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In the pantheon of American car culture, few liveries evoke the spirit of speed, ingenuity and determination that marked the earliest days of hot rodding quite like the white-and-red scallop of the So-Cal Speed Shop.
Throughout the late 1940s and early ’50s, the garage’s creations graced the cover of Hot Rod five times, each edition throwing the spotlight on ever more impressive feats of engineering nous and derring-do that captured the imagination of the nation.
Most remarkable was the flathead-powered Belly Tank Lakester, which by 1952 had evolved into a land-based missile capable of nearly 200mph.
The man responsible for this machine was Alex Xydias, a Los Angeles native born and raised in Hollywood and who came of age during the dawn of the hot-rod movement.
“I worked in a gas station during high school and at night some of the hot rods would pull in to get gas,” says Xydias.
“I started admiring them, and I liked what they were doing to customise them. I especially liked the rumble that the mufflers made – mufflers were a big business in those early days. I just started to become a car guy.
“Across the street from my school was one of the best body fabricators of the time, so I’d go over there after school to hang around and watch him customise cars. His name was Jimmy Summers and he was way ahead of most of the others; he was chopping five-window ’32s, which is a very hard thing to do.
“I went up to the dry lakes a few times just to watch, and I remember my early hero there was Vic Edelbrock. He was the top ’32 roadster guy and was just starting his business.
“Then the war came and everything got put on hold. I wanted to be an airplane mechanic, so I enlisted in the Air Corps and was lucky enough to work on several different planes including the P-40 and the B-25. I was an engineer-gunner on a B-17.”
The war drew to a close before Xydias saw combat and in 1945 he returned to California along with thousands of demobbed servicemen, with nothing but $20 per week in their back pockets and a technical education that before the conflict they could only have dreamed of.
“Somehow, I don’t really know how, I got the idea of opening a speed shop when I got out,” he recalls. “There was one in Culver City and the name appealed to me: speed shop. I came up with the name So-Cal. Nowadays everything is ‘SoCal’ over here, but then I was the only one.”
The newly married Xydias left the military in 1946, on the very same day founding the So-Cal Speed Shop in Burbank, a low-key speed-freak hangout that barely survived its first year.
Despite business being slow, the shop proved a draw for some of the biggest names in early hot-rod history.
“It was a struggle,” he explains. “At first I couldn’t afford to stock big items such as heads and manifolds, they were just too expensive. So I was selling an awful lot of acorn head nuts and chrome carburettor stacks.
“And then big things started. Guys were getting out of service and buying roadsters all over the place, and the dry lakes started running again with huge crowds.
“Stewart-Warner instruments became the big thing: all of a sudden all the guys needed to have an oil-pressure gauge, so I built my business on a lot of smaller items at the time.”
As business picked up, Xydias and his small but growing team began to offer more extensive services, including building engines for customers.
“At first I just kind of ran it as a store, then I realised I had to get into racing. If I had ‘speed shop’ in the name I had to start to race,” says Xydias.
“I had a custom ’34 with a Carson top on it that Jimmy Summers had built some parts for, including some fenders. It was a beautiful custom but I couldn’t race it at the lakes; I didn’t want to, it was such a beautiful car.
“Once we moved to Victory Boulevard and I had the garage where I could work on cars, I sold the ’34, bought a pick-up truck and built the first belly tank.”
The Southern California Timing Association had long had a class dedicated to custom-built streamliners from such pioneers as Bob Rufi, Bill Warth and Ernie McAfee, but out on the dry lake beds at El Mirage a quiet revolution had been taking place thanks to fellow war veteran Bill Burke.
After seeing a 165-gallon P-51 Mustang drop tank being unloaded at Guadalcanal, and knowing the rough dimensions of Ford running gear, Burke immediately spotted the potential of the aerodynamic fuel pod as a ready-made hot-rod body.
On his return to California, the budding engineer turned the fuel tank into a wild front-engined racer, but quickly switched to the larger 315-gallon drop tank from the P-38 Lightning and began building similar cars for other people.
Among his early collaborators was Xydias, who for $60 commissioned a rolling chassis and body using an antiquated Model T frame, which he further kitted out with parts from the local military surplus store.
For power Xydias opted for Ford’s diminutive V8-60, which ran with success in midget racing and was well catered for by the aftermarket
The man responsible for turning the rough diamond into a perfect jewel was Bobby Meeks, who then worked in Vic Edelbrock’s shop.
“I didn’t want to take two or three years working my way up,” says Xydias. “I wanted So-Cal to get going right away, so I relied on Vic Edelbrock. He was my mentor.
“The belly tank was the first car I’d ever driven at the lakes. I’d never gone more than probably 60mph in a car before then and I was pretty nervous, I tell you.
“When you sit down in that belly tank and your butt’s about four inches off the ground and you’re looking between the front wheels, it’s a different experience than driving a roadster where you sit up high. It took a bit of getting used to but not too long. We went 130mph and set a new class record.”
The So-Cal team went on to break its own Class A record many times, but it gradually became clear that the racers were outgrowing the rough mud surface of their spiritual home in the Mojave.
In an effort to find a more suitable course the hot rodders eventually stumbled upon the Bonneville Salt Flats, where the likes of John Cobb’s Railton Special had begun touching 400mph.
“Wally Parks went to Salt Lake City to get permission,” says Xydias. “We were so excited at the shop to be able to run where the famous English cars had set those records, so we decided we wanted to do something different than just go up there and run the V8-60.”
Inspired by the chance discovery of a book that detailed Auto Union’s wind-tunnel testing, Xydias and his good friend Dean Batchelor set about creating a brand-new body for the racer that would challenge hot-rod convention.
“They mentioned how it worked and what the results were and everything,” Xydias says.
“It was an exciting read. We learned that even with a full body that increased the frontal area by 50%, you could reduce drag by 50% by enclosing the wheels. That was the answer, so we took the belly tank off and Neil Emory built a fully enclosed aluminium body.”
Powered by a 156cu in Edelbrock V8-60, the wide and low racer bucked convention, though most hot rodders remained unconvinced.
That all changed in 1949 when the finished car – now resplendent in white with gold leaf lightning bolt detailing, and with a spare Meeks-built 289cu in Mercury V8 to take on Class C – arrived at Bonneville for the first time. Though not without drama.
En route to Utah the team crashed, damaging the car’s nose and forcing hasty repairs when they arrived.
Yet the streamliner proved itself spectacularly, setting a record of 156.39mph before dropping in the big Merc.
“The ClassCrecord at the time was 160,” says Xydias. “When we went 193mph it shocked the world –including us. We had no idea we would increase the record that much.” When Batchelor’s two runs were averaged, the new Class C record stood at a staggering 189.745mph.
The Class C record was raised even further at Bonneville in 1950 to a shade under 210mph, but one prize still eluded the team: the 219mph international record held by the Auto Union that inspired the streamliner.
A plan was hatched with NASCAR founder Bill France to tow the car to Daytona, where the dense air would offer a useful power increase, and run it on the beach.
“We got excited, but the beach was nowhere near as wonderful as they told me it was going to be,” says Xydias.
“It was semi-hard, but it was undulating. We had bad weather every day and high winds. We got a little desperate towards the end, and a little foolish, and decided to run.
“On one of the undulations, when it was coming up, the wind got under it and we wrecked it. The driver survived and we towed it home. The body was so badly damaged we just cut it off.”
With Bill Dailey badly hurt and the stricken streamliner broken for parts, its body sold as scrap for just $4, the team returned to the west coast to plan the next move.
“We were so disappointed the streamliner was wrecked, for a while we weren’t going to do anything. We just had to collect our thoughts,” he admits. “We were so saddened by what had happened at Daytona.”
To create a new streamliner would have been prohibitively expensive, but Xydias was keen to keep racing and an idea began to form.
“I looked up at the ceiling in the shop and there was the old belly tank body, so we went belly tank racing again.
“David DeLangton worked for me at the shop so I gave him the task of building the chassis. Before we just had a Model T frame, and I was always embarrassed about that. Now we had a beautifully custom-built frame.”
Unlike the previous chassis, DeLangton formed a lightweight yet strong bespoke frame using 10-gauge steel, to which was bolted another Ford rear end with a Halibrand quick-change section, while at the front was a Model A axle with a transverse leaf spring and parallel mounted Hartford friction shock absorbers.
“David made the car lighter by drilling holes in everything. He was drilling the backing plates of the brakes, stuff that nobody had done before.
“Rather than chrome the chassis – I always thought racers should be something different – we cad-plated it all. It made it unique.”
The body of the belly tank body was cut to allow the whole car to sit lower to the ground, while the Plexiglas cockpit canopy came from a Goodyear racing plane.
It wasn’t the only element to feature a distinctly aeronautical flavour: as before, many parts were picked up in the same surplus stores that sold the tanks themselves, with the steering wheel being a flight yoke from a P-38.
By 1952 the new Lakester was at the peak of its development, with a cutting-edge chassis and three ripping flatheads with which to contest classes A, B and C.
The venerable Bobby Meeks built V8-60 gamely soldiered on in Class A, while the big 289cu in Mercury V8 would challenge for top honours in Class C.
The team worked from dawn until dusk, waking in the dark and racing through the blistering heat of the day, labouring late into the night to change engines in the parking lot of their motel.
By the end of the week their work had paid off: “We ran three engines at Bonneville and had three first places.”
But class wins weren’t enough for the So-Cal team. The glory always lay in setting new records, and in Class C the Lakester faced a formidable new foe.
“We were up against Ray Brown’s belly tank and he was running the new big Chrysler Hemi against our flathead. We had a hell of a battle with him on that.
“There wasn’t a hot rodder in the world that didn’t realise that the hemispherical combustion chamber was the answer. We were all running these flatheads that couldn’t breathe worth a damn, that’s why we were port relieving them and stuff. Everybody knew the Chrysler was the future.
Luckily it was the Hemi’s first year and they hadn’t perfected all the new speed secrets yet, so we had a chance.”
With DeLangton drafted to Korea, Xydias shared driving duties with Clyde Sturdy. “We were taking turns on the record runs,” says Xydias.
“I would drive down and he’d drive back. We were both nervous in those days – we were going faster than we ever thought we would. We were kidding each other about taking nerve pills!”
It all came down to the final day, with one two-way run from each car to settle the duel once and for all.
“On the record run on Sunday I drove it down, and I was very happy when I got through the traps,” says Xydias.
“I thought, ‘Oh good, I’m through now for the week and that’s it, hopefully we can break the record coming back and everything will be great, ’so I got out of the car.
“When it came time for Clyde to get in for the return he says, ‘You know, I’m just too nervous, I can’t do it. I just can’t do it, you’re going to have to.’ We started giving each other fun and teasing, and finally I got back into the car.”
For four days the two teams had been duking it out, leapfrogging each other in the standings and pushing the envelope of performance.
On Friday afternoon the Lakester posted a one-way speed of 198.34mph, and by Saturday Brown had pipped them with a better average of 197.88mph, setting up a grandstand finish: all or nothing.
In a final bid to capture the record, Meeks upped the ratio of ‘juice’ to 40/60, a do-or-die dose of nitromethane that would push the flathead to the very limit.
Incredibly, the engine withstood the punishment, clocking the fastest time of the day going into a headwind – but Xydias still had to make it back. Screaming for the line, it looked as if So-Cal was about to make history once again.
“Then we tulipped the valve!” Xydias laughs. “That’s part of the flathead problem, the valves get so hot that they tulip. And there went the record. That was our last run at Bonneville Salt Flats that year, but we went home with six awards: two records, three first places and Best Appearing Car and Crew.”
Sturdy, having bought-out Batchelor, walked away with the Lakester and continued to race it using his own engine before it finally succumbed to the inevitable and was no longer competitive.
“Bruce Meyer restored the Pierson Brothers Coupe and that’s what got everybody in the collector-car business interested in hot rods,” explains 98-year-old Xydias.
“After the Coupe was so successful he wanted to find the belly tank, and I knew where it was. We went down there and got it and he took it up to the mountains where he was working and restored the car with Pete Chapouris.
“Wally Parks and I would get in the car and go up there and have biscuits and gravy at their little restaurant and just had a great time. We’d go and watch Pete work on the car and try to help him by remembering what went where.
“It was one of the fun times of my life, watching Bruce and Pete restore that car, and the fame it got again at Pebble Beach. It was wonderful.
“It was a great run with the belly tank, and it’s still there for people to enjoy looking at. That’s the good part.”
Images: James Mann
Thanks to Alex Xydias; Bruce Meyer; Petersen Automotive Museum