Speed Record Car is a Time Capsule of Mystery

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Among the vast collection of glossy vehicles showcased at last April’s Festival of Speed in St. Petersburg, Florida, one of these cars was not like the others and really pulled some attention away from the more polished rides. A recently unearthed land speed record car stood out in all its beautiful decay. While the current owner believes it was a land speed record car based on an early 1930’s Pierce Arrow, very little documentation can be found to back that claim up. Regardless of its possible racing heritage, this car was loaded with some fascinating vintage, homebrewed technology and it is a testament to the rich, grass-roots American racing history. 

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You might recognize this car from a quick mention of it on a 2011 episode of the television show American Pickers. Addresses of the locations featured on the show are kept private and in the episode the show’s stars decided not to buy the car after considering the $20,000 asking price from the original seller to be too steep. So the car sat after that episode, until it was apparently tracked down and purchased by Tampa, Florida resident, James McLynas. According to the owner, the car had just been rediscovered one day prior to the Festival of Speed event, still in the same condition as it was in American Pickers, with the local wild life crawling around on it, and still an interesting glimpse into the past.

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The exact year of this car is still in question, with some commenters on the Antique Automobile Club of America forum speculating that the body and equipment may be based on either a 1929 Pierce Arrow or a 1931 series 43. Compared to a stock factory Pierce Arrow, the engine on this modified version was repositioned so low that it “almost scrapes the ground,” as noted by McLynas (karguy12). I thought it strange that the car had a wooden firewall, because it doesn’t really convey a strong sense of safety.

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Here you can see the wooden fire wall.

Where nowadays, land speed records are set on the Bonneville Salt Flats, this car evidently pre-dates the earliest of the Utah runs, when such records where set on the sandy beaches of Daytona, Florida. This makes sense considering the suspension is only 4 inches high from the bottom of the car (if air were in the tires) to the ground, which would have likely been insufficient for the road conditions of that time.

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For some reason, the spark plugs were actually welded into place.

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You can still read the firing order.

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To shed the weight of the stock body and improve its aerodynamics, a fully custom lightweight, racing version was made from fabric, like an airplane from the early 20th century. The dash appears to be fabricated out of repurposed aeronautical gauges. As McLynas elaborated in a different A.A.C.A. thread, the 300 mph speedometer was identified as originating from a P-40 aircraft, however upon pondering how the unit worked considering this was now in a car instead of a plane, “apparently there was a wind speed indicator or opening on the car somewhere because the guage [sic] is hooked up to air hoses.” The seats are also out of a later model car, which is still to be determined.

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So far, no solid proof other than hearsay has been found to support that this really was a land speed record car, but I don’t think that that devalues it because it’s still a remarkable and thought-provoking piece to be marveled over. Even if no further information is ever brought to light, this possible weekend racer with which someone tinkered in their garage, is an automotive wonder of the world as it is.

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What would you do if you found such a vehicle? Would you leave it as is, or attempt to restore it? Does racing prominence outweigh novelty or is novelty a prominence all its own?

Photos Copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Bryce Womeldurf

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31 responses to “Speed Record Car is a Time Capsule of Mystery”

  1. P161911 Avatar

    I think at this point it has to be restored or maybe more properly, finished. Did this thing EVER run in anything close to it's current form? Finish it and RUN IT!
    It has more the look of an 80 year old unfinished project than something that actually ran. I'm guessing it was built in the 1930s and land speed record attempts moved from Florida to Utah at about that time. A cross country trek, via pre interstate system roads, was probably out of the question for the builder and thus interest was lost in the project.

    1. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

      I agree, even if it weren't completely historically accurate, it would be great to see it run under its own power.

  2. Scandinavian Flick ★ Avatar

    As much guts as it takes to set a land speed record today, it took a lot more back in the early days of the automobile… I can't imagine going 50mph wrapped in metal spars and fabric, much less over 200mph…
    Still, with no story behind this car, I can't help but feel like someone just discovered a 1930s version of this…
    <img src="http://i.imgur.com/BNWUFpA.jpg"&gt;

    1. Pidgeonsplatz Avatar

      Looking at the front, & the wide mouth that it appears to have, I would think the front end would have a lot of lift at speed.

    2. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

      That could probably still do at least 50. 🙂

  3. dukeisduke Avatar

    If this thing ran at Daytona Beach, wouldn't there be a record somewhere, and maybe photos? It sure looks like a typical LSR car, with the extremely long hood.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      See my answer above. I'm guessing aborted attempt, never ran.

  4. Alff Avatar

    I hope SpeedyCop is reading.

  5. dead_elvis Avatar

    I'd like to have a car with a wind-driven speedo. Probably adds another 0.0001 hp not driving a cable, right?

    1. P161911 Avatar

      But it needs an extra 0.01 hp for the extra drag.

      1. calzonegolem Avatar

        Well then there is no argument against using a wind-driven speedo.

  6. taborj Avatar

    I wonder if the welded in sparkplugs are an indication of a high compression ratio? I can see a test run where they blew a plug out, and determined then and there that it would never happen again.

    1. JayP2112 Avatar

      That's what I was thinking- and they didn't expect this engine to make it to the 100k scheduled plug service.

    2. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

      I thought the same at first, but considering the high boost that turbocharged cars of today run without issue, would it really be a problem? But then, maybe they thought it would be and it was just a wild solution preemptively put in before they ran it though.

      1. taborj Avatar

        Hard to say. Engines back then were potentially not up to the task of high compression like today's engines. For example, my 1946 Dodge WC 1/2 ton pickup (with the fabulous flathead straight 6) has a compression ratio of 5.1:1, with the "high performance" version having 6.5:1, mainly due to the advances that aluminum brought to the head design.
        For reference, my wife's Jetta, with the standard 2.5l straight 5, has a 9.5:1 compression ratio, nearly double my old truck.

      2. P161911 Avatar

        1980s F-1 turbo cars famously welded the heads in place to eliminate blown head gaskets, at least in qualifying trim. Also, see Ford modular V-8/V-10 and blown out plugs.

  7. Batshitbox Avatar

    There's no way to restore it if you don't know what it looked like, or even what equipment it had on it. It may never have been finished, so that could be a dead end. I mean, would you have guessed it had a air driven speedometer, had it not been there? Why take a shot in the dark on the rest of it?
    The most you could do is get the engine running again, maybe the drivetrain and running gear, in anticipation of the day a trove of documents related to the car magically showed up (it happens.) Really I think all it needs is a new set of tires to roll around on and some attention to whatever is in danger of disintegrating. Shop it around to some shows and see if it rings a bell with anyone.

    1. calzonegolem Avatar

      At least use it as blue prints to create a replica.

  8. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar

    There's a good FB page with lots of photos and info: https://www.facebook.com/PierceArrowLandSpeedReco
    At first I thought it might have been a car for an old movie, but after looking at the photos, it's not Thunderbowl Comet and also seems more a real LSR car than movie prop.

    1. taborj Avatar

      An amazing amount of information there, but unfortunately it all just presents more questions.
      It appears the aircraft speedometer was actually not air driven, and the mechanism for making that work is impressively created. Someone not only had access to a machine shop, but to some really impressive machine skills. Hopefully some more information can be found.

      1. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

        It's almost as if Rube Goldberg set out to make a land speed record car.

      2. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar

        I did not have much time to read, but I thought the complicated bit was for the tach instead. That the two hoses for the speedo were for pressure and air flow to display air speed.

        1. taborj Avatar

          Yep, you're right. I didn't read the comments on his photo. Makes more sense.
          Still, amazing attention to detail.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      The car doesn't look that much smarter dressed in aluminium foil. Quite impressive, big machine anyway.

  9. James Avatar

    Hi guys,
    I've read the above comments about the Pierce and I am glad that discussions like this are taking place. There are a lot of comments about it not being a finished car. It was finished, everything was hooked up and functioning and there was a complete "plastic" body on it made of nitrose cellulose over stainless steel mesh. There are actually TWO speedometers in the car. A smaller one with an odometer showing 35 miles traveled that only goes up to 90mph, and then the aircraft version that goes up to 300mph that is air speed driven. There is a host of gauges from aircraft and some from the 30's aircraft including the tach and altimeter from a P-40 but the 300 mph speedo was not from any period fighter plane because they went considerably faster.
    I too think that this car was finished about the same time beach land speed attempts ended in Daytona. It no longer had a venue and by the time it was finished it may have been no longer competitive in its class. Hopefully the history if this car will surface soon because whatever the history is, I am sure it is as fascinating as the car itself.
    James McLynas

    1. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

      Thanks for the additional info, James. It seems like you're finding a new piece of the puzzle every week.

  10. James Avatar

    Oh, and the foil was just to help people visualize what it looked like with the body intact….. 🙂

  11. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Interesting car. Needs a lot more documentation to establish the provenance. Otherwise it could be a beer filled fever dream that was abandoned thirty years ago. Which isn't a bad thing…

    1. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar

      Those tires make it really unlikely that it was made after US entered WWII though.

  12. desolit Avatar

    Blow the dust off of it and leave it alone. I would rather let my imagination run wild then see it refinished.

  13. HTWHLS Avatar

    Calling Chip Foose!!!

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