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Hot rods are such an integral part of American post-war culture, that it's very difficult to imagine that there was a time when they didn't exist. There was an era when the people who were into hot rodding were a relatively small group of vanguards, finding out what made their cars faster simply by trial and error.

Necessity bred home-grown ingenuity as these early rodders sought to improve performance within the constraints of their limited finances and resources. If they couldn't afford something, they'd try to make it. They were figuring it all out as they went along--experimenting and improvising with whatever used parts they could get their hands on. The route was to be determined by their creative ability, but the destination was always clear and simple--to go faster.

Of course, accustomed to making the most out of what little they could get their hands on, one hot rodder figured out a way to make a streamliner dry lake racer at scrap yard prices.

Bill Burke had raced a '32 Ford roadster on the dry lakes of Southern California in the 1930s and early '40s and still had racing on his mind when he headed to the Pacific to serve as a PT boat pilot during W.W.II. While in Guadalcanal, he noticed some teardrop-shaped P-51 Mustang fighter plane belly fuel tanks being unloaded from a freighter. Instantly impressed by their aerodynamic design, he got close enough to measure one of them. Knowing the dimensions of a Ford rear end and an engine block off the top of his head, he was sure it was feasible to use one of these tanks to make a dry lake racer.

After the war, Burke returned to Southern California and picked up his hot rodding pursuits where he had left off. While looking for car parts, he found that airplane belly tanks were plentiful in surplus yards. They could be bought for about $35 apiece--just a fraction of the cost of designing and building a streamliner body from scratch. The U.S. government and aircraft engineers had spent a lot of time and money designing these tanks to be lightweight and optimally aerodynamic at very high speeds. Now all of Uncle Sam's war-time engineering efforts were going to pay dividends to hot rodders.

Burke's first belly tank lakester was made from a 165 gallon P-51 Mustang tank, just like the ones he'd seen during the war. Burke ran the car in 1946, reaching a speed of 131.96 mph, powered by a Mercury V-8. The next year, Burke returned with a car made from the wing tank of a P-38 Lightning. At 315 gallons, the P-38 tank was much larger than the P-51 tank. He placed the driver in the front and the engine in the rear. This time, everything fit inside the tank except for the wheels and a small windshield for the driver.

One of the most well-known and successful tank racers was fielded by Alex Xydias, the owner of the So-Cal Speed Shop.

Xydias' So-Cal Special was set up more or less like Burke's tank, except that it had a bubble canopy and was powered by a 156 cubic inch flathead V-8 and the rails were custom-built. At Bonneville in 1951, the So-Cal team set a new record for their class, running a 145.395 mph average.

The So-Cal Speed Shop team took the car back to their motel and--right there in the parking lot--swapped the engine out. They put in a larger, 259 cubic inch Mercury flathead and ran the car again in a larger engine class. They set a record in that class as well, running 181.085 mph.

The team then swapped the engine out once again, this time putting in a 296 cubic inch Mercury engine. It ran a one-way time of 198.340 mph, with a two-way time of 195.77 mph. This speed was a record for its class, until it was upstaged the next day by the Mal Hoopster lakester, which was running with a Chrysler hemi and turned a 197.88 mph average. But the Special's 198.340 mph run is still the fastest one-way speed that a non-blown flathead has ever run.

To put all of these achievements into perspective, consider that at 1952's Indy 500, Troy Ruttman (with all of his sponsors and his overhead cam engine) won the Indy 500 with an average speed of "only" 128.922. Xydias was going faster than Ruttman in a salvage yard belly tank powered by a pre-W.W. II flathead Ford and no sponsors.

Get the full story and more photos in the print edition of Barracuda