So Cal Coupe


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so Cal Coupe
The late Mark Dees, who crewed for Lanthorne & Gray, wrote of the experience, “Our first trip to the salt was a day behind schedule, the coupe having been painted at the last minute in white primer. My folks came through in fine style, with my mom loaning us the Hudson [pickup] and my dad, a drum of methanol.” Hop Up magazine ran a photo of the car in the Nov. ’51 issue. From the Jim Travis collection

so Cal Coupe
The Coupe first ran a GMC six. Between the crude adjustments of Howard Johanson’s (Howard’s Racing Cams) injectors and broken rocker arms, the Lanthorne & Gray team still managed 153.061 mph in the C Modified Coupe class with John Quinton doing the driv-ing in 1951. From the Jim Travis collection

so Cal Coupe
Frustration sets in at Wendover’s Western Motel in 1954. The team was saddled with a recurring magneto problem and more. “We never got a good run with the Ardun. We broke a blower shaft and wasted a few days getting a replacement made in Salt Lake. The rest of the week, it just popped all the way through the course,” recounts Alex. From the Alex Xydias Collection

so Cal Coupe
After Buddy Fox and Tom Cobb campaigned the Coupe at Bonneville in 1953, Alex returned in 1954. This was the last year the car ran under the So-Cal banner.

so Cal Coupe
In 1953, the Coupe’s chop was relatively conservative, as seen here. The following year, it was whacked more radically. The car was able to retain its low-profile hoodline thanks to Tom Cobb’s front-mounted blower arrangement, facilitated by the 22-inch engine set-back. The Coupe set a Bonneville record of 172.749 mph in 1953.

so Cal Coupe
Dave DeLangton was rushed to the Pomona Valley Hospital emergency room after jumping from the burning Coupe on the dragstrip. Damage to the Coupe was minimal considering the severity of DeLangton’s injuries. Hot Rod magazine’s technical editor, the late Ray Brock, was just arriving at the L.A. County Fairgrounds when he saw the Coupe hurtling toward him without a driver. Brock says, “When I realized it was coming straight toward me, I put my car in Reverse and started backing up. The car sort of laid down the chainlink fence and snapped the barbed wire across the top of the fence, and the barbed wire came around and hit my tire, causing it to go flat. The car went across the street, hit the embankment, and stopped.” From the Chuck Griffith collection

Birth of the Coupe: Construction began from a stock ’34 three-window originally purchased by Russell Lanthorne of Ventura. The team of Lanthorne & Gray entered the coupe only one time at Bonneville in 1951. Alex recalled that the white-primered coupe he purchased from the Santa Barbara area had already been chopped and channeled but had no engine or trans. “That’s why I liked it,” he says. “I didn’t have to start from scratch.” From the Jim Travis collection

1934 Ford So-Cal Coupe - Legends Of The Salt, Part I
Alex Xydias And The So-Cal Speed Shop

By Dick Martin
photographer: Alex Xydias, Chuck Griffith, Jim Travis, Richard Stricker

Probably no race car in existence has been campaigned as long and as hard as this chopped and channeled ’34 Ford. The men who had a part in this old hot rod’s evolution, preservation, and triumphs, as well as the lives it touched along the way, are unequaled in racing. Undefeated in drag racing and a record holder at Bonneville, Hot Rod magazine dubbed it the “Double-Threat Coupe” way back in 1954.

Like a talent scout who turns a bit player into a movie star, Alex Xydias rescued an also-ran and created a winner—the So-Cal Coupe. The Coupe’s time with Alex and the So-Cal Speed Shop is only part of its history. In part one of this saga, we’ll explore the critical path that led to Alex’s acquisition of the Coupe as well as his experiences with it.

Alex Xydias

As a schoolboy growing up in Hollywood, Alex recalls that he was “a typical hot rod kid. My first car was a roadster, I took auto shop in high school, and I went up to the lakes to watch my heros Vic Edelbrock and Bob Rufi run.” The young spectator was hooked. Alex vowed to return as a competitor someday. During WWII, Alex served as a B-17 engineer. While at home on leave, Alex saw some kids street racing and decided that he wanted to open a speed shop when the war ended. In 1946, Alex opened the So-Cal Speed Shop in Burbank and realized his dream.

By 1948, with his speed shop in full swing, it was time for Alex to turn his other dream into reality—to compete at the lakes. Alex formed a team consisting of Keith Baldwin, Rich French, and Dick Flint. “I wanted something that was a real race car to go with the speed shop. I needed to be in a class where I could be recognized and try to set records,” emphasizes Alex.

The crew began construction of a Class A streamliner in February 1948 using two halves of a P-38 drop (fuel) tank for the body. Power was provided by a 156ci Ford V8-60. During the construction of the car, Vic Edelbrock Sr. showed Alex how to get the most out of the tiny engine, helping the team make a record run of 130.155 mph at El Mirage that August. Alex states, “We set several records at every lakes meet in 1948, even breaking our own records.”

While the belly tank was in the Streamliner class, it obviously didn’t resemble a streamliner. Frankly, it looked like what it was—a fuel tank on wheels.

Open-wheel cars like the belly tank were later placed in the Lakester class. Thus set the stage for a second car that had the look of a true streamliner. The sleek, butter-smooth race car screamed into the record books at the First Bonneville National Speed Trials going 193 mph. Because of its appearance and performance (the more efficient body of the new car made it 30 mph faster than any hot rod before it), Alex’s fully enclosed car generated a new Streamliner class. To compete at the first Bonneville event sanctioned by SCTA in 1949 was, in itself, historical, but to have the top speed of the meet is one of the reasons why Alex is a legend.

A May ’49 Hot Rod magazine feature story, written by Alex’s life-long friend Wally Parks, covered the first Bonneville meet. Parks wrote, “The first running of the Bonneville National Speed Trials was assured of success when the team of Alex Xydias and Dean Batchelor, assisted by Bobby Meeks [employed by Vic Edelbrock Sr.], fired their So-Cal Special Streamliner through the five-mile course at a speed of 187 mph.” Parks continued, “The most outstanding car, not only in performance but in its striking appearance as well, the little flat Streamliner was the smoothest-running machine on the course.”

Alex raised the bar at Bonneville that year to 210 mph with the streamliner, as astounding in its day as Andy Green’s sound-barrier record. Competing on the beach during Daytona Speed Week in 1951, the streamliner, sponsored by Hot Rod and driven by Bill Dailey, was demolished due to strong crosswinds and washboard surface conditions.

Roadsters Versus Coupes

In the beginning of dry lakes racing, the roadster was king. When the ’33-’34 Ford coupe came to Bonneville in later years, however, it became highly desirable. Alex had this to say about closed cars: “When we were kids, we didn’t think that a coupe was a real hot rod…. SCTA was where it was at—the roadster was a hot rod.”

The Russetta Timing Association was formed because rodders with closed cars weren’t recognized by SCTA at the dry lakes. By chopping, channeling, and sectioning the bodies, closed cars could be made more wind-efficient than the favored roadsters. The greater the chop, the lower the silhouette. However, the tops were coming down so low that Russetta was concerned about the safety factor and limited the vertical height of the windshield to 7 inches. Bobbie Meeks, the legendary engine builder and SCTA Champion, told us that he and the Pierson brothers built their coupe to comply with Russetta’s rule. Meeks says, “The part [Russetta] left out was the angle, and that makes a big difference.” The Pierson team limited the chop to 7 inches but laid the windshield back as far as they could while still enabling Bob Pierson to see forward.

The Birth Of The So-Cal Coupe

Alex remembered going to the Santa Barbara area and purchasing what he called an “unfinished car” in white primer. In a 1983 The 12port News article, the late Mark Dees wrote that Alex Xydias bought the chopped and channeled ’34 coupe Dees crewed on at Bonneville in 1951. That coupe had been campaigned by Jim Gray and Russell Lanthorne from the Oxnard/Ventura area, running a GMC six. The late Rip Erickson and John “Cruiser” Quinton shared the driving. We found the 89-year-old John Quinton in Santa Barbara, the sole survivor of the Lanthorne & Gray crew. John shed some light on the coupe’s early efforts.

The crew was a three- way partnership between Quinton, Lanthorne, and Gray. John says, “It was a stock ’34 we picked up in Ventura. A guy that worked for a local body shop volunteered to help us chop the top. We decided to run a GMC instead of a flathead like the Pierson Brothers ran—we figured we could get more horsepower. We ordered the nose from Frank Kurtis. [After we sold the car,] I took the quick-change out of it and kept the 18-inch Bonneville tires. I still have the quick-change underneath my ’29 roadster. I never saw those guys after we split up in 1951,” recalls John.

By this time, Alex had built a reputation for constructing well-engineered race cars. Prepared to build his coupe from the ground up (just the way he had his two streamliners), Alex had found the basic components for a race car in his newly acquired ’34 Ford.

“I was going to run the belly tank with Clyde [Sturdy] again in 1953 at Bonneville with the same three engines we ran in 1952—even though we were probably going to get blown off because the overheads had caught on,” says Alex. “Tom Cobb and Buddy Fox [SCTA points champions in 1952] knew I was working on the Coupe at home. They said, ‘If you loan us the Coupe to run, we’ll help you get it done in time for Bonneville.’ I agreed as long as they ran it as the ‘So-Cal Coupe.’”

Beyond Bonneville, local drag racing in Southern California, with Santa Ana and Pomona’s weekly events, was natural for Alex. “I built the Coupe because I wanted to go to the drag races,” Alex says. “I could see that the drags were growing. It gave us something to do on weekends rather than just going to Bonneville.”

Alex’s team consisted of Keith Baldwin, Tom Cobb, Dick Calrossi, Buddy Fox, Phil Freudiger, and Clyde Sturdy—all volunteers. Alex pioneered the way a racing team should look and perform. The workmanship and planning that went into building the Coupe had other competitors raising their own standards.

When the car reappeared on the scene as the beautiful So-Cal Coupe, its radical appearance shrouded the fact that much of the car was ’34 Ford, including the frame, front axle, and steering. But its attributes were more than skin deep. Concealed beneath its deceptive flat hood was a GMC 4-71 Roots supercharger. So-Cal crew member Tom Cobb had figured out how to attach it directly to the crankshaft of the ’48 Merc flathead, rather than using a beltdrive. He’d even devised a wastegate to keep the blower from over-pressurizing the engine’s crankcase. The arrangement was revolutionary for its time. The high standards of Alex’s team garnered an invitation to show the Coupe at Robert Petersen’s Motorama auto show in L.A.

Dual-Purpose Racer

As soon as the So-Cal Coupe rolled off the trailer, it began setting records and turning heads. The Coupe appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine and was the subject of a feature story by the man who succeeded Wally Parks as editor, the late Bob Green. “Clean as they come,” wrote Green, referring to the Coupe in the May ’54 Hot Rod . It was the Coupe’s dual roles as both a land-speed racer and a drag car that led Green to tag it the “Double-Threat Coupe.”

Even more impressive were the unparalleled speeds recorded on its first outing at Bonneville. The sleek three-window streaked across the Salt for a two-way average of 172.749 mph, winning an SCTA Class C Competition Coupe/Sedan record.

But that wasn’t enough to satiate the So-Cal team. “As soon as we came back from the ’53 Bonneville meet, Buddy [Fox] and I took the blower off, returned it to Tom [Cobb], and went drag racing,” relates Alex. At the drags, the unblown flathead set the record in the NHRA’s B Modified class by turning 121.16 mph—15 mph faster than anyone had ever run in that class.

Destiny played a part in the ’34’s next transition: Alex realized the flathead Ford V-8 days were numbered and began to familiarize himself with overhead-valve engines. He might have gone the way of his competitors with a Hemi Chrysler when a fellow hot rodder happened into his store one day with a brand-new set of Ardun heads. Of course, Zora Arkus-Duntov’s aluminum hemispherical heads for Ford’s flathead are rodding legend now, but they were still relatively unknown when Alex purchased that pair. Fate emerged again when a new 4-71 blower crossed the So-Cal counter. Alex built the new engine himself using the newly acquired speed parts.

Just before leaving for Bonneville the following year, Alex took the Coupe to Sepulveda Boulevard, a popular stretch for early-morning street racing. “We never got a good run [on Sepulveda] with the Ardun. We took it off the trailer and fired it up to be sure it would run. It ran, but popped several times. We didn’t pay any attention to that. We put it back on the trailer and headed for Bonneville—big mistake. I wish I had checked it out, because it had a dead condenser in the mag. First, we broke the blower shaft when we got to Bonneville, so we went into Salt Lake and wasted a few days getting a shaft made and splined. The rest of the week we just popped all the way through the course.”

Primarily hard-core spectators and racers’ families and friends frequented Bonneville and the dry lakes, but the drag races at the Pomona Fairgrounds and Santa Ana were attracting the general public. Being a racer, Alex was interested in running the Coupe as often as possible. He also recognized that there wasn’t a better place to showcase his business and products than right in his own backyard. Spectators were treated to not only the sights, but also the sounds of a supercharged race car.

Alex recalled the sound the ’34 made with the Ardun heads the first time he drove down the dragstrip: “Nobody had heard it before, and it just made an incredible sound. Everybody in the pits jumped up on their running boards to see what was making that sound. When the crew came down [at the end of my run] to pick me up, they were just jumping up and down. We held the record at 124 mph when we ran the flathead. This was the first time we had run the Ardun at the drags, so when they told me my time was 132.79, I was just stunned.”

Alcohol Or Nitro?

Alex’s approach to racing was simple: The car had to last in order to win. He has this to say about horsepower in a bottle: “Despite the fact that everybody was well into nitro by 1953, our philosophy was ‘As long as we’re winning, let’s be conservative with it.’ We were still running alcohol with the Ardun at Pomona. We finally ran 10 percent nitro and felt we were really going out on a wild limb! Looking back, when we made the 132-mph run and Dave backed it up with a 128-mph run, we were thinking, Boy, next Sunday we’re going to Santa Ana and we’re going to set the record down there. We had heard that Santa Ana was a faster track—as much as 5 mph faster than Pomona. We thought, When we go, we’re going to put in 20 percent. We were way behind the curve on nitro…the other guys were running 40 percent.”

Tragedy Strikes

Speed in all forms of racing was increasing, and in drag racing—with the advent of the blower and nitro—even more so. Safety equipment lagged behind the new sport, only requiring a helmet, seatbelt, and rollbar. Many of the rollbars were positioned below the driver’s head, and the belts were primarily WWII surplus. Events began taking place on the dragstrips that concerned NHRA, and the association started taking steps to better protect the driver.

“Clutches were blowing out of cars all the time back then,” Alex remembers. “Almost every safety device, scattershields, firesuits, fire extinguishers, and eventually parachutes, came out of those tragedies. Safety equipment was unfortunately not up to speed yet—it usually took an accident to correct a problem. You couldn’t stop those things with just rear drum brakes if something went wrong with the engine; you didn’t have any compression that could slow you down,” states Alex.

Jim Travis (who later owned the Coupe for 28 years) was at Pomona in the pits when the mechanical failure occurred in the So-Cal Coupe. He says, “I could hear that thing turning—sounded like it was turning ten grand, and it blew up. The clutch let go. The fuel tank was right next to the bellhousing—there was no scattershield, and it caught fire. The driver [Dave DeLangton], who was wearing only a T-shirt, opened the door and jumped out. The car freewheeled the whole length of the fairground with nobody in it…as straight as an arrow, just from the initial launch in Second gear off the starting line. It went through the chainlink fence, crossed the road, hit the dirt embankment of the golf course [located just south of the fairgrounds], and stopped.”

At one point, Alex thought that DeLangton would rally, and there was hope that the team could continue running the Coupe. A month later, DeLangton died of burns he sustained inside the ’34, causing Alex to make the decision to stop racing and dispose of the Coupe.

Although the ’34 would leave Alex and the So-Cal Speed Shop racing stable, its days of competition were far from over.


Rod and Custom magazine - 17/04/2008