Driving the "City of Burbank"
reprinted with permission of Bonneville Racing News
By George Hill
While the speeds the City of Burbank attained are paled in comparision to speeds today, we felt in 1952 that with only 239 cubic inches, unblown, we could be pretty happy with the results. Even today, many machines with considerably more horsepower, albeit running in lesser streamlined classes, have difficulty in breaking the 200 mph mark. We were fortunate to breeze through that fifties barrier with seemingly little effort. Well, it seemed like very little effort once we were finally on the salt.
But first, we probably should add a bit to Geoffrey Hardin's chapters describing construction of the car (see the History page) with a few words about its final assembly. During the last week before Bonneville Speed Week, when most racers had loaded their cars on trailers and filled their trucks with tools, fuel, and supplies and had gone to Utah, we were still hard at work in Burbank putting finishing touches on the car. Mounting dzus fasteners and their individual mounting springs for all four wheel covers had yet to be done; mounting locking fixtures for the driver canopy was yet another chore; connecting some of the instruments needed to be completed, and there was a list of other minor yet time consuming projects. Saturday, when cars were going through safety inspection at Bonneville and Sunday when they were running on the salt, we were still working on the car in Burbank.
Sleep was an expensive luxury we could ill afford and soon realized we were not making enough headway. Body or muscle fatigue is one thing, but mental fatigue leads to mistakes and errors in workmanship and can cause pauses where nothing constructive is being accomplished. At the rate we were proceeding it might take another week to complete the car and the meet would be over. We decided to load all the supplies along with parts not yet completed and head for Wendover, feeling that once there and after a few hours sleep we might be in better shape to finish the car properly. Also, there was the possibility we might solicit a bit of help after arriving in Utah.
What we did not take into consideration was the fact that we had cut our sleep allowance down to three hours a night for last two months and we felt like walking zombies. I was down to 143 pounds, from 185 pounds and Willie had even lost a few pounds. In this state we began that boring drive of almost 700 miles over Walker Pass and across the seemingly endless desert. We took turns driving Bill Davis's pickup and I must admit the trailered race car, somewhat longer than the truck, must have sometimes weaved rather precariously across the highway. I can still remember that as we traversed that 120 mile stretch between Ely and Wendover it was not uncommon to drive only fifteen minutes before waking up the other partner to take his turn at the wheel.
Finally we had to stop for a nap. As soon as the vehicle came to a stop we were sound asleep, sitting up, leaning against the doors. We slept for an hour before a semi-trailer blasted by and awoke both of us. Now, with our subconscious minds rested we were able to continue on to Wendover and as we topped White Horse Pass and began the downgrade toward the Utah state line, the sight of the white desert gave us new strength. In those days the whole desert was salty white. There were no brown mud areas.
Arriving in Wendover we checked into the A-1 Motel. This would be our first time to sleep in a motel in this town. In 1950 and again in 1951 we slept in old deserted Air Force barracks down by the railroad track.
It was now mid-morning on Tuesday. The sun was bright and we were too keyed up to sleep so we went right to work on the car in the motel parking lot. Electricity was available with extension cords so we began drilling and mounting the springs, backup plates and dzus fasteners for the four wheel covers. This was the largest and most time consuming project on our list. After fitting these covers over the wheel openings, the finally began to appear complete. The only item left was to find a way to secure the rear of the driver's compartment canopy which we finally did by mounting a couple of barrel bolts inside to be operated by the driver. Today we would not be allowed to secure a canopy in this fashion. Come to think of it, there were probably a number of features in the car that would not pass today's rigid safety inspection. We felt however, it was one of the safest cars to run on the salt in those days. The next day, early Wednesday afternoon, we towed the car to the salt and passed safety inspection with no problems. We were ready for our first run. Don Clark and Clem Tebow were there and ready to prepare the engine.
Ah, the engine. It was truly one of a kind. It consisted of a 239 cubic inch displacement 1948 Mercury 59A block. It was fitted with special domed pistons that extended up into the Adams-Moller overhead-valve cylinder heads. The valve arrangement in these heads was an adaptation of early BMW engine design. The intake pushrods, rockers, and valves worked in normal overhead fashion, while each exhaust rocker operated another pushrod located transversely in the head to move another rocker in the bottom of the head that actuated an exhaust valve. This arrangement allowed formation of a true hemispherical combustion chamber with the spark plug near the chamber's center. Rather ideal at the time. Tuning on alcohol with a touch of nitro, the engine put out 320 horsepower at 5200 rpm.
When Clark and Tebow (C-T Automotive) acquired the engine it did not have an induction system. They fabricated a simple slide-valve injection system whereby a 1/4" plate with holes corresponding to the intake ports in each head would slide forward, opening the access entrance to the intake ports where spray jets dumped raw fuel into the ports. This rather crude system was expected to work better in the upper rpm ranges but actually ended up working rather well at low and idle speeds when maneuvering around the pits and starting line area. As there were no adjustment capabilities for idle speeds a vise grip was clamped onto the end of the sliding plate on the left head where it extended beyond the front edge of the head casting thus allowing a minute opening into the port. This vise grip became a permanent part of the system.
International Class "C" allows 305 cubic inches (6 liters) and it would have been interesting to see this 239 inch engine enlarged a bit to take advantage of additional power. However, it did prove to have enough power to handle the chore at hand. that of setting a new class "C" record. The time was now approaching for us to tackle that chore.
Sitting in the car while Clem and Don finished preparations for starting the engine, I felt a nudge as the push bar on Bill's truck made contact with the car's tail. The exhilaration and anticipation after eight months of drudgery seemed almost overwhelming. I was on an extreme emotional high and wished they would finish fussing around and get the show on the road. When this engine was cold it would not start on racing plugs, so hotter warmup spark plugs had to be installed for this test run. Finally, everyone was ready and they gave Bill the order to start pushing.
We began to roll across the salt in an area allocated for warmups which, incidentally, was quite large in those days with miles of hard smooth salt where one could make lengthy warmup runs before returning to the starting line and pit area. I finally heard Bill sound the horn which meant we were up to 40 miles per hour. Time to start.
I released the clutch pedal, felt the engine begin to turn, and heard Bill's truck groan a bit with the added compression of the Adams-Moller working against it. As soon as oil pressure came up I hit the switch. The engine fired immediately and we began to move under our own power; first time for the car and first time for the engine other than on the dynamometer. The engine had a much lower rather throaty tonr than I expected from such a small engine. With no engine cover or canopy I could hear its every sound quite easily. I went onlt a short distance, as planned, put it in neutral and brought the car to a stop with the engine running. Clem and Don hopped out of the truck and came around to se how the engine sounded. It seemed to be idling a bit high so Clem loosened and reclamped the vise grip for a better idle speed and I headed out onto the wide salt flat warm up area. After bringing the oil, coolant, and gears up to operating temperatures, I returned to the pit area where Don, Clem and Bill were making preparations for our first run down the course. Why not? It was getting a bit late on Wednesday afternoon and there was no reason not to go.
I was thrilled. Anticipation was high. Clem and Don changed spark plugs. Bill put in some fuel, and while the engine cover and wheel covers were being installed I became a bit antsy waiting for preparations to conclude so we could push the car up to the line. After the roadsters and other open-wheeled cars I had driven, I knew this was going to be a great experience. Finally, we were at rthe head of the line and it was our turn to go.
In 1952 there were no log books or driver licenses. The only rule governing allowable speeds for a new car or driver was that a cautious appproach be made during the first two miles with the car traveling as close as possible to a speed of 100 miles per hour as it passed through the first quarter-mile electronically-timed trap. This trap was the first quarter-mile of the third mile of the course. At this point and time, if the driver had not experienced any problems and the car felt good to him, he could, at his discretion, increase the speed during the third, fourth, anf fifth miles, each mile being timed separately. The driver would be the sole judge. As 200 mph speeds were rather infrequent in those days the governing body had not yet felt the need for more stringent rules regulating allowable speeds for new cars and/or drivers.
Don and Clem figured out the tach reading for 100 mph in high (third) gear and we agreed to try for exactly 100 mph in the quarter-mile trap. After that I would be free to accelerate through the next two and three-quarter miles achieving whatever speeds the car seemed capable of safely.
Driver preparation in those days was no big deal. A tee shirt, Levi's, soft leather moccasins, and of course, my new Bell helmet. One had to think of safety! I knew the Bell was good because my old one wore off three layers of glass before the El Mirage surface pushed me up inside Holly Hedrick's tank, which I had managed to get upside down during its maiden run. Anyway, I climbed in and Bill pushed the canopy down on my helmet. I slid down another inch so I could slide the barrel bolts securing the canopy and I wondered at the time if I should not have made the rollbar a touch higher for a bit more room under the canopy, but then that was someting to think about later. Now we're ready to go.
I felt the push bar touch the car and we began to roll. The salt was so hard in those days the course ahead looked like a white highway with black boundry lines. The first quarter-mile was blackened from side to side with rubber after suffering four days of roadsters, coupes, sedans, and bikes spinning their wheels through the gears while accelerating. We ran the same course all week then as the salt was so thick and hard it felt better than the best smooth, hard, flat concrete highway. The adrenalin was really flowing now and it seemed like an eternity before I heard Bill sound the forty-mile-per-hour horn. Great ! I pushed the clutch pedal in, put the shift lever in low ( I thought) and let the clutch pedal out. The oil pressure came up rather slowly, not quickly like on the warmup run, but soon it was high enough and I hit the switch. The engine fired but there was not a great sensation of acceleration. I thought, "My God, maybe we took too much prep time and the engine is now too cold to fire these plugs, or maybe we're not getting enough fuel." But it seemed to be running, just not pulling very hard. I checked the oil pressure, and then the tachometer and realized, "Hey, stupid, you're in high gear, not low." I shifted into second and the car immediatly began to accelerate.
Now I became aware of a new sound, one that I had never heard before. The straight cut gears in the quick-change rearend wdere very noisy developing into a high pitched scream as the car went faster. In roadsters and other open wheeled cars the sound from under or at the rear of the car is seldom heard by the driver; the exhaust and windstream around the ddriver's helmet erases most chassis sounds. But here, enclosed inside, sitting beside the driveshaft with the rear axle housing just behind the seat (I could reach back and put a hand on the quick-change housing) it's no wonder the noise was so loud and so high. I had never been enclosed with a unit like this before so it was new sound, one I would become accustomed to and actually look forward to. Learning the sound of the gears would come in handy later because it would pretty much tell me how the engine was functioning. The sound of the gears was almost all-encompassing and drowned almost completely the sound of the engine exhaust and all other sounds of the car. Of course the tach has always been a reliable indicator of engine speeds, but this sound of the gears was like another tachometer, a rather subconscious one I didn't have to keep an eye on. It told me immediately if the engine lost or was losing power. Passing the one-mile marker I shifted back into high gear and as we settled down at 100 mph the sound of the gears, though loud, became constant.
So now, cruising at 100 mph, as I approached the two-mile marker which is the same as today, the beginning of the first quarter-mile of timing, I moved the wheel a bit left and then right and the car moved accordingly left then right and when I relaxed my hands on the wheel it seemed to steer itself in a staight line as if it were on rails. I was favorably impressed with the handling and decided that after going through the quarter-mile trap I'd put the pedal down and try to build up our speed in a safe manner.
After passing the quarter-mile trap at what I hoped was close to 100 mph, I thought of shifting back to second gear. Earlier we had figured the car could go about 190 mph in second but then I forced myself to return to our original conservative plan and remained in high gear. With our transmission gears we had figured speeds of about 105 in low gear, 190 in second gear and we were here to find out what it could do in high gear (third) gear, but not during this run. With such a slow start it didn't seem like the time to try for a fast run. This was a test run so I forced myself to relax, left it in high gear, and waited to see what might develop as the car went faster.
The tachometer needle steadily climbed and the gears began to scream at a higher pitch as the car continued to run like it was on rails, requiring little or no corrections on the wheel. We went through mile three and then mile four a bit quicker and in mile five it felt so good with the car almost driving itself I just relaxed, watched and listened. The tach and the gears were making sweet music. Passing the five-mile marker I hit the clutch and the switch simultaneously so Clem would get a clean spark plug reading and began coasting down the course. We had no parachutes in those days and even if the brakes had been good enough, there was no need to use then now. With miles of good salt ahead and no obstructions, I just let her coast about four miles and then slowly applied the brakes and came to a stop. During a run in 1953 I let the car coast after a run and it went seven miles before I swung around in a circle and back onto the course.
This was our first run and I felt good about the car. It seemed to WANT to run in a straight line. Unfastening my seat belt and taking off the helmet, I climbed out and sat beside the car waiting for Bill to arrive with the pickup. It would take him a few minutes to get out here. Out here! With no one around for miles. The only sounds present were those of the car cooling and myself. I was astonished to hear (I was a smoker back then) the sounds of individual tobacco shreds as they burned when I inhaled on my cigarette; like the sounds of a miniature campfire. So I could hear Bill coming long before I looked in that direction.
Clem and Don had come along with Bill and they were ecstatic. Seems like we went through the quarter-mile trap near the required 100 mph speed (101 mph) and through the fifth mile at an average speed of 199 mph, which meant we were traveling well over 200 mph at the end of the fifth mile. We were all thrilled. We seemed to have gone 200 mph almost effortlessly. No time to squander now by dwelling on the many months of struggling to get here. We had a record to set. We were qualified for a two-way run for the SCTA record on Thursday morning. I don't recall just what speed the record was at that time but it seems we had surpassed it by a considerable margin.
Clem, Don, Bill and I had steak dinners that night at the Staten which at that time was a diner type cafe with about twenty booths and many slot machines. Up on the slope beside the diner was a row of about eight small motel rooms and that pretty much was the Stateline Hotel in tose days. There were never enough waitresses and meals took a long time. Sometimes the owner, Mrs. Smith, helped with the serving of meals. Anyway, during our wait and through the meal we planned our record runs for the next morning. We had no idea how fast the car would go. We knew now it could go over 200 mph but how much more was still a mystery to us. Clem figured our tach readings so we could hold engine speeds down by running about 90 mph in first gear, that is if I could find first, they didn't allow me to forget that one for a while, and then about 170 mph in second gear, thus not taking any chances with this new engine before getting this first two-way record in the books. That night, the first time in many months, we had a full night of sleep.
On the salt early Thursday morning we warmed the water and lubricants by running in the warmup area and pulled up to the starting line to join a group that had qualified for record runs in other classes. Clem and Don changed plugs. Bill put on the engine cover, and we were ready to go.
The runs that morning ran so smoothly they were almost anticlimactic. This time I made sure we were in first gear and the car pulled rapidly away from the truck, there was a momentary quiet while I shifted into second and then the gears began their welcome scream again. Halfway through the second mile and approaching the two-mile marker there again was that momentary quiet while I shifted into high and then again the welcome song of the gears screaming. Strange how the officials and spectators could hear only the deep-throated roar of the little engine while all I could hear were the gears. Anyway, we all listened while the car accelerated through all three timed miles, recording a speed of 226 + mph in the last mile. We had hoped for more but when we exited the last mile the tach was reading only 4800 rpm and the gear sound had ceased to change to higher tones. Perhaps we were flat out. Also, in the last mile I noticed something strange happening at the rear of the engine cover, as though it were coming loose. Then I brought my concentration back to shutting the engine down clean. I coasted about four miles down the course so Clem would get a good plug reading.
Preparing for a return run in the opposite direction, we drained half the water from our nine-gallon tank and replaced it with cold water, added some fuel and Bill Davis crawled under the tail to change gears. Clem and Don wanted to turn the engine a bit higher so we were dropping to a lower gear to give it the opportunity to better reach its potential. The return run was better. The car accelerated faster in all three gears and in the fifth mile the tach needle crossed the 5000 rpm mark. The car continued to feel as though it were on rails and I was just beginning to feel comfortable in it when I again noticed the hood over the engine appearing to come loose. Well I know it could't come loose and fly away as it was held in place by many dzus fasteners spaced about eight inches apart. As it was right at my eye level I was amazed to see the rigidly reinforced fiberglass panel bow up between the dzus fasteners, rising about 3/4-inch between the fasteners. However, it was now time to finish the fifth, shut the engine down clean again, and coast for miles to the original starting line and pit area. While coasting I realized I had become distracted with the hood situation and did not get a good tach reading as we finished the last mile. However I did remember seeing the tach needle pass the 5000 rpm mark and as we were still accelerating at that time I hoped we had gone faster on this run.
J. Otto Crocker, the chief timer, recorded our speed at just over 234 mph, resulting in a two-way average of 230.16 mph, a new record. Now we had something to be happy about. We were even more elated a while later when a group including SCTA officials and representatives from Maremont Corporation, and eastern auto parts manufacturer, chose our machine as "BEST ENGINEERED CAR OF THE YEAR".
Later I took Bill aside and told him about the peculiar activity at the rear of the engine cover. We know the air ducted in from the opening in the nose of the body would build a positive pressure under the engine cover and over the injectors as planned but found it difficult to believe it was enough to distort the reinforced fiberglass hood. Bill then tried to force the tip of a large screwdriver under the edge of the hood but could not make it enter until we took out a couple more dzus fasteners. Even then, with both of us trying to pry the cover up we were stopped when it appeared the glass was in danger of cracking or breaking. Bill looked at me rather quizzically, as he had many times while we were building this machine and asked, "Are you really sure you saw this happen?" He knew, heck we all knew, I had never traveled this fast before and perhaps I was hallucinating. "Bill it happened," I pleaded, "It was not my imagination. I think we must be losing some of the positive pressure over the engine as it escapes through these temporary openings at the rear of the hood when we reach top speeds."
I could tell Bill found this hard to believe but he helped anyway by adding additional dzus fasteners between the others so the spacing was now only four inches apart. Now we could hope to keep all that positive pressure under the hood and perhaps give the engine a bit more free boost. Had we been engineers we might have seen the handwriting on the wall at that time. We would find out later the shape of the car was actually that of an airfoil. not a very efficient one, but certainly one that created lift. Air accelerated past the nose and raised a bit over the top of the car. This created negative pressures just over the area we were creating positive pressures, under the hood with air ducted from the nose. With these combative forces working in unison they forced openings at the rear of the hood and the positive inner forces were allowed to escape, flowing rearward over the top of the car and filling some of the void created by negative pressures, thus negating a portion of the lift. When we sealed these openings by installing more dzus fasteners to keep the positive pressurers in the engine compartment we actually created more lift.
Ah, we were such "Babes in The Woods". We had so much to learn. Unfortunately we didn't learn in time and in later years with larger engines and more horsepower the lifted area moved more to the rear of the car and we lost it. But that's another story and right now we were thrilled with having successful runs, breaking the record, and winning the Maremont Trophy. Now it all seemed worthwhile.
Driving the City of Burbank was a great thrill for me. It beat many of my adventures in the paratroops. It beat skydiving after the war; it certainly was more exciting than driving roadsters on the salt and on the dry lake beds; and, I can happily relate to the hundreds who have built and driven their own machines at exciting speeds on the salt during the forty-four years since we did it; and it certainly is a nice feeling to have been one of the first.
Editors note: About a month after setting the above record during the 1952 Bonneville National Speed Trials, this crew returned with the car to Bonneville and with AAA Timing successfully broke the International Class "C" record. This record was held for fifteen years by Bernd Rosemeyer in Germany's Auto Union, a beautiful machine subsidized by the German government at probably fifty times the cost of building the City of Burbank. The Hill Davis Streamliner set numerous other speed records including fastest speed of the meet in 1955, before it was ultimately destroyed in a crash later that year.
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