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Show Rods





Four Buick nail-head V8 engines, four-wheel drive (one differential per axle housing), solid suspension, recreation of original Fuller 110-inch chrome-moly chassis.

The term showmanship can be used to identify one’s skill, prowess or even appearance. The sport of drag racing has produced many showmen, individuals who garnered acclaim for their ability to thrill and excite fans hungry to see records fall and something out of the ordinary. To say that Tom Ivo fit the bill would have to be considered an understatement.

The Wagon-Master Riviera was the car that perhaps TV Tommy Ivo was best known for. After his ownership, the body had been applied, and in the process of completing that car’s restoration some years ago, it made no sense to erase its post-1966 history, so a very accurate replica was built under the direction of the man who originated the idea. As such, the dragster presented here is a near-exact duplicate of the Showboat circa 1961, before it became covered in Tom Hanna’s aluminum Buick panels and was dubbed the Wagon-Master.

To look at it, one can easily understand the attraction of the “Showboat”. Ivo had decided that there was no replacement for displacement as NHRA’s controversial ban on nitromethane continued. Four engines mounted in a Kent Fuller chassis was the result, sporting a 56-inch front tread and narrower 48-inch rear tread, with all four wheels powered through the use of couplers, chain drives and differentials. The car was simply stunning in its detail and appearance, enough so that it warranted a front cover appearance on Hot Rod magazine in December 1961.

At this point, the 25-year-old Ivo was actually a fairly well-known movie star. Having started his acting career at the age of three after his family relocated from Denver, Colorado to Burbank, California, Ivo had been one of several “Tommy” characters on the original Mickey Mouse Club. He jokingly admitted once that his first big break came because the studios were looking for somebody who looked like Dennis O’Keefe, Hank Ketchem’s Dennis the Menace. The end result was about 100 movie roles and 200 television appearances during his career. But as he reached his teenage years, Ivo also gravitated towards the exploding Southern California car culture. After seeing Norm Grabowski’s roadster in 1954, the deal was sealed and Ivo redirected his attention toward drag racing.

After he and Kent Fuller put together a single-engine injected Buick rail in 1958 (and subsequently won the gas crown at the first Bakersfield meet in 1959), Ivo graduated to a twin and realized two things as he went on an East Coast tour coast in the summer of 1960, when there was no filming going on at his “real job”. First, he could make money as a traveling drag racer, and second, if the fans thought two engines were hot, how would they react to four? Ivo recalled in an interview with Woody Hatten (Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, November 1982) that NHRA came to him late in 1961 as the car was being completed and essentially said, “Ivo, we know you build your cars right, but we have outlawed anything over two engines. However, if you want to make some single exhibition passes in it, we’ll let you.” Thus, the Showboat became the first true exhibition vehicle NHRA openly accepted.

However, the studio producing the show he worked for at that moment grounded Ivo from driving the beast. After Prudhomme made a couple of laps in it, Ivo sent Ron Pelligrini east to fulfill a profitable group of bookings, and by the time Pellegrini returned to the coast, Ivo’s show Margie had been cancelled, and TV Tommy himself was strapping in for the ride.

The Showboat title, foisted upon the car when it appeared on the cover of Hot Rod, never made Ivo very happy; the term “showboat” often might imply someone is a wise-guy but otherwise useless. Ivo may have been a childhood actor, but he was a racer’s racer (in fact, he was still racing after the studio forbade it, running a conventional rail under the delightful Hollywood moniker of Jack Snodgrass). With his acting career behind him, he soon focused his attention on supercharged racing when nitro became legal, touring with the four-engine car as well.

What did Tommy Ivo do when he wasn’t spinning smoke off the Showboat’s slicks? Running on gas during the nitro ban, he was the first guy in the nine-second zone, then the eight second zone. He was the first to top 160 mph, 170 mph and 180 mph (and followed it up with the first 190-mph run on fuel, as well as one of the first to break into the sevens using nitro). Racing got into Ivo’s blood and he was a fierce competitor during those years. Little remembered is that Ivo was the inaugural member of the Cragar 5-Second Club for fuel dragsters back in 1972 with a 5.97 recorded at Keystone Raceway in New Alexandria, PA; he probably garnered more notoriety when a brand new dragster he was in crashed and disintegrated in front of a huge crowd at Pomona during the Winternationals soon afterward. Together with his crew chief John “Tarzan” Austin, TV Tommy barnstormed the way Barney Oldfield had decades prior; Oldfield would have been proud.

Driven by speed, Ivo adapted. When the fuel dragster deal got lean in the latter half of the 1970s, he made the switch to funny cars. When that got to be expensive, he switched to jets, and when he finally decided he had seen enough of the rough tracks, roadside food, and sleepless turnpike miles, he came back to the four-engined Wagon-Master (then owned by Norm Day) for the finale.

As for the Showboat here, Tommy created this faithful replica to relive those days. Although it is not the original, it is the essence of what made that car so infamous in its earliest rendition as the “rolling fog bank”. Together with chassis builder Bruce Dyda, Ivo lovingly made sure it met his criteria as he pieced it together for display; it is exacting down to the Packard plug wires. With the original sheathed in grocery getter trim, it is also an important representation of racing history and still deserving of its name today. In fact, it even won its class at the 2008 Pomona National Roadster Show and was invited and attended the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England the same year.

Sold at a price of $176,000

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