After four years, the
24 Hours of LeMons—endurance racing for $500 cars—has become one of the most competitive forms of motorsport on the planet. Most of the time, a team gunning for the bragging rights that come with a LeMons win will follow a standard formula: put a bunch of top drivers in a 20-year-old German or Japanese sports car. Not so with the Beverly Hellbillies; they’ve got the top drivers, all right, but their car is a 1927 Model T Ford pickup built by a crew of old-time hot rodders.
And it finished an incredible 9th out of 173 entries in a recent race.
Inside the cockpit. Shot by Dean Thomas
It’s difficult to describe the punishment this form of racing inflicts on vehicles; after a full weekend of full-throttle thrashing on a twisty road course, perhaps a third of the cars will be completely kaput (nuked engines, busted suspensions, and cooked brakes are the most common culprits) and another third will have spent all but a few hours with their crews crawling over them in a repair frenzy. Most wannabe-contender teams tend to choose from one of a handful of vehicles as the starting point for their LeMons race cars—the
BMW E30, the fourth- and fifth-generation Honda Civic, Mazda RX-7, Mazda Miata, and Chrysler Neon are very popular—and rely on the engineering brains of the automobile manufacturers to keep their steeds going around the track.
The 24 Hours of LeMons also boasts plenty of cars that never, ever belonged on a race track in the first place. Minivans, stretch limousines, hearses, Grandpa’s old Eldorado, 50-year-old antiques, rolling sculptures,
ill-advised engine swaps, you name it—all are encouraged to get out on the track with the “serious” racers in their BMW 325s. Some slide-rule-and-pocket-protector-enabled teams pack tens of thousands (or, in the case of the amazing Angry Hamster motorcycle-engined Honda Z600, hundreds of thousands) of dollars in engineering expertise into their $500 cars, and the employees of quite a few well-known race shops— Pratt & Miller and Hennessey come to mind—have entered cars packed with their hard-earned racing voodoo. How about a LeMons car that’s decades older than the crowd, fits right in with LeMons’ absurdist ethos, and goes toe-to-toe with the quickest machinery on the race track? For that, you need to talk to some wild-eyed American rodders.
Launch the gallery below for a closer look at how the Model T GT came together:
Click to launch the photo gallery
Meet Dave Schaible, the Northern California madman behind the Model T GT. Dave’s been building street rods and drag cars for more than a half-century, and he knows just where to find the cheap junkyard parts that will give the most bang for the buck. When he gets together with his henchmen and starts cutting metal, good things happen.
Last summer, Dave’s Mustard Yellow Volvo Doing 45 In The Fast Lane won the Buttonwillow Histrionics 24 Hours of LeMons, beating 94 other entrants. That car, a 1984 Volvo DL with the V8 engine and 5-speed manual transmission from an ’86 Ford Mustang GT taking the place of the original Volvo four-banger, was a good example of the way hot rodders approach a challenge: find a solid car with good brakes and sophisticated suspension… and then drop in the most powerful engine you can find for nickels and dimes (it didn’t hurt that the team also boasted a driver roster stacked with some of the top Spec Miata drivers on the West Coast).
For a Volvo brick to beat out those Integras and Miatas for a LeMons win was quite an accomplishment, but what Dave really loves is Ford Model Ts. You know, the “any color as long as it’s black” Ford that last rolled off the assembly line 83 years ago. When you look at the history of American racing, the Model T was once everywhere, from the dry lakes to the drag strips to the dirt tracks. Dave put together this 1955-style T street rod (a ’27 roadster with a ’49 Cadillac V8) 25 years ago, long before the current “rat rod” craze, and his Model T GT partner-in-crime (a man known only as “Fish”) now uses it as his daily commuter. Phil Greden
Finding a T
Right about now, you’re probably asking yourself, “How is it possible to find a Model T that fits below the 24 Hours of LeMons 500-buck budget limit and still have money left to build it into a race car? Good question! According to the official rules, the cost of safety equipment (including roll cage, brakes, tires, driver’s seat, etc.) does not count towards the $500 limit… which still leaves a lot of money that needs to be spent.
Well, LeMons racers are allowed to sell unneeded parts off the car (or cars, if it’s a make-one-good-one-from-several-bad-ones affair) to defray the original purchase cost, and when you combine that with a junkyard dog’s expertise in cheap parts hunting, magical things happen. As Chief Justice of the 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court, my job is to turn a very suspicious eye to such accounting (during a prerace ritual known as the “BS Inspection”) and so the story of the Model T GT needed to be very convincing.
First of all, the car is really based on a ’31 Model A frame with an extremely rusty Model T body and truck bed attached. Phil Greden
Dave bought a Model A body and frame for $2500 many years back, then sold the body alone for $3500. The ’27 Model T body cost him 500 bucks, and a wrecked ’86 Mustang was another $200. See how this works? The Mustang provided the engine, transmission, rear end, and rear suspension. The roll cage (which doesn’t count against the $500 budget) provides stiffness to the ancient frame, and there’s enough money left over for more parts.
The front suspension comes from a junked Ford Pinto, and the brakes—exempt from budgetary limitations—were pulled from a ’94 Mustang Cobra. All the other bits and pieces brought the grand total to $493.
It didn’t hurt that this was one of the best-looking LeMons cars any of us had ever seen! Nick Pon
The Beverly Hellbillies
Team costumes are encouraged in LeMons racing (the “New York Yankees of LeMons,” Eyesore Racing, dominate in the costume department in much the same manner in which their junkyard turbocharged Miata dominates the race track), and the Beverly Hellbillies didn’t disappoint.
Performance on the Track
By all accounts, the T GT looked great on Buttonwillow’s challenging road course, with a bit of rear axle hop being compensated for by an excellent 200-horses-in-2,400-pounds power-to-weight ratio.
In fact, the Beverly Hellbillies knocked off the quickest lap of the entire, weekend-long race, beating out 172 other entries with their 2:10.950 best time. Nick Pon
The most amazing thing about the Hellbillies’ accomplishment was the relative lack of mechanical teething problems for the car’s first time out; most first-time LeMons race cars suffer at least a couple major mechanical failures, because it takes at least one or two races to work out all the bugs. With such a radical fabrication effort as the Model T GT, nobody was expecting better than about a 50% up time for the car. This time, however, only a malfunctioning shift light (causing the drivers to shift too early and slowing the lap times) and a broken brake caliper necessitated unscheduled pit stops, and the Model T GT climbed as high as second place during the course of the race. When the dust settled, a BMW 325iS had run the most laps and the T GT stood in a staggeringly high ninth place.
A Winning Mutant
A man-on-the-moon accomplishment for a mashup of 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, and 1980s technology, built by a crew of drag-racing freaks with low-buck tools in a suburban garage. Congratulations, Beverly Hellbillies!