BIRD OF PREY

Hot Rod Deluxe - - Contents - • WORDS & PICS: STEPHAN SZANTAI • CAR: DAVE LOVE

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.

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