15 July 2011

Drag Racing History - Bell 303 Roadster

At the beginning of organised drag racing in the early '50s, serious racers tried every engine and chassis combination they could to help their cars hook up, run straight, and finish fast. But when the first "rail jobs" hit the strips, front-engine cars dominated. Rear-engine dragsters like Ollie Morris' Smokin' White Owl were rare. That figured, as Americans were not a rear-engine culture. Preston Tucker's revolutionary Car of Tomorrow had flopped, Volkswagen imports were just beginning, the Corvair was still years away, and circle track racers, with a handful of experimental exceptions at Indy, were all front-engine cars.
None of this concerned Reid Pate, his brother Don, or their friend, Bill Crissman, from Compton, California. The trio reasoned that if more weight could be concentrated on a car's rear wheels, they'd get plenty of traction. So they decided to build a rear engined Modified roadster. Each man chipped in $20 and the homebuilt project was underway. In Reid's mind the impetus for the car was the question, "What would it feel like to go 120 mph?" He'd thought of doing this at the lakes, and then decided to see if he could accomplish or even exceed this goal in the quarter-mile.

After a brief start with a '29 Model A roadster, Reid located a tatty but cheap '27 T body and smoothed it off. A custom nose, a cover for the carburettors, and a full bellypan were formed from aluminium. Streamlined cockpit covers were hammered out of 20 gauge steel. A removable panel permitted easy quick-change access. And a custom rear deck, punched with 84 louvres in four rows, relieved trapped air. Taking advantage of inexpensive war surplus material still available at the time, Reid fabricated a sturdy frame made of tubular steel pieces that had formerly served as wing struts from a Navy PBY flying boat.
A 59A flathead V8 was bored and stroked to 303ci, ported and relieved, then fitted with lightweight magnesium pistons and conrods. A nodular iron crank was supplied by the team's sponsor, Harold Thomas of Bell Engine Crankshaft in Compton (not to be confused with Roy Richter's Bell Auto Parts). Edelbrock high- compression heads were reworked to optimise combustion. A quartet of Stromberg 97s on an Edelbrock manifold fed custom 1.75-inch intake valves and enlarged ports. The cam was an Isky 404 Eliminator, the era's hottest, full-race flathead cam, and the engine drank methanol fuel fired by a Harman & Collins magneto. In the pre-Chevy V8 days, this proven combination developed north of 250 hp and an estimated 300+ lbft of torque. The Pate Brothers mounted it in a pivoting subframe that under power acted as a lever to plant the tyres. Flex pipes and bellcranks let the engine subframe move up and down, planting the fierce flattie's power squarely on the asphalt. Twin water tanks handle cooling; the centre tank is for the methanol.

The sparse cockpit featured a Bell steering wheel, an army surplus webbed seatbelt, a military fuel-pressure gauge, and a Bell pressure pump. A sturdy tubular frame and roll bar added rigidity to the chassis.
Like most early drag racers, the T was minimally finished. The drivers (all three partners took turns driving, although Bill Crissman was the main pilot and later Richie Bill was added to the roster), sat centred in a fully enclosed war surplus bomber seat, located in front of the original cockpit because that was where the engine now resided. A hoop roll bar is shown in early photos but was later replaced with a low, cockpit-wide roll bar located behind the driver seat.
Other friends helped. Chuck Seibach modified an aircraft drop tank to make the car's first rounded, streamlined nose, and Leland Sizelove helped with construction. From the outset the intent was strictly racing, so the boys focused on engine, suspension, and driveline modifications.
Far from typical, the 303 exemplified clever backyard engineering. Old films of the 303 accelerating away from a standing start reveal that the car hooked up almost immediately, then shot forward with minimal wheel spin and virtually no fishtailing-just what was needed for a lightning-quick, jackrabbit start. Interestingly, sponsor Harold Thomas was said to complain that rival dragster pilots like Art Chrisman and the Bean Bandits accelerated with a lot of wheelspin, and the Pate Brothers' roadster squatted, hooked up, and took off with very little wheelspin. "It looks like our engine isn't putting out as much power," he reportedly said. But the 303's consistent results proved otherwise. The roadster's weight distribution had a rearward bias, which also helped solidly plant the tyres.

As seen in flickering period home movies, the channelled Model T body appears rough at the outset of the car's racing career (it was later painted and upgraded), but its builders weren't looking to win beauty contests; they wanted to win races.
With the steering wheel removed, the roadster's bare-bones construction is evident. A three-speed Ford box connected to a '40 Ford rear packed a Lincoln-Zephyr close-ratio cluster. The hefty, shoe-shaped throttle was hammered flat the moment the starter's flag dropped.
And win they did. From 1953 to 1954, the Pate Brothers' rear-engine racer was the fastest Class C Roadster in seven notable L.A. area events. It was one of the dominant cars at the famed Santa Ana Raceway at Orange County Airport. Despite having to run against faster front-engine dragsters, the Class C 303 Modified roadster won FTD (Fastest Time of the Day) at three of those meets. A photo caption in the Sept. '53 issue of HOT ROD called the 303's mid-engine approach "original and uninhibited." At Santa Ana Raceway in August 1953 and again in December of that year, the car took second in The Fastest Race against the more powerful and notably quick (for the time) Class D Bean Bandits dragster, driven by Joaquin Arnett. Although Elapsed Time records haven't survived, recorded results show that the Pate Brothers' car had a best ever trap speed of 133.33 mph. The top dragsters of that period ran in the 140 to 145mph range, so the 303 modified roadster was very competitive.

Don Pate believes the roadster's engine-mounting system had a lot to do with its traction mastery. "The flathead was mounted at a 10- to 15-degree angle," he remembers. "We also had those Bruce slicks adapted from circle track cars. And we mounted them backwards on the wheels, so the rounded edge of the tyre was inboard and the feathered edge was outside. I think when the car accelerated, the slicks flattened out and we got more traction. Once we borrowed a conventional set of slicks from Art Chrisman, and our times were just not as good. So something about those tyres worked in our favour."
"I remember that car," Art Chrisman says. "There was a lot of innovation back then. Like many guys, they didn't have a lot of money, so they were trying something different."

In its second iteration, with an aerodynamic nose for Bonneville runs, a straight front axle supported early Ford spindles and a Model A spring. Fitted all around were '40 Ford hydraulics with a '50s era Chevy master cylinder and Ford steel wheels with Firestone Indy tyres. A '36 Ford steering box and lever-arm dampers were used in conjunction with custom-built radius rods and batwings.
In 1953, an effort was mounted to run the Pate Brothers' roadster at Bonneville. The original nose was changed to a prowlike visage that was pointed and more streamlined than the original drop-tank unit. A lightweight straight-tube axle adapted from a circle track car replaced the heavier I-beam. Small fairings on either side of the nose aided streamlining. The Ford steelies were replaced with Halibrand magnesium wheels running Firestone Indy tyres, reportedly from a Novi-powered Indy car. A full-width rollbar was fabricated to conform to SCTA rules. And a Halibrand "Culver City" quick-change replaced the Ford banjo.
Don Pate, the surviving brother (Reid passed away in 2006), tells me they arrived late at Bonneville, on the last day of qualifying. "It was a dismal trip," he recalls. "We'd geared the car to go 200 mph, but we were running too lean, and the engine blew on Reid's first run. He coasted through the traps at 135 mph. We had a spare engine, but there wasn't time to install it and make another run." A disappointed Reid Pate quipped, "We can go this fast on a dragstrip."

By the following year they'd stopped running the roadster, so the team never returned to the salt. They drag raced the roadster a few more times with the Halibrand rear, "although we didn't need it for the strip," Don says. "The engine sat nearly level after we installed the quick-change. We lost some of our traction advantage with that setup." Don says they quit competing because the car's flathead had become obsolete, and they didn't have the finances or sponsorship to step up to an OHV V8.
The Pates and Crissman hustled this Class C hottie to many a dragstrip triumph, often racing against Art Chrisman in his Class B roadster. The 303's impressive 133mph top speeds were within a few mph of the early Bean Bandits' dragster's marks. The Pates' mid engine configuration obviously worked, but until Don Garlits' horrific accident and his comeback with the then-revolutionary rear engine Swamp Rat 14, not many drag racers used rear-mounted powerplants. The 303 had been a pioneering effort.
After its brief racing career ended, the roadster languished long forgotten before it was acquired by Don Ferguson, Sr. A racer and extraordinary hot rod and race car collector, his cavernous warehouse complex in Wilmington, California, once held such treasures as the So-Cal belly tank and the sleek, Eddie Miller Pontiac six-powered lakester. Dave Crouse, of Custom Auto in Loveland, Colorado, saw the old warhorse years ago, and when he learned it could be purchased from Don Ferguson, Jr., he told his client Roger Morrison about it.
Roger, from Salina, Kansas, has an eclectic collection ranging from pristine Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts to the ex-Berardini Brothers' drag racing 404 '32 roadster and the restored '28 Model A/V-8 roadster originally built by Bud Neumeister, a '54 Hot Rod magazine cover car. Roger actively seeks out hot rods with interesting histories and he saw an op-portunity here, even though the time-ravaged Modified roadster would subsequently require a monumental effort to restore.

The exquisite, accurate, and challenging restoration was done by Dave Crouse and his crew at Custom Auto in Loveland, Colorado. This talented shop also restored the famed Berardini Brothers' '32 drag racing roadster for Roger Morrison, winner of the coveted Dean Batchelor Award for the Most Significant Hot Rod at the '07 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
Dave Crouse says the 303 was "basically complete" but was in "terrible condition." He and his talented crew disassembled the old race car to the last nut and bolt, completely rebuilt the chassis to match its second iteration, determined how the cantilevered engine-mounting system had worked, and completed the painstaking task of restoration and reassembly.
"One of the great things about a client like Roger," Dave says, "is his appreciation for history. He encouraged us to use as much of the original body and frame as we could save to ensure the car's authenticity." Fortunately there were many old photos available. The Pates even had movies of the roadster competing.
The workmanship on this car was neat and purposeful. Homemade adjustable bellcranks let the engine pivot under hard acceleration. The resulting effect was like a lever. As torque was delivered, the entire engine subframe angled sharply downward, forcing the 7.60:15 Bruce slicks squarely onto the pavement.
During the restoration, both brothers supplied photographs and advice for Dave and his crew. After a lengthy rebuild, Dave was filmed testing the 303 on its maiden voyage, the first time since 1954 that the car was underway under its own steam. The Isky 404-cammed flathead crackled with power, and one could only imagine what it must have been like blasting off the line at Santa Ana or Bakersfield. Luckily, an original set of rare Bruce slicks was located, with a shipping tag still extant that read Waltner Electric, Moundridge, Kansas. Ordered half a century ago, stored away and never used, they were just waiting for this project.

The restored Bell Engine Crankshaft Special debuted at the '06 Grand National Roadster Show. Both Pate Brothers were on hand to see the restored car and share the acclaim. It won Second in class. Both Pate brothers were on hand to see the restored car and share the acclaim. Afterward, Reid's wife Thelma sent a note to thank Roger Morrison: "Reid was so proud of the beautiful restoration you folks did," she wrote. "You made a couple of old men (and a couple of old women) very happy."
Roger plans to display the completed Bell Engine Crankshaft Special so today's hot rodders can appreciate its advanced engineering and construction. "In 1953 it was ahead of its time," he notes proudly, "and now it is timeless."

With thanks to all sources concerned for the info.

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