A Brief History of Funny Cars

Nov 12, 2010

In late October in Bakersfield, Calif., 37 Nostalgia Funny Cars entered the California Hot Rod Reunion, and another 10 were on display in the pits. The fans roared as a best elapsed time of 5.786 seconds and a 248.34-mph top speed were posted by these race machines that resemble beautiful beasts of the past.

Drag racing fans can’t get enough of these classic cars, which bring back fond memories of modern drag racing’s formative years. So, we thought we’d take a brief look back at the history of funny cars, and how they got to where they are today.

Strong Start

Scottsdale, Ariz., Jan. 29-31, 1965. The American Hot Rod Association was putting on its season-opening Winternationals drag races at Bee Line Dragway and seven brand-new, never-before-seen racecars from the Chrysler Corp. were being unloaded in the pits and making their way to the starting line.

These were not normal-looking machines, but rather strange-appearing because of their dramatically altered wheelbase, which relocated the rear axle forward by some 15 inches, and also had the front wheels pushed forward by 10 inches.

The cars were a mix of Dodges (Ramchargers, Bud Faubel, Dick Landy) and Plymouths (Butch Leal, Sox & Martin, Golden Commandos, Lee Smith) and they were powered by the familiar 426-ci Hemi Super Stock engines that came out in 1964. However, new for the year was a magnesium intake manifold (which replaced the previously used aluminum unit) and the cylinder heads were now cast aluminum pieces rather than the heavier cast iron versions.

In addition to the extreme changes in wheel placement and upgraded Hemi engines, the cars featured lighter-weight bodies as a result of a chemical milling procedure that was commonly called acid-dipping (eliminating about 200 pounds of weight in the body shell), plus fiberglass front fenders, doors, dash, hood and deck lid that were added.

In addition to these weight-saving tricks, a special lightweight front K-frame made from stainless steel material was incorporated in these altered-wheelbase 1965 drag cars and lightweight plastic side windows replaced the glass items. These were serious racecars and were built by Chrysler to dominate the top door-slammer classes in drag racing.

The effect of the modifications was striking, and legend has it a track announcer saw these Mopars and commented as to them being “funny looking.” The observation came not to so much to reflect it in a humorous way, but to say they looked funny in a peculiar way. Right then and there, the name for these extreme race vehicles was born: Funny Cars. From that point on, they became the most exciting spectacles in all of drag racing.

(Prior to these altered wheelbase Dodge and Plymouths that debuted at the 1965 Arizona AHRA race, there were some cars that have historical significance in regards to the Funny Car topic, namely the Jack Chrisman Supercharged 1964 Comet and a pair supercharged 1964 Dodge sedans called “Dodge Chargers,” campaigned by Dragmaster, which were driven by Jimmy Nix and Jim Johnson. These three cars had high-powered dragster-style engines and were fully sponsored by the Mercury and Dodge factories; however, they were actually exhibition cars that still maintained stock-appearing bodies. They were fast, but not “funny” looking.)

You Made a Funny

Racing historian Leo Levine did a deeper investigation on this question of who actually was the first to give these oddly designed vehicles the Funny Car moniker. The result of his work indicated that it was the head of Mercury’s racing program, Fran Hernandez, who was the first to make the reference to “funny” description of the cars. And it is believed to have been something along the lines of “we need to beat those ‘funny’ cars,” and soon he and his assistant, Al Turner, were on a mission to defeat the Mopars-but it would not happen until the 1966 racing season.

Meanwhile, 1965 saw fast-paced Funny Car action take place on drag strips throughout the year, and by April there were a dozen AWB Mopars running in events all across America.

Ford and Mercury factory racers were running hard to catch them, using their 427 SOHC-equipped Mustangs and Cyclones. GM racers were independents (not directly sponsored by the factory; however many were assisted by performance-oriented dealers) and in general, Funny Cars themselves were changing rapidly.

Non-factory-backed Mopar racers followed the lead of the 12 factory cars by converting their vehicles (with alterations to the wheelbases), as did Ford and GM racers. Induction systems were upgraded from carburetors to injectors and, in some cases, superchargers. The switch was also on from gasoline to nitro-methane and the elapsed times were falling rapidly all over the country.

These races were also called match races with the newfangled Funny Cars, also known as “Match Basher” racecars in certain parts of the country. Events were taking place large and small all over the country, and on Nov. 6, 1965, one race created a lot of excitement for the class.

The track was Lions Drag Strip, located in the Wilmington district of Los Angeles. With it being very near to Long Beach, everyone called it “The Beach” and that night some 9,600 fans showed up to watch the exhibition of Funny Cars.

Tom McEwen was a hotshot Californian and he was driving the B&M Torque Master car, a rear-engine Hemi-powered Barracuda sponsored by the Plymouth Dealers Association. The unique, one-of-a-kind Hemi Cuda had just blasted down the 1,320-foot track to the tune of 8.88 seconds, and the crowd went wild! That had been the quickest ever for a full-bodied car and people there knew history was being made.

Next rolled out some cars from “back East,” as is said in California-a blown Pontiac GTO from Dickinson, Texas, driven by Don Gay, called “Infinity” and run out of the family Pontiac dealership. In the lane next to it was a Dodge from Chicago, the Mr. Norm’s altered wheelbase ’65 Hardtop, driven by Gary Dyer and equipped with a nitro-methane-fed supercharged Hemi engine. This was the former “Color Me Gone” factory car now being run by the Grand-Spaulding Dodge dealership, and they were serious about showing the West Coast what they could do.

With the night air filled with nitro fumes and driver Dyer strapped in ready to fire the big Hemi, Norm Kraus, the car owner, was wearing a clean white shirt and tie while he swept the track, laying down white-colored powdered rosin to help the slicks get traction. Needless to say, the California crowd had no idea what was about to happen.

The light flashes green, Dyer and Gay take off, the Pontiac has some problems and shuts down, but the big Dodge blasts away and runs hard down the track, recording a winning time of 8.63 at 163.63 mph. It was the world’s quickest time ever for a Funny Car, with the Mr. Norm car making believers out of doubters. The earth-shattering feat made the cover of the next day’s Los Angeles Herald newspaper.

Crazy About a Mercury

For Mercury fans, 1966 was a great year for drag racing, as it was when Hernandez and Turner would show their response to the altered wheelbase cars from Chrysler.

A goal of the Mercury men was to build a car for the class that weighed 1,700 pounds, which was basically unheard of at the time for a full-bodied car. Their plan was to create the look of a full-bodied car but not use a traditional steel body-plus keep the wheels in the same locations as the cars available on the showroom floors.

They went to work on an ultra-lightweight Comet body (a fiberglass replica that would weight only 250 pounds with the Plexiglas windshield, side windows and backlight installed) that was like nothing ever seen before.

Dyno Don Nicholson, Eddie Schartman, the team of Kenz and Leslie plus Jack Chrisman (with a roadster version) would get the initial cars, which ended up actually weighing closer to 1,875 pounds, as, according to Hernandez, “anything lighter than that was dangerous.”

Hot Rod magazine called it a “dragster in disguise” in its April 1966 edition that featured the Nicholson car on the cover. From the outside, the car looked like a production 1966 Mercury Comet; however underneath that faux body shell was a tubular chassis from the Logghe Stamping Co., Fraser, Mich., using 1-1/2-inch-by-0.049 chromoly tubing for the main rails and a three-point roll bar for the driver, and Autolite coils/shocks on both front and rear.

Add in a 900-hp injected 427 SOHC engine, and you’ve got the very first “flip-top” Funny Car.

The new machine forever altered the class and drag racing in general. It gave the Lincoln-Mercury factory a car with a showroom-type appearance (at least until you got up close) but it was a lightweight, all-out competition piece that easily beat the Dodge and Plymouth factory cars, as well and everything else in the Funny Car category.

The one-piece Comet replica body was hinged on the rear to provide access to the engine and driver compartment, and overnight it revolutionized drag racing like no other vehicle, before or since.

By the time the 1966 NHRA Nationals took place in Indianapolis, the Comets of Nicholson and Schartman dominated, running times of 8.31 and 8.28, and making it an all-Mercury Comet final. Soon after, the Dyno Don car cranked out a 7.96 ET at U.S. 131 Dragway in Martin, Mich., basically standing the drag racing world on its ear.

Eventually all the others teams from Ford, Dodge, Plymouth, General Motors and even American Motors would build and campaign modernized tubular chassis cars with fiberglass body shells.

The Burnout King

Besides Logghe, Don Hardy Race Cars, Exhibition Engineering, Race Car Engineering, Chapman Performance, Lindblad Chassis and other smaller shops were all taking orders for tubular frames to be used with one-piece bodies, and that in turn sparked a business for those familiar with fiberglass to make molds of popular current-year cars-Camaros, Mustangs, Chargers, Barracudas, Novas, Corvairs and more, including some odd-ball Jeeps, a Volkswagen Beetle and even some Ramblers.

Because drag racers of the era were a creative bunch, there were more than a few “do-it-yourself” types that did all this chassis and body-making work on their own.

During the formative years of the flip-top Funny Car, one of the highest-profile cars was the “Chi-Town Hustler,” a Chicago-based Mopar that was the king of long burnouts. Driver Pat Minick had mastered the technique of doing spectacular burnouts where the car would leave a long trail of smoke for at least half the length of the quarter-mile track; sometimes even longer. Despite a limited budget, the car won its share of races and tons of fans.

A high-water mark for Funny Car racing came in 1970 with the creation of the “Wildlife Racing Team” that consisted of the Hot Wheels Barracuda and Duster belonging to Don “Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “Mongoose” McEwen. At the same time, model car builder Revell also sponsored race cars, reaching a large fan base of young boys who would go out and purchase the toys and plastic model kits of their favorite cars.

Each year the times of the cars would get a little quicker and the speeds a little higher, thanks to the racers learning how to get maximum power out of their engines and working the clutches to get the power to the ground. Aerodynamics also started to make a bigger impact in terms of required downforce and decreased air resistance.

Running the perfect elapsed time for a F/C required the right track conditions as well as a tune-up that bordered between ragged and blowing the engine. All these factors came into play in 1975 when Don Prudhomme shocked the Funny Car world with his unreal 5.98-second run in a Chevrolet Monza-bodied car, powered by a Chrysler Hemi engine.

To exemplify just how big of a performance breakthrough it was, it wasn’t until Aug. 30, 1978, that a Texan F/C racer named Raymond Beadle would be the second car to run in the fives. His Plymouth Arrow-bodied “Blue Max” matched Prudhomme’s run of 5.98.

It took until April 25, 1981, to fill the eight slots of the Cragar 5-Second Funny Car Club. The last member was Arizona racer Tripp Shumake, who ran another 5.98 run in Commerce, Ga., driving the “Johnny Loper Arrow.”

This is around the time that many Funny Car aficionados feel the cars started to lose their identity and began to look too much like they were developed in the wind tunnel and not enough like the production cars they were supposed to represent. The Funny Cars up to that timeframe also ran without computers and featured single magnetos, short wheelie bars and for the most part, simple and relatively small rear spoilers.

Play It Again

Today, the vintage Funny Car design is currently experiencing a renaissance in popularity through the use of “Nostalgia” Funny Cars all across America. There are special events that take place in California, Arizona, the Midwest and East Coast that cater to Funny Cars with 1966-’79 bodies, and certain rules that require the use of a single magneto, limits on the size and style of the supercharger as well as the requirement of using modernized safety equipment.

The NHRA has its Heritage Series and from time to time the N/FCs do exhibition runs at national events.

The nostalgia scene is a fast-growing part of the American drag racing culture and a fun trip back to the good ol’ days.