by Mike Mueller
Relaxed rules allowed more modifications to the gasser coupe clan as the Sixties began. Originally running an all-steel stock body, K.S. Pittman’s ‘41 Willys eventually was fitted with weight-saving fiberglass doors, fenders and trunk lid. A one-piece flip-up fiberglass nose was also added.
For diehard hot rodders, those with their roots running back to the So-Cal dry lake beds, the fabled “Gasser Wars” of the Sixties represented one last fling, one last chance to remember the way things once were before fuel dragsters started running away with most of drag racing’s headlines in the late Fifties. The Gassers, or “gas coupes” as they were classed by NHRA officials, retained a loyal following even after that time, undoubtedly due to the same “family-ties” dynamic that helped get Super Stock competition up and running after 1960—many fans simply loved to see so-called “street cars” race.
Mind you, a supercharged Gasser coupe was by no means “streetable,” but it sure looked the part due to new NHRA rules instituted in 1960, which required that they hit the track in “street legal” form. Headlights, wipers and full body panels had to be in place, and a stock starter had to be used to crank the motor—which, as you might have guessed, could’ve only been fed by pump gas. New as well that year were separate classes for carbureted and supercharged coupes: A/G, B/G, etc. for the former, A/GS, B/GS, etc. for the latter.
Predictably, it was the fastest class, A/GS, that became home to the most excitement. Supercharged Gasser legends were seemingly born overnight, with George Montgomery emerging as the first big name. In 1959, his Cadillac-powered ‘33 Willys coupe huffed and puffed its way to a smoking 132.65 mph, and from there the race was on. “Ohio George” was soon joined by able A/GS rivals like John Mazmanian, Junior Thompson, and Doug Cook in his famous coupe owned by Fred Stone and Tim Woods. By 1964, all these guys were blasting through the traps at around 150 mph.
Running right up with them was another gas-powered heavy-hitter, K.S. Pittman. Like Mazmanian, the Stone, Woods & Cook crew, and the rest, Pittman relied on a Willys coupe, which was lighter, shorter, and—by many accounts—way cooler-looking than the fat-fendered pre-war Fords that had led the way for the hot rod set during the Fifties. Whether it was the somewhat boxy 1933 edition or the rounded, “Rubenesque” 1940/41 model, Willys coupes quickly became the weapon of choice in the Gasser ranks as the Sixties took off. And 40-some years later, Willys Gassers still rank among drag racing’s (and hot rodding’s) more memorable icons.
In Pittman’s case, he liked both the ‘33 and ‘41 renditions, racing each with great success by the time it was all said and done on the Gasser War front. On display at the Garlits Museum is his red ‘41 Willys, which was donated to Don’s collection in 1991 by John and Barbara Rocca, of Leesburg, Virginia. In its heyday, Pittman’s Gasser was an able match for Mazmanian and the Stone, Woods & Cook coupe, and he even held the A/GS record for a short while, running 10.55 seconds at Pomona in June 1962. By the end of that year, however, the Stone, Woods & Cook Willys would reset the A/GS e.t. standard down to 10.25 clicks.
While Chrysler Hemis eventually found their way into the Gasser classes, it was Oldsmobile that supplied the power for most gas coupes early on. Pittman’s ‘41 Willys relied on a 1957 Olds powerplant displacing 402 cubic inches. On top was a Weiand manifold mounting your typical 6-71 blower fed by Hilborn four-port injection. Venolia pistons and rods and an Engle cam went inside, and Mondello Olds heads closed things up atop the bores.
Automatic trannies also became popular with gas coupe builders, and in keeping with this tradition, Pittman’s Willys used a B&M Hydro box. At the rear were 4.88 Ford posi gears twisting some serious Goodyear Blue Streak slicks. Lightweight Halibrand mags were also commonplace in the Gasser crowd, as was a tubular front axle and coil-over shocks.
Dressing everything up was the coveted Willys coupe body fitted with lightweight doors, fenders, trunk, and hood, all made of fiberglass. Apparently it wasn’t long after those new NHRA rules appeared in 1960 that gas coupe racers were busy stretching them. Again it was Montgomery who probably first tested the tenacity of rules moguls when he showed up at the 1960 NHRA Nationals in Detroit with a tube axle suspended by coil-overs and a sky-high stance intended to aid weight transfer—tricks his A/GS rivals quickly adapted. Adding the fiberglass panels represented just another logical step on the way to speeding things up in gas coupe competition.
But although such modifications helped excite fans further, they couldn’t help fend off the final assault on the entrenched hot rodding ideal. In 1965, foreign-made bodies were allowed into gas coupe classes, a move some true-blue purists took as a slap in the face. Next came the emergence of the funny car, which too relied on a certain “factory-built” familiarity to gain popularity. Though far more radical than the Gassers, these “floppers” were much faster and more appealing to a younger fan base, who still preferred watching vehicles they could relate to but weren’t old enough to remember “old-timers’” hot rods. By 1966 the Willys Gasser was on its way out.
Gas coupes carried on, though only because most big-time drivers switched over to modern bodywork. George Montgomery traded his Willys for a fiberglass fastback Mustang, a faster machine yet still a disappointment. As he told the late Gray Baskerville in 1988, “when we made the switch to the Mustang, it all went away. The new cars just didn’t have that hot rod look.”The distinction between funny car and gas coupe faded away as the Seventies progressed, and the once-proud Gasser was finally retired in 1975. Gone but not forgotten, at least not by the true hot rodder.
Powering Pittman’s coupe in its heyday was a 1957 402 cube Olds V8. On top is a 6-71 Don Hampton blower on a Weiand manifold. Hilborn four-port injectors shoot the juice.
Pittman squares off against another legend of the “Gasser Wars,” John Mazmanian, at the Winternationals. Mazmanian’s ‘41 Willys ran in A/GS from 1964 to ‘67. (Courtesy Greg Sharp, NHRA Motorsports Museum)
Stock interior appointments also disappeared in a hurry during the “Gasser Wars” of the early Sixties. That’s a B&M Hydro-Stick shift to the driver’s right.
Like many other “Gasser War” veterans, K.S. Pittman also drove a 1933 Willys coupe.
When Pittman began racing his ‘41 Willys, the gas coupe class still mandated stock-bodied racers. Notice the headlights and windshield wipers. (Courtesy Greg Sharp, NHRA Motorsports Museum)
One of the most famous Willys gassers was campaigned by Fred Stone, Leonard Woods, and Doug Cook. Here Pittman’s ‘41 coupe beats the Stone, Woods & Cook machine off the line at Detroit’s Motor City Dragway in August 1965. (Courtesy Greg Sharp, NHRA Motorsports Museum)
Taken from Mike Mueller's The Garlits Collection: Cars that Made Drag Racing History (published 2004)