Wheels Up – The Frame Racer

The Frame Racer

In earlier columns I have talked about memories of growing up in Kilgore, Texas. 

This memory is about the "frame" of Granny's 1951 Plymouth. The transformation from 1951 Plymouth to race frame took place during the summer of 1963.

One Sunday afternoon a car full of KHS (Kilgore High School) boys was driving home from the drag races at White House. I had noted that for the most part, the lightest cars were the fastest cars. It only requires a small amount of imagination to understand how the conversation in the car began as “what can we do to make Granny's Plymouth lighter” to "let's take the body off!"

Drag race performance expectations can be expressed by considering the "pounds per horsepower". Thus, the pounds per horsepower ratio can be improved by removing weight, even if power output remains the same. 

Example: a 1951 Plymouth four door sedan weighing 3200 pounds with 90 horsepower engine equals 35.5 pounds per horsepower. Yet, a 1951 Plymouth stripped down frame weighing about 900 pounds equals about 10 pounds per horsepower.

You would not think that a car full of 16-year-old boys would possess such visionary thinking. In short order we were overwhelmed by the tremendous potential we would have changing from 35 pounds per horse to 10 pounds per horse. WOW! It will most likely set some record!

A year earlier Granny had donated the Plymouth as an experimental project.  It provided valuable lessons on those old blacktop roads. Controlled slides, speed shifting, "drifting" ditch cleaning, all building up to a life-long passion of driving and speed. Those back roads lessons set the stage for drag racing.

Body removal work began the next day. Most of you will recall that age 16 boys are not bother by small details [or any detail for that matter]. What we could not unbolt we cut or chopped or pulled or bent as required. Two afternoons’ worth of work had the body rolled off, lying on its side.

I mentioned details -- the body was host to radiator, wiring, seats, steering column, battery, gauges, gas tank; did I miss any vital component? Details, what details?

Any visionary racecar builder understands those items can easily be relocated. And relocate we did! Another few days and all components required to control the record setting lightweight were in place. Well, almost, we did not have a battery.

I do not recall what happened to the battery. Most likely it was put to work on a tractor or other need. Batteries are expensive, especially for 16 year old boys with piddling part time jobs. Good news though, we found a battery to borrow but had to be careful and bring it back in good condition. No problem.

So picture with me this vision: an old car frame with barnyard wooden plank seats, hay bale wire-tied radiator, battery tied on with rope, and another rope that the passengers used to stay on the seating platform. It was good to build a lightweight race car on a farm, as it provided all the materials necessary for a complete build up.

Now another vision for you to picture: imagine four, five, or six teenage boys riding/hanging on to the record setter. Man, oh man, what a thrill. It was fast and fun!

Remember my explanation about power-to-weight ratio. Then consider that the race frame suspension was designed to support 3200 pounds. Even with a few skinny boys we were still much less weight than the suspension was designed for. Thus, it bounced and swayed and bumped along, basically running along on top of the springs.

Handling, well, at best unsafe.

To conclude, one last vision for you. Imagine the sight of it flipping over, no protection, no roll bar, no seat belts, only bailing wire. Boys flying in all directions.

"Watch out, catch the battery, we gotta take it back."