Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Challenger 2

Danny Thompson broke 400 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2016 as he set a class record with his 5,000-hp Challenger 2, a restored refined version of the streamliner originally built by late father the legendary Mickey Thompson in 1968. Danny set the overall AA/FS record as he averaged 406.769 miles per hour (MPH) over a measured mile.

In September 1960 Mickey broke the magical 400 MPH barrier as he ran 406.6 MPH in his Challenger 1 powered by four supercharged Pontiac engines, but it was not recognized as an official record as he was unable to complete the required return run.

The slimmer, sleeker “Autolite Special” Challenger 2 built in 1968 by automotive fabricating legends Quin Epperly, John Buttera, Tom Jobe, and Nye Frank was intended to finally get Mickey Thompson officially over 400 MPH, but bad weather foiled the attempt and the project was set aside for two decades. In 1988, Mickey planned to renovate the Challenger 2 for his son Danny to drive.

That plan was interrupted when Mickey and his wife Trudy were murdered in their driveway by two unknown assailants. Years after his father’s tragic murder and the conviction of Mickey's business partner Mike Goodwin of the crime, Danny got Challenger 2 out of storage and spent a reported $2 million to rebuild it to modern SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) safety standards.


When the author chatted with Danny Thompson at the 2017 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show in Las Vegas, he shared that in 2018, to mark five decades after Challenger 2 first touched salt, he will try to best his previous top speed of 435 MPH. Danny's goal is to set the piston engine-driven world record, unseating George Poteet’s “Speed Demon,” which holds a 437.183 MPH SCTA  national record and a 439 MPH world record.

Instead of the original Ford  SOHC (single overhead camshaft) 427-cubic inch engines, the Challenger 2 is now powered by a pair nitro-fueled 2500-horsepower non-supercharged Brad Anderson “Hemi” V-8 engines which uses an all-wheel drive configuration.
Twin three-speed gear boxes link the two engines together and counterbalance the power output, while the front of the car houses two 30-gallon aluminum fuel tanks that hold just enough nitromethane fuel for one full speed pass. Challenger 2 uses Optima batteries, which explains the car’s presence in the Optima booth at the 2017 SEMA show in Las Vegas.

The Challenger 2 measures 32 feet in length, with a height of 27 inches at the tip and 37 inches at the canopy, and is 34 inches wide and weighs 5700 pounds ready to run.

All photos by the author

Monday, January 8, 2018

Tucker 48 replica at SEMA 2017 reminds us of Tucker's connections to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Many automotive historians are familiar with the name and the story of Preston Tucker, the automotive promoter entrepreneur who tried to build his own car, the “Tucker 48” but failed after 50 vehicles were completed.  Even more people became familiar with the basics of the Tucker story after the 1988 Lucasfilm motion picture Tucker: The Man and His Dream that starred Jeff Bridges.
Preston Tucker worked during the late nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties as a car salesman, and in 1935 together with master racing car designer and builder Harry A Miller formed a company, Miller and Tucker, Incorporated which somehow convinced the Ford Motor Company to pay them to produce ten new race cars powered by 221-cubic inch Ford flathead engines for that year’s famed Indianapolis 500-mile race.  
The Miller-Ford cars were low and very streamlined and used independent front and rear suspension that featured aerodynamic cast aluminum suspension arms.  As ground-breaking as they appeared, work on the cars started too late and there was insufficient testing.
Of the ten cars ordered, only nine reached the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and only four qualified for the 33-car starting field despite the fact that the Miller-Ford team boasted such famed drivers as Ted Horn and 1924 Indianapolis ‘500’ co-winner LL Corum.  
All four Miller-Ford entries retired from the race with the same malady - frozen steering, a problem caused by the fact that the steering box was located too close to the flathead engines’ exhaust manifold and the heat boiled out all the grease in the box.
After the end of World War II, the American car-buying public was anxious for new cars  and Preston’s new company the Tucker Corporation staffed by former “Big Three” automobile executives was going to supply them with something really new- a “safety car” the Tucker 48.  
The safety features that Tucker advertised for the “48” included disc brakes, the location of all controls within reach of the steering wheel, a padded dashboard, self-sealing tubeless tires, a chassis which protected occupants in a side impact, a roll bar within the roof, and a laminated windshield designed to pop out during an accident.
The car was to be powered by a rear mounted low-speed 589 cubic inch “flat six” engine with hydraulic valves, air cooling, mechanical fuel injection, and direct-drive torque converters on each rear wheel instead of a transmission.
As part of the advertising campaign for his new car also known as the “Torpedo,” Preston Tucker returned to the familiar grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1946 Tucker sponsored owner/driver George Barringer’s 1938 rear-engine Gulf Oil funded Harry Miller creation. Tucker returned the following year as the owner as the same car driven by Al Miller and also provided sponsorship for Joe Lencki’s two entries. Miller returned in the rear-engine machine in 1948 but failed to qualify for the starting field.     
The world premiere of the much anticipated Tucker 48 on June 19, 1947 did not go well; Tucker’s crew worked up until the last moment to ready the car for its moment. The engine needed an external power source to start, was very loud and the car could not go in reverse as the torque converters were not completely developed.
When production was set to begin in the world’s largest factory which Tucker had leased, the early production cars used a Franklin O-335 engine mated to a modified Cord 810 electro-vacuum manual transmission, but as production continued, different transmissions and different suspensions were utilized.
Tucker used the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a testing ground for a fleet of seven Tucker 48s in secret during September 1948, and one Tucker spun, blew a tire and crashed, flipping over three times. Just as advertised the Tucker’s windshield popped out, and after the tire was replaced the Tucker was battered but still drivable but the uninjured driver, mechanic Eddie Offutt.    
To fund his company had Tucker used an innovative program wherein potential buyers purchased Tucker accessories and thereby were guaranteed a place on the waiting list for a Tucker 48 car. A Security and Exchange Commission investigation found this innovation troubling and though Tucker was eventually acquitted of fraud charges, the company collapsed. 
When production ceased a total of 58 Tucker frames and bodies were built with 36 cars were finished before the factory was closed. After the factory closed, but before the court-ordered liquidation of his assets, Tucker and a group of employees assembled an additional fourteen Tucker “48s” for a total of 50 completed, with another car partially completed.  
Fast forward nearly seventy years to the 2017 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show where the Axalta Coating Systems booth displayed a freshly-finished Tucker 48 replica built by Rob Ida Concepts for owner Jack Kiely. This is the fourth Tucker replica built by Ida, of Morganville New Jersey whose grandfather was an original Tucker dealer, with the 51st Tucker (completed after it left the factory) as a pattern for the build.  
This is not a 100% faithful replica, the car rides on a RideTech air ride suspension and instead of a Franklin flat-six air-cooled engine it uses a transversely mounted 500 horsepower twin-turbocharged Cadillac Northstar V-8 engine.
As viewed from the show floor, the car has a split personality; the passenger side is equipped with large-diameter billet hot rod wheels fitted with low-profile rubber, while the driver’s side rides on wide-white high sidewall tires fitted with 1947 Cadillac “Sombrero” hubcaps.
The interior is very close to the appearance of a Tucker 48 with a 1941 Lincoln steering wheel (that’s right Tuckers used rejected 1941 Lincoln steering wheels and columns) and the “lollipop” heater controls to the left of the wheel and a pre-selector gear knob on the right side of the steering wheel.  Unlike the original, the Ida version repurposes these controls- the gear knob controls the Cadillac transaxle, while what appear to be the heater controls actually controls the air ride suspension.
The carbon-fiber and steel body panels are of course finished in a custom mixed Axalata paint to match an original Tucker color, Waltz Blue.


The author recently visited the Blackhawk Museum in Danville California where Tucker #1019, owned by a private party from Vallejo California was displayed. This car, chassis number 016 and engine # 33519 fitted with a modified Cord transmission was originally painted grey with a grey and blue interior but was repainted in a color approximating Waltz Blue.


This was one of the Tucker promotional cars, fitted with light panels mounted on the rear bumper that read "You've been passed by a Tucker."

All photos by the author

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Mark Donohue’s 1967 Can-Am Lola T70

The Sunoco Race Fuels booth at the 2017 PRI (Performance Racing Industry) trade show featured a Lola T70 Mark IIIB car as raced in 1967 SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) J Wax Canadian-American (Can-Am) Challenge series for FIA Group 7 cars by Mark Donohue for Roger Penske Racing Enterprises.
The FIA Group 7 regulations developed in 1966 specified few rules - the cars had to be fitted with fenders, windshield, two seats, two doors, headlights, taillights, roll bar, dual braking system and a self-starter and that they must run on commercial gasoline.

This particular Lola chassis was the third of three Lola T70s purchased by Penske over a two-year period.  Lola Cars, based in England was founded in 1958 by designer Eric Broadley. The T70 was by far the company’s most successful customer car with over hundred cars built in three iterations, with its reputation established after a Lola T70 Mark II driven by John Surtees won the inaugural SCCA J Wax Can-Am series in 1966.

The first Penske Lola car, a Mark II series identified as chassis number SL71/21, was raced during the 1966 season but after just three races was destroyed in a crash in the Watkins Glen Grand Prix after contact with John Cannon’s spinning Genie owned by actor Dan Blocker. The subsequent fire after the crash virtually destroyed SL71/21 which was replaced by Lola Mark II chassis number SL71/32.  

The second Penske Lola T70 chassis powered by a 327-cubic inch Chevrolet V-8 built by Traco Engineering was dominant in the 1967 United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) as Donohue won five of the series’ first seven races - the rounds at Las Vegas’ Stardust International Raceway, California’s Riverside International Raceway, the sandy Bridgehampton Road Course on Long Island, Watkins Glen, and Pacific Raceway in Kent Washington.    

Chassis SL71/32 was damaged in a July 1967 crash during a private Firestone tire test at Riverside and though it was later repaired, Penske needed a new car for the start of the 1967 SCCA Can-Am Series so he took delivery of our feature car, identified as chassis SL75/124, a Mark IIIB lightweight Spyder.
The new dark blue Lola debuted at the 1967 USRRC season finale at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course powered by a thundering Chevrolet 427-cubic inch V-8 engine. Donohue set quick time in qualifying, posted the fastest lap during the race and won the race by three laps over Jerry Hansen to clinch the 1967 USRRC championship.    

Despite the Lola’s Mid-Ohio success, testing showed that the 427-cubic inch engine lacked reliability, so for the 1967 Can-Am series the car was powered by a 327-cubic inch Chevrolet engine.  With finishes in only three of the series’ six rounds Donohue finished tied with John Surtees for third in points behind Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme and their dominant McLaren M6As.  

The key visual elements of this Lola T70 are the unique ram-air inlets located on either side of the roll bar. In his 1974 book The Unfair Advantage Donohue remembered the inlets as “….the greatest things! They made the car look like a spaceship. We didn’t realize that they were interfering with airflow to the rear spoiler, which probably offset any gains in horsepower. And they would crack, and they would fall apart, and we even sucked their screens into the carburetors.”  

Penske sold the car to the Carroll Shelby and Shelby Racing used it to test various engines and suspension parts.  Later in 1968, long-time Shelby American employees, brothers Charlie and Kerry Agapiou were encouraged by the Ford Motor Company to start a Can-Am team, and they bought using the Lola T70 from Shelby and raced the car with a hugely powerful Ford 427-cubic inch bored out to 464 cubic inches.
The Agapiou brothers started the season with Ronnie Bucknum as the driver but later George Follmer came on board. The car proved to be powerful and fast but unreliable though Follmer did finish second in the final 1968 Can-Am race at Las Vegas.

After its racing career ended, Lola SL75/124 was rebodied as the T70 coupe version and it spent time in a museum, but later it was sympathetically restored to its 1967 Can-Am appearance. Currently fitted with a 365-cubic inch Chevrolet V-8 engine it is raced in vintage events frequently.  

All Photos by the author


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Weld Wheels tribute car


Unable to find the right combination of strength and performance in wheels that were being made, United States Auto Club (USAC) racer Greg Weld decided to make his own wheels in a Kansas City garage in 1967 and thereby created Weld Wheels.

At the 2017 PRI (Performance Racing Industry) trade show in Indianapolis, Weld Wheels Racing and Andretti Autosport Short Track celebrated their heritage partnership that commemorated the company’s 50th anniversary in the design and manufacturing of race wheels.
Photo of the restored 1967 Dunseth sprint car
 courtesy of Roy Caruthers
Part of the Weld PRI 2017 display was the USAC sprint car driven by Jarett Andretti, the 2014 USAC National Sprint Car Rookie of the Year and son of legendary racer John Andretti. The car paid homage to Dr. Ward Dunseth’s sprint car which Greg Weld made famous when he drove it to the 1967 USAC Sprint Car Series championship.  
PRI photos by the author

Monday, December 18, 2017

AJ Foyt’s four Indy '500' winning cars at PRI 2017

This year’s Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show, the thirtieth annual event, honored four-time Indianapolis 500-mile race winner Anthony Joseph “A J” Foyt with a display of his four Indianapolis winning cars that were shown courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

The 1961 winning “Bowes Seal Fast Special” carried the number 1 that denoted Foyt’s United States Auto Club (USAC) drivers’ championship in 1961. The tubular chassis built by Youngstown Ohio’s Floyd Trevis from AJ Watson blueprints is powered by a 252-cubic inch 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine and completed the 200-lap race around the 2-1/2 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in three hours and thirty five minutes at an average speed of 139.130 miles per hour.

Foyt started the 1961 “Golden Anniversary” race from seventh position and first led the race on lap 73 and for the balance of the race carried out a spirited duel for the lead with Eddie Sachs and Rodger Ward. Foyt made his last scheduled pit stop on lap 160, but due to a fueling malfunction the car did not received a full load of fuel. Foyt led the race when crew chief George Bignotti signaled via the sign board that another fuel stop was needed. Foyt’s lap 184 stop for a splash of fuel seemingly handed the victory to Sachs, but Eddie pitted with three laps to go to replace a badly worn right rear tire and Foyt claimed his first '500' victory.

The 1964 winning “Sheraton-Thompson Special” built by AJ Watson with Offenhauser power that carried Foyt to victory had already won the first two 1964 season races at Phoenix International Raceway and Trenton international Speedway, and the Indianapolis ‘500’ win for Foyt was the third of seven USAC championship race wins in a row.  Foyt started the 500-mile race in fifth place slotted behind the front row which was comprised of all rear engine cars powered by Ford double overhead camshaft (DOHC) engines and all of whom had shattered Parnelli Jones’ one year old track record.

At the drop of the green flag, the pole winner Jim Clark  and second qualifier Bobby Marshman set the pace but they were eliminated; Clark by tire failure and Marshman by a broken oil pan. Defending winner Jones took the point but his #98 roadster was eliminated by a pit fire and Foyt took the lead on lap 55 and dominated the rest of the way. Foyt won by over a minute and a half over Rodger Ward and averaged over 147 MPH in the last victory at the Brickyard by a front engine roadster.


For the 1967 Indianapolis 500-mile race AJ Foyt drove a new rear-engine creation known as the “Coyote” with the aluminum monocoque chassis built by metal craftsmen Lujie Lesovsky and Eddie Kuzma covered by a fiberglass body crafted by AJ’s father Tony.  The new car powered by a DOHC Ford engine operated “under the radar” for most of the month of May 1967 as everyone’s interest was focused on the STP (Scientifically Tested Products) Granatelli four-wheel-drive turbine-powered machine.

Foyt’s “Sheraton-Thompson Special” qualified fourth and along with the rest of the starting field watched as Parnelli Jones and his turbine “Silent Sam” motored into the distance.  Jones led four times for a total of 171 laps, but while on his 196th lap a bearing in the transmission failed and Jones rolled into the pits.

Foyt in second place nearly a lap down inherited the lead and looked bound for victory but the race was far from over. As Foyt steered his Coyote through the final turn on his last lap, the crashing cars of Chuck Hulse, Carl Williams, Bobby Grim, Bud Tinglestad and Larry Dickson nearly blocked the main straightaway. Foyt slowed dramatically and carefully picked his way through the wreckage to claim his third Indianapolis victory.


In 1977, ten years had passed since Foyt’s last Indianapolis victory though he had finished third in 1975 and second in 1976 in rain-shortened races at the Speedway. The latest iteration of the “Coyote” chassis designed by Bob Riley which first debuted in 1973 was powered by a turbocharged 159-cubic inch version of the Ford DOHC engine, known as a “Foyt” engine after AJ had purchased the rights after the Ford Motor Company pulled out of racing in November 1970.    

AJ in the Poppy Red #14 sponsored by broadcaster Jim Gilmore started from the fourth starting position and Foyt first appeared at the head of the pack on lap 21. Foyt remained in the mix but the race was dominated by Gordon Johncock in the STP Wildcat who led Foyt by 10 seconds when he made his last scheduled pit stop on lap 180.

Johncock regained the lead from Foyt on the exchange of pit stops but on lap 184 the crankshaft in Johncock’s Offenhauser engine broke and a huge plume of smoke signaled the end of Johncock’s race.  Foyt inherited the lead with a cushion of over 30 seconds over second place Tom Sneva and he cruised to claim his historic fourth victory, the first man to conquer the Brickyard four times.

Foyt would continue to race in the Indianapolis 500-mile race until he retired before the race in 1993 with a record 35 consecutive starts, a year after he set the record as the race’s oldest starter at 57 years and 128 days old.  Foyt held the record for the most years between wins (10) until it was surpassed by Juan Pablo Montoya with 15 years between wins in 2000 and 2015. 

Foyt holds the record for the most Indianapolis 500-mile races led with thirteen and leads all drivers with a remarkable 12,272-1/2 miles completed in competition at Indianapolis to go along with being the first man to capture four Indianapolis 500-mile race wins.  

Monday, December 11, 2017

Roy Bowe - 2017 NMARHOF honoree 

Roy behind the wheel of the 1949 RMMRA championship car
with car owner Miles Spickler standing
Photo from Bill Hill's book Decades of Daring

This is one of a series of articles on a few of the inductees into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame to be honored on January 12, 2018 in Tulsa Oklahoma. 

William Roy Bowe born in Denver’s west side Valverde neighborhood in 1916 and after graduation from Regis High School raced co-worker Johnny Boomer’s Continental powered midget during 1937 on the track inside the Merchants Park ball field.

For the 1938 Merchants season drove Bob Van Buskirk’s V8-60-powered midget and when racing ended at Merchants after 1939 Bowe raced with the AAA (American Automobile Association) midgets at Lakeside Speedway a newly-paved 1/5-mile track inside the Lakeside Amusement Park. With the outbreak of World War II Bowe enlisted in the US Army Air Force and served with the Army Air Transport Command in China, Burma and India as a radio operator.

When Roy returned from overseas he resumed racing and in 1946 he won 8 features and then in 1947 driving Ray Koch’s Ford flathead V-8 powered midget he won five features and was the runner-up to Johnnie Tolan with 524 points to Tolan’s tally of 667 points.  

During that period the Kurtis Kraft midget owned by brothers Miles and Burton Spickler was very successful in RMMRA competition but during the 1947 season, Burton was seriously injured in a crash at Lakeside Speedway. Miles took over the driving duties to finish out the season, but his wife was uncomfortable with Miles’ driving so Roy was hired to drive the Spickler midget for 1948 with sponsorship from Nu-Enamel paint a leading consumer paint brand.  

In 1948, Roy Bowe dominated the Rocky Mountain Midget Racing Association (RMMRA) competition - he scored ten wins at Lakeside Speedway, seven at Fort Collins Speedway Park and six at Colorado Springs. Bowe won the championship with 1244 points to runner-up Buddy Shay’s 836 points.

Bowe won the RMMRA Championship again in 1949 driving for Miles Spickler with O’Meara Ford sponsorship and the Kurtis Kraft car painted in a striking unique plaid livery. Bowe captured five feature wins during the 1950 RMMRA season and finished third in points behind Sonny Coleman and Shay.

In 1951 Roy won two RMMRA features, and after midget racing ended at Lakeside Speedway, he went on the road in 1952 and won two American Automobile Association (AAA) features at Olympic Stadium in Kansas City. 

During 1953 Roy quit midget racing after he witnessed a serious accident that involved Danny Morgan in a RMMRA racing program at Brush Colorado. During his career in which he garnered 64 RMMRA feature victories Roy was never seriously hurt in a racing accident - his worst injury was a broken foot, suffered after he drove over his own foot at Walsh Stadium at St Louis.

Roy married in 1947 had one son and three daughters, and retired as a mechanic in 1985 then passed away just a few days short of his eightieth birthday on July 12, 1996 and is interred in the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.  We are proud to welcome one Colorado’s greatest midget pilots as a new inductee into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Tunison Speed Roadster - "an airplane on wheels"

At the Spring AutoLitFest 2017 held on the grounds of the NHRA museum, the author spied a period brochure for the virtually unknown Tunison automobile for sale on one of the vendor tables, but when he returned to try to buy it, the small (3 inches by 5 inches) multi-page ultra-rare folded Tunison brochure was gone. The Tunison was a car built in Oakland California in 1921 which apparently never got beyond the prototype phase.

The car’s namesake, Murray Cuthbert (M C) Tunison, was born March 2 1877 in Jacksonville Illinois but he spent much of his life in California.  Tunison began in engine design around the age of 20 and around the turn of the twentieth century he offered a line of gasoline and kerosene powered engines under the “Success” nameplate for use on the farm and for marine applications via catalogue sales from his Los Angeles California factory. Tunison’s small stationary engine used two large cast iron disks enclosed inside a heavy steel channel frame driven by a heavy I-beam connecting rod that rode in phosphor bronze bearings driven by a hit-and-miss single cylinder engine.

Tunison made his first foray into the automobile trade as he formed the Pacific Motor and Automobile Company with partners H. L. Boyer and W. B. Harrington in June 1906 to build an air-cooled 8-cylinder 86-horsepower car known as the Coyote. The engine designed by Tunison was reportedly made up of two rows of four cylinders set at an angle of 90 degrees to each other.  

In December 1908 it was announced that the lightweight “Coyote Special” roadster demonstrator prototype was completed and being tested while Pacific Motor was building a new garage in Redondo California. At that time of the factory announcement the Los Angeles Herald reported that “the company is well financed and will not be handicapped in getting out its product for lack of capital” but by April 1909 the company was in financial trouble and the company soon folded.   

Tunison like many others became fascinated with the rapidly emerging aviation field and in 1910 he leased Dominguez Field an early airport located near modern day Carson California.  In May 1911 Murray and George B Harrison the President of the Aero Club of California proposed that the US Congress set aside a fund of $150,000 devoted to the development of aviation. Tunison and Harrison’s plan called for the fund to pay aviators a dollar per mile flown with the provision that he “placed his services at the command of the government whenever there was a call for them.”   

Tunison was involved in the organization and promotion of the second International Air Meet held at Dominguez Field in December 1910 that featured Wright brothers’ exhibition team with pilots Archibald Hoxsey, Walter Brookins and Philip Parmelee. During 1911, Tunison moved to Northern California and the November 1911 issue of Aircraft magazine reported that Tunison was “constructing a large monoplane of his own design which he intends to try out shortly.” The plane’s overall design was described as “to carry two persons and has a spread of 59 feet and length of 54 feet” powered by an engine of 125 horsepower. What came of this Tunison monoplane is unknown.

The following year, Tunison was named the manager of the new Aeronautical Corporation in San Rafael a firm that employed fourteen workmen. One of the first projects was a biplane built for noted aviation French pioneer Didier Masson with the goal of Masson flying the new aircraft over the Sierra mountain range. Masson, who had earlier flown from San Francisco to Oakland and became the first man to fly an airplane across San Francisco Bay, and Tunison hoped to sell copies of the biplane to the United States military.

The new biplane’s first flight at the San Rafael airfield in March 1912 was mostly successful, that is until a skid broke off while landing and the plane rolled over into the soft mud but Masson emerged uninjured. In April 1912 Masson in the repaired Tunison creation carried fifty copies of the San Francisco Call newspaper from San Rafael to Vallejo and he became known as the “newsboy of the clouds.”  

In August 1912 Tunison started construction of a new larger aircraft which a writer in the San Francisco Call identified as “the largest biplane in the west.” The writer revealed that he had surreptitiously measured the craft with a yardstick and listed the dimensions as a wingspan of 60 feet a length of 42 ½ feet and body with a 3-1/2 foot depth designed to hold two persons. The biplane was powered by a 120-horsepower engine which drove triple propellers one in the nose of the plane and one of each side of the cockpit between the wings. One fascinating futuristic feature of this design was the placement of the gasoline tanks inside the wings.

The power of the massive Tunison-designed engine was needed as the plane was designed for commercial use to carry freight to far-off locales such as Sacramento, Bakersfield, and San Diego, although Tunison admitted that one of the drawbacks with the plan was “the lack of suitable landing places”.  The author could find no further information on Tunison’s large commercial biplane.
Murray Tunison had a fertile inventive mind which was demonstrated in May 1918 as he and a partner Samuel Nunn filed a patent application for an invention which was entitled “tractor attachment for automobiles.” A car’s front axle and front and rear wheels would be removed and replaced with mounted “traction belts” with the driven axle of the automobile geared to drive the traction belts. The pair’s creation received patent US 1356945A in October 1920, but by that the time, Tunison was totally immersed in the design and construction of his next venture, an eponymous automobile with the prototype revealed in late March 1921.

The prototype Tunison automobile was powered by a V-type 8-cylinder engine with overhead valves and a pressurized oiling system  which it was claimed would propel the car to a startling 70 miles per hour while it average 30 miles per gallon of gasoline as a result of a 1600-pound curb weight.

The most important engineering detail of the Tunison’s design was that its frame and body were made of laminated spruce, which led to the description of the car as “an airplane on wheels.” Plans were to initially build 250 per month cars built completely on site except for the bearings and the electrical components. Production was projected to grow to 1000 cars a month from the new factory to be built on the east side of Oakland. Publicity claimed that Murray Tunison “designed and built 380 engines of all sizes, ranging from 2 to 600-horsepower” and that he held US patent #57800 for the design of the speedster body.   

An article in the Oakland Tribune stated that “laminated spruce is 65 per cent stronger than steel of the same weight and 60 per cent lighter than steel of the same strength. Its use in automobile construction as fabricated by the “Tunison process” provides lightness and strength, freedom from vibration, absence of squeaks and rattles and furthermore admits designs not possible with metal bodies.” The Oakland Tribune article stated that “it is a well-known fact that steel transmits shocks, while wood absorbs them” which makes Tunison’s use of steel wheels surprising. 

The car’s frame was built of five layers of spruce cemented with waterproof glue under high pressure while the laminated wood body was built in a mold and covered with Fabrikoid imitation leather manufactured by DuPont which was cotton cloth coated with nitrocellulose. The Tunison catalog at AutoLitFest 2017 showed a Tunison Speed Roadster and a Tunison Touring car with a cost of $1250 for the roadster & $1350 for the touring car.

The Tunison Motor Company was incorporated in Oakland in April 1921 with a reported $2,500,000 in capital stock to be offered to the public. In August 1921 Tunison General Manager Clifford Williams announced that the East Side Board of Trade had secured an option on $1,250,000 worth of the company's stock. Williams claimed the company is “determined to make Oakland the home of the Tunison. Bringing the Tunison factory to Oakland will encourage other industries to seek manufacturing sites in the City.”

A little more than a month later Williams filed suit against the Tunison Motor Company as he claimed breach of contract. Williams hired on June 28 1921 for $100 a week and a promise of a 20 5 commission on all stock sold. On September 28 Williams claimed that Mr. Tunison and LP Hughes entered his office, “rifled his desk and changed the combination of his safe.” Williams claimed that Tunison’s misleading statements to banks had caused the California State Commission of Corporations to issue a warning to investors concerning the company’s stock offers. 

Despite the warnings in November 1921 it was announced that all the $2,500,000 in stock had been sold and that Tunison would build its modern automobile factory in Oakland which would provide employment to 3000 men. A one-story concrete reinforced building that measured 150 feet by 450 feet with a value of $250,000 was scheduled to begin construction immediately. The Tunison corporate office had moved from its original location in room 317 in the three-story Thayer Building located at the southeast corner of 14th and Jefferson Streets in downtown Oakland to the Pacific Building a 5-story brick building at the corner of 16th and Jefferson.

The November 15 1921 issue of Motor West magazine revealed the results of the election of Tunison Motor Company officers and Board of Directors.  A W Beam, the President of the Hayward Chamber of Commerce was named the company president with George Reuben, Phoenix automobile distributor and vice president of National Automobile Dealers Association as Tunison’s general and sales manager.

The prominent name on the board of directors was  John Paul Rettenmayer, the President of the California Brewing Association and the owner of Acme Brewing Company,  the Cereal Products Refining Company, manufacturers of malt syrups, as well as Peerless Yeast, Peerless Vinegar and the Remar Company  of Oakland, makers of Remar Bread and Remar Candy.
Other board members included JD Howell an engineer with the Union Ice Company of San Francisco and a pair of attorneys - EW Davis and James M Oliver who was the legal advisor for the California state banking commission. The Board membership also included three contractors - JJ Stahl of San Francisco and C U Cunningham and BT James of Oakland.

The Tunison automobile failed for unknown reasons without any cars built beyond the prototype, and Murray Tunison dropped from the public eye for several years but he did receive a patent in 1925 for his design for a car storage garage Tunison’s invention showed that automobiles would be stored on a group of independent floor panels riding on horizontally movable trucks operating on each floor.  The insertion and removal of the automobiles would be achieved through the use of an elevator mounted in a fixed shaft.

In 1929 the Santa Ana Register reported that members of a US Naval investigating board led by Admiral Moffatt stopped at Eddie Martin’s Airport to meet the local aviator and to look over a new type airplane housed at the field. The plane which attracted their attention was a low-wing, streamlined, enclosed cabin, monoplane built of plywood named the Tunison Scout.

The blue and red trimmed 4-passanger Tunison Scout was built during 1928 by Murray and his son both of Fullerton featured a 36 foot wing span and was built of molded plywood excluding the 150-horsepower water-cooled Hispano-Suiza H-3 engine mountings and fittings. There were no internal spars for bracing of the wings as the entire wing section consisted of layers of laminated plywood. The plywood wing was nearly 2 feet thick at the intersection with the fuselage and the seats for the occupants of the cockpit were attached to the wing.

The Scout won a design award, was test flown during in December 1928 by famed aviator Jimmie Angel and was featured in an article in the July 1929 issue of Aviation magazine but it never received the required certificate from the Department of Commerce. Tunison’s company later was purchased by Pacific Air Industries and the company installed a new engine and intended to offer two additional models - a two-place Scout Junior and a seven-passenger Scout Cruiser, but those plans never materialized.

A few years later Murray Tunison was the featured speaker in a three-part lecture series on aerodynamics presented to the Fullerton Hawks a group of young aircraft model builders. In his later years Murray lived in Chico California and researched and wrote a book about the mining of uranium before he passed away in 1953 in Utah.

If any readers have a copy of the Tunison ephemera that you would be willing to sell, please contact the author at