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Monday, 4 July 2011

Where it all began....

It was my cousin Al who rang up and said “ Dik is getting people to go to this thing called Monster Trucks , do you want to go?”. Dik was someone who I’d met years before when he went out with another cousin of mine Penny, sounds like a big family doesn’t it. Dik was an architect but I knew him better as an animator who made a few films and had had a studio in an old warehouse near the Corner Hotel in Richmond where Al had lived and where he made advertisements like those Shmacko dog treat ads and a children’s series called Plasmo. I’d see him every now and then at the Corner where my band the Warner brothers which later became Overnight Jones played gigs occasionally.

The Monster Trucks extravaganza consisted of a couple of huge four-wheel drive utes driving around in the Rod Laver tennis arena crushing cars, jumping and that sort of stuff while making an incredible amount of noise. Dik had invited along a bunch of friends most of whom weren’t really “car heads” per se but enjoyed the spectacle all the same.

As we left Dik and Al and I were heading to my car with the idea of having a beer somewhere in Fitzroy. “So what have you been up to?” Dik asked me. Amongst other things I told him, as he was into film making, that after hearing about caravan demolition derby races at the Nyora speedway in Gippsland that I had had an idea for a short black and white silent film. Footage of the caravan stuff interspersed with shots of people sitting in their brand new cars in gridlock on the Eastern Freeway at peak-hour with old style hand-painted subtitles with things like “who’s crazy?”…I remember Dik with a sort of curious look on his face, and a sly sort of grin ….”Um, anything else?” “Yeah, I saw this article in a mag last week, apparently they have salt lake racing in Australia”. I will always remember the strange look on his face as the very moment this whole thing started.

We went to the pub and met up with some friends JVG who has his own radio show the JVG Rhythm Method every Sunday on 3RRR a Melbourne community station that I’ve played live on every now and then and Dan Worner a singer and guitarist who I played thousands of gigs with over the years in the Warner Brothers and Overnight Jones. We sat in the beer garden of the Standard Hotel a backstreet pub near Brunswick street and had a few.

The next morning Dik rang me from work. ” Hey, I’ve been looking at stuff on the net , have you seen those bellytank things?”….”yeah , I have , they’re the coolest looking things ever made with four wheels “ I said , there was a bit of a pause , “ do you reckon you could make one of those “ I said yes , simple as that, I said yes.
Bill Burke was a keen racer and builder and after Pearl Harbour found himself in the merchant navy based in the Pacific. As the story goes he was in Hawaii and casting and eye over a load of drop-tanks on a barge when he was struck by an idea . Drop-tanks were made as auxiliary fuel tanks for fighters and fighter bomber aircraft so they could extend their range , they were attached under the wings or under the fuselage , hence “belly-tank” .These tanks could be jettisoned although it is said that the idea was to bring them home if possible because they weren’t cheap . Bill was looking at a load of tanks made for the P38 Lightning fighters and thought to himself “my car’s chassis would fit in one of those!”. When he left the Navy Bill tracked down a bellytank in a scrap-yard in Alameda in Los Angeles and set about turning it into a streamlined body for his model T Ford based racer .Early Fords have a torque tube arrangement rather than what we know now as a tail-shaft which consists of a tube with a driveshaft inside it rather like an axle tube. Burke used a bicycle seat welded to the top of the torque tube and no additional protection for the driver other than the body shell itself , being a front engine arrangement he sat out in the wind and quite far back as opposed to what became the usual arrangement of mid-engine with the driver at the front , putting the driver in front of the engine allows a lower sitting position and a simpler steering set-up. The streamlined body made Burkes car immediately faster and he was soon building cars for others in the mid-engine format. The P38 has remained the most popular tank to use over the years and there are now several companies in the states who manufacture fibreglass replicas which can be ordered in various stretched lengths . The most famous bellytanks came from the early part of the fifties when they were the cutting edge of road car equipment based speed attempts . The So-Cal tank is probably the best known , other well known tanks included the Reed brothers , the Hooper Brown tank , Tom Beatty’s tank and the Pierson Brothers famous for their chopped 36 Ford three window coupe also ran a bellytank .
The tank that Dik and I bought from Rod Hadfield was from a Canberra bomber also known as the B57 Canberra .These tanks were variously known as slipper tanks and were fitted to the end of the wings and were not “drop” tanks as such as their fitment was permanent . The method of connection meant that these tanks are almost symmetrical about their horizontal axis .The classic bellytank made from a P38 tank actually used two tanks usually because the fitment area of the tank wasn’t practical to use so the technique involved using the bottom of two tanks and discarding the tops this left a smooth surface all over allowing the builder to make opening where they chose .There was another unintended benefit of this technique in that making the profile of the shape symmetrical about its horizontal axis minimized the amount of lift generated at speed. In using our Canberra tank we turned it ninety degrees so that the attachment area which was the shape and size of a windsurfer board was facing the ground this meant that the car was left right symmetrical when looking from the front but not so in the top to bottom plane..we cut this piece out which exposed the inner baffles and bulkheads inside the tank as well as increasing the strength of the tank these prevented fuel from “sloshing” around inside , full these slipper tanks held over 600 litres of jet-fuel.

Our tank came from a Canberra of the call sign WH700 which was built in January1953 and initially sent for service in Germany .The squadron that WH700 flew with was entrusted with the job of doing high altitude photographic missions over the Russian Kosmodrome at Kasputin Yar where highly secret testing of equipment for both the military and the emerging space program were being developed .After the Americans agreed not to continue sending spy flights over Soviet territory they asked Winston Churchill to use the RAAF. At the time the Canberra had the highest ceiling or capable flight altitude of any aircraft and so the Soviet fighter jets or Migs as they are known couldn’t reach them , the flights ended when the new Mig 18 was put into service which could easily reach the 45,ooo ft altitude the Canberras were capable of flying at. Due to secrecy restrictions on the release of the documents about the actual flights it is difficult to know whether WH700 was one of the planes which were fitted out with the extremely high tech cameras for taking the spy shots but it is known that the craft was returned to Britain for “extensive” repairs later in 1953 , there was however no record of the craft being damaged during take off or landing so there is some speculation as to whether it may have been the ‘plane that a Soviet pilot claimed to have hit with gunfire in an engagement over Kasputin Yar. WH700 then flew to Australia and was used during the Blue Jay missile test at Woomera ( very near Lake Gairdner) and was also used in the Australian film “ Ground Zero” .It is now owned by a private collector and can be found at Nurioopta north of the Barossa valley in South Australia.

A bit more background is probably due here. I’ve never been able to explain my fascination with cars , I love driving , my dad loved driving which I think got me started and particularly I love driving long distances. There’s something about the rhythm , the gradual change of scenery , the thinking you do along the way and I remember long drives I’ve done like holidays , them being the most important part of why I was driving to wherever I was driving. The Newell highway which heads north through inland New South Wales may to some be featureless and boring but to me it’s a quasi-religious experience. I’ve written songs about cars , named a band I had after a car ( Fourdoorshitbox) named an album. Over the years I’d taught myself to weld , panel-beat and spray-paint and built up several reasonable cars , all Holdens from the sixties or seventies .I’d always been obsessed with taking things apart and had had a Meccano set and of course Lego. Growing up ,dad always had a workshop and although woodworking was more his thing he bought an arc welder when I was twelve which I made it my business to learn how to use , my first welding lessons were from one of dad’s friends a German concreter named Rudi Baer ,” bah , it looks like birdshit!” he’d say about my early attempts at “laying a bead” as it’s called. I built a chopper push bike with ridiculously long forks and stupidly low gearing but more importantly it had mono-shock rear suspension using a Honda “postie” bike shock absorber”, we lost that one jumping it into an irrigation channel. On weekends we’d jump over the back fence of the tip and scrounge for bike parts. Around the same time I got a part time job working in Doug Pike’s sports shop in Tatura while I also had a paper-round .Having a rough bike to do the paper-round was essential , the bike shop and the welder was the beginning of hot-rodding for me. But building a race car from scratch is something altogether different again, but I wasn’t twelve anymore I thought , some would disagree.
Dik studied Architecture and then animation .He’d won a AFI for his short animated film “Dad’s clock” where some marionettes build a wooden clock .The real clock was made by his father after he was diagnosed with cancer , Dik said to me about it “ it always seemed odd to me that someone would build an imprecise device for measuring something that they had very little of”. He’d had a sixties Maserati that he was going to do up until it was stolen , that was no doubt a lucky break saving him a huge amount of money and grief .Anybody who as ever restored a car knows how expensive it can be , anything exotic is a whole different league with an accordingly higher price tag , Holden ? Ford ? not cheap ! Maserati? dream on brother!!

Dik is a great artist , never had I worked with someone to whom I could describe something that they could then draw “ you mean , like this” and he’d draw an outline , which would be just perfect , exactly what I’d been trying to describe. It also became apparent early on that we had very similar ideas on style. Almost like brothers who’d agree wholeheartedly on something and then just as quickly deride one another over very small details the similarities allowed us to get the thing started and the differences made sure we kept each other on our toes , every detail was debated , mulled over and we each fought for little things that we thought were important.

So there we were the back yard panel-beater /musician and the film making exotic car fan planning on building a car, of which we knew nothing about. The magazine article which had first sparked our interest was written by long time hot-rodder and owner of Aussie Desert Cooler a local custom radiator manufacturer Norm Hardinge. Norm’s business was minutes from where I lived at the time and so I thought I’d go and have a chat to him. I arrived and asked a young bloke in the driveway if the boss was around as I was interested in talking to him about his salt car , he looked at me strangely as he pointed me through a door to the main part of the workshop , as it turned out it was Norm’s son Michael who I didn’t recognize but had met through mutual friends over the years. Inside I spoke to Norm who apologised that as he was flat-out he’d have to keep doing the soldering job he was on but was happy to talk while he was at it and then asked “so , are you into hot-rods or racing?” , he’s a big bloke with a huge beard and a gentle voice and face ‘ Oh not really Norm , just sort of the weirdo end of cars” . Hearing that Norm sort of lurched and bellowed “ah haa !, you’ll LOVE this!” He showed me some photo’s and some models and we talked briefly about what we were into, I told him I’d just been through a pretty painful bust up and he told me he’d started again a few times and that you were never finished , every time we meet I have a good laugh with him as we kind of “get” each other.

In Norm’s article which was published in Cruzin’ magazine was a photo of a bellytank and it’s owner and builder John Broughan . I rang telephone Information and asked for a number for Broughan figuring there weren’t going to be many of them and the guy with the bellytank racer couldn’t be that hard to find, “ In Benalla?” asked the operator , “ ah , yes , thanks” .I rang and what sounded like an elderly gent answered .” I’m looking for John , the fella with the salt lake racer ?” , “ah yes , but he doesn’t live here he’s in Melbourne , would you like his number?” Bullseye! So , I rang , what the hell I thought he’ll know how to get started .I spoke to John for a good forty-five minutes during which time he told me that “Haddy” had a tank he might sell. Haddy is Rod Hadfield a long time and successful car builder modifier and manufacturer who for a long time ran a very successful auto business the “Castlemaine Rod Shop” in Newstead just out of Castlemaine in central Victoria .Rod is well known in the car show circuit and his name is synonymous with older modified cars as his business produced parts that allowed the incorporation of different engine, gearbox and or brakes into all kinds of vehicles. For instance he produced kits to allow one to fit a late model V6 to a 1950’s Holden but that is just one of the hundreds of different “adaptor “ parts that his business made. It has been a rare car of mine that hasn’t had some part that came from the “Rod Shop”. I’d tell people to ring Rod about some question I’d been asked because he’d definitely know but before they rang to make sure they had a piece of paper and a pen handy because everything Rod said would be right , and worth writing down .He would quote figures and measurements straight out of his head and it seemed that his business ran from his cordless phone that he always answered in his flat monotone “ Castlemaine Rod Shop ( pause ) Rod HADFIELD speaking”…
“Yes” said Rod he did have a tank that he’d bought in ( from what I seem to remember was near)Ballarat , “ I suppose it’s for sale , I paid three hundred bucks for it and it cost me a little to get it home so how about four?”. We agreed to buy it , this was about a week or less after we decided we wanted to build a car from one .The tank was from a Canberra bomber he said , made from aluminium , it had a few dents but it was pretty good for something that was fifty years old .The next weekend Dik and I jumped in a car a drove the sixty miles to the Rod shop and had a look , took some photo’s and some measurements .I paid up a membership to the Dry Lake Racer’s of Australia club of which Rod was the Secretary and received member number 374 ,some stickers , and a rule book.
After that we ended up buying a book on the history of lake racing from Rod “ The history of the Dry Lakes” by Cox andGenat, this and the Dean Batchelor book “Dry Lakes and Drag Strips” became well thumbed style guides over the next few years as we honed the design of our car. We decided too that we would go to Lake Gairdner in South Australia where the annual salt lake racing event was staged by the DLRA so we could see other cars , meet other people and get a feel for the way it all went .At this point I felt that it would be better if we weren’t just spectators , but were involved with a vehicle that was competing.

1 comment:

  1. What an adventure....great to have all the information in one spot. No more leapfrogging from one Dr Goggles bit to the next on the lakesters blog

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