Another look at vintage racecar transporters

There was a time when the vehicles that tugged, towed, and carted racecars to the track were often as interesting as the racecars themselves. Let’s take a look back.

 

First, a story. Years ago, when MCG was working the weekly motorsports beat—it was the 2001 Vancouver CART event, to be exact—he happened to mention in the press room that he had just returned from one of the team haulers, working up a story. His fellow journalists looked at him like he had two heads for a long moment. Finally one piped up, “You’re not covering NASCAR this week, Mac. They’re not haulers. We are not hillbillies. Here we call them transporters.”

It’s a fun moment from a number of angles, but we could start here: By this time, both NASCAR and CART had long since adopted the huge semi-trailer setups that are now ubiquitous throughout professional motorsports. Call it a hauler or a transporter or whatever you like, but it’s pretty much the same rig. We’re down to semantics—and in this case, an amusing cultural distinction.

But there was a time when race car carriers were not interchangeable commodities, all stamped from the same cookie cutter. Many were hand-built, often by the teams themselves. Almost no two haulers were ever alike, and the pit area was a lot more interesting for it. Let’s crank up the wayback machine and go have a look around.

 

Hot rodders will immediately recognize this stylish hauler: The Southern California Plating Company’s shop truck and tow vehicle, crafted from a ’35 Ford Phaeton by Frank Kurtis, George DuVall, and crew. Novel features included a fabricated top, a rear cargo door, and the stunning handcrafted grille; work duties included pull-starting midgets at Ascot and Atlantic Speedway. Alas, the gorgeous tow car hasn’t been seen since the early ’60s.

 

Here was the sight that gave chills to the rest of the Grand National field in 1955: Karl Kiekhaefer’s Mercury Outboards armada rolling into view. NASCAR’s first megateam, the over-equipped, over-achieving outfit dominated the sport for two years. Big van-bodied trucks like these made a statement, but they had their drawbacks: They were noisy and slow, to name two.

 

The Belond Miracle Power Special, an Offy-powered Kurtis 500B roadster with special streamlined bodywork by Quinn Epperly, came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1955 behind a 1954 Ford Courier sedan delivery—a distinctive vehicle in its own right. Capable of highway speeds, car-and-trailer rigs like these could make much better time than big, slow box trucks.

 

Speed was the motivation behind the 1954 Mercedes-Benz Renntransporter, expressly designed to hustle the factory’s race cars (300SL shown here) to the track via Germany’s advanced highway system. Said to be capable of 105 mph with cargo, this hybrid cabover might be the most famous racecar transporter ever.

 

Clearly inspired by the Renntransporter, California racer Norman Holtkamp built his Cheetah ramp truck on a Benz chassis but with a small-block Chevy V8 for power. Troutman and Barnes fabricated the aluminum body, though the ’59-’60 El Camino greenhouse gives the hauler a strong GM flavor. Fortunately, the single example built is still around today.

 

In the ’60s and ’70s, this was a popular hauler setup in NASCAR: A heavy-duty straight truck with an aluminum van box to carry parts and equipment, with the race car on an open trailer behind it. Stating the obvious, this is the STP-sponsored Petty Enterprises hauler built around a Dodge L-Series tilt cab and sleeper.

 

In Indy car racing in 1961, this was a classy combo: a brand-new Pontiac wagon pulling a single-axle trailer with sponsorship from Bowes Seal Fast. Driven by AJ Foyt, the Trevis-Offy (Watson copy) on the trailer won that year’s Indy 500. That’s crew chief George Bignotti on the left posing proudly with the top-shelf rig.

 

As a pet project of GM Styling VP Bill Mitchell, the Corvette Stingray sports racer was attended by a matching silver 1960 Chevy Parkwood wagon. In the previous year when the Stingray was painted red, the tow vehicle was an equally red 1959 El Camino.

 

Ferrari used this 1959 Fiat truck with two-deck Bartoletti body to ferry its F1 operation around Europe. A big flat-twelve Fiat gasoline engine provided the motive power. Scarab and other teams employed similar rigs.

 

Maybe because they were used to building their own stuff, drag racers often created custom tow rigs. This long-wheelbase truck chassis has a panel body of unknown origin grafted onto the cab to provide indoor storage and passenger space. Run by the Westborn Plymouth team of Dearborn, Michigan, this rig apparently was also used by the funny car-racing McKesson brothers.

 

Ohio drag racer Dave Koffel’s rig was based on a similar layout, with a Chevy panel body spliced onto the GMC truck cab. A 1965 Plymouth altered-wheelbase FX’er rode on the ramps. Koffel later joined Chrysler as an engineer but is best known today as the father of the B-1 Mopar aftermarket cylinder head.

 

For the 1970 funny car season, partner-rivals Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen commissioned these two super-deluxe Dodge crew cabs with elaborate ramp bodies. Here, McEwen’s red rig peeks out from behind the Snake’s very similar yellow model. Now restored, the two haulers have been feature attractions at Barrett-Jackson and elsewhere.

 

Here’s how one of the world’s top sports car teams rolled in 1972: McLaren Cars carried the M20 Can-Am racer on a medium-duty Ford ramp truck with utlity boxes. Similar ramp trucks were popular with Pro Stock and funny car racers in drag racing.

 

Without a doubt, the great innovator in hauler rigs in the 1960s was drag racing’s TV Tommy Ivo with his glass-sided creations. (That’s real glass, folks.)  His 1970 transporter featured space for two dragsters, a living and sleeping area behind the cab, and a second deck for his customized Corvette road car.

 

A natural showman and one of America’s top touring match racers, Ivo made the elaborate transporters an integral part of his act. He likened the schtick to setting up and taking down a circus at each track. “All it needed was a calliope,” he noted. The press kits he sent out to track operators included these photos of his rigs.

 

By the early ’80s, the big semi rigs were making their way into all forms of pro motorports, and the Pettys were early adopters. Richard and Kyle Petty’s hero card featured their STP transporter with cabover sleeper.

 

For more vintage race transporters click here

 

10 thoughts on “Another look at vintage racecar transporters

  1. WOW I am getting old, I remember those great conveyances. Please keep them coming.

  2. Love your site, I was born in Detroit in 1957 and spent most of my life there, I love motor sports, y’all bring back a lot of fond memories for me… Thank you!

  3. “This long-wheelbase truck chassis has a panel body of unknown origin”

    I’m fairly certain that’s a Dodge B series (1971-1980) van body. Being that it’s hauling a Plymouth, probably a Dodge cab.

    And speaking of Plymouth, I believe that Petty Engineering had the 1st NASCAR “hauler”. Sometime early in their contract with STP, so 1972-1974. Nascar.com says 1992 and Richard Childress but those folks don’t know squat about the sport previous to 1980.

    On to Chrysler, it’s odd that with all of Kiekhaefer’s money, he couldn’t get a van with a six foot longer body.

    Closing out the Mopar theme, the Dodge Travco motorhome chassic was the hot ticket in Formula 1 in the early Seventies.

    I liked the open trailers better. For many, they carried the first actual race car they would see and the driver and crew were probably following right behind. They emptied the diner everyplace they stopped. If a big time “transporter” drops by Denny’s these days, there’s nothing to gawk at but four foot tall sponsor logos and if you’re lucky, a decal of the driver’s face.

  4. Wow, i hope i was born on that generation. I love those vintage cars. My dad was also an enthusiast back then and you can see images and picture frames all over the house. I was worried on the car being loaded by the ramp. I doubt about its durability. well compared to the ramps that we have today, its more sturdy and strong. I’m a ramp agent myself and i could really compare the quality of today’s design. By the way this is the ramp that I’m talking about. you can find it here http://www.sharkkage.com. Thanks a lot for your wonderful blog. I love those old images.

  5. Hillbillies?! I happen to be the person who designed and built the first “Semi” style car hauler in NASCAR for Harry Ranier in 1980. Petty had a gooseneck style hauler that was the first variation of the straight truck and open trailer. I built hundreds of “haulers” for many different race divisions — including a few in Cart. Cart team owners were the cheapest and least-sophisticated owners in all the different forms of racing.

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