Photos by Brian Henniker, courtesy Gooding & Company.
Raw speed, indeed, is the only thing that’ll get a racer to the finish line first – chrome don’t get you home, as they say – but developing a professional image counts for plenty more, as Tony Nancy proved. His roadsters not only set records on the dragstrip, they looked good doing so, and perhaps the most successful of them (on both fronts) will head to auction next month.
While Nancy has most often been described as an upholsterer — his upholstery shop in Sherman Oaks, California, certainly paid the bills — he was more of a Renaissance man who, as Ken Gross wrote for Hemmings Muscle Machines, “could do it all, from upholstery to paint, to engine and chassis building, to driving and winning.” His first roadster, built in the mid- to late 1950s, continued to use a flathead Ford V-8 long after the drag racing world had embraced the new overhead-valve V-8s coming out of Detroit, but it was thanks to Nancy’s attention to details that many of his competitors overlooked (along with the honkin’ supercharger atop the flathead) that the roadster often beat out its supposedly better-equipped challengers and made its way to magazine covers.
Then in 1959, finding his flathead no longer competitive, Nancy built another roadster – one that appeared rather similar at first glance, but couldn’t have been more different under the skin. He started by persuading Kent Fuller to build him a complete chrome-moly tube-frame chassis that placed the driver in the center of the car and that, at 1,550 pounds, weighed far less than a traditional chassis. Aluminum hood, cowl, floor, decklid, and doors all helped keep the weight down, as did magnesium wheels.
Though Nancy had, by this time, come to see the advantages of the overhead-valve V-8, he didn’t simply jump on the small-block Chevrolet bandwagon. Instead, he chose a Buick nail-valve V-8, which he bored and stroked to 454 cubic inches and fitted with an Iskenderian camshaft, Jahns lightweight pistons, Scintilla Vertex magneto, and a Hilborn fuel-injection system. The Buick engine produced about 450 horsepower that then went through a 1953 Buick three-speed manual transmission and a Halibrand quick-change rear end.
And, of course, the roadster had to look good with chrome sprinkled throughout and Nancy’s signature seahorse painted on the otherwise transparent panel fitted within the grille shell. Nancy even stitched a snappy tonneau cover for it.
In its naturally aspirated version, and with Nancy at the wheel, the roadster recorded a best quarter-mile speed of 138 MPH. With a supercharger and Enderle injection unit, Nancy cranked up his best speed to 144 MPH.
Other more advanced dragsters followed, but the roadsters captured the interest of many a budding hot rodder, among them Dan LaCroix, who by the early 1990s had located and restored both of the roadsters. He then sold them both at auction in 2007: the flathead car for $192,500 (against a pre-auction estimate of $350,000 to $450,000) and the nail-valve car for $154,000 (against a pre-auction estimate of $300,000 to $400,000). The flathead car then sold again two years later for $220,000.
The nail-valve car (chassis number 22JR0002) will cross the block as part of Gooding’s Scottsdale auction with a pre-auction estimate of $140,000 to $180,000. The Gooding Scottsdale auction will take place January 29-30 at the Scottsdale Fashion Square. For more information, visit GoodingCo.com.