sea to sea and border to border, a covert pathway that connected the hearts and minds of all involved.
Southern California was an ideal breeding ground for this burgeoning speed activity, and no area was more on fire than San Diego. This was where high school buddies Fred Lear, Tommy Schacht, Dominic Cardoza and Al Beauloye dedicated their time and energy. They dreamed and schemed about drag racing. This hot rod gang spent many a weekend at local tracks such as Carlsbad Raceway and San Diego Dragway—not to mention pilgrimages to the legendary Lions track, just a few hours' drive up the coast.
Eventually, each of the boys acquired their own cars, and naturally, tried their hand at mastering the 1,320 feet of asphalt. The lessons in humility were many; taming the drag racing shrew was much more difficult than it appeared.
The "gang of four" was also growing. The exploits of the boys spread throughout their high school and beyond. The group was growing into a club. This allowed for more skills and talents to push them all further along. It soon became evident that Lear and Cardoza's on-track skills progressed quicker than that of the others. It also became obvious that through their collective disciplines, they could progress at a far greater rate. Thus, the wheels were set in motion to build a single car as a group effort.
“From the beginning, we wanted to build something that would be competitive—a lofty goal for a bunch of youngsters splitting time between school and jobs,” said Lear.
In the late '50s and early '60s, drag racing evolved at a rapid pace. However, safety and engineering practices were far from fully developed. Many homebuilt projects were little more than glorified erector sets with boat anchor engines, often, the bigger, the better (or so the young and inexperienced believed).
The boys from Spring Valley, California, wanted none of that, and their standards eventually reduced the primary participants back to the original gang of four.
These four showed surprising wisdom by building through subtraction rather than addition. They understood their combined budget would not allow them to run head to head with the elite SoCal drivers of the day, but with a creative effort, they felt the
right car could hold its own in the lower gas classes.
The consensus was that a rail on gas pushed by an injected small-block Chevy engine would be a perfect place to start, but it would make them a “me, too” fish in a sea of also-rans. Aspiring chassis builder Harry Jackman was brought in to build a proper frame and suspension. However, even with the right base, the guys needed a hook, something memorable. That issue was solved when a modified Fiat body became available. Designed more for a short wheelbase-altered, rather than a rail-based dragster, the team made many cuts and pastes to fit the body over the chassis and attach it to new mounting points.
In late March 1963, the newly named "Little Blue Coupe" made its debut at
San Diego Dragway. Cardoza dropped down into the driver's seat as Lear fired up the push car. As the tandem made its way up the return road and down the track, an odd hush fell over the spectators who filled the bleachers. The crowd's silence remained, even after Cardoza jump-started the potent small-block. His obscured view could not tell him what Lear, Schacht and Beauloye witnessed: Their little garage creation was beauty in motion, and the response from hundreds of spectators was confirmation of the boys' hot-rod dreams.
The team made its first successful pass, then another and another. With each run (each quicker than the last), crowds swelled at their pit space. The Little Blue Coupe quickly became the sensation of the day.
The coupe's popularity grew with each appearance, whether at Carlsbad, Fontana, San Gabriel or Riverside. There was just something special about that altered blue body, chromed components, tall slicks and quick bursts of speed that clicked with the fans. When the guys showed at the local custom car shows, crowds engulfed their display.
When NHRA rescinded its fuel ban, Lear and company made the transition to nitro. Soon after, Cardoza scored a national record run in B/F Competition Coupe.
Success became the Little Blue Coupe's worst enemy. A roadster body was created and dubbed the "Little Blue Carriage."
While just as fast, this topless version never resonated with fans like the original. Plus, the taste of victory left the guys lusting to up in class. As with the majority of drag racers at that time, financing the future meant selling off the past. And so, the object of many teenage speed dreams was sold off.
Both Cardoza and Lear went on to run separate Top Fuel efforts, while Schacht and Beauloye provided engineering and crew support. Lear even won an AHRA Top Fuel event. The blue Fiat rail continued to change hands and was becoming like so much of drag racing lore: a forgotten and antiquated hunk of obsolete equipment.
Life interrupts dreams with heavy doses of reality; practicality takes priority over passion. Higher education, careers, families and myriad other conditions pushed the group into the demands of the real world, and their once-regular contact diminished.
Fast-forward three decades. While drag racing was still part of the men's DNA, the sport had so drastically changed that the rearview mirror was far more important than looking forward. Gone were the days of garage scheming on a tight budget.
However, there was a growing interest in the men and machines that made the sport so special. Dominic Cardoza ignited his past love in the form of restoring one of his old dragsters. Nostalgia drag racing events were becoming a big draw, and cackle cars were a major attraction at these events. At one such happening,
Cardoza, Lear, Schacht and Beauloye, along with Pat Coyle and Fred Hayhurst, got together. Among the topics discussed were the cars that significantly touched their lives. As it turned out, all agreed that the Little Blue Coupe was, hands down, their favorite.
The subject went dormant for several years. Then, unexpectedly, Cardoza passed away. Suddenly, the seemingly invincible one of the bunch was gone. The tragic loss led to a commitment to find and revive the Little Blue Coupe.
Lear, Hayhurst and Coyle set upon a mission to locate their beloved competition coupe. It was an all-out effort that would have made Indiana Jones proud. Still, after two years of running down leads, countless hours on the phone and numerous false sightings, the harsh reality set in that the original car might never be found—and if it were, it might not be restorable.
Disappointed but undaunted, the trio decided that if the original could not be located, the next best thing would be to build a duplicate. So, the daunting task of constructing a new Little Blue Coupe began.
The imperative task was to obtain a Fiat Topolino body. Because fitting the body to frame was critical, Lear and Coyle were able to procure the correct mold.
This was delivered to one of the original gang, Tommy Schacht, for the fiberglass modifications and prep—just as he had done in 1963.
While this was taking place, Hayhurst jigged up a chassis to the exact specs used by Harry Jackman.
Lear, who built the coupe's original small-block engine, collaborated with James Bostick Racing Engines to construct an exact match
The return of the Little Blue Coupe also pays homage to the golden days of drag racing. While it took place in Southern California, similar stories about cars that ignited a passion for the sport could be told in nearly every region of the country. This is just one example of the tales that can be heard at every stop along drag racing’s historic roadmap.
to the original punched-out 383-cid power plant, including the Hilborn fuel injection and Schneider cam.
With the body prepped, Jerry Goulette was commissioned to match the all-important blue finish that Merle Rhodes squirted back in 1963. Blue Plexiglas windows added the correct vintage appearance.
Back in the day, Bob Martinez was one of SoCal's top stripers. Keeping with that tradition, Mark Lueck lent his steady hand to replicate the striping and lettering.
Lear, Hayhurst and Coyle were unwavering in their commitment to getting the details as correct as possible. Many hours of testfitting ensured proper fit and function. But it also needed the look, feel and "soul" that matched the ideal of more than a halfcentury ago.
Late last summer, Lear, Coyle and Hayhurst secured the final bolts, polished all the bits and pieces, and rolled the new-old Little Blue Coupe into the sunlight for the very first time.
It was a celebration witnessed by a dozen folks who had worked on the old, new (and, in some cases, both) iconic race cars. However, more than that, it was an affirmation of what once was great about their sport and could be again. All agreed that the most important aspect was its tribute to their friend and fellow racer, Dominic Cardoza.
The return of the Little Blue Coupe also pays homage to the golden days of drag racing. While it took place in Southern California, similar stories about cars that ignited a passion for the sport could be told in nearly every region of the country. This is just one example of the tales that can be heard at every stop along drag racing's historic roadmap.
The Coupe’s first pass. This photo was taken by the author’s cousin, Corey Stepek, who captured much of SoCal drag racing’s glory days.The Little Blue Coupe was a crowd favorite on the SoCal circuit with its wicked good looks and imposing performance.
With all the major components gathered, Lear, Hayhurst and Coyle begin the final assembly process.
A little help was needed to finesse the body onto the chassis.
Tommy Schacht (Tommy’s Auto Fab) did a masterful job on the fiberglass Fiat body—then and now. It’s a beautiful beast from every angle.
The Little Blue Coupe held the NHRA record for its class. This was a stellar achievement for a bunch of local boys on a modest budget—but that’s what drag racing in the ’60s was all about.
Pat Coyle, Fred Hayhurst and Fred Lear built the "second coming" of the Little Blue Coupe as a tribute to their late friend, Dominic Cardoza.
A 383-ci Chevy smallblock is fed by a Hilborn fuel-injection system. Scheider roller cam, 11-1 pistons, forged steel crank and a Vertex magneto are key components.