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The Spurgin-Giovanine roadster, a legend on the dry lakes, showed how it was done then disappeared

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by Mike Maez, courtesy Gooding & Company.

Imagine any top-level sports team not only going undefeated through an entire season and, as a result, winning a championship, but also setting a scoring record every time they took the field. And risking their lives every time they played. And doing so without getting paid or signing big sponsorship deals. Chuck Spurgin and Bob Giovanine accomplished that very feat in 1948 in a car that spent decades off collectors’ radars and that will come up for auction next month.

Though only really known by hardcore hot-rod historians today, Spurgin and Giovanine rubbed shoulders with many of the far more celebrated pioneers of hot-rodding and dry lakes racing. Wally Parks, the founder of the National Hot Rod Association, considered Spurgin his best friend and installed him as an officer in the organization. And both Spurgin and Giovanine participated in dry lakes racing via Albata, the club that also boasted Ralph Schenck, Bob Rufi, and Jack Chrisman as members.

Out of all the various SCTA clubs, Albata perhaps had the highest concentration of experts on hopping up Chevrolet four-cylinder engines, and Spurgin and Giovanine — who joined the club in 1938 and 1939, respectively — soon started building their own Chevrolet four-cylinder-powered racers. Spurgin collaborated with Rufi on a 1925 Chevrolet roadster he bought for $25, powered by a stroked four-cylinder; Giovanine focused first on his engine, which used a mid-1920s Chevrolet block and an Oldsmobile three-port cylinder head, shaved to provide a compression ratio of about 12:1.

Spurgin had an opportunity to test his roadster on the dry lakes in 1940 and 1941, running it up to 112 mph, but the war interrupted their progress. Both men joined the Navy and, four years later, found themselves alive and back in Southern California retrieving their hot rods from storage.

Spurgin, however, found his postwar speeds off his prewar high marks, so he suggested to Giovanine that they install Giovanine’s engine in Spurgin’s roadster to see how fast they could go. Along with dropping the engine into the roadster, they routed a single asbestos-wrapped exhaust pipe through the cowl, under the tonneau cover, just to the right of the driver’s right elbow, and out the back of the bodywork.

Their first time out, running in the B Roadster class in October 1947, they hit 118 mph. Even though they had a late start to the racing season, the duo managed to accumulate 24 points, good for 15th in the points standings. Seeing the potential of the combination of car and engine, Spurgin and Giovanine used the offseason to drastically improve the roadster. They swapped out the Chevrolet’s front axle and suspension for a 1932 Ford setup, channeled the roadster body over the Chevrolet frame rails, then added an aluminum hood, track nose, and bellypan. Under SCTA rules at the time, racers ran the number corresponding to their points standing the year prior, so Spurgin and Giovanine painted the number 15 on the car’s doors.

Meanwhile, Giovanine further refined his engine with a Ford Model C four-cylinder crankshaft, Curtiss OX-5 connecting rods, a Winfield camshaft, a Mallory distributor, a Jewett oil pump, and Hallock-designed carburetors. While the Model C crankshaft effectively destroked the engine to 182.9 cubic inches, he cranked the compression ratio up to an astronomical 16.25:1. Estimated horsepower was 150, or about six times the engine’s original output.

Destroking the engine placed the duo in the A Roadster class, and the first time out with the revamped car, in April 1948, Spurgin and Giovanine set a new class record at 113.95 mph. In June, they bumped the record up to 117.515 mph; in July to 118.48 mph; in September to somewhere north of 120 mph. In October, the last meet of the season, they set one more record for the class at 123.655 mph. By setting six consecutive records and winning the class in each SCTA meet that year, Spurgin and Giovanine racked up 1,800 points — the most any competitor could get at the time — and took the 1948 SCTA Class A championship.

The win landed the roadster on the cover of the March 1949 issue of Hot Rod and led to its display among other record-breaking racers in the SCTA’s Hot Rod Exposition in the Los Angeles Armory, but Spurgin and Giovanine laid plans to go even faster in 1949 with a fuel-injection system for the red-hot four-cylinder. With it, the car reportedly ran 149 mph, but the engine broke during the run. The two never ran the car again after that.

A few years later, Giovanine traded away the engine, and in 1954 Spurgin sold the roadster to Carl Borgh in Harbor City, who installed a GMC six-cylinder in a mid-engine configuration and cut a hole in the hood for the driver. Borgh ran the car at Bonneville in 1955 as the Mothersill’s Special, then sold it a year later to drag racer Robert Cano, who raced it the next couple of years as the Cano Snoot at Lions.

Sometime in the early Sixties, a subsequent owner moved it up to Apple Valley, California, where it sat unused and unrestored until about 1999, when collector David Lawrence bought it and identified it as the Spurgin-Giovanine roadster. Then in 2005, he sold the unrestored project to Ernie Nagamatsu, who undertook a complete and historically accurate restoration that wrapped up four years later. It has since taken the field at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, won first in class at the Grand National Roadster Show, and been inducted into the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame.

The Spurgin-Giovanine roadster is expected to sell for $250,000 to $350,000 at Gooding’s Scottsdale 2019 sale, which takes place January 18 to 19. For more information, visit GoodingCo.com.