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Wikner Special, Australia’s oldest race car, travels to the States for two-year exhibit

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo courtesy Doug Partington.

Of all the reasons one might have for building a race car – besides, you know, to go fast and race – Australians Geoff and Roy Wikner perhaps had the most oblique: They really wanted to build airplanes. Nearly a century later, however, the aircraft manufacturer is long gone but the Model T speedster the Wikners built remains and has made its way to the United States where it will go on display at the Model T Ford Club of America’s museum.

Then 18 and 20 years old, respectively, Geoff and Roy were selling Indian motorcycles in Leura, outside of Sydney. Geoff, however, had dreams of designing and building airplanes, and while he and his brother socked away some money from motorcycle sales, it wasn’t enough to build even a demonstration plane. Geoff Wikner thus decided he needed financial backers for his aircraft venture, and he needed to show those backers what he could do, so in 1922 he and Roy applied their meager funds toward a race car.

According to Doug Partington, who owns the car today, it’s not clear how the brothers learned how to build a race car, even less clear how they learned to build one as sophisticated as what became known as the Wikner Ford Special largely from used Ford Model T parts. “It’s a very early spaceframe that’s been built up from two Model T chassis gas welded together,” Partington told Australia’s Unique Cars. “At the very tail of the car it is shaped like the rudder of a WWI biplane. It’s amazing they didn’t put a fabric body on it.”

Atop the Ford Model T four-cylinder engine the brothers placed a Rajo overhead-valve conversion; they built the rest of the engine up using a racing camshaft, aluminum pistons, Stromberg carburetor, and Bosch magneto. To get the front of the car low, they installed a Mercury dropped front axle, and for reliability they swapped out the original wheels for 23-inch Budd wires.

The Model T planetary transmission remained stock, and the brothers only modified the Model T rear axle with 3:1 gears. They also kept the stock braking system, bothering only to change the cast-iron shoes in the rear drums out for lined shoes operated by a big hand lever.

“Geoff Wikner must have had the heart of a lion to consider racing the car on its spindly wheels, axles, and tyres,” Partington wrote.

After taking it to a few dirt tracks in and around Sydney, the brothers entered the Wikner Special in the inaugural races at the Olympia Speedway at Maroubra Beach in 1925. As Partington wrote, Maroubra “was to have been Australia’s Indianapolis. That first December meeting attracted over 70,000 spectators many of whom traveled to the circuit on specially chartered trains from the city.”

Whether Wikner got his desired funding after the car’s appearance at Maroubra isn’t clear, but over the next three years he did build his first airplane, the Anzani-powered Wico Cabin Sports, which he ultimately towed up to Archerfield, a suburb of Brisbane, behind the Wikner Ford Special. Over the next six years he not only flew his Wico but set multiple altitude records with it.

Greater heights called, however, and in 1934 Wikner decided to move to England. To fund the trip, he sold the Wico and left the Wikner Special with the family he had stayed with to cover his rent. After making the move he cofounded Foster Wickner and went on to build fewer than a dozen inexpensive Wicko cabin monoplanes before World War II curtailed production.

Back in Archerfield, the family, not knowing what to do with an old race car, let it deteriorate until they sold it sometime after World War II. It then bounced around until 1958, when then-14-year-old Partington noticed a local classified ad for a complete but dismantled old race car. The asking price was £20, but he could only put together £14. The seller agreed, and Partington spent the next four years reassembling the car.

Partington called it the Rajo but knew nothing about the car’s history until 1994 when another Model T enthusiast suggested he check out “Flight of the Halifax,” a book about Wikner that included a few photos of a car that looked much like Partington’s.

“I even counted the rivets on the body (in the photo) to be sure and there is no doubt it is the car,” Partington told Unique Cars. “So I thought I had better restore it. I got in contact with the Wikner family and got some more photos. So I understood well enough what I had and what I needed to do to create the car without overdoing it. We haven’t changed a thing, we haven’t ground a weld off, we haven’t super-finished anything. Everything is as it was for 1922. The engine could be modified dramatically to today’s standards, but this is all pure Model T.”

As for the “Australia’s oldest race car” claim, Partington wrote that the Wikner Special passed scrutiny with the Confederation of Australian Motorsport with ease and that no other CAMS car is documented as older than the Wikner Special. In addition, Australian motorsports historians have informed him that the Wikner Special is the only known complete car to have competed in the 1925 Maroubra races.

Since finishing the restoration of the Wikner Special in 1999, Partington entered it in vintage races for several years (and reached speeds of up to 100 mph) before retiring it out of concern for finding replacement parts should any of the originals break. For a while after the car’s retirement, he had it on display in the Queensland Transportation Museum, and then in 2013 the Model T Ford Club of America inducted the Wikner Special into its Speedster Hall of Fame.

That in turn set the stage for the Wikner Special to make the trans-Pacific trip to the United States – specifically the MTFCA Museum in Richmond, Indiana – earlier this year. According to the MTFCA’s Facebook page, the Wikner Special will go on display at the museum July 8, just prior to the museum’s Homecoming on July 14, and will remain on display through 2020.

For more information on the MTFCA Museum and its Homecoming, visit MTFCA.com.