The Gassers are quite simply one of the earliest modified cars which held a categorized class at drag racing events. These cars ranged from daily driven cars to drag race only cars supercharger equipped. The original gasser body styles selected became popular on the race track simply due to their availability or inversely for their unpopularity at Saturday night cruise events or as a household family car. As the cars became popular, the sport as a whole grew. Match races were held nearly every day of the week all over the country with ‘big names’ scheduled for appearances. The Gasser craze helped guide the sport to sponsorship through the incorporation of engine component manufacturers selecting teams to use and promote their speed equipment. In summary, these short wheel based cars with high horsepower and ground shaking wheelstanding launches established drag racing legacy with near out of control ¼ mile full throttle passes.
This article touches briefly what the early gasser days represented without going into detail on specific gasser legends and all of their colored history. Much of that is found on many other website and captured in books.
Drag Racing History
One has to look at the history of drag racing itself to discover the days of the early gassers. The first drag strip was a spin off from an event held at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in 1949 organized by the Southern California Timing Association. This event posed cars that raced against a stopwatch. Traditionally salt flat cars were run for top speed. This posed cars for quicker acceleration.
The first dedicated drag race, the Santa Ana Drags, were held at an airfield in southern California in 1950. This race used computerized speed clocks and drew a lot of interest. Wally Parks, one of the original organizers of the Southern California Timing Association, became editor of Hot Rod magazine. He used this opportunity to promote drag racing and he started the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951 to “create order from chaos” by instituting safety rules and performance standard and legitimize the sport.3 Wally Parks became the first president of the NHRA.
The NHRA held its first race at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, CA in April 1953. Two years later the NHRA held its first National event in Great Bend, KS and called it “The Nationals.” By 1961, a second event was added in Pomona, the Winternationals. The Nationals skipped around the country at various tracks and then settled in Indianapolis in 1961 where it still resides today.
The 1956 NHRA Nationals program stated, “The Gas Coupes and Sedans are the classic hot rod of today. Cars running in this division are generally used for transportation, instead of being built for competition, and they feature hopped-up engines. Each must have a full compliment of equipment essential for legal on-the-street transportation use, and MUST satisfy the eagle-eyed technical inspectors in action at NHRA sanctioned drag strips. Four cubic-inch-to-weight divisions of this class attest to its popularity.”1
In the early days of drag racing cars were placed into categories. Custom framed cars were put into the dragster class and modified vehicles were placed into Competition Coupe, Sedan, or Roadster classes. These classes were further divided by overall weight and engine sizes. One of the more popular classifications was the Gas Coupe and Sedans. Rules called for street equipment to remain intact to include lights, horns, and windshield wipers. Engines were unlimited to include nearly any manufacturer style into any vehicle platform.
The Gas Coupe and Sedan classes had to maintain stock wheelbases and engine relocation was limited to a maximum of 10% setback from the centerline of the front spindle to the front sparkplug. Racers needed shorter wheelbases, a higher center of gravity for better weight transfer and also be an affordable car. Such cars initially ‘discovered’ were of little value to street hot rodders and the used car market. These cars included the 1940-41 Willys Coupe, 1937-41 Studebaker Coupe, the 1933 Willys Model 70, the Ford Anglia (English), and Thames.2
With a sanctioning body providing regulations and increased competition, the need for more horsepower constantly pushed the racers. The crowds drew large and near with gasser classes providing long wheelstanding launches. Southern California had several publications bringing all the drag race action to the home. Drag News, National Dragster, Drag Sport Illustrated, and Drag World all offered manufacturers advertising opportunities to reach the racers and spectators. Camshaft manufacturers began claiming in advertisements that their cam was used in the car that won each race. The next level was to use the ads as an opportunity to dare teams running different cams to race against their team. This form of publicity introduced match races against teams. Several teams used this exposure to start nationwide match race campaigns. This exposure produced a win-win-win for everyone. Such “Cam Wars” sold more publications, the fans begged for more to read, promoters hired the race teams, and the race teams received more invitations for booked events. One side note to mention, a race team consisted of most likely 2 people. This lead to the Golden Age of the gas coupes and sedans.2 With the increase in popularity came more colorful paint schemes, protruding superchargers, polished chrome components and a full time career for the teams involved.
Gasser Class Designators
The gasser classes grew as the interest in drag racing expanded. People discovered ways to incorporate large used junkyard engines into these unwanted street coupes. There was certainly a class for everyone. Cars without superchargers ran in A through K/Gas classes which covered nearly every car with every engine combination available. The lower the letter, the heavier the car, the fewer modifications to the engine, and cars used for commuting earlier in the day. The NHRA gave the supercharged or ‘blown’ cars their own classes: AA/GS through CC/GS. To my knowledge, this is the only class of cars that have ever been assigned a specific designator for the use of a supercharger.
American Gasser, Inc.
2 Hart, Lou. Drag Racing Gassers, Wisconsin Iconografix, 2007, pp. 6-8.
1 McClury, Bob. Diggers, Funnies, Gassers & Altereds, Minnesota, CarTech, 2004, pp. 22-30.
3 NHRA History, www.nhra.com.
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