331 cu. in. Chrysler V8 engine with hemispherical cylinder heads, 1940 Ford-based manual transmission with second and high gears only, 1938 Ford tubular front axle with transverse leaf spring, live rear axle, hand-operated two-wheel drum brakes.
Early California-based hot rodders had their choice of several prime locations to satisfy their quest for speed, most notably the dry lakebeds of California, including Muroc and El Mirage, or the salt flats of Bonneville. Almost perfectly flat, with an ideal surface measuring approximately 159 square miles, Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats were created by the ancient Lake Bonneville as it receded over time.
While first considered as a potential motor racing site in 1912, Bonneville was not widely used until after 1925, when a Studebaker, driven by Ab Jenkins, crossed the flats a full 10 minutes before a special excursion train. Jenkins went on to break all existing speed records in the 1930s, driving his famous “Mormon Meteor”, and over the decades thousands of speed enthusiasts followed Jenkins’ example, advancing automotive development with each record attempt.
Pioneering hot rodders Art and Lloyd Chrisman settled in Compton, California during World War II, when father Everett worked at the Todd Shipyard. The boys learned about welding and fabrication directly from their father, and after the war, Everett established the Chrisman & Sons Garage, where they gained a hands-on education in car repair and construction.
The brothers were early and successful pioneers of drag racing with their famous #25 dragster, which they developed into the first drag racing car to achieve trap speeds of 140 and 180 miles per hour in the quarter-mile. Early experience gained on the dry lake beds of Southern California in the family’s 1936 Ford Sedan led to a record-setting 1934 Ford Coupe that reached 140 miles per hour, leading ultimately to the record-setting 1930 Ford-based car offered here, which set records in three divisions of the Competition Coupe class at Bonneville.
Hailed as “The Most Fantastic Coupe” on the cover of the February 1954 issue of Hot Rod magazine, Art and Lloyd Chrisman’s Model A Competition Coupe remains one of the most legendary and recognizable racing cars to this day. Featuring innovative design and construction, it was purpose-built for top-speed competition on the Bonneville Salt Flats, across several Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) divisions.
Unlike the majority of today’s corporate racing teams, the Chrisman Brothers were personally involved in every aspect of the design, fabrication, tuning and driving of this landmark machine. Their resourcefulness and fabrication expertise, using basic tools, are all the more incredible in our current age of computer-aided design. Today, Art and Lloyd Chrisman rank among the true pioneers and legends of motorsports, and have inspired generations of auto enthusiasts.
While outwardly resembling a radically “chopped” 1930 Ford Model A Coupe, the similarity to any production-based car ends there. The Chrisman brothers placed the engine, transmission and rear end assembly in the mid-rear position as a single modular unit, allowing quick and easy removal and replacement. The foundation of the Chrisman Coupe was a stout, yet lightweight hand-formed space frame and front cross member of 3 1/2-inch seamless steel tubing.
The straight front axle and leaf-spring suspension, liberated from a 1938 Ford, mounted Houdaille-type 50/50 hydraulic shock absorbers. Meanwhile, the rear axle housing was bolted directly to the frame, with neither springs nor shock absorbers used. The 1940 Ford rear end featured a Halibrand “quick change” center section, allowing a multitude of final drive ratios, depending on racing conditions. Drum brakes were included only at the rear wheel locations.
Inside the cockpit, the mid-rear engine and drive train placement required that the aircraft-type driver’s seat be positioned at the extreme forward end of the passenger cabin, leaving only a few inches between the driver’s head and the windscreen. Accounts by Art Chrisman and others have later compared the resulting entry and exit procedure as an exercise in Olympic-level gymnastics. A firewall separated the driver from the engine compartment, and a seven-gallon fuel tank was mounted behind the engine and directly above the 1940-style Ford transmission. Two removable five-gallon “jerry” cans mounted on each side of the engine contained the engine coolant, again facilitating a wide selection of engine choices, depending on the class entered.
The well-engineered coupe featured other innovations to enhance driver safety, including a large, canister-type fire extinguisher mounted beside the driver, along with wide, aircraft-type seat belts. The engine-turned instrument panel also featured the logical placement of all controls and switches within quick and easy reach of the driver, and mounted essential instrumentation, including a tachometer, along with water temperature and oil pressure gauges. Unlike many racing cars of the period, particularly “belly tank” racers, the chassis structure included a strong tubular steel roll cage.
The body, nominally that of a 1930 Model A Coupe, was drastically “chopped” and altered to provide a smaller frontal area, thereby decreasing aerodynamic drag. A 1940 Ford Sedan provided the steel roof panel, and the steep windshield “rake” was achieved by grafting the cowl and A-pillar from a 1935 Ford to the basic Model A body. The unique, streamlined nose cone resulted from one of Art’s forays to a local wrecking yard, while he was seeking steel for the roof panel of the Coupe. Chrisman pushed over a hood that was in his way. When it fell forward, it landed directly on top of another hood that was already lying on the ground. The ever-resourceful Chrisman noticed the shape of the two hoods lying on the ground, and realized that he now had the ideal shape for the nose of the car.
Incredibly, over the following weekend, Art and Lloyd managed to put together the basic form of the sleek, wind-cheating bodywork, including a full body pan. No amateur effort, the body was carefully constructed, with each panel trial-fitted to the chassis for proper fit and alignment. The exterior of the Coupe was finished in a very attractive bronze lacquer with red accents, while cream lacquer finished the interior. A small air scoop, built into the roof of the Coupe, provided cool intake air to the engine, and was later modified to route air to the driver as well. In addition, a heavily louvered trunk lid helped expel heat from the engine bay. In its initial season, the Coupe rode on 18-inch Firestone tires and Halibrand wheels provided by Harry Duncan. However, in 1954, smaller wheels were utilized, lowering the car by another two inches.
The Coupe was first campaigned during the 1953 Bonneville Speed Week, and the team came prepared with three heavily modified Ford “flathead” engines. For Class C, the brothers used the 304 cubic inch Mercury engine from their famous #25 dragster, and made a one-way run of 163.63 miles per hour. However, a relatively high dose of nitro severely damaged the engine on the return run. The team then quickly replaced the damaged engine with another flathead, equipped with Ardun overhead-valve cylinder heads, setting the Class B record at 160.187 miles per hour. The brothers attempted another try at the Class C record, with yet another 304 cubic inch Mercury engine, but tuning problems delayed the team, ending their effort for the season.
The Chrisman brothers returned in 1954, but this time armed with new Chrysler “Hemi” engines, built by Tony Capanna and supplied by Harry Duncan. The new engines featured the now-famous hemispherical combustion chamber design, and helped the Chrisman brothers explore the outer limits of the car. A 243 cubic inch Dodge engine was reserved for Class B competition, while a 276 cubic inch DeSoto engine was reserved for Class C. The brothers broke both records, reaching 180.87 miles per hour in Class B and 180.08 miles per hour in Class C, and immediately set their sights on the next season.
Returning in 1955 with a larger 331 cubic inch Chrysler engine for a new attempt at the Class D record, Art Chrisman qualified the Coupe at over 190 miles per hour, with a 5% dose of nitro, and set the record at 196 miles per hour. Hoping to reach the coveted 200 mile per hour mark, the brothers contemplated an increase to 20% nitro, however their friend John Donaldson died at the wheel of the Reed Brothers “belly tank racer” while Art was returning from his record run. Devastated, the Chrisman brothers returned home and retired the successful Coupe, refocusing their efforts on drag racing instead.
The Coupe was sold to Harry Duncan, who refinished it in purple and continued to compete with it, although little is known of its record during this period. It was then sold to John Geraghty, and then purchased by George Barris, the “King of the Kustomizers” in the early 1960s. Beginning its second life as a television and show car, Barris engaged Geraghty to install a fully chromed and supercharged Oldsmobile engine into the Coupe, while the suspension was chromed and the car was fitted with gull-wing doors. While controversial, according to George Barris, the radical door treatment allowed the car’s use for filming, and in this form, it was used on the Dobie Gillis television show.
The car traveled the auto show circuit for a number of years in this form, under the ownership of Bob Larivee, who commissioned original builder Art Chrisman to return the car to its record-setting glory. Chrisman returned the body to its former configuration, and a 331 cubic inch Chrysler “Hemi” engine was installed. Mr. MacPherson purchased the Coupe from Larivee in 1995, and placed it on display at Joe’s Garage, where it has remained ever since.
In 2001, the Chrisman Coupe was invited as one of six cars selected to represent “Famous Hot Rod Coupes” at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Other famous cars included the Pierson Brothers’ 2D Coupe, the So-Cal Speed Shop Coupe, and the Mooneyham and Sharp “554” Drag Coupe. Joe MacPherson accepted the invitation, but with the condition that Art Chrisman would participate and prepare the car for exhibition. With Art’s involvement, the Chrisman Coupe was awarded third place, a remarkable achievement for any Pebble Beach entry. Following Pebble Beach, the famous Coupe returned to its display at Joe’s Garage and the NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports Museum.
Restored to its period glory by its original constructor and driver, the Chrisman Coupe presents a truly uncommon opportunity to own a salt flat racer with an unmistakably attractive design and a remarkable provenance that has taken it from the legendary shop of the Chrisman brothers to the expansive Bonneville Salt Flats and back to the television sets of Hollywood, California.