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The Stoner T: How to build a hot rod in 10 years (and influence people), part 17

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The personality of any hot rod, at some point, is gonna come down to the choices made around the exhaust system. All photos by the author and Tim Conder/Conder Custom, unless otherwise noted.

If you’re reading this, chances are you got here because of your love of old cars. Your love of old cars probably doesn’t live in a vacuum, does it? You probably love old things, in general, right? How stuff was made in a purely analog age, before stuff could be manufactured with a series of 1s and 0s and all that. You might even go so far as to admit you believe old things made by humans have soul. The Japanese developed a world-view called “wabi-sabi:” the belief that there’s not only beauty in the imperfection of made objects, but the patina and wear they sustain as they age is valuable, in and of itself. See that? You’re turning Japanese, I really think so.

Now, when it comes to old cars, there is surely a facet of this world we love so much that has a strained relationship with wabi-sabi: the machine shop. When you deal in thousandths of an inch, words like imperfection and patina are your enemy. At the same time, there’s as much black magic and soul and all the feels in a machine shop that can’t be explained, but absolutely are also responsible for getting an old motor running and running well. And if you start digging into the world of vintage racing and speed equipment, well, friends, thousandths of an inch coexist with voodoo dolls and sweat and the machine shop version of that thing you do with your heel when you jam it into soft dirt in the backyard to mark the spot where the pool is gonna go.

And so it is with this particular new car made out of old stuff.

Now, if you remember back in Chapter 12, we started talking about the plans for the respiratory system of the Gotelli fueler motor I was lucky enough to own and, more specifically, the exhaust. More specifically than that, header choice:

“All those decisions were made for me, though, when I took a chance on this Gotelli fueler 392 Hemi. If I was gonna restore this engine to its former glory, there were only two questions to answer over its exhaust system: To zoomie or not zoomie? To weed-burn or not burn weeds? In 1962, the first iteration of Ted Gotelli’s Kent Fuller-chassis Front Engine Dragster ran weedburners.”

The Stoner T 

Aaron Von Minden’s Harrell Amyx survivor Front-Engine Dragster and its weedburner headers. These have more of a ‘swept’ design to them and are much longer than others, but they burn weeds and are a period-perfect example of pre-zoomie header technology.

Weedburners, it would be. There was plenty of photographic evidence of what the weedburners on this motor looked like in ’62 and ’63, so Conder got to work and started researching the best way to go about replicating them. Turns out, it wasn’t as easy as he or anyone else thought it might be. The shop that made most of these headers for fueler teams back then is still in business, but wouldn’t touch the job. No catalog offers weedburners in any configuration. The typical tubing benders couldn’t match the radius without kinking the metal. By Chapter 15 of this story, Tim had figured out the right process for making them, but the correct radius of the tubing was still giving chase.

Mike Hegarty’s Silhouette survivor canopy slingshot dragster runs its own version of a weedburner. This thing is powered by a Ford flathead V-8 and is a great example of Fifties-era header style.

Jack Warren’s ’41 Willys gas coupe runs yet another version of a weedburner. This style of header is recognizable by the four individual pipes ending, well, in the weeds. No collector or 4-into-1 setup, here.

I know, I know – you’ve seen it before, but here it is again! Ted Gotelli in the seat of his fueler between rounds, reading an issue of Drag News. And there’s the classic weedburner: a beautiful radius repeated, if not a little bent-up from seeing so much punishment. Photo: Sherm Porter.

When you walk through the front door of Gotelli Speed Shop there on El Camino Real in South San Francisco, California, and up to the parts counter (and I strongly suggest you add that to your bucket-list California-car-guy road trip), know that you’re walking through the same door and up to the same counter that the greats of drag racing and hot rodding have since that door was first opened in 1962. And, once you reach that counter and stand in front of the old manual cash register that “Terrible Ted” Gotelli punched till the day he died and that his son, Ted Jr., still punches, look up.

Wow. Just hanging there, from the ceiling at Gotelli’s, for YEARS. Just waiting patiently for me to come in and ask about them.

Until recently, right there, screwed into the underside of a redwood load-bearing ceiling beam in the showroom, is a pair of battle-worn weedburner dragster headers. And from the passenger-side header hangs a laminated copy of an early-Sixties magazine article about the Gotelli racing team, featuring photos of the pipes on one of the earliest versions of the fueler.

Those beautiful weedburners on the Gotelli short-body car sometime in probably mid-1962. This version of the motor is running barndoor-style injection and chromed stamped valve covers, so I think it’s the version just prior to my motor. I think. Here, they’re hosed down in that white header paint. Photo: Gotelli Speed Shop Collection.

It’s a vantage point not many ever got of these weedburners when they saw regular action in the West Coast theater. Most of the time, if you were lucky enough to see them at rest, it was from the top down. If you were one of the unlucky, you saw them from your own fueler cockpit as they flew past you on any of the legendary dragstrips of the sport’s Golden Era. But not many got the chance to actually study these things…

The lowest part of the radius on the forward tubes is flattened with some deep, angry scars. When the parachute was deployed as the car would ram through the traps at the end of the track at 200 mph, the chassis would throw a violent “bounce” in reaction. One of the first things to hit the pavement on that bounce were the bottoms of these headers. Wabi-sabi.

Okay, I think you know what’s coming… but just look at the metal and the years of character its developed from seeing some of the most glorious action in the formative years of drag racing. You have to look past the modern heat treatment coating they got years ago, but I’ve seen worse…

Between the header flanges and the beautiful radius of the tubes is a mess of wrinkled metal and welded patches, consistent across all of them. When this 392 Hemi was fired and running on a nitromethane cocktail, it’d tend to run lean and hot. So hot, matter of fact, that it would start to melt its own headers. These weedburners had a tendency to droop as the metal closest to the block would start to give under the intense heat and drop under their own weight, still bolted to the heads. Ted “The Goat” Gotelli, who ran his shop as lean as his fueler motor, would’ve rather fixed the same set of headers than have H&L Metals in Long Beach make a new set, so he just bent the flanges back into shape and welded patches to the tops of them to keep them from drooping. Wabi-sabi.

The Stoner T

The T has its own spot at Conder Custom, but the slicks have to come off to get it through one particular passage on its way to the back lot. Kinda proud of that, actually. Here, you can see a hint of the headers in place.

The backs of the header flanges – where they bolt to the underside of the cylinder head – look like the hands of an early oil-field wildcatter. Scarred, rough-edged, dinged, chiseled. These things show years of battlefield surgery: bolted and unbolted countless numbers of times, heat-fused gaskets scraped off with a putty knife or a belt buckle or, hell, a big screwdriver. Wabi-sabi.

Standing on the floor of Gotelli’s showroom, looking up from underneath these weedburners, I could see most of the glorious, uh, “character” in them. Most of the time, I go straight to the back door of the building to hang out with Bruno Gianoli in the machine shop (no shortage of “character” back there). Let the guys buying race gas and break-in oil up front do their thing. But when I do get to the front of the store, I always stand under those headers like a kid seeing the Liberty Bell for the first time. The history embedded in those things, man. Seriously. I can only imagine the sound they once made. It got to the point where Teddy Jr. and Mario at the counter would ask, “How long you gonna stand there and stare at those things?”

The Stoner T

LOOKIT THAT! My heart actually skips a beat over this shot. Really. I get a little quakey. The one-of-two Gotelli Speed Shop 392 Hemi reunited with its headers after a million years of being separated. Still need the correct 2” pulleys, blower belt, and the EFI setup, but we damn-near nailed it.

So it was, that I found myself back at Gotelli’s a few weeks ago, with Conder’s adventures in tube-bending fresh in my mind (Chapter 15). “Ted, you know I got the motor that I think these things came offa,” I said, pointing up to those headers. “Would you let me borrow them? Y’know… to see if the radius on them would work in the T?” Sure, I could borrow them. Come get ‘em anytime I want. There’s a stepladder in the parts room, and there should be some screwdrivers under the counter. Anytime, Dan, you know that. And they are a good conversation piece, aren’t they?

I wasn’t positive that these pipes had been run on my motor. But, given Ted Sr.’s habit of reusing everything under the sun till there was just no more use left in it (“200 mph ashtrays: $1.00” taped to the pile of burnt pistons beside the cash register for 30 years), I knew there was a chance. I, at least, knew that the last version of my motor saw a set of zoomies before it was retired to the shop floor, but I also knew that its girdle dated it to the earlier cars. No matter, I grabbed the shop stepladder, a Philips-head screwdriver, a pair of tinsnips, Channelocks, wire nippers, a flathead screwdriver, opinions of no fewer than four insulting engineers on hand for the spectacle, and climbed up to start the extraction. The showroom hadn’t seen that kind of action in years.

Got home with them and rationalized that I should take this one-of-one pair of vintage dragster weedburners out of the trunk and into the house. Because, what if the car was stolen in the middle of the night? What if someone broke the trunk lock and took ’em? Why yes, they’d be much safer on the living room rug for a night where I could just gawk at them over ice cream, whiskey, a rerun of Thieves Highway, and a wife who just shakes her head at the random old hardware that has been in that same spot so many times before.

The Stoner T

The weedburner, drag link, frame rail, and motor all work in concert. Like they were all made for each other, just waiting to be bolted together.

Moment of truth: got them to Conder Custom and held them up against the motor. They. Fit. Perfectly. They cleared the frame rails. The radius accommodated the drag link like they were bent for the car. The very tips of the pipes just kissed the imaginary line running along the outer edge of the front tires’ sidewalls. Perfect. PERFECT. I struggled getting the rear header bolts on and Tim said, “Now, imagine having to do that every weekend. In the pits. Between rounds. They probably had to take the heads off to do it fast.” Humbling little moment right there.

The Stoner T

Conder made a good point: Without the main journal girdle that Bruno Gianoli and Roger Peters designed for this motor, the headers would’ve never fit. The motor was naturally raised enough because of the few extra inches of height the girdle provided, that the headers just nestled into place oh-so nicely.

We rolled the car out into the sunlight of Conder Custom’s parking lot, and I realized I hadn’t seen the car in sunlight in years. It wasn’t a surprise that headers changed the look and personality of the car, but I just wasn’t prepared for what I saw. We had reunited the Gotelli fueler motor that set record after record in a few fleeting years of the early Sixties with its own weedburner headers it’d been separated from for over half a century. Man, if that doesn’t give you goosebumps… Well, it means you’re probably more well-adjusted than I am, actually.

Details of the weedburners’ scars, welds, patches, and craftsmanship. Remember, these things last saw action in probably late 1963.

All I could do was stare at the car. Mind you, we hadn’t been able to stand as far back from it when it was inside the shop, so the vantage point was incredible. And with the headers in their rightful place, the car’s personality was almost fully realized. Only thing better would be to fire it. Only thing better than that, would be to drive it. And all in due time…

The Stoner T

A study in design, proportion, stance and attitude.

To catch up on other installments of the Stoner T build, click here.