I was surfing the web looking at photos of old vintage gassers from the 50's and 60's to see what I could be missing for my 55 Chevy Gasser project. During my searches, I ran into a great website (www.gassermadness.com) focused specifically on vintage gassers, the builds and the rules they used. They have a great section on readers rides and a vintage section of cars built that were lost and those found.
What is ironic, as we build our cars to 'mimic' the old days, its amazing how hard we try to copy what they did. What I have found, if you stick using the parts of the times, there is no ingenuity that can deter you from what they have already done. Think about it, if you use the rules of the time as a base, how can you go wrong!
The rules of the 1950's were very basic. What was interesting to me was the advancement of the rules [over time] to keep up with the racers as they became more creative/innovative to gain the upper edge on thier competators. This included moving motors back slightly and adding staight axles (which came in the 60's) to lift the front ends to move the center of gravity more to the rear wheels. I'm not suprised.
The cars [in the Fifties] on the track were pretty basic compared to todays builds. Its true the cars in the Fifties were simple. Since the creation of the new 'sport' was taking off, they had to find a way to keep the competators on a level playing field. Let's take a look at those rules:
First, let’s talk about gassers in the fifties. Now, to be honest, these cars were a bit before my time. I was around throughout the fifties, but didn’t “discover” dragracing until the early sixties, so what I do know about fifties gassers is pretty much culled from a 1958 NHRA rulebook (courtesy of Steve Gibbs), a conversation or two with Don Montgomery (author of “Supercharged Gas Coupes & Sedans”), conversations with other racers of the era, and photos and articles of the time.
Having said that, let’s see what we can uncover about the early gassers. In what is generally accepted as the first legal drag race ever, in 1949 at Goleta, CA, Tom Cobb’s blown flathead Model A roadster lost to Fran Hernandez’ nitro flathead fenderless 32 coupe. Well, no gassers there…but at least the coupe won! About a year later, on Sunday June 19, 1950, C.J. “Pappy” Hart opened the first legal dragstrip in the nation on an unused runway at Santa Ana, CA.
At first, there were no “classes”. It was “run what ya brung” in the purest sense. Interestingly enough, by the way, more often than not, it was a motorcycle winning the top eliminator. By 1953, some general classes were introduced. They were pretty loose and included classes like “Pre-War Roadster” and “Post-War Heavy Sedan” among others. As time progressed, the classes became more formalized. That was also the year that the NHRA held it’s first drag race at Pomona. Two years later, in 1955, they held their first national event in Grand Bend, Kansas.
To be truthful, I don’t really have any information about class structures until 1958, so I’m going to have to start there with any kind of specifics.
In 1958, a gas class racer was basically a hot street coupe. No engine setback was allowed, all gassers had to have working lights, wipers, starter, generator and all other street equipment. Fans and belts were optional, but radiators were required. The car even had to be currently licensed for the street. Full exhaust systems, including mufflers, were required but could be unhooked for competition, although they had to remain on the car. Those of you old enough will remember “cutouts” that were used back then up into the early 60’s.
What all this provided for was a class for guys to run a “hopped-up” street machine. The cars were required to have full “factory-type” upholstery although two buckets could replace the standard bench seat as long as both were fully upholstered. Customs were allowed as long as the car wasn’t chopped, channeled or sectioned a total of more than four inches. “Four stock fenders” and a rear bumper were also required.
Full transmissions were also required. “Quick-change rear-ends, locked differentials or ratchet-type rear-ends (high torque) are permissible with safety hubs.” Four-wheel brakes were required as well.
There were only five gas classes, classified according to total car weight divided by total engine displacement cubic inches. Designations were A/G, B/G, C/G, D/G or E/G preceded by car number. Use of a supercharger moved you up one class. The breakdowns were as follows:
Class A 0 to 8.99 pounds per cubic inch
Class B 9.00 to 10.99 pounds per cubic inch
Class C 11.00 to 12.99 pounds per cubic inch
Class D 13.00 to 13.99 pounds per cubic inch
Class E 14.00 or more pounds per cubic inch
As you can see, this class was designed for what was basically a modified stocker…much like the later Modified Production classes.
By 1960, the rules had changed significantly. By then, engine setback of up to 10% was permitted although most of the street equipment rules were still in force. Since I don’t have access to a 1959 rulebook, I can only surmise that the setback rule took effect first in either 1959 or 1960.
Just by way of providing information for those who aren’t quite sure what “engine setback” means, a 10% setback would allow the engine to be moved back enough so that the forward most sparkplug in the engine could be no further than 10% of the wheelbase behind the front axle centerline.
The reason that the setback rule was introduced is reasonably simple. There was nothing in the rules that required the original engine in the car to be used. When someone performed an engine swap in a Model A, for instance, chances were that they would have to cut the firewall anyway. The question then becomes “what is the “stock location” for a flathead V-8 in a Model A?”. Introducing an engine setback limitation merely provided a level playing field for all competitors.