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Record-setting Chrisman brothers coupe had an engine for every occasion

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.

Up until 2001, nobody had driven a nitro-powered vehicle over the dais at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. It took Art Chrisman, reunited with the 1931 Ford Model A coupe that he built and raced nearly 50 years prior, to cause such a racket while taking the third-place award for the first hot rod class at the concours.

“I fired up the engine, and ripped the throttle several times, and smoked the tires off of the platform,” he related for Ken Gross’s book “Hot Rod Milestones: America’s Coolest Coupes, Roadsters, and Racers.” “I know the nitro made all those stuffy folks’ eyes water and the ladies’ mascara run.”

So perhaps the current owner of the coupe, even though Chrisman has since died, will tempt fate by returning the record-setting Bonneville racer to Monterey next weekend, this time crossing an auction block rather than a concours stage.

One of the most iconic hot rods in history, the racer now known as the Chrisman brothers coupe began as an abandoned Model A and a plan conceived by Art and his brother Lloyd to capture as many records as possible in as many different classes as possible at Bonneville Speed Week.

As Gross wrote, the brothers removed the Model A’s cowl and replaced it with one from a 1935 Ford coupe, which already had a pair of leaned-back A pillars. A few years prior, Bob and Dick Pierson showed the potential of a severe chop and well-reclined A pillars on a Bonneville-bound coupe, and the Chrisman brothers (along with Alex Xydias after them) intended to build on that potential. The severe chop on the Model A and the A pillar graft required a large section of sheetmetal to fill the hood, and while Art visited the junkyard to cut out the roof section of a 1940 Ford, he spied a couple circa-1940 Ford hoods laid one atop the other and figured they’d offer excellent aerodynamics as the coupe’s nose.

They wouldn’t have to worry about accessing the engine under the hoods, either: Their plan called for mounting the entire drivetrain behind the driver in a single unit. Doing so would not only allow them to easily replace engines grenaded by excessive nitromethane, it would also allow them to quickly swap multiple engines of different sizes and configurations and thus compete for top speeds in multiple classes.

A 1938 Ford axle and regular ol’ transverse leaf spring constituted the front suspension, but the brothers dispensed with any rear suspension and bolted the drivetrain unit directly into the 3-1/2-inch steel tube chassis they built. As a dedicated race car, the coupe would never again carry passengers, so the brothers positioned the driver smack dab in the middle, as far forward as possible without hitting the windshield. Art Chrisman, who set a class record in his first venture to Bonneville in 1951 and who became a charter member of the 200 MPH Club a year later in Chet Herbert’s streamliner, would handle driving duties in the coupe.

The brothers’ plan for 1953 called for three different engines: the 304-cu.in. stroked Mercury flathead from the brothers’  No. 25 dragster, an Ardun-headed 304-cu.in. flathead, and an Ardun-headed 258-cu.in. flathead. The first blew up after running 163.63 MPH in pursuit of the Class C record, but the smaller Ardun allowed them to take the Class B competition coupe record with a two-way average of 160.178 MPH.

For 1954, the brothers returned with a pair of Hemis: a 243-cu.in. Dodge for Class B and a 276-cu.in. DeSoto for Class C. The latter returned a record of 180.08 MPH while the former earned them a record of 180.87 MPH. In 1955, using a 331-cu.in. Chrysler Hemi, the coupe set a Class D record at 196 MPH, but the brothers decided to retire from land-speed racing when John Donaldson, driving the Reed brothers belly tank, crashed and died on the very next run.

Subsequent owners of the coupe continued to race it until George Barris bought it and modified it for “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” then put it on the show circuit. Car show promoter Bob Larivee then bought it and, rather than modify it again, had Chrisman restore it to its last Chrisman configuration. Joe MacPherson subsequently bought it, agreed to display it at Pebble, and in 2008 sold it at auction for $660,000. Two years later, it appeared at auction again, this time in Monterey, but failed to meet reserve after bidding up to $485,000.

The coupe has once again been consigned with Mecum for its Monterey sale later this month; no pre-auction estimate has been listed.

Mecum’s Monterey sale will take place August 23 to 25. For more information, visit Mecum.com.