Funny Car Evolution: From Stone Age to Space Age

July 13th, 2010

By Randy Fish

Photos by Bob Snyder (Courtesy VintageDragClub.com), the Tasca Family Archive, Speed Edge Design, the Tom McEwen Collection, Tom West, and Randy Fish

Photo Courtesy Dave Hodgman / DoverDragStrip.com

Part 1 – The Early Years

Ever wonder how ‘funny cars’ came about and got their funny name?

This exciting breed of purpose-built drag cars was actually a byproduct of the “Factory Wars,” where match race Super Stockers were making headlines (and tire tracks) from coast to coast. In the beginning, the players included names like Landy, Sox, Strickler, Nicholson, Dyer, and Lindamood, to name a few. As the rivalries intensified, along came the experimentation. So much so, when the first altered wheelbase cars began to appear, they were classified as “Factory Experimentals.” In 1964, the A/Factory Experimentals took on a look of their own and the idea worked well – move the wheels forward creating more overhang on the rear, which increased the weight transfer dramatically. Chrysler execs ordered Plymouths and Dodges to have their rear body sections moved forward by 15 inches, while the front wheels were moved ahead by 10 inches.

Somebody said, “They look funny,” and the name Funny Car became a regular addition to the enthusiasts’ vernacular.

Once again, the Tasca Ford entry trailered all the way from Rhode Island to Pomona, California, to compete at the Winternationals in Factory Experimental. Notice the wheelbase configurations are virtually stock on the Tasca and Dyno Don entries. (Photo Courtesy Tasca Family Archive)

Steel-Bodied Crowd Pleasers

The earliest versions were cut-up steel bodies with modified chassis and K-members. Sheet metal was acid dipped to reduce weight and carburetors were soon replaced with tall injector stacks sticking through the hoods. Pick whatever class of competition you’d like, and history will prove the first versions to be, well, crude, to say the least. However, craftsmanship wasn’t far away. The altered wheelbase Factory Experimentals featured full suspensions – often using leaf springs and ladder bars in the rear, with coil-over shocks up front. Their starting line antics generally produced giant wheelstands – a practice the factories would soon disapprove of. Official memos were sent to Detroit-backed teams, basically ordering them to, “Stop the wheelstands.” Apparently, the “Brass” felt that wheelstands detracted from the actual racing, where factories relied heavily on actual race victories, in order to “one-up” the competition in showrooms and advertising campaigns across the nation.

Who was the first guy to stuff a blown & injected nitro engine into a full-bodied car?

Dated May 1966, this image is from the DoverDragStrip.com archives, depicting a strong-running Nova A/FX car. At the time, drag chutes were seldom seen on “door cars,” so this one must have been quick.

As the story goes, Jack Chrisman took delivery of a Mercury Comet, but never raced it. His FoMoCo contact called one day and asked when he planned on running it, to which Chrisman (reportedly) replied, “Put a blower on it.” So be it. The blown and injected nitro-burning, Sachs & Sons Comet was introduced to the world at the 1964 U.S. Nationals, and of course, the crowd went wild.

The Flip-Top Phenomenon

Before long, purpose-built chassis with flip-top bodies replaced the highly modified Super Stockers-turned Factory Experimentals that match raced from coast to coast. At the same time, this new breed of Funny Cars took on creative (and soon-to-be famous) names, like The Hawaiian, Brutus, Jungle Jim, and The Ramchargers. Pandora’s Box was indeed open and the exploding Funny Car movement took off faster than NASA’s Gemini space program.

As you see in our photos, the Funny Car went flip-top during the late ‘60s. However, the chassis were wide, generally with a boxy, double-rail (round-tube) design, still carried front and rear suspensions, and featured aluminum floor pans with wide, rectangular roll cages to surround the drivers. The most successful of these early flip-tops were built by the Logghe Stamping Company in Detroit, Michigan. Brothers Ron and Gene Logghe had already made their mark on the quarter-mile sport building (and racing) lightweight, Jr. Fuel dragsters, powered by injected nitro-burning small-block Chevy engines. The Logghe-Marsh & Steffey “house car” and the A&B Speed Shop Jr. Fueler out of Somerville, Massachusetts, were but two of these Logghe-built cars that gained respect and fear from fellow racers.

Shown here at Famoso where Bruce Larson won the 1967 March Meet, this is the first all-fiberglass Funny Car ever built. Bruce commissioned a local boat builder to fabricate a 2x3 rectangular tube chassis in 1966. His boss, Greg Sutliff of Sutliff Chevrolet in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, arranged for the factory to deliver a 1966 Chevelle well in advance of its release date, in order to duplicate the body panels in fiberglass. This 1967 version merely had the grille and taillights updated from the original ’66 car.

Logghe’s Funny Car customers ranged from Roland Leong to Connie Kalitta (Michigan’s own “Bounty Hunter”) to Bill Lawton in the Tasca Ford Mustang. At the time, most of the front runners commissioned Logghe cars. However, many other chassis builders began putting their mark on the Funny Car movement. That list included Don Hardy, Al Graeber, Ronnie Scrima, Pete Tropeano, and Rollie Linblad, to name a few.

Recollections from a Logghe Insider

The following is a personal account from Jay Howell, a true pioneer of the Funny Car movement – a guy who made his mark everywhere from the cockpit to the fab shop.

“I met Dick Branstner (Color Me Gone) after he and Roger Lindamood won the ‘64 Nationals.  Dick had opened Dick Branstner Enterprises in Troy, Michigan, and hired me to run the shop. My first “assignment” was the Little Red Wagon. It had never done a wheelstand. I had a roll cage installed and replaced the 426 carbureted engine with an injected nitro-burning unit. Then the fun began! A giant (and very unexpected) wheelstand started the “wheelie” craze. I replaced that engine with a supercharged, injected fuel motor and proceeded to stand it on the tail gate through the lights. Dodge then assigned the truck to Bill “Maverick” Golden.

“My next project was the Dart Charger.  That was the first Funny Car I built. It was a mid -engined Dodge Dart that set low ET and top speed at the ‘65 Nationals with a 9.02 at 164.”

I left Branstner’s and opened my own shop, called Automotive Engineering.  There, I built a number of Funny Cars, including Seaton’s Super Shaker Corvair (which I drove for a while and set the track record at Detroit with a 178+mph pass), Don Gay’s ‘66 Infinity GTO, and the ‘67 Ramchargers Funny Car, were a couple more.”

“The Logghe Brothers bought my business in late ‘67 and hired me to run the combined operation. We turned out so many Funny Cars that (at my advanced age) I can’t begin to remember them all. I’m talking a hundred plus.”

“In ’68, I built the Prock & Howell Willys with a supercharged 427 Chevrolet (on gas), but NHRA wouldn’t allow us to run in A/GS, due to the chassis. I had used the Logghe Stage 1 chassis, narrowed and shortened, to fit under the ‘33 Willys (100-inch wheelbase) body. Then in ‘69 I re-powered the car with a 426 Hemi on fuel and Tom and I pretty much dominated the Hill Brothers Outlaw Circuit. It was a great ride. I laid down some 8.0s at 185+ while still pedaling it.”

“We retired and sold the Willys in 1970. That’s when Gene and Ron Logghe, Tom and I built the Mustang with the new Stage II chassis as a rolling test lab. We raced the AHRA series, finishing fourth in the nation, as well as match racing.  I retired from driving at the end of 1970 and, leaving Logghe’s employ, went to work for the Ramchargers, launching their speed shop business.”

“In my opinion, the most important design changes that dramatically influenced the evolution of Funny Cars – speaking in terms of design and safety — are directly attributable to the Logghe Brothers. Mainly, the chrome-moly tube chassis with a stout roll cage and the flip-top body are notable advancements.” Our sincere thanks go to Jay Howell for sharing his experience with our readers. Now you have a better understanding as to why the front runners commissioned Logghe cars, as mentioned earlier in our copy.

Here’s an interesting study in evolution, as Dick Harrell’s Yenko-sponsored Camaro appears to have doors with a stretched, fiberglass front end that features a make-shift hood opening. The Courtesy Chevrolet-sponsored car, built by Don Hardy Race Cars in Floydada, Texas, used a one-piece, stretched-nose body with more engine set-back.

Dale Pulde recalled some of his exploits during the early days, and mentioned, “The first car I drove was the “Vicious Vette.” It was built by Ron Rosebury at Von Fritch Automotive in Garden Grove, California. It had Corvette frame rails and a straight front axle with an Olds rear. It handled like s#%&!” Pulde continued noting, “With those early cars having full suspensions, you’d get it to where it ran really well. Then you’d load up and head to the next race and it’d run like crap. Here’s what happened. Those cars would bounce down the highway on the back of the ramp truck and it’d ruin the shocks.” Dale explained, “When we started running clutches instead of the automatic transmissions, we switched from shocks to struts in the rear. Then, the back end would squat and the front ends (with coil-overs still) would float and feel like it was taking off. I’ll tell you, those cars were loose and limber.”

Compare this photo to the one just above it for an interesting study in evolution, as Dick Harrell’s Yenko-sponsored Camaro appears to have doors with a stretched, fiberglass front end that features a make-shift hood opening. The Courtesy Chevrolet-sponsored car, built by Don Hardy Race Cars in Floydada, Texas, used a one-piece, stretched-nose body with more engine set-back.

Roland Leong told us, “The first Funny Car I had was a 1969 Charger, built by the Logghe Brothers. At the time, I was used to dragsters, so to me, the chassis looked more like a Sprint Car than a Funny Car.” Leong added, “And with the dragsters, I was a clutch guy, then all of a sudden we had an automatic transmission.” “Here’s a funny story,” said Roland. “We went to B&M for a one-day training session to learn about the transmission. Then we go out on the road and start using up some stuff. We pulled the transmission apart, and it took all three of us to figure out how to get it back together. So much for those one-day training sessions, huh?” The Hawaiian also told us the coil-over shocks caused problems, due to differing spring rates and different viscosities of shock oil from front to rear.

Leong’s first Funny Car encountered a terrible crash with Larry Reyes onboard. That’s when racers first learned the importance of aerodynamics and the need for spoilers and air dams, as the car went airborne. Following the incident, Roland decided to build a scaled-down version as a replacement, which quickly became known as a “Mini Charger.” In late 1969, NHRA deemed it illegal, due to its overall dimensions. Leong noted, “At the time, things were happening so fast, NHRA decided to change to the body rule and they made it so the cars could be the same width as a Mustang. That new rule made us legal. We brought the car to Pomona in early 1970 and won the Winternationals.”

The sometimes heralded, yet sometimes maligned Berserko Bob Doerrer tells us this image is circa ’67-68 -- a steel body with a fiberglass nose. It’s likely to be the last car campaigned by Jungle Jim before the debut of his all-fiberglass bodied 1969 Nova.

The sometimes heralded, yet sometimes maligned Berserko Bob Doerrer tells us this image is circa ’67-68 -- a steel body with a fiberglass nose. It’s likely to be the last car campaigned by Jungle Jim before the debut of his all-fiberglass bodied 1969 Nova.

We asked Don “The Snake” Prudhomme how he felt about the altered wheelbase cars when they began getting lots of attention. He noted, “I didn’t really care for them, because they weren’t the quickest and fastest cars at the track. You could say Garlits and I were alike in lots of ways. We always wanted to have the quickest and fastest car at the track.” Prudhomme ran his yellow Hot Wheels Barracuda in 1969 and 1970 was his first full season with it. It was built by Ronnie Scrima of Exhibition Engineering. When you scan our photos, you’ll notice it features a wide, fully-suspended chassis and the headers exit under the lower frame rails. The driver’s tinwork is slightly different, compared to even earlier cars, as those tended to use an even wider, flat floorpan with large rectangular roll cages.

As you continue reading, you’ll also notice our comparison between Prudhomme’s first and second Funny Cars. That’s due (in part) to their historical significance, their availability, and for the fact that they possess extreme differences in design, even though they were both produced between 1969 and 1972. Snake’s white Hot Wheels Cuda was the first of several cars he commissioned ‘Lil John Buttera to build, who was heralded as a master craftsman. Prudhomme commented, “I was at Keith Black’s shop one day and Buttera pulled up in front with one of Mickey Thompson’s early Mustangs on a flat-bed trailer. I got to looking at that car and the workmanship was incredible. I just had to have one of his cars.” And so began one of the most successful alliances the Funny Car class had seen.

It wasn’t uncommon to see parking lots like this during drag racing’s golden years. These rabid quarter-mile fanatics showed up at New York National Speedway to witness the 1968 Super Stock Nationals.

It wasn’t uncommon to see parking lots like this during drag racing’s golden years. These rabid quarter-mile fanatics showed up at New York National Speedway to witness the 1968 Super Stock Nationals.

Prudhomme continued, adding, “The sport was evolving so fast, by the time you got your engine built, something was faster. And by the time you got your chassis built, something was faster. We were constantly working to keep up with all the changes.” It seemed we had struck a nerve and Don was in a “historical groove” so to speak. He added, “Of course, weight came into play as these changes were being made. One car Buttera built me, the wall thickness (of the tubing) was ‘.0-too thin’ (laughs) – but it hauled ass! And then, my ’74 Vega was too heavy. Buttera and I tried so many things; we just lost sight of the weight on that car.”

Bodies and Transmissions

Having touched on the wide chassis designs, the roll cages, suspensions, and the configuration of the headers, yet another design flaw that would continue to evolve came in the way of Funny Car body shells. The earliest flip-top varieties crafted from fiberglass were extremely heavy. When we asked Don Prudhomme if the body of his yellow car could be removed for photography purposes, he quipped, “Are you kidding me? That thing weighs a ton!” Sorry, Don. We had to ask. And as Roland Leong mentioned, the early automatic transmissions were a weak spot, as far as their mechanical limitations were concerned. Prudhomme explained, “We tried a running clutch in my Hot Wheels car, but it was so heavy, we just smoked the clutch out of it. Don’t forget, back then it was ‘follow the leader.’ If one guy did well with a Keith Black engine and a B&M automatic, the next guy would run that combination, too.” Snake added, “With the weight of those Funny Cars at the time, the automatic was more versatile early on. You could back them up and even set at an idle. Later, we learned that the Crowerglide clutch ran like a torque converter. It was almost like it had stall, so you didn’t have to rev the engine before the tree came down. With a clutch, you had to sit there and rev the engine before you launched.”

As you can all imagine, this story has taken on a life of its own. It was in the developmental stage for over two months, in the building stage for a month and a half, and your editor has spent untold hours wide awake in the middle of the night, brainstorming its content.

This is where we’ll close the trailer door on Part 1. Stay tuned to Motortopia’s Drag Racer page as we look at the continuing changes in chassis design, talk to even more pioneers, and trip through the speeding ‘70s (and beyond).Don’t miss the next installment of Funny Car Evolution – from Stone Age to Space Age.

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