Building the "City of Burbank"
reprinted with permission of Bonneville Racing News
By Geoffrey Hardin
The "City of Burbank" was built back in 1952 and was the first car created by hot rodders in this country to be successful in bringing international speed records to the United States. Out of the box it bettered Bernard Rosemyer's record of 219 mph set in a specially built streamliner, the German Auto Union, a government sponsored beautiful machine running in class "C", limited to 305 cubic inch displacement. The German government at the time subsidized both Mercedes and Auto Union in their competitive attempts at world recognized speed and racing achievements.
Rudolf Caracciola drove a streamliner Mercedes to 268.900 mph in class "B" which allowed 488 cubic inches. These Auto Union and Mercedes records were set on the fabulous Autobahn, Germany's super highway. Later, with a class "B" engine installed in his record setting Auto Union, Rosemyer's attempt on the Mercedes record ended in failure when cross winds blew him of the Autobahn and into trees where he was killed instantly.
These were brave men, representative of some of the greatest race car drivers of all time and it is indeed a shame they never had the opportunity to run for records on the Salt Flats of Utah. During those years the salt was in its best condition with fourteen mile straightaway and ten mile circle courses available. however, Hitler probably would have frowned upon the idea of German cars setting records in any other country. Germany's Autobahn, race cars and drivers had to prove their superiority to all the world.
The records were impressive; Rosemyer's lasted almost fifteen years until Hill broke it in 1952 and Caracciola's record in the Mercedes was broken the following year by mal Hooper in the "Shadoff Special" a rear-engined version of the "City of Burbank". Bean Batchelor created the shapes of both cars.
The "City of Burbank" was not created initially, at least in the mind of Hill, for an attack on these German records. It was built because Hill grew tired of driving roadsters and other peoples cars. His own roadster attained a top speed of 139 mph and won the Stoker's annual championship beating Tom Beatty by only one point on the dry lakes of EL Mirage in 1949.
That year a pioneering group went to Bonneville to run on the Salt Flats but Hill, like many others, thought, "Why travel so far when we have an ideal place to run here at El Mirage?" How wrong this proved to be. When the participants of that first Bonneville meet returned with stories of the expanse and smoothness of the salt, AND NO DUST, many of the dry lakes groups made plans to attend the 1950 meet.
During the 1950 meet on the salt Hill drove a modified roadster for Winston Ranger amd made many runs at 151 mph which was far from any record and Hill wanted to go faster. During this event Dean Batchelor and Alex Xydias showed up with a fully streamlined machine using a small 60V8 that easily out ran many of the larger more powerful cars. Bill Kenz came from Denver with a beautiful streamlined car powered by two Ford Mercury engines. Marvin Lee brought his new "City of Pasadena" streamliner but during a run it overturned and was completely demolished. The Batchelor-Xydias "So Cal Special " again brought top honors back to Burbank, California.
The streamliner bug began to bite everyone but records will show that not many did anything about it. During the 1951 Bonneville meet there were only two such cars present. Bill Kenz's twin-engine machine with Willie Young at the wheel hit 221 mph and a new car by Lee Chapel driven by John Rogers had engine problems but looked capable of 200 mph plus speeds. The pretty So Cal Special had since been destroyed while making speed runs on the beach at Daytona. Hill again drove the modified roadster at 151 mph and while there decided to drive his own streamliner on the salt in 1952.
He knew very little about aerodynamics or about chassis building other than what he had learned while building his roadster and observing other cars on the lakes and on the salt. Dean Batchelor, realized Hill was serious about this endeavor and offered his assistance in an advisory capacity. After the loss of the So Cal Special he had no desire to become financially involved in another car. Subsequently, Dean had become editor of Bill Quinn's Hop Up Magazine and was in a position to research all land speed records and the cars and drivers involved. Without his help in these matters and later, this car would never have been completed on time for the 1952 meet. As this project progressed, he was instrumental in acquiring much needed aid from manufacturers and equipment suppliers. During one period it might have been abandoned altogether had it not been for his aid and encouragement.
Hill soon realized the cost of such a car was too much for one man with a family to build in a period of only one year. He needed a partner and just a few blocks away lived Bill Davis. (Davis and Hill were both members of Glendale Stokers Club of SCTA). Bill had a 1932 roadster that held records in both SCTA and RTA.
A partnership was formed and both Hill's and Davis' roadsters were dismantled for parts. This partnership was to work out very well. Hill worked days in a heat treating plant straightening out aluminum aircraft parts distorted by water quenching after salt bath heat treating. Davis worked part-time for his father in the construction business and could spend some daytime hours chasing parts and materials. Both were available for work on their car in the evening and on weekends. Their lives became totally dedicated to this project in the small garage behind Hill's apartment.
At this point Dean Batchelor was contracted and the three men worked until wee small hours discussing body shape and size. " The ultimate shape at this time," explained Batchelor, "seemed to be Reid Railton's design used by John Cobb in setting the unlimited land speed record at 394 mph, but it was with a twin-engine four-wheel-drive machine with the driver in the very front of the car."
Hill and Davis wanted the driver in the rear of the car for better directional "feel" of the chassis and they also wanted to incorporate a transmission for better acceleration runs. Transaxles were not yet common in this country except in small Volkswagen cars. They agreed on a shape similar to Goldie Gardner's record setting streamliner from England though it would be a bit larger to accommodate a larger engine and driveline package.
Batchelor brought Hill and Davis together with Clem Tebow and Donald Clark of C-T Automotive and an agreement was reached to use the latter's newly acquired 248 cubic inch Adams-Moller overhead engine in the chassis. More about this fabulous engine later.
Now that a basic shape and size had been determined Batchelor retired to his drawing board to begin putting this shape on paper while Hill and Davis went to Hill's garage to start construction of the frame.
stay tuned for more of the story where we describe in detail actual construction of the chassis, while some of their construction techniques may seem a bit primitive by today's standards, they were deemed at the time to be the best they could do with their own limited experience and a very limited budget.
When we last left our small group Dean Batchelor had retired to his drawing board to begin shaping the machine on paper and Davis and Hill went to Hill's garage to begin construction of the frame. And therein lies another story. While at an amateur meet, (pitting street roadsters against sports cars on a test track behind the Davis Three Wheel Car Manufacturing Plant), Hill noticed a plant crew throwing a welded tube frame over the fence into an empty lot. Seems like the Davis Company had ceased production and this last frame was being discarded. The Davis manager said they were welcome to it so they loaded it on the trailer and took it home. The frame was based on 3 inch chrome moly tubing with .125 wall and nicely curved kickups in the rear that would fit perfectly over the rear axle. It needed only minor cross-member modifications to fit their planned structure.
While Hill fabricated cross members and began welding the frame together, Davis began dismantling both roadsters. using all available parts from the roadsters meant having to purchase fewer parts and , again, money was scarce. Hill gas welded this whole car together as he had no arc welding machine and no experience with arc. Knowing the importance of roll bar strength they later hand formed all of the parts and took the car to Don Clark to arc-weld this important part of the machine to the frame.
This might be a good time to establish the fact there were no roll bar rules in effect at the lakes or at Bonneville at that time. Photos of the Kenz- Leslie twin-engine machine, the Post streamliner and many modified roadsters and lakesters show driver's heads and some shoulders well above the body lines of the cars with no visible protection. Hill tried to visualize the car upside down and planned the roll bars and tube cage around the driver accordingly.
This planning paid off later when the car became airborne in 1955 at about 265 mph during FIA runs. It came down upside down and backwards and went into the air two more times before coming to rest on its wheels. The driver suffered a slight crack in the left cheekbone below the eye and a few bruises. He was out and walking around when help arrived. Today's rules with shoulder harness and arm restraints probably would have eliminated the bruises and cracked bone.
Davis took the complete rear end with Halbrand quick change from his roadster to Cook's Machine Works to be shortened. The axles were cut to give a 49 inch track and the drive shaft was shortened to 32 inches. The wheelbase was established at 108 inches with 49 inch tread width and Ford 18 inch steel truck wheels were to be used with 6:00 x 18 Firestone Speedway tires. At that time no one built tires for Bonneville.
A Model A front axle was shortened 10 inches and arc welded together at Cook's. The unit was then magnafluxed as was the entire front end assembly. The transverse springs, both front and rear, were shortened by cutting the ends and rolling new eyes. The spindles and hubs were machined to utilize ball bearings instead of the usual Ford roller bearings.
Adjustable spring mounts were then fabricated and welded to the front and rear crossmembers. These were desired so the frame rake and angle of incidence of the body could be changed if necessary. Lack of engineering experience necessitated these additional items allowing flexibility in final alignment of the chassis and body.
The front and rear-end assemblies were now ready to be attached to the car. With both units in place, the safety hubs and ball bearings on the rear axle, the '48 Ford hydraulic brakes from Hill's roadster were bolted on. The transmission from Hill's roadster, complete with Zephyr gears, was next attached to the drive shaft. At this point the entire assembly was still sitting on blocks on the garage floor. Work could now begin on engine mounts. C-T loaned the boys an Ardun engine to use during chassis construction. Exterior dimensions of the Ardun were almost identical to those of the Adams-Moller overhead conversion with all engine mounts and plumbing the same. It was a good substitute for the real thing.
With the engine blocked in place the rear engine mount was fabricated and welded to the frame members. This mount was a flat piece of steel .090 thick, and triangular in shape, fitting between the engine and transmission. Now that the engine and transmission were securely bolted together the front engine mounts were fabricated and welded to the frame. These attach to the stock Ford water pump engine mounts on the block. Spacers of various thickness were made up to be able to adjust the front of the engine for height so the driveline through the universal joint could be kept in a straight line. (This in the event that the body angle would have to be changed for any reason. )
Radius rods at the front were the split Ford wishbone type and are fitted with Ford tie rod ends. They were bolted on each side to a gusset that braces the front engine mount to the main frame tube.
In the rear a single tie rod on either side is fastened to the axle housing with one 7/16 inch bolt and clevis. Connection to the frame on the forward end was by a tie rod end which is mounted just opposite and level with the universal joint.
Bill Davis had been scrounging used tires from the many Southern California independent Indy car owners who were happy to get rid of used 18 inch tires and those with the least amount of rubber were ideal for use on the streamliner. The car would be travelling considerably faster than the Indy cars of that era and Batchelor had warned them that excess rubber might be thrown off at their planned wheel speeds in excess of 2500 rpm. These tires with new tubes, were mounted on new 18 inch steel truck wheels from Ford and then bolted to the hubs. Blocks were removed from under the frame and axles and the chassis rolled across the floor for the first time.
This night saw completion of the first major phase of construction and was right on schedule as laid out by Davis and Hill. The appointment made two weeks prior, for the following day, with the wheel alignment specialists could be kept. As they proudly rolled the chassis back and forth in the garage, Dean Batchelor arrived with semi-completed drawings of the body. He then began another of those conferences that end with the coming of dawn. Bulkheads were pencilled in along with water tank, foot pedals, roll bars, and all the intricate parts necessary for operation of a race car.
Bill Davis brought around the trailer for the car. The trailer for his roadster had been stretched both front and rear to carry the longer streamliner. As the chassis was rolled out of the garage and loaded, the tremendous difference between a project like this, (built in a backyard garage), and the large automobile factories with multitudes of engineers, blueprints and millions of dollars worth of equipment was evident. To the uninitiated observer the mess on the floor could suggest confusion but actually every move was planned and well thought out despite the lack of blueprints and expensive machine tools.
At Bagge and Sons Wheel Alignment Shop I had the privilege of watching George Bagge set up the chassis on this car. Without fear of contradiction, I felt his was the foremost shop in the country for chassis alignment. The equipment used by Bagge was designed by the father and sons and was, I felt, the best in existence at the time. All his instruments were mounted on true extensions of the spindles and not on the tires or wheels which were seldom if ever true. Because thecar would be used for high speed straightaway work only, the front axle was set with 10 degrees positive castor, three fourths of one degree positive camber and 0 toe in. After adjusting the radius rods to square up the running gear it was found the wheels tracked perfectly. This was very important as the body was to clear the rear tires by only three fourths of an inch. If the track was not perfect it would hurt body clearance, it would be too great on one side and not enough on the other.
The most outstanding thing we learned at Bagge's was that the turning radius, or steering geometry, of the car was absolutely perfect. In his thirty years experience at wheel aligning this was the second car he had found to have correct steering goemetry; and the first was also a custom hand-built car. Actually, the simple rule used by Hill to achieve this was to draw a straight line from the center of the rear axle housing out through both front kingpins and then make sure the tie rod ends fell somewhere on this line. The tie rod can be either behind or ahead of the front axle as long as the tie rods are on this line. Many builders of the early wing tank lakester design just reversed the stock front spindles to get the tie rod ahead of the axle and ended up with horrible steering.
Back in the garage that night I found Hill busy fabricating roll bar parts while Davis and Batchelor were drawing full size patterns for the many bulkheads that were to support the fiberglass body. Hill took time out for a few minutes to explain the importance of roll bars. With a mental picture the car upside down he encased the driver's compartment with 2 1/4 inch chrome moly tubing bent to the contour of the body and welded to the frame. This "cage" was built in such a manner as to protect the driver from the sides as well as overhead. As aforementioned, this system worked well when the car later flew and landed upside down.
Next, a tubular cross member was welded crosswise in the frame to be used on one side of the torque tube as rear support for the driver's seat and on the other side as rear mount for the water tank. The seat was bolted in and the aircraft type safety belt attached to the cross member on the right side and to a tab welded to the frame on the left.
Steering was from a 1926 Dodge, reworked. It was set in place and brackets made to fit which were subsequently welded to the frame. At the upper end the steering shaft turns in a ball bearing race encased in a hand made bracket, which was adjustable for height and bolted to the front roll bar. Four bolts hold a standard midget race car steering wheel to a machined hub which fit on the end of the shaft with a woodruff key and locking nut. Davis had been searching for a Dodge pitman arm for the steering to no avail. Jake Walkey, a plastics engineer from Lockheed Aircraft, who was to come into the picture later as teacher and engineer of the fibreglass body construction, offered to have his son make a pitman arm for the car. His son, Ken Walkey, was a machinest in the Navy stationed in San Diego. A week later Jake came by with the new part, with tapered spline and two positions for mounting the drag link. It fit perfectly. Probably the prettiest bit of machine work on the car.
The four shock absorbers were Ford Houdaille converted to 50/50 action. The two fronts were bolted to tabs welded to the front crossmember and the rears to tabs welded below the rear crossmember.
A seven gallon fuel tank was clamped with stainless steel straps to two one inch diameter tubes welded across the main frame tubes.
To help form the tail of the car and at the same time provide a push bar, (the car had no starter), a one inch chrome moly tube with .187 wall was welded to the very end of the main frame tubes which were tapered down to one inch at this point. This bar was then diagonally braced from the center to points further up the main frame tubes.
A reworked Chrysler clutch was used with this engine and took considerable leverage to release so the clutch pedal was made of an 18 inch length of tubing suspended from tabs welded to the front roll bar. This in turn was connected to the throwout bearing shaft with a short linkage.
The brakes were operated by a hand lever located to the right of the driver's seat. A hand brake was used for two reasons: In the first place, it was deemed the brakes would be useless at high speeds so the main reason for having them was maneuvering around the pit area; In the second place there was no room for a foot pedal. when driving slow only one hand is needed for steering so a hand operated lever was deemed sufficient.
That just about covers major construction of the chassis with the exception of small items such as instruments and other small items that would be required by the engine builders Clark and Tebow.
Next month I will cover formation of bulkheads and actual construction of the fiberglass body. Quite a chore.
Til then: stay tuned for more of this great story
Design and construction of this particular fiberglass body involved several meetings because there were a number of options to be considered. Mr. George J. Walkey voluntarily became supervisor of body construction. "Jake" as he was known by his friends had long been an avid fan of hot rodding although his closest touch to the sport, until now, had been watching his sons work on their cars. One of them, Ken Walkey, is still a prominent member of SCTA and also owner, builder, driver of "Grandpa's Toy" a very successful streamliner.
Jake, a plastics engineer in research at Lockheed Aircraft Corp. made it known the ideal method would be to make a plaster mold of the whole car. Sanding it down to a smooth perfect shape of the desired design; lay up a strong heavy fibreglass body, cure it, reinforce it, then slice it into upper and lower halves which would then become female molds and the actual car body would be laid up in these molds held tightly against the inner surface with vacuum. He estimated a three month period would be needed to accomplish all this. As it was well into June there would not be time enough to undertake this method. Hill was working as many hours overtime on his job as the boss allowed as they needed the extra money and was down to three hours sleep a night.
Jake's alternate plan, although he explained it would not be acceptable in aircraft research circles, would be to construct all the bulkheads with extrusion surfaces attached that followed exact lines of the body, make a plaster mold of the car and lay up the body on this mold. While the inner surface of the body would be smooth and fit the bulkheads perfectly, the exterior could end up extremely rough as the fiberglass cloth material was only forty four inches wide and must be overlapped to be strong. Estimating three weeks for construction of the mold and one for laying up the body, a full month was allotted with still hope of making it to Bonneville in August.
Davis, Hill and Batchelor then laid out the Batchelor drawn bulkheads on sheets of .051 24ST aluminum. After trimming and filing each bulkhead, aluminum extrusion was shaped to the contour and attached to the outside edge of each bulkhead to act as surface for the body shell. Many hours were spent in the alignment of these sections as they would determine the final shape of the body.
Wherever possible these bulkheads were mounted directly to the tubular frame and crossmembers by drilling and tapping holes in the tubes, using war surplus aircraft 10/32 screws. Where this was impractical steel tabs were formed and welded to the frame and the bulkheads attached to these tabs with 10/32 bolts.
With the bulkheads all in place and braced sufficiently to hold 3000 pounds of plaster, Jake Walkey was called in to supervise construction of the "plaster" race car. Following Jake's instructions the crew attached fine mesh metal lath to the bulkheads approximately 1 1/2 inches below the actual body surface. Now the chassis was ready for plaster. Fiberglass, after being applied to the mold, has to "cure" in either infra red light or direct sunlight. As there were no infra red light facilities available to the crew they decided to use direct sunlight which meant the plaster cast could not be built in Hill's garage and there was no outside space in front of the apartment.
Fortunately, Doane Spencer, a club member who lived but a few miles away in North Hollywood had a large back yard and a cement pad beside his garage for a planned future garage extension. The pad was a perfect place to build the mold and as the project had to be outside for several weeks it was good that Doane's wife, Betty, was there all the time to ensure neighborhood children weren't climbing on wet plaster. What great patience these two people had, allowing their back yard to become and absolute mess before this project was completed.
Before the plastering commenced the chassis was blocked up twelve inches off the ground for a better working height and then it was leveled all the way around and solid bracing put under the center of the frame to keep it from sagging under the weight of the plaster which would be on it for several weeks. In addition the springs were blocked to prevent the weight from depressing them and giving a false impression anywhere. For example: the weight of the plaster body could depress the springs an inch or more and when the proper clearance over the wheels was figured and later when the plaster was removed and the lightweight fiberglass body was put back on, there would be more clearance than the design called for.
The first step was to put on a scratch coat of coarse plaster to seal the wire mesh and then the fine casting plaster was applied. This coat of plaster was scraped, sanded and filed down to the contour defined by the bulkheads. during these weeks Jake Walkey's assistance was most valuable as the crew was getting a little impatient and was inclined to go a bit too fast causing mistakes which then took more valuable time to correct. Jake stopped by each night after work to help. In all, it took three weeks working every night and all week-ends to complete the molding process.
The crew thought they were then finally ready for glass but Jake brought Mr. John Morris, an automotive engineer from Morris and Morris Engineering Company in Glendale, and Ralph Wells, an engineer from Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. They were impressed with the overall shape of the mold but suggested changes in the wheel fairings and the driver's canopy. As these changes were fairly minor they were accomplished in two days and then they were ready for glass.
With quick look at the boy's bank book jake had a talk with Mr. Ted Thai of Thalco, west coast distributor of Owens Corning Fiber Glass Products and came back with materials for the body at cost. Without the help of these men the car would never have made it to Bonneville by August.
Before actual application of glass was begun, a wood frame was built around and over the car and a tarp spread completely over it. This was to keep the sun off the car until the resin-impregnated cloth was ready for exposure to the curing rays.
The next step was to clean the entire surface and a heavy coat of wax paste was applied. This would keep the fiber glass cloth and resin from sticking to the mold. A heavy coat of resin was brushed onto the wax and the first strips of glass cloth were applied. As the cloth was only forty four inches wide, it took many strips around the contour of the mold to cover all seventeen feet of body length. An attempt was made to space the overlap so that in each additional layer, one overlap would not fall on top of the other. Even so it was inevitable the finished surface would require much sanding, filling and grinding.
One layer of cloth was put on each day for three days and then the frame was uncovered so the glass would be exposed to direct sunlight for curing. Hill wanted to add a fourth layer for added strength but engineers at Lockheed had studied the chassis design and strength of the bulkhead structure. They determined three overlapping layers would create a body shell strong enough to withstand frontal pressures up to 300 miles per hour yet fragile enough to explode into a thousand pieces should the vehicle ever crash, thus allowing easy escape and access to the driver. Later, in 1955 when the car went into the air at around 265 miles per hour these engineering factors proved to be true. On the first bounce, upside down and backwards, most of the body came off in many pieces. It went into the air twice more before coming to rest on its wheels with almost no fiberglass on the chassis. The driver stepped out of the bare chassis before the first help arrived.
The plan was to finish it off by sanding the body smooth before removing it from the mold. However, the glass process had taken a week longer than planned so the body was left in rather rough condition. After three days of curing the body was cut into sections on the mold.
This was accomplished by using a small diameter (2 inch) circular saw blade (the same type used by model makers) inserted in a portable die grinder. Because the fiberglass is semi-transparent the bulkhead surfaces could be seen well enough to cut the panels accurately. With many helping hands, the plaster mold that had take three weeks to produce was reduced to a pile of rubble. Volunteer help cleaned up the mess in Spencer's back yard and hauled it away to the dump.
In 1952 a quart bottle of beer cost 33 cents, phone calls were a nickel and a BIG BOY Combination with all the trimmings was 89 cents. Labor was cheap but the car never would have been completed without volunteer help. Each night there were as many as nine workers helping to drill, countersink and fasten body panels to the bulkheads with flathead 8-32 aircraft screws. These helpers felt privileged to come over at night after work and become part of a machine that might have some chance for success, The old axiom, "Many hands make light work" was never truer. Much of the drudgery was lifted from the shoulders of Davis and Hill as the permanent body panels were made part of the car.
Some sections such as the engine cover, the four wheels side covers, the right half of the driver's compartment and the section under the quick change unit and fuel tank, were mounted with aircraft dzus fasteners for ease in removal.
After figuring the amount of air needed by the engine at peak speed John Morris advised that an air scoop should be installed in the nose and ducted directly into the engine compartment. An opening 2 1/2 inches by 10 inches wide was cut in the center of the nose and an aluminum sheet was cut and screwed together to form an air duct aimed directly over the engine. An air hose to the driver's compartment was also run from the nose opening. With potent fuels being used it was deemed necessary to ventilate the driver's compartment.
The proof of Morris' foresightedness was shown at Bonneville when the "City of Burbank" performed without fault on its first run while some of the other streamlined car owners were chopping holes in the hoods and adding air scoops to keep their engines from starving for air.
As finished fiberglass is not completely transparent the section that covered the driver was taken home by Jake Walkey who made a heavy plaster mold. This he took to Plastic Age Company in San Fernando where a transparent lucite canopy was made from the mold.
Hill began a futile attempt to smooth out the body surface with fillers, grinding and sanding but Bonneville Speed Week was only a week away. The engineers convinced him only the surface boundary of air would be affected by the uneven surface. An inch or so above that the main forces and airstreams would establish the actual efficiency of the shape. Hill and Davis put aside the cosmetic tools and began finishing the car. Painting the whole car took a day and the City of Burbank Junior Chamber of Commerce sent a sign painter over to put their name on the car; they gave $125 cash for travel expenses to Bonneville. ($125 bought a lot of gas in those days and motels were only $8.00 a night).
This project, building the fiberglass body for the "City of Burbank", was to prove an educational exercise for many people. Walkey learned more about his own engineering department at Lockheed; Morris Engineering had the opportunity to delve deeper into automotive projects while Hill, Davis and their many helpers learned the fundamentals of fiberglass body building.
The success of this venture contributed to the building of more fiberglass bodies. Enthusiasts learned a few dollars and much, much energy could create streamlined vehicles without the prohibitive cost of aluminum forming. We feel that Davis and Hill and all those involved with building the "City of Burbank" advanced hot rodding tremendously in the yes of the world back in the year 1952.
Read the story of the running of this car on the Other Stuff page.
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