Track test: US specials

Playing catch-up

Big firms were slow to offer sports cars to the US, but some enthusiasts couldn’t wait to go racing – so they built their own

Silverstone is busy with every variety of racer today, but no one here has seen a pair of machines like these – two prime examples of the American special-building tradition that after WWII aimed to challenge European sports car imports on the track. These two appeared in UK racing in 2016 and I was invited to gauge how they’s measure up when that Transatlantic battle was rejoined.

There are two things we need to know about the culture that begat these. By the late 1940s, Europe’s car industry had been destroyed by conflict but the sports car was still mainly a European thing; until the Corvette came out in 1952, America simply didn’t make them. And equally important, in America there was almost no road racing; other than the odd beach race there was nothing like Europe’s grand tracks and nothing at all on America’s eastern coast. There was plenty of motor sport, most of it on the ovals – long for Indycars and the emergent NASCAR, short for sprint cars – and of course drag racing, much of which took place illegally on public roads. There was already enough hot-rod action to satisfy a depressed economy and besides, the American public owned the roads and promoters certainly wouldn’t try and get them closed when there was no possibility to sell tickets. However… if the war that had devastated Europe and its industry hadn’t touched America in quite the same brutal fashion, there’s no doubt it would help bring an end to America’s Great Depression. Come the dawn of the ’50s, cars were becoming affordable to more Americans who were aware of the Jaguar XK120 and MG’s T-type, cars that weren’t made in America and wouldn’t suit the ovals anyway. It’s a touch simplistic, but this is broadly how the Sports Car Club of America and American road racing came to be.

In 1948, road racing as a major sport began at Watkins Glen in New York State, a venue which in a couple of decades would host the US Grand Prix. Most of the cars at that first race were imported from Europe but at the same time, at the opposite end of a vast country, there was the birth of California’s Cal-Club which leant more towards road racers built in the American hot-rodding tradition. It was already a sort of ‘them and us’ – imports versus home-grown hot rods. It’s also worth noting that an important underpinning in all this was the birth of Road and Track magazine, founded by hot-rodder John R Bond, and which as its name suggests was dedicated to this new branch of the sport. It was a new beginning that would encourage a great many special builders, most of them to remain heroes in their own land, but some – like Briggs Cunningham and later Carroll Shelby – who would take their specials to Europe and Le Mans.     

Hundreds of these specials or ‘Hot Rod Road Racers’ rolled out of workshops and sheds in the late 1940s and ’50s, some at a glance indistinguishable from Europe’s best, some more clearly reflecting local traditions. 

Hardly any have ever been seen outside America, however, until relatively recently. Californian businessman Rob Manson (Clubmans Mallock racer and general Anglophile) has collected and restored several and last year brought two to the UK to race (they’ll return in 2018). Which is how I came to be driving the 1949 Baldwin Mercury (built by Willis ‘Bill’ Baldwin), and the 1952 Streets Manning (built by John Streets to a design by Chuck Manning), at Silverstone.   

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The special builders’ art is defined by many things, some more obvious than others. The ingenuity and skill of the creator, the category for which the special is intended and so on, but the biggest influence is the hardware on which the special is based. Austin Seven specials are very small, Ford Popular equals something Lotus Seven-sized; both have the engine in the front, gearbox in the middle and an axle at the rear. So the Mercury Special – which is based on the chassis of a 1946 Ford Tudor saloon – is big, even if the frame has been shortened by 14 inches. Despite that, the cockpit is relatively small and you sit close to a large wheel, for which I would discover there’s a good reason. The body is shapely – from a few paces, it could even be a Maserati – ingeniously fashioned from various parts of Plymouth and Chrysler, plus a few bits of kitchen equipment. Look a bit beyond and you’ll see the heavy-duty leaf springs spanning the width of the chassis and the massive rods and knuckles that locate the beam axles at the front, and form the less than perfect attempt to restrain a large saloon rear axle. Manson has revised the latter in the interests of safety, and he’s added a rollover bar and seat belts that wouldn’t have been there in 1949. 

I rather expected the engine to be V8-smooth, but it’s not. Fire it up and absolutely everything vibrates. A low-frequency drumming that goes through the whole car, and me… The Ford sidevalve (nominally around five litres) was a staple to hot rodders, and this one wears a lot of stuff already developed for sprints and drag racing – like the Edelbrock aluminium heads and manifold with its triple downdraught Stromberg carburettors, and the twin water pumps (cooling was always an issue), all of which help to up the power from an original 80bhp to about 200. “Try not to use the gears any more than you have to,” was Manson’s only piece of advice. The three-speed gear cluster is from a period Lincoln and snappy gearshifts clearly weren’t part of the luxury sedan experience…

Turns out you don’t really need the first two, at least not for an exploratory lap of Silverstone’s National track. The engine waffles rather than hammers, a thumpy offbeat rhythm which is entirely in keeping with the car’s appearance but it’s nothing if not muscular, pulling from zero all the way to 4000rpm where it loses interest. It’s safe to let it go to five along the straights and I just left it in top, even for the hairpin, but meanwhile everything drums in sympathy. Mudguards, brakes, steering, dashboard… and the minimal mirrors that turn to a blur while I’m trying to second-guess the intent of a gridful of Minis on slicks whose occupants display little common sense and fewer manners. The Baldwin’s steering is heavy and the more lock you add the heavier it gets, which is no problem in the quicker corners like Copse – where I can just let the car run in with a minimum of braking and tweak the wheel towards the apex. You have to be patient and let the car rotate before you pick up the gas, after which it drifts briefly before aligning itself nicely along the exit kerb. More than one Mini driver set himself up for a late lunge only to find the Mercury had disappeared.

Slower corners are not so easy. The drum brakes need a hefty push on the pedal and are reasonably effective, but the Special has no differential and, as I try to load the front and roll it into Becketts, the front end starts to wash wide and the first temptation is just to add more lock. Not easy when you need shoulders as well as biceps. More lock, though, makes everything worse and any attempt to power out first pushes the front even wider, then unloads the inside wheel which despite the locked axle, kicks the tail. That’s hard to catch when you have all your effort applied to turn the wheel farther to the right. Fortunately at the speed I was travelling, the car had pretty much straightened itself by the time I had caught up with the wheel… In the second session, I just opened up the corner as much as possible and got the car straight a bit earlier, plus it helped that I’d worked out how to double declutch into second. I still had to find top almost before the corner was done but it was all interesting, and worth some more investigation. It would definitely be more at home somewhere like Goodwood where there’s only the one really slow corner.

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The Manning Special is rather less curvaceous – mainly to accommodate the truck radiator Manning deemed necessary to cool a similar sidevalve Ford V8 – but the bespoke tubular chassis is very different; Manning was a stress engineer at Douglas Aircraft and used his knowledge to create a stiff platform rather than adapt the ladder from a sedan. Most of the rest is from a Ford saloon and features a similar beam front axle, but there’s a more sophisticated A-bracket location for the rear with the front location right up in the cockpit just aft of the gearlever. You still sit close to a big wheel, and the flathead Ford, to much the same spec as the Mercury’s, feels and sounds very similar. It still thrums and drums too – maybe a little less – while the gearbox is similarly Lincoln-derived but the clutch is dragging which makes my new-found double declutch less easy to accomplish. Acceleration is definitely better because the car is lighter, but the Manning’s chassis feels very different on the track – as Manson says, it’s much more of a race car, mainly he thinks because of the stiff chassis and the more effective rear end. The steering – which I know should be used as little as possible – is still key to your connection with cars like these, and the Manning’s is much lighter and more responsive so I’m not tempted to wind the wheel, even in the slow corners. Best technique seemed not to be a big input but a series of small nudges, to which the car responds nicely. Then the wheel is straight if you need some opposite lock.

The Manning’s chassis and wheelbase is shorter – defined less by original saloon dimensions – so it’s not quite as secure in the quicker turns, but the agility in the slower ones more than makes up for that. Sadly, by the end of my second session the clutch drag was getting worse and the brakes needed some adjustment so I called it a day, but just as with the Baldwin, more investigation would definitely yield more speed. The tracks on which they raced originally wouldn’t have featured so many tight corners, otherwise the builders might have applied their ingenuity in search of a solution, but there’s no doubt that more time on a quieter track might reveal ways to do it better – you simply can’t rely on existing experience. They might look over-built and even a touch primitive by modern standards, but they are surprisingly effective on track. A clever use of available performance parts and scrapyard surplus enabled drivers to go racing on a budget and helped concoct a racing style unlike anything else.