After World War II, the junkyards around the country were filled with warplane parts. Among these scrap parts, one could find drop and belly tanks. These gave warplanes extra fuel to extend their range but could also be easily dropped away to prioritize agility and weight over range. Gearheads quickly began transforming these discarded fuel cells into miniature speed demons and racing them on dry lake beds. They were really inexpensive, typically selling for $35-$40. Soon “belly tank racing” was a thing in the 1940s/1950s and many speed records were set in the early age of the sport. This was achieved with little thought given to crash protection since none was available for this newly invented sport.
So-Cal Speed Shop built the first “Lakester” from a surplus aircraft drop tank. It was one of the first hot rod parts stores to open in Southern California. Founder Alex Xydias opened the shop March 3, 1946, the same day he was discharged from the Army Air Force where he served as a radio operator and engineer on a B-17. Xydias’s first idea to open the speed shop came while watching a street race in San Fernando Valley during a furlough. His shop offered parts only; no mechanical work was done. Bill Burke was a co-founder of So-Cal Speed Shop. The idea of using a tank as an aerodynamic car body came to him when he saw drop tanks on a barge being taken ashore at Guadalcanal. Burke recalls thinking, “My god, what a beautiful piece of streamlining that is!” With a tape measure, he went aboard and measured one of the tanks. He knew the dimensions of a Ford rear end and engine block and could see the automotive components would fit. Burke’s first Lakester was created from a 168-gallon tank used on the P-51 Mustang. The Lakester’s first race appearance was at Bonneville Salt Flats and the cars reached 200 mph. The So-Cal Team was voted the Number One Racing Team in 1952 by Mechanix Illustrated magazine. Over the years this car has become one of the most famous, if not the most famous of all belly tank lakesters. Where many of these original cars were scrapped in the 1950s and ’60s the So-Cal Special has survived and is preserved as a prized member of the Bruce Meyer Collection. Take a peek at this incredible car.
Gearheads are still interested in building cars out of decommissioned drop and belly tanks. While these parts were easily accessible in the past, today they’re a bit harder to come by and are definitely more expensive. Sunrise Racing Division recently attempted to build one of these amazing cars and the project took about eight months to complete. They faced a few challenges along the way but ultimately succeeded.
Over the next 60 years, tankers went from junkyard bombs to finely crafted speed weapons. What makes them so interesting is that although they all have a vaguely familiar look, none are the same. This is a wide-open class that builders can interpret with some wild combinations. Here are our three favorites:
Gerber and Tracy’s “Special”
- Engine: Esslinger Engineering I-4, 375 hp
- Transmission: Jerico five-speed
- Rear Axle: Modified Ford 9-in
- Wheels: 5.0×15-in Mooneyes
- Tires: 28×4.5-15 Goodyear Eagle Racing Specials
Scott Blackburn’s “Loose Nuts Special”
- Engine: XF-class 8BA Mercury Flathead V-8
- Transmission: C4 automatic
- Rear axle: Ford Banjo Winters 2.33:1 quick-change gearset
- Wheels: 15-in Cokers
- Tires: 28-in Goodyear Frontrunners
- Record in class: 214.317 mph
Steve Nelson’s “Liberty Garage Lakester”
- Engine: Arias I-4 aluminum Pontiac Iron Duke with an Arias Hemi head and Hilborn fuel injection.
- Transmission: Tex T-101 NASCAR 4-speed
- Rear axle: Halibrand quick-change gearset
- Wheels: Marsh steel wheels with Moon disc covers
- Tires: 25×4-15 front, 28×4-15 rear Goodyear land speed
- Record in class: 223.305 mph
You can read more about rat rods here and if you’ve built your own, let us know in the comments. We’d love to learn more about it. And of course, we’d love to see the progress of your rat rod build via pictures.