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1934 Ford Hot Rod - First In Fiberglass

The Original Flopper Was a '34 Ford Hot Rod

By Dave Wallace Jr., Photography by Don Hale, Petersen Publishing Co. Archives, Roy Robinson

Hearing John Force talk about his "ol ' hot rod" makes us wonder whether the mighty Force appreciates the close connection between his 21st-century flopper and a chopped '34 Ford built by a young hot rodder half a century earlier. Actually, Jim Lytle built his hot rod twice, using the same frame and powertrain. The only difference was its second body—and what a difference that body was destined to make, eventually. Working alone in his garage, Jim invented the one-piece, lift-off, fiberglass body in late 1963. Nobody seemed to notice until Lincoln-Mercury unleashed the controversial fleet of '66 Comet Calientes usually credited, erroneously, as the first fiberglass floppers.

Lytle 's two-stage project dates back to 1961, when a San Antonio buddy 's dad mentioned that the local airport had a couple of WWII-era Allison war bird engines. One turned out to be the rare, left-rotating Model 113 that briefly found favor with dragster racers and fans in the '50s, before NHRA outlawed aircraft motors. Offered a complete P-38 powerplant—for which GM charged the government $16,500 in 1940 dollars—for 100 bucks, the kid dropped plans to install a hot Buick V8 in his chopped sedan and determined, instead, to drop in the Allison V12.

He got it running just in time for AHRA 's '62 Nationals near Dallas. Geezers who were at Green Valley that weekend will remember the loud, all-steel sedan that filled up with death smoke mid-track, frying its single-disc truck clutch en route to a laughable 77-mph top speed. Undeterred, Jim studied the two- and three-disc systems bolted behind aircraft engines by the Arfons brothers and mentor Lee Pendleton. Then he went them all one better by building what 's believed to be drag racing 's first four-disc clutch, encased in a 14-inch-diameter torque tube that also contained the flywheel, throwout bearing, and pinion gear. The new combination ultimately rewarded its builder with a 10.56-second, 147-mph Lions Drag Strip timeslip in September 1963. Later that same day, a chance encounter with a pit vendor convinced him to park the world 's fastest sedan.

"At those speeds, the volume of air compressed inside the body was tearing it up," Jim recalled in a 2006 interview. "I lost the hood once, and the right door came open twice, at about 145. I got tired of fixing it. I 've always hated doing bodywork. I felt that the car had just about reached its potential, anyway."

Noticing a display of Fibercraft fenders in the pits, Jim asked owner Fred Karow whether it was possible to create an entire '34 sedan out of fiberglass. Fred assured him that it was, offering to sell the cocky kid materials at cost and answer any questions. "I retired the steel car that same night so I could make a mold out of it," Jim said. "I really had no choice; a draftsman making 120 bucks a week couldn 't afford to buy another '34, even at 1963 prices. Besides, the top was already chopped [6 inches]. I decided later to cut the other 6 inches so I could lower wind resistance and pop my head out the roof, where I could see."

Five months of labor and $750 later, Big Al II clocked 10.03 at 150.75, first time out. One week later, the timeslip improved to 9.62/158.45. The next Saturday, Jim thundered to a 9.31 at 163.00—easily the quickest and fastest times for any full-fendered, gas-burning vehicle. Having made a total of nine runs, all at Lions, on three consecutive weekends in July 1964, he shocked the crowd again by announcing that his baby was for sale. Before he could load up that evening, Ray Alley offered $2,000 cash—the same amount invested in the car and trailer. "I 'm really not a racer," Jim later explained. "I design 'em, build 'em, keep 'em for a year, then sell 'em to build something new."

Big Al 's new owner jazzed things up with 24 individual, full-length header pipes and a new name, P-51, for lucrative West Coast exhibition tours in 1965– '66, then resold the car and trailer to L.A. actor-stuntman Tex Collins for $4,000. Collins repainted the body candy red, re-lettered it Tex 's Twister, and ran the car locally for kicks before swapping Lytle 's bulletproof powertrain into a new '68 Mustang flopper. The '34 frame had been cut up for some other project by the time Lytle bought back his body for $500 in 1968, not long before Tex was murdered. Twenty years later, Jim personally repaired and repainted the fiberglass in Don Garlits ' shop, mounting it to a '27 Dodge frame that happened to share a '34 Ford 's wheelbase. Since 1988, Big Al II has been a popular attraction in Garlits ' Ocala, Florida, museum.

Jim Lytle lived long enough to bask in belated credit for his contribution to motorsports history. Of particular satisfaction was an August 1989 meeting in the Dearborn office of another drag-racing pioneer, Fran Hernandez. Fran had risen to the top of Ford 's Experimental division by January 1964, when Big Al II debuted at the Winternationals car show. Jim knew that factory bigwigs with Ford 's Custom-Car Caravan were seen examining the brand-new body, elevated above the chassis and revealing a wing-nut mounting system. Twenty-five years later, Jim was still hoping one of them would cop to copying his concept. "I never expected Mr. Hernandez to recognize my name, but he took the call immediately, and invited me to schedule a visit. In his office, Fran admitted that those guys noticed Big Al at the L.A. show, and liked the idea. He also said that a year later, they came under heavy pressure from upper management to build something to counter all the attention that Chrysler 's '65 altered-wheelbase cars were getting."

Jim 's friends have said that these admissions seemed to dissolve, finally, the giant chip on the shoulder of a guy who 'd often complained in person and in print about being overlooked by history. He needn 't have worried. Before Jim Lytle left us in December 2011, at age 75, he left us undeniable evidence of his role in Funny Car evolution. In rescuing and restoring Big Al II, he was preserving his own legacy, along with one historic hunk of fiberglass.

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By Dave Wallace Jr.
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