Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gassers...What Made Racing Great

by Andrea L. Algar
Motorheads Performance

When I got into cars with my husband Guy, I had no idea what the term "Gasser" meant, but I knew it was important in drag racing history, so I knew I had better learn since I was being groomed to live in the world of classic cars, muscle cars and cars that run on the street and on the drag strip!

First, let me say that "Gasser" is more a "style". It does not define a specific car, manufacturer, or a rigid setup. In many ways, it is a "culture"... and one that I predict is making a comeback in huge ways. In order to understand the culture, you have to dig much deeper than just how they evolved, the look they are famous for, or the contributions to our current sport of drag racing. It was a way of life that encouraged individuality, sportsmanship, camaraderie.....and FUN!

Some love the look of a Gasser, others do not...likening them to cartoons, but one thing you walk away with once you understand what they are and how they came to be, is that they are deserving of the special place they hold in automotive history. I like to think of them as pre-cursers to the muscle cars, for without the innovations the hot rodders made, we wouldn't have had them. Do I love Gassers?......You bet I do!

Over the years, I've learned that the term "Gasser" was created in the late 1950's -1960's for a vehicle that drag raced on gasoline rather than racing fuel. They were built to compete in "heads up" drag racing. Gassers were at their height from 1955-1968 when they dominated drag strips across the country. It can safely be said that Gassers were responsible for the successful launch of the NHRA. In fact, Gassers and Fuel Altered cars were the top drag racing classes prior to today's Top Fuel Dragsters, Funny Cars, and Pro Stock classes.

Gassers were often built, maintained and raced by the owner, or with a small "crew" of buddies. Professional "teams" did not exist at the time...they developed as the sport grew in popularity. As Gassers developed, racers made modifications to the suspension and wheelbase of their preferred car in order to go for a competitive edge. Some worked - others did not.

The best known modification is the straight-axle front suspension, which in today's "Gasser" world, is a necessity. Not only did the straight-axle create an intimidating stance, it served an important function of transferring weight to the rear wheels, giving the driver a big start line advantage. This is one reason why you'll see the "nose-up" stance which also helps to transfer weight to the rear "drive" wheels.

Most Gassers are based on production models from the ‘30s through the ‘60s that have been stripped of extra weight, modified with a solid front axle and “jacked up” with suspension modifications. Cars with shorter wheelbases are preferable due to lower overall weights. Other modifications were weight-reduction techniques including fiberglass body panels, stripped interiors, bumper removal and Plexiglas windows. Built for racing, Gassers are often subject to an engine swap and it’s common to include fuel injection and performance headers. These changes translate to faster speeds and lower elapsed times at the drags.

But, these modifications are not just thrown-together by shade-tree mechanics! There is science behind the choices, and they've been time-tested by the daring guys that jumped behind the wheel and raced them. And, there are rules you adhere to when creating a Gasser. Big meaty tires in the rear, smaller tires in the front, yes, but true Gassers adhere to a formula perfected by the pioneers, and it's one that is not often deviated from. Those who make them know, for example, that there are only 5 wheels you can put on the front of a Gasser!

Certain brands of cars were well-suited to being modified into Gassers. Most popular were the Willys, Anglia, Henry J, Austin, Studebaker, Thames and of course, Chevrolet and Ford. So what specific model cars are chosen for Gassers?  Although just about any car could be made into a Gasser style, the ones that were selected have remained the most sought after by those who covet them. Probably the best-known, most-popular, most-desired (and thereby most-expensive) is the Willys.

Willys vehicles dominate the "most-desired" list and have cars from two distinct eras, with the '41 Willys topping the list. The '41-'42 Willys were officially called the Willys Americar. Willys-Overland produced this style from '37 to '42, long before the company later became known as Jeep. The '40 Willys runs a close second with their distinctive two-piece grill assembly and slightly different trim design. The '33 Willys Model 77 Coupe is #3 on the list. Back in the day, $395 bought you a vehicle that now sells for $90k or more in original steel.

Other popular Gassers include the '55 Chevy Gasser, which many have dubbed as the "coolest" of all the Gassers. Chevy conversions were popular in large part because of the great monster stock engines that Chevy created. They were easy to work on, parts were affordable and plentiful, and they were customizable. Add a solid front axle, fiberglass front end, fenderwell headers, radiused wheel wells,'ve got yourself a Gasser! It's no wonder why the '55 Gasser got starring roles in classic 50's movies such as American Graffiti, Two Lane Blacktop, and a lesser-known Sometimes They Come Back.

While we're talking Chevy, we can't forget the '55 Nomad. Popular as a stock street car, it is also a very popular car for gassers, making #7 in the top ten list. Other Chevys include the '57 Corvette (yes, a Corvette Gasser), which was a popular choice for those who could afford it. These C1 Vettes were popular because they came straight from the factory being able to do the 1/4 mile in an amazing 14.3 seconds! The '49 Chevy was another popular choice that produced monster Gassers.

Although Willys and Chevys seem to dominate, there were a few other models that stand on their own in the world of Gassers. 1955 was a popular year for Gassers, and Ford was not to be left out with it's contribution of the '55 Thunderbird, a car developed by Ford to compete head-on with the Corvette. In '55 they actually outsold Corvette 26:1 and made them a popular choice for Gassers.

A late-comer to the Gasser group was the '48 Anglia, a car manufactured by Ford in the U.K. This little car was once tauted as the "cheapest car in the world" because of their sparse features. Their lightweight body and short wheelbase made these little rockets popular in the 60's after the NHRA made a rule-change which allowed the shorter wheelbase.

And finally, another late-comer to the group of most-popular Gassers was the '51 Henry J, a car developed by the Kaiser-Frazer Corp. Their distinctive front-end certainly draws attention, but what caught the eye of the racers was the fact that they were 18" shorter than the average 50's car, and made great Gassers!

Over the years, many of these cars have been turned into formidable racing machines on the strip and street. Although they had lost their presence in current drag race classes, they can still be seen in nostalgia drag races across the country, and we're seeing a rise in popularity as many re-discover the Great Gassers!

Hot Rod Magazine - Gasser Heaven
Wikipedia - Gasser (car)
YouTube VIDEO - 2012 Gasser Reunion / Nostalgia Drag Racing Videos

Andrea L. Algar is co-owner of a classic car performance and restoration design shop in Leesville, Texas. Motorheads Performance specializes in repairs, maintenance, performance upgrades and restorative work on cars and trucks from the 1930's through 1970's. Her husband Guy L. Algar is a Mechanical Engineer with over 25 years experience. He holds 5 ASE Certifications from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and has been working on old cars and trucks for over 37 years. Together they share their passion for old cars and trucks with other enthusiasts from around the country.