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Monday, 4 July 2011

Getting underway

My very good friend Ben James has had motorbikes since he was a kid and had spent the previous year restoring a 1978 Ducati Darmah 900 that he’d bought from a guy in the Navy , it was a beautiful bike , the previous owner had spent a lot of money on the motor and Ben went to town on the bodywork with fresh paint and a full strip and rebuild to original specifications . I told Ben about the DLRA and he was kind of interested , “come on Ben , why don’t you take the Darmah? , then the next time you put it in a show you’ll have a time slip to prove that it’s not just a show piece”. Ben got interested and paid his membership in the club and got busy preparing his bike and making sure it would pass scrutineering .Even for a bike that is street registered there is a long list of things to do as well as the huge amount of preparation you need in order to take a vehicle to race in the remote Australian desert for a week .As we left after our first time at the lake and I was in Ben’s Volvo , Ducati on a trailer on the back and Dik in his Chev truck behind us Ben turned to me and said “ you know Stew, I only went because I said that I would , you know ,that I told you that I would, even up to the last day before we left because you know it was bloody hard work getting everything organised and it cost me a fair bit of money” . I wasn’t quite sure what to say because I had hassled him to get involved and I did have an ulterior motive for it , “ so , what do you mean Ben?” …he replied “ well , even if you die Stew , I’m coming back next year ….that was the best fun I’ve had in a long time!” We both burst out laughing , he was right it had been expensive and exhausting but we’d found something that we knew was going to be a big part of our lives. Ben continued chain smoking while he drove and I sat there taking in the scenery, nursing a hangover and turning over the events of the last week .On the rough and corrugated dirt road ahead of us I could see an emu standing stock still staring at us , “emu Ben” , “Yeah Stew” he said but I didn’t feel the car react “ emu Ben” , “yeah Stew” once again I felt no deceleration as I thought of my deaf grandmother who’d say the same thing to me when I was little just so I’d be quiet, I glanced over, Ben had a ciggie in his mouth and seemed a million miles away although he was looking straight ahead to where the rapidly approaching emu was still standing smack bang in the middle of the road , head turned toward us. “ #### emu Ben!” , “shit!” the car crossed up a little but slowed just enough for the emu to trot off the road . Ten or fifteen kilograms of body on legs over a metre tall is not the kind of thing you want to hit at 100 kilometres an hour . Ben hasn’t been allowed to forget the incident which is now well known throughout the club , and will for a long time to come be reminded with “emu Ben”.

Over the next few weeks we searched for pictures of bellytanks and tossed up what we thought were the possibilities to build our tank .Early on several images that Dik had tracked down on the net became favourites one in particular was a shot from Lake Muroc in the fifties showing a P38 style tank in black with white flames down the side , we agreed it was the best looking one we’d seen but we couldn’t find any other shots or details of who owned or built the car .Dik seemed to be able to find anything on the net and eventually he tracked down a guy in Los Angeles who had a photo archive of salt and dry lake material. It turned out the tank we’d been admiring was known as the Brown/Hooper tank built by Mal Hooper with a Hemi motor built and tuned by Mal Brown , eventually this tank would beat the famous So-Cal Speed Shop tank built and raced by Alex Xydias and be one of the first over 200 miles per hour. Both these tanks were without roll hoops over the driver as were nearly all cars of the period , this was going to be one of the major stumbling blocks in our effort to make our car look like a fifties bellytank but that brings me to something else that I later realised about the whole project and regularly relate to people when they ask “ how in the hell did you do this” .I can’t imagine that we would have started this if someone who’d built one of these things had sat us down and explained how much work , how much money and how much of our time the project would consume , we saw what tanks were and they appealed to a deep seated urge to do something different and difficult. Dik and I are the kind of guys who think they can do anything , when the enormity and expense of the task was made apparent to us , we were way too stubborn to give up .For over a year I did little but work shifts , go home to where I was living alone and work on the car then go back to work .If I was talking to somebody it was about the car .I was earning reasonable money , I spent it all on the car and spent more time telling Dik to pay for other things we needed , it became an obsession . A work mate Michael was always hearing me mention “the car” and got used to me saying I couldn’t work Sundays because “ it was the day we work on the car together” .One day I took in some of the color renders that Dik had done on his 3D design program and a couple of photos of the build of the frame .I showed them to Mick who promptly burst out laughing , he was wide eyed and shaking his head “ I thought you were doing up some old Holden or something , that’s , um ,something else altogether isn’t it James…” Yes , something else altogether .

As with so many things the possibilities widened as we learned more about the history and got more in-tune with the intrinsic nature of what a belly tank was .We decided because the shape of the Canberra tank was so beautiful and such a correct aerodynamic shape that we would do all we could to keep it in it’s original dimensions .Most of the tanks built are stretched or sectioned down in height in order to accommodate the running gear or increase the wheelbase. Some cars are built using just the forward section of a tank as the nose . Later when the plans began to firm and we had some printed out “draughts” of the design John Broughan said “ you’ll want to stretch that thing , and do it now before the frame gets too complicated “ he’s right that it would have made it a hell of a lot easier but something inside us , stubbornness was part of it, said no. Finding the tank was an incredible stroke of luck , Haddy said “ I’ve been bombarded by people ringing about that thing since the moment I said it was for sale. We haven’t seen many tanks or indeed any Canberra tanks since, that was one stroke of luck .It seemed early on that serendipitous things happened left right and centre , the part that became the upper cowl of the car came from Wayne Mumford in Yarragon , it was a wing tank from a jet of unknown origin with a diameter of about eighteen inches, Wayne had used the nose of it cut axially to make the cowl of he and Russell Mack’s “Waza Vudu” bellytank. Made from a Voodoo jet tank Wayne and Russell’s car is a beautiful piece that began with a 1920’s ford four cylinder but now sports a twin overhead cam Toyota four with a turbo.

Dik and I were at Wayne’s house and he said “ do you want this …pulling two thirds of the tank which was about ten feet long from the rafters of his shed. I said “ oh , I’m a bit wary about taking things home that are going to steer the project” but when I looked at Dik he was almost standing on his tip toes and said “ yeah , we’ll um, take that , that’d be great” . Dik had already made a 1:5 scale blow moulded replica of our Canberra tank and I’d welded up a frame out of 3mm steel rod to go in it , Dik then turned some wooden wheels ,on top he’d moulded a clay cowl .When we got the piece that Wayne gave us home Dik quickly measured it up and announced that it was “ within’ five per cent of what I’d modelled”…it was perfect ..we just had to cut it down the middle and lay it on top and we had a cowl and a top section of the drivers compartment .At this stage we were intending to use a solid beam axle for the front of the car and seeing how John Broughan and Wayne and Russell had both used Ford Prefect front ends we figured we would do the same , I’d bought a complete but rough one from a wrecker , Wayne gave us some wishbones and stub axles that he had left over as well . It was on the first night that Ben and I spent at Lake Gairdner that I met Wayne. I saw a bellytank on a trailer and recognized it as the Waza-Vudu that I’d seen in a photograph in the club magazine the “Speed Times” .A bunch of blokes were crouched around the front of a four wheel drive where they were trying to attach a wooden bumper bar known as a push bar for push starting a car on the salt . I said “one of you guys would be Wayne Mumford?” , a couple of them looked at the bloke who was trying to knock a large bolt through the plank with a pipe wrench who then said “ yeah , just let me finish this mate” , I said in a whining “smart Alec” voice “that’s not a hammer”, Wayne sort of dropped his shoulders and in a voice like an overconfident eight year old turned to me and said “ Yes it is”…I had to laugh , it’s not often you get to have that sort of an off beat joke with complete strangers .Two years later when I’d built a sidecar for Graeme’s Vespa scooter as a run-about for the lake Wayne arrived at our pit area on the salt with Russell and his son and didn’t say anything but just shook his head and repeated over and over James James James James. When Russell boiled their newfound bus dry while taking it to get tires fitted Wayne’s comment was “and he works for a water company and all!….” At the point of writing the Waza-Vudu has only started once and it pulled off the track at a couple of hundred metres because Russell couldn’t see as the vibration was so bad , I know it is going to be a long , and funny relationship between the cars which when you think about it are half-brothers because they share a tank as cowls.
Before the Canberra tank arrived in Melbourne I’d reasoned after seeing it at the Rod Shop that it would be a whole lot easier to deal with if I had some sort of trolley or tender that it would fit on. Using a frame for a gate made from inch water pipe that “appeared” from a demolition site next to my house , the handles from an old push mower and some pram wheels I welded one up with the old mans old arc welder that had been left at my house by my sister after Dad died. When the courier arrived with the tank I wheeled the tender out onto the street , “ here we go” thought the truckie “ this bloke is nuts” . It paid off because although the tank weighed only 30 kilo’s or so it was 4.6 metres long , had nothing to “grab” onto and as such was impossible to handle on your own .

We sat the tank on the floor of my garage in Thornbury and used a big draughting set square to draw a profile on the floor and measure the tank itself. We measured it in 100mm intervals along it’s length so it’s shape could be loaded into a CAD program of Dik’s .Within a week or so we had our first 3d renders of the tank itself and could start playing around with how we wanted our tank to look. The image of me giving the thumbs up standing next to the low lying green tank with no roll-bar was the very first effort .Dik had asked me to give a thumbs up while he was taking photo’s when we first looked at the tank at the Rod Shop and used it in a composite .We soon realised that one of the dictating factors in how our car was to look would be the fact that it had top have a roll-bar which was something that most of our favourite looking cars from the fifties and sixties didn’t require under the rules of the time. This meant that we would most likely be having a full canopy rather than having the drivers head out in the wind. The rules about what was required for the roll bar and how much clearance it needed from the drivers helmet were the point that a great deal of the design and final styling of the car flowed from . We began taking measurements of each other crouched on the floor in what we thought would approximate the driving position to see how much room we needed , this moved onto the rough 1:1 models we built first out of cardboard tube and then out of 1 inch steel tube with a seat and steering wheel . We had two basic measurements that we needed to be a low as possible one was the height of the driver with a helmet on and the other was the overall length of the drive-train and the drivers compartment .We could make the height of the driver very low by lying the driver down but that would make the length of the compartment longer and we needed all the space we could get in order to fit the drive train in. There are some minimum lengths for wheelbase in the rules relevant to engine class sizes but as we wanted to keep the tank in it’s original length we were running out of volume at the back in order to accommodate the differential housing and the framework required to support it. As it turned out the car exceeds the 110 inch wheelbase requirement for open engine classes . Many early bellytanks and some landspeed cars still have no gearbox , they have a clutch connected directly to a tail-shaft , the cars are pushed to about forty miles per hour and then take off under their own power. We considered this but decided against it for many reasons , mainly that the car would need to be towed everywhere and the fabrication of the set-up needed to support the clutch/tail-shaft arrangement seemed harder than just using a shortened gearbox. Looking back the decision to keep the tank in it’s original length made the job much more difficult but we are certain that it is the way we prefer it as it seemed a more natural result and provided a basic challenge that building a car and making a teardrop shaped body for wouldn’t have had .

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