Photos by Huw Evans and courtesy of Danny Bilyk
Drag racing isn’t what it used to be. Go to any major NHRA or IHRA event today and the pits are dominated by tractor trailers, hundreds of people in corporate sponsor logos swarming around cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and drivers required to do major product endorsements and PR blitzes. Out on the track, these guys are fast. Yet, even though they’re running 3 to 6-second ETs, the modern-day top fuel, funny car and pro stockers don’t resonate with fans the same way as the fuel altereds and gassers of drag racing’s golden age in the 1960s. When Big John Mazmanian went up against the Stone Woods & Cook racing team in 1964, a week after the Winternationals at Pomona, it was a match race the fans had been waiting for. Both Big John and SWC ran Willys coupes, with blown, injected 392 Chrysler Hemis, which stood on their back bumpers when they launched. The crowd loved it. The gassers were some of the most charismatic and best-loved drag machines this land has ever seen. The fastest cars, which ran in the NHRA’s A/Gas class, could run 9.80s or quicker at trap speeds close to 160 mph, but their high front axles, rear weight bias and rock hard tires meant they were hard to keep in a straight line, even in the 1/8 mile. But to the shade tree mechanics and drivers who bought, tinkered and raced them, that was part of the fun – winning was simply the icing on the cake.
In the grand scheme of things, few in the 1940s could see any potential in the 1932-1941 Willys 77, 37, 39, 440 and Americar (all of which featured the same basic design) as a performance or racing machine. Designed as economy-minded vehicles, offering motoring at an affordable price, they were as austere as the Depression era that fostered them, featuring little in the way of creature comforts. Motivation came via 134ci L-head four-cylinder engines, initially making a whopping 48 horsepower, but increased to 61hp by the time the heavily-facelifted 440 debuted. Renamed Americar the following year, this basic design would last through the end of civilian automobile production in early 1942, as the US geared up for war.
After hostilities ended, America began to get back on track and looked toward the future. A public starved for consumer goods began buying all the cars it could, and by the 1950s, a new era had dawned, which pushed aside the austerity of the early 20th century, seemingly forever. But while many Americans wallowed in new-fangled middle class prosperity, not everyone could afford a flashy new sled with two-tone paint and a big V-8. Before the war, small groups of car enthusiasts had been stripping down old jalopies, installing more powerful engines and racing them on dry rivers and lakebeds. Now, with the onset of the 1950s, a whole new world had opened up. In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association formed as a governing body for these so-called hot rod racers. Dry lakebeds began to give way to proper drag strips. These were often created on disused training airfields, which were rendered surplus from the war.
An abundance of cheap, pre-war cars and increasingly hot V-8 engines available in junkyards from wrecked newer postwar models made the perfect combination for building a fast drag racing machine. Because they were extremely light, cheap and had the space to cram in much larger engines, the pre-war Willys (particularly the coupes) started becoming an ever more popular choice as the basis for a drag car.
In Southern California, amid a drag racing scene which was becoming increasingly organized (the first fully sanctioned NHRA event took place in 1955), forward-thinking racers knew the hot ticket was in the NHRA’s Gas Coupe and Sedan class, which was described as including “basically stock cars with hopped up engines, but still with a full complement of equipment for street legal use.” As speeds got faster and the competition became increasingly fierce, once street-legal machines morphed into purpose-built race cars running on alcohol, equipped with blown V-8s, exotic fuel injection systems, ladder bar suspension and lifted straight axle front ends. By the early 1960s, the NHRA class structure and rulebook had proliferated, and the Gas class had no less than four different sub-categories. In the quickest, supercharged A/Gas, a hot rivalry was waged, particularly between “Big” John Mazmanian and the team of Fred Stone, Leonard Woods and Doug “Cookie” Cook, both of whom hailed from Southern California. These guys became the most famous advocates of pre-war Willy’s gasser coupes, and their legacy lives on even today. Both outfits ended up running supercharged 392 Chrysler Hemi V-8s (after SWC converted from Olds power), and Big John set the NHRA class record in 1965 with a 9.71 ET at 125 mph. Other top names who emerged in the top tier of Gas coupe racing during this time include “Ohio” George Montgomery, K.S. Pitman and Jack Merkel. This led to a huge West Coast versus East/Midwest rivalry.
From Regional Star to National Champion
The exploits of these major players in the gasser wars are fairly well known in vintage drag racing circles, but, by the 1960s, there were plenty of Willys coupes tearing up the strips across North America at the regional level. One that came to prominence toward the end of the gasser era, was Chilly Willy, a 1940 D/Gas coupe built and driven by Canadian Bert Straus from Kitchener, Ontario, about 3 hours north of Detroit. Straus ran a Fina service station and in his spare time liked to tinker with cars. He’d been a part of the local hot rod scene since the late 1950s but, in 1967, decided he wanted to build a competitive gasser. He located a 1940 Willys coupe for $1200 and got to work. He pirated a small-block Chevy V-8 from a wrecking yard, strengthened the chassis and added a drag suspension. With a custom paint scheme by friend and custom car painter Ken Kay, the little coupe adopted the name Chilly Willy – a reference to Bert’s homeland in the Great White North, and a nod to the popular cartoon character of the time (hence the penguin logo on the side of the coupe).
Bert’s first drag season, 1968, proved quite frustrating. The car wasn’t very competitive, but he gained useful experience. That would all change in 1969, when he scrounged a proven race engine, an injected Chevy V-8, out of a local fuel altered. Chilly Willy and Bert were now poised for greatness. Determination and a quick hand with the gears, along with the new engine, made the little Willys a force to be reckoned with, not only at the regional level, but at national events as well. Straus took his car south of the border, running it in the NHRA’s D/Gas category, and his driving style netted him ever-greater success. In 1970, at the US Nationals in Indianapolis, Straus finished runner-up in his class, but, by this stage, the gassers were living on borrowed time.
Rule changes would soon take effect at NHRA events, effectively outlawing cars like the high-riding Willys, Austins and Ford Anglias forever. Still, Bert’s final season competitively racing the coupe proved a memorable one. At the 1971 Nationals, he drove within an inch of his life, working his way to the final, where he won the D/Gas class! Shortly after, Strauss sold the car, deciding to move on to more modern machinery in order to stay competitive. The Willys was sold on several occasions during the next two decades, eventually winding up on the West Coast. Like many surviving ex-gasser coupes, it morphed into a pro streeter, with big tubs and a detuned engine.
In 1999, it was bought and shipped back East by Mississauga, Ontario resident Danny Bilyk, who describes himself as a certifiable Willys nut. “My brother Nelson had a coupe called the Green Hornet when I was 15. Although he never did much with that particular car, I was hooked on Willys and knew that one day I had to have one.” At first, Danny thought the car he purchased in 1999 was nothing more than a hot rod coupe. “The car came with a lot of history, and, once I started researching it, I realized it was the original Chilly Willy drag car from the 1960s. I managed to track down Bert, and when I showed him the car, he was dumbfounded. He looked in the trunk and found holes that he’d originally drilled back in the ’60s, so he knew it was the real deal.”
Because the Willys had been extensively modified and had such a rich racing past, it didn’t make sense for Danny to turn it back into a racecar at the time. “It was just so valuable from a historical perspective. I knew I wanted to go racing in a gasser, but the only way, realistically, to do that was to build a tribute car.” And so the machine you see on these pages came into being. “We started off with a basket case roller of a Willys coupe in 2002 and went from there.” Tim Z Hot Rods in nearby Mississauga took the original Willys body and refurbished it. The original frame was reused and boxed for extra strength. In true gasser fashion, the car received a ladder bar rear suspension and a straight axle front end, while Danny got his hands on a small block 406 Chevy V-8, Jericho four-speed drag gearbox, McLeod clutch and Dana rear with a Strange spool and 5.38:1 final drive. Altered Images in Baxter, Ontario, run by Tom Briton, was tasked with piecing the car together.
During the build process, Bilyk was able to track down Ken Kay, who painted the original Chilly Willy, and Danny asked him if he wanted to paint the tribute. “I was just amazed when he agreed to do it,” he says. From the outset, the plan was to build this new Willys in the style of the original, so you’ll find such features as a rare 1962 vintage Enderle mechanical fuel injection system, Vertex magneto, vintage Fenton slot mag wheels, original Moon front-mounted fuel tank and Eelco gas pedal (as fitted to many of these cars back in the 1960s).
“We’ve made some modern concessions, such as front disc brakes, rear adjustable coilover shocks, a 16-point roll cage and updated wheelie bars, but the whole mission was to capture the essence of a real 1960s gasser.” It’s worked. Since completion in spring 2004, the car has been a regular contender at nostalgia drag meets, both locally and in the US, attracting attention wherever it goes. “The best part of all was getting Bert to drive it,” remarks Danny (see sidebar). “On our first ever run, the car lifted the front wheels four inches in the air coming out of the hole.”
With its pump gas engine, the “new” Chilly Willy ran consistent 10.50s in the quarter mile, but, much like the original gasser racers did in the 1960s, Danny had the urge to go faster and upped the ante. In 2007, he replaced the 406 Chevy V-8 with a John Rossiter Racing Engines 427 small-block stroker, which uses a World Products 400 cube aluminum block, a sprint car camshaft and full roller valvetrain. With a 17:1 compression ratio, it runs on methanol and delivers approximately 750 hp. “The first time we cranked it up, it ripped the starter right out,” says Bilyk, “But we’ve gained a lot of experience with it. The great thing about this engine is, even though it has really high compression, I can sit at the starting line and idle all day with it. We’re also pleased with how the car is working. We set a personal best record with a 9.87 at 135 mph in the quarter mile, but more recently I’ve been doing quite a few 1/8 mile runs. The car went a 6.08, which works out to about 9.48 in the quarter. We leave the line at 6000 rpm, and the car lifts the nose so much that I’ve had to put ballast up front just to keep it from going skyward. It’s an experience, boy can I tell you that. The tires hook and you bang the gears and it goes. It’s a bit of a challenge to keep it in a straight line down the track, especially with the Jericho trans and the weight bias, but to me that’s part of what defines a gasser. And the crowds love it. They love these old drag cars.”
Given how sanitary modern professional drag racing has become, it seems there are more and more folks turning up just to watch these old gassers run. Based in Pennsylvania, the East Coast Gassers, of which Danny is a member, gathers drivers and fans at nostalgia drag events at various Northeastern US tracks like York US 30, Maple Grove, Atco, New Jersey and Dunn Tire Raceway Park, near Buffalo, New York – an 1/8 mile track that’s the location for the Willys Home Run. “This is probably my favorite event of all. Last time I went we had over 200 cars for racing – not showing, actual racing. It was just amazing.”
Back home, Danny and brother Nelson, who currently runs a big-block Hemi-powered 1937 Willys under the banner “Gone Beserk Racing,” run in the Ontario Street Car Association and are members of the Southern Ontario Gassers. Given the increasing popularity of the gassers, they, along with others, have formed the Canadian-American Gassers association, where drivers and fans from both countries take each other on in match races, just like back in the 1960s. “Our first-ever series event is scheduled to take place at St. Thomas Dragway, Ontario on October 10, 2009, and it should be a lot of fun. We’ve got some guys coming up from the US to race us, and we’re really looking forward to it. When Bert Strauss used to race the original Chilly Willy in the 1960s he would say, ‘We’re going down south to put the freeze on,’ and I for one intend to do that when the guys show up to race this time, haha.”
“A life changing experience,” is perhaps the best way to describe the day Danny Bilyk brought home the original Chilly Willy. “I couldn’t believe my luck, that I had the actual car, a piece of Canadian drag racing history.” Danny managed to get in touch with Bert Strauss’s wife Carol, who supplied him with tons of history on the car, including old photos and news clippings from the time when Bert raced it. When Bert actually came across the car, he couldn’t believe it still existed. “It had nine different owners between the time he sold it and I bought it,” says Danny. “When we’d finished building the tribute car, I asked Bert if he’d like to drive it. He’s a true racing legend and inductee in the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame. I felt really privileged when he said yes. So he became our driver when we campaigned the car from 2004-06.” And when Strauss did get behind the wheel, he proved he’d lost none of his touch. “Just seeing him, even after 30 years, was awesome. I mean the way he rowed those gears -- bang, bang, bang – I’ll tell you, stick shift drag racers are a special breed.” The car ran solid 10s, and on every run Bert was as consistent as a Swiss timepiece. “It was seeing him race again that got me thinking,” says Danny. “Since I had his original car, I thought, ‘To hell with it, let’s restore it.’” So as we speak, Bilyk is making plans to return the car to its original 1971 Indy appearance. “It has to be done,” he says. “I owe it to both Bert and the fans, to preserve this piece of drag racing history.”
Special thanks to Danny Bilyk for his help in preparing this article.
For more information on Chilly Willy and gassers visit:
Chilly Willy Drag Racing
East Coast Gassers
Gone Beserk Racing
Chilly Willy Tribute at a Glance
Type: 1940 Willys 440 business coupe
Body: Steel with fiberglass tilt front end; painted by Ken Kay
Interior: Lightweight racing seats, Simpson harnesses, SW gauges
Chassis: Original model 440 chassis, boxed, 16-point roll cage, driveshaft safety loop
Engine: 750hp, 427ci aluminum Chevy small block stroker V-8 with roller valvetrain, Sprint car camshaft, Enderle mechanical fuel injection, Moon front-mounted tank and Vertex magneto
Transmission: Jericho four-speed drag gearbox, McLeod Clutch
Rear end: Dana with Strange spool, 5.38 gears, Willys axles
Suspension: Straight axle, leaf springs (front), ladder bars with double adjustable coilover shocks (rear)
Steering: Flaming River manual Vega steering box
Brakes: Front disc, rear drum
Wheels: Fenton magnesium
Tires: Moroso drag specials (front), Mickey Thompson slicks (rear)
During the 1960s, the gasser coupes were among the most famous racecars of all. Quite a few have survived, but their value today means that building tribute cars is often the best way to go racing like the old days.
The small, light Willys bodies and powerful injected V-8s making in excess of 700 to 800 hp meant that driving a 1960s gasser was often a handful at best.
Chilly Willy was the 1971 NHRA D/Gas National champion and is owned today by Danny Bilyk. He also campaigns this tribute car, which features many vintage gasser parts, including Fenton mag wheels.
Bert Straus was the original owner/driver of Chilly Willy, and Danny’s tribute features his autograph on the passenger side dash.
Gasser interiors were basic, in order to keep weight to a minimum. This one features a few modern touches in the interest of safety, including a 16-point roll cage and Simpson racing harnesses.
Like many original gassers, Chilly Willy features a one-piece, fiberglass front end that replicates the original steel, both to save weight and for easy engine access between runs. This style of nose was first introduced on the 1940 model 440 and would come to define the gasser era.
Many gassers, especially in the A and B/Gas classes, ran Chrysler Hemi V-8s, though “Ohio” George Montgomery ran a Ford 427 cammer. Chilly Willy always used small-block Chevy power, and Bilyk’s tribute runs a stroker 427 that makes around 750 hp.
Another period touch on this car is the genuine vintage 1960s Enderle mechanical fuel injection system. Hilborn was another popular manufacturer of fuel injection systems used on gasser cars of the era.
A Moon front-mounted fuel tank was de-riguer equipment on any 1960s gasser. Danny found this one at a swap meet more than 20 years ago and kept it for the tribute car.
Open, “basket of snakes” headers are another period 1960s touch. Many of the original gasser cars used headers by the likes of Don Long, Doug Thorley and Hedman.
Unlike many original 1960s gassers, which used automatics, both the original Chilly Willy and the tribute run manual gearboxes – in the case of the latter, a Jericho four-speed drag box.
During the course of its original career, Chilly Willy featured three different color schemes. Noted custom car artist Ken Kay was tasked with applying the paint and lettering. He did the same for the tribute car 30 years later.
Because gassers featured high front suspensions to aid weight transfer, Danny has installed extra ballast in the nose to prevent things from getting too out of hand at the start of each run.
Period NHRA decals indicate how successful the original Chilly Willy was on the gasser circuit.
Even in side profile, there’s something magical about a 1960s era Willys gasser coupe. Modern enthusiasts go to great lengths to replicate the stance and appearance of these original drag cars, often using vintage speed equipment.
Originally, the gas coupes were categorized as street-going vehicles, and even though they evolved into race-only cars, many kept taillights and trunk lids as a throwback to the early days.
Rear ladder suspension helped these cars hook better at launch. A safety loop prevents the driveshaft from slicing through the floorboards should it come away from the transmission.
Interest has been growing in gassers again, especially during the last decade, and more and more period-looking examples are turning up at nostalgia drag meets.
Danny Bilyk (pictured with son Ridge), has been a Willys fanatic since he was 15, and likes nothing more than spending his weekends burning down the 1/8 and quarter mile in his Chilly Willy tribute. He also owns the real 1960s racecar of the same name and will shortly begin restoring it.
Chilly Willy in its element.
The original Chilly Willy, circa 1970.
When Danny Bilyk completed his tribute car in 2004, he asked Bert Straus, the original owner of Chilly Willy, to race it.
Bert (center) poses for a photo with the tribute car. He’s still active in the automotive service business today.