BIRD OF PREY
This Willys pickup raced on both sides of the Canada–u.s. border.
IDOL. Quick: When you hear the word gasser, what’s the first word that comes to mind? We bet a popular answer is Willys, more specifically the company’s models assembled during the 1930s and early 1940s. Indeed, they have been a big hit with drag racers as far back as the late 1950s, a choice we’ll get into in a bit.
One such vintage racing Willys, the Hairy Canary, belongs to Cloverdale, British Columbia, resident Dave Love. Canada has been a hotbed of hot rodding activities for decades, fueled in part by the advent of HOT ROD magazine and other publications. Speed shops appeared around the country as well, with the B.C. province being particularly active. Cal-van in Vancouver, for instance, opened in 1952, though one of the business partners had already begun importing high-performance parts into Canada under that name in the 1940s. Incidentally, merchandise often passed custom inspections as “marine equipment” to avoid taxation.
In the new millennium the scene remains strong in B.C., with a core group having a deep appreciation for American and Canadian hot rod history in particular. Dave, one of these protagonists, took a liking to hopped-up jalopies at age 10, thanks to a pile of old hot rod and custom car magazines offered to him by a friend of his father’s. Later on, his interest led to the construction of a 1928 Ford roadster, which graced the pages of Deluxe a few years ago (“The Border Roadster,” Nov. 2016; bit.ly/2crpl5p).
In 1999, Dave unearthed the remains of the Hairy Canary Willys, a 1939 pickup extensively raced in B.C. and across the border. It had originally been built by Bert Straiton of Abbotsford, B.C., in the early 1960s, shortly after competitors realized the advantage of using Willys automobiles. In fact, he specifically looked for a 1937
to 1942 Model 37 (the company renamed it Americar for 19411942), eventually settling on a ’39 hauler.
But why this sudden fascination with the Willys? To understand, you need to turn back the clock to the late 1950s, when drag racers first began tweaking these cars. Part of the allure lay in their weight, with the 1933-1936 Model 77 tipping the scale at 2,060 pounds, lighter than a three-window 1932 Ford by about 300 pounds. In his book Gasserwars, author Larry Davis lists the weight of the larger 1939 Model 37 at 2,180 pounds, quite an advantage over the models offered by the Big Three in the late 1950s, which varied between 2,450 and 2,800 pounds.
The short wheelbase of the Willys also appealed to car builders of the era, especially when you consider the marginally sticky drag tires available at the time. In other words, the prewar Fords and Chevys with longer wheelbases simply couldn’t get the horsepower to the ground. Numbers speak volumes: 100 inches for the Model 77 (106 for the ’32 Ford, for instance); between 100 and 102 for the ’39 Model 37 (112 for the ’39 Ford).
The consensus was that Willys models also offered better weight transfer to the rear axle than other automobiles, thanks to the Model 77 and 37’s higher center of gravity. All these reasons made them prime material for drag action, especially since they remained inexpensive. Hot rodders had little interest in them, judging Fords and Chevys more appealing. Racers such as K.S. Pittman (’41 Model 37), George Montgomery (’33 Model 77), together with Glen Ward and Carl Taylor (’34 Model 77), led the pack in the late 1950s; but many others followed. A few more chose lightweight/ short-wheelbase alternatives, too, including the Ford Anglia.
Canada embraced drag racing in the 1950s as well, and Bert Straiton was one of the young enthusiasts who joined the mayhem with his nose-high Hairy Canary. Built in 1962, it proved quite competitive in the B/gas and C/gas classes, running in the low-11-second bracket. He often raced at local B.C. tracks, including Abbotsford Airport in his hometown and Mission Raceway, opened in 1965 and still active today. With Abbotsford located a few miles away from the border, Straiton also regularly ventured to the U.S., competing at several Washington State tracks, namely Seattle, Bremerton, and Arlington.
Motivation came courtesy of a high-compression Chevy 301ci small-block happily revving to 9,000 rpm. It featured common gasser attributes, from the Enderle stack injection to the Vertex magneto and Hooker fenderwell headers. The ’39 Willys chassis and factory I-beam with stock drum brakes remained in place, but Bert re-arched the front leaf springs to raise the nose. Ponies traveled through a Borgwarner T10 transmission to a ’55 Chevy rear with 6.37 gears and stock brakes. Interior amenities were kept to a minimum, with modified chrome-legged kitchen chairs welded to the floor.
The Hairy Canary remained active until 1968. Straiton continued competing with other cars, though he considers his yellow Willys “the hairiest gasser I’ve ever raced.”
Some enthusiasts remember the truck for its nice finish, hence Straiton occasionally entered car shows. Incidentally, he lost the fiberglass hood when it flew off the vehicle and into a river as he was trailering the car over a bridge on his way home from one of these events.
Few folks showed any interest in these dragstrip relics when Dave Love found the Canary in the backyard of an old hot rodder two decades ago. It looked rather forlorn; only the cab and doors remained of the body, though the frame was still fitted with the Willys front axle and parallel leaves, and a 1957 Oldsmobile rearend.
Dave eagerly searched for additional info on the truck’s history, with little success. It had not been raced since the late 1960s. One piece of the puzzle pertains to the 1980s, when it sat in a B.C.
muffler shop for years. He explains, “The guys in the shop would apparently roll it outside during the day to work on customer cars and drink beer after work, telling stories about how fast they were going to run it at the track. I can only assume it was all ‘drunk talk’ and nothing actually ever happened.”
With the truck’s gasser heritage in mind, Dave went on a hunt for missing pieces, including the V8, transmission, rear box and fenders, and two-piece fiberglass nose. He then added ’39 Willys coupe taillights and an 8-gallon Moon fuel tank. He also built and ran a 283ci V8 with Hilborn injection for five years, followed by a nasty, aluminum-headed 400-inch motor, which he blew up.
It now relies on a 327ci Chevy, bored to 336ci and assembled by Bud Bennett at Kerrisdale Speed in B.C. It is equipped with GM 462-style fuel-injection heads and set for a compression ratio of 10.7:1. The appearance is consistent with the 1960s gasser era, with S&S 1 3 ⁄ 4- inch fenderwell headers (hooked to Flowmaster mufflers) and the aforementioned Hilborn injection fed by a Hilborn PG150 pump.
Comp Cams supplied the solid camshaft, springs, lifters, and rocker arms. Add TRW pistons, a Weber flywheel, a Centerforce clutch, a Melling oil pump, and a Donovan gear drive, and you end up with a reliable powerplant that delivers 418 hp. Dave finished the restoration with a ’65 Corvair steering setup, four Competition Engineering shocks, and ’67 GM disc brakes in front, plus a 4.10 ’57 Olds rear complete with drums. Finally, a Hurst shifter hooks to a ’71 Super T10 gearbox.
This combination allows Dave to occasionally drive the hauler on B.C.’S highways, unlike Bert Straiton’s track-only version. In fact, Dave even cruised to our photo shoot location a few miles away from this gasser’s place of inception. We bet Straiton certainly did not expect such a feat when he began turning wrenches on his tired Willys truck 57 years ago.
> When found two decades ago, the ’39 Willys was missing a handful of key components, hence Dave had to search for the two-piece fiberglass front end, along with the box. He shortened the latter 8 inches
> Bert Straiton rightfully considered his dragstrip contender to be nice enough to enter shows in the Pacific Northwest. Here it is looking its best in Canada’s 1967 Vancouver Expo. Since this is a full-on drag car (unlike today’s street/strip version), the engine bay lacks a radiator. In its place resides a spun Moon tank.
> The Hairy Canary typically competed in B/gas or C/gas, two of the quickest classes in NHRA’S mega-popular Gas program. Note the chromed steel wheels, a more affordable option than the magnesium and aluminum rims of the era.
> A Hilborn fuel injection setup currently tops the SBC, though Dave recently managed to locate the Enderle unit (bought new by Bert Straiton) that equipped the Willys in the 1960s! It still requires a bit of restoration, including the petrified rubber fuel lines, but it should soon find its way under the fiberglass hood.
> When built by Straiton in the 1960s, the cabin housed a pair of cut-down kitchen chairs, chosen for their feather-light weight. They are long gone, hence Dave went searching for a compact alternative. He stumbled on 1966 Austin Mini seats, which offer a decent level of comfort.
> The vintage Superior 500 three-spoke steering wheel looks right at home in the cockpit. You can also make out the custom-mounted Moon throttle pedal further down, another era-correct drag racing accessory.
> Check out the beautiful 1939 gauge cluster. It has a hint of Art Deco styling while supplying the driver with more info than most other cars of the time (oil pressure, fuel level, amp, temperature). Dave added the Stewart-warner oil pressure and water temp gauges below.
> The bed houses a Moon fuel tank, in addition to a heavy Caterpillar D2 battery closer to the tailgate. No, it isn’t hooked up, but its weight helps keep the rear slicks glued to the track whilst helping weight transfer, a trick adopted by many drag racers since the 1950s.