The Chrisman and Duncan Coupe

By Don Prieto


Art Chrisman first ran Bonneville in 1951 with a 1934 Ford highboy three window coupe and he set a class record. The second year, 1952, he drove the Chet Herbert prepared streamliner and set a record in D Streamliner at 232.35 miles per hour and became a charter member in the 200 mph club along with 5 others. The third year, 1953 he brought the coupe that you see on these pages.

In the early days of the Bonneville Speed Trials, there weren't many cars in competition but there were a lot of classes. Brothers Art and Lloyd Chrisman and their dad Everett decided to build a competition coupe that would have a simple but effective way of changing engines…not just to facilitate repair but to make the changing of engines of different sizes easier so as to compete for the records in different classes. They meant to bring several engines with them to the salt and try to take home as many records and they could in as many classes.

But before we get into how it ran and what engines it used, let's talk about the construction of this "Fantastic Coupe"---so named in the February 1954 issue of Hot Rod Magazine. Chosen as Hot Rod of the Month, the coupe was featured in one of those famous Rex Burnett cutaway drawings. These drawings showed the reader just how the car was built and this kind of information was very important the readers of the magazine because it was leading edge stuff. The Chrismans already had a reputation for building and driving fast cars at the dry lakes and the drags. So, for sure this was an easy choice for the editors.

The cutaway showed a three and a half inch diameter tube frame shaped and welded with cross members in key locations to provide the framework for the mid/rear (behind the driver) engine location. The chassis had no rear suspension but was instead bolted directly to the early Ford rear end that featured a Halibrand quickchange center section containing a 3.78 to 1 ring and pinion. The chosen final drive ratio was 3.05 to 1.

The body of an abandoned 1930 Model A coupe provided the basis for the machine that would run in the competition coupe class. It was "severely" chopped and the cowl from a '35 Ford complete with A pillar section was grafted to the front of the coupe above the firewall. This gave the coupe a rather severe windshield rake that Art was seeking. Art then went to the Alameda wrecking yard down the street to find suitable sheet metal to fill the roof section. He discovered the hulk of a Forty Ford Tudor and he torched the roof out and while doing the cutting he pushed over the hood that was leaning up against the side of the sedan. It fell forward and landed atop another hood that was already lying upside down on the ground. After removing the roof panel and setting it aside, he noticed the two hoods lying there together on the ground.

"AHA! There's my nose, he muttered to himself" as he envisioned the two hood panels forming the front of the race car.

He loaded the roof panel and the 2 hoods into the back of the truck and returned to the shop. He and Brother Lloyd spent the better part of the following weekend cutting and tacking together what was to be the Chrisman's Garage competition coupe.

On Monday when dad Everett came into the shop he was greeted by a cobbled together pile of tin that resembled a racer but was pretty raggedy.

Looking at the huge gaps in the fit of the hoods and the cowl and the roof panel he commented in passing:
"Looks like you two have a lotta welding to do!"

Without looking up, both brothers nodded in agreement and moved closer to the task at hand.

As the body progressed through stages of build up, each change was carefully test fitted to the tube chassis. The goal was to have the engine, trans and rear end fashioned together so they could be unbolted as a unit and the body and front half of the chassis lifted and rolled forward for complete access to the running gear. This would make it easy to change engines to run other classes or to repair any damage that may have resulted from too big a dose of nitromethane…the coupes intended fuel of choice.

A seven gallon fuel tank was mounted behind the engine and above the '40 Ford side shift transmission. Two war-surplus 5 gallon "Jerry" cans were mounted on the chassis next to the engine and they carried the necessary coolant to pull the heat from what ever engine sat in the bay.

A surplus aircraft seat and seat belts were installed in the room left in front of the firewall that separated and isolated the driver from the engine. The driver (Art) sat very close to the front of the cab with his nose just inches from the windshield and getting in was quite a chore.

"You grab the roll bar and pull your body in the air like a chin up and swing your feet into the front well, then you swing your rear end into the cab. You then press up and squeeze in between the seat and the dash and you're in. Getting out is much simpler, says Art, you just turn your shoulders to the right and roll over onto all fours and crawl out."

At the driver's fingertips were the brake handle (rear wheel brakes only), fire extinguisher, hand operated fuel pressure pump and mag switch. The shifter lever was a single push-pull device that shifted the gearbox that contained a 28 tooth cluster running only second and high gear.

Just above the drivers head was a small air scoop that provided intake air to the engine and shortly after running the car the first time, a small air inlet was fabricated to get air to the driver---something they overlooked in the initial construction.

The sleek little coupe was finished in a bronze lacquer with red trim and outfitted with Harry Duncan's set of 18" Bonneville Firestones mounted on Halibrand wheels.

This tire wheel combination was used on the coupe for the first year, but Art and Lloyd thought they were too big. They changes out to a set of 600X16" Indy tires on steel wheels.

"This, says Art, got the car down lower and it looked much better."

The coupe was taken to Bonneville for Speed Week in 1953 and the team was prepared to run for class records with 3 different engines…each a different sized flathead and one was equipped with a set of Ardun OHV cylinder heads.

The initial engine was a Class C 304 cubic inch Merc out of Art and Lloyd's dragster. It ran 163.63 one way, but vented the pan on the return run.

"A little too much nitro, Art allowed sheepishly, so we put Duncan's Ardun in."

"With it we qualified at 156 and set the B class record at 160.187 mph. We pulled that engine and installed Ed Losinski's engine, a 304 inch Merc for another shot at the C record. We didn't get the record because we couldn't get it to run right and ran out of time."

"We came back the next year ('54) with two new hemis that Tony Capanna built for Duncan---a 243 inch Dodge for Class B and a 276 inch DeSoto for Class C. We got both records this time 180.87 in B and 180.08 in C. We were feeling pretty good."

"The last time we ran the coupe was a very sad time for us. We went to Bonneville in '55 with a fresh 331 Chrysler for class D with the hopes of getting a record to add to our B and C. Two other cars that ran out of our shop were pitted with us. The Reed Brothers belly tanker and the Losinski roadster…a record holder in Class C roadster.

"We qualified the coupe for the record run in Class D at over 190. We then set the record with the fastest being 196 mph with the Chrysler running 5% nitro. We were prepared to up that to 20% and try to go 200 but unfortunately we never got the chance."

"The Reed Brothers belly tank with Leroy Neumayers Ardun set the C Class Lakester record the previous year at 205.71 and that got driver, Leroy into the 200mph club.

This year it was being driven by John Donaldson (because Leroy had been drafted into the army) and on one run, early in the week, the radiator cap blew off and John got his back burned pretty bad. They flew him to the hospital in Salt Lake City to get it treated. We fixed the radiator and I got in it and drove it fast enough to qualify the car ---I don't remember the exact speed-but it was over 200 and faster than the existing record. When John returned he got back in the car for the record attempt."

"We were ahead of him in line for our record run. We ran and set the record as I said at 196. We were on the return road when he left the line. We weren't paying much attention until we heard the engine quit and we looked up to see the car slowly turning off the course. We figured he broke something and was pulling off to wait for the push truck.
We later learned that the car had spun and flipped and what we thought we saw as a car turning slowly off the course was in fact upside down and since there was no roll bar…well you know the rest."

"We were all pretty upset over the incident and we all decided to take it home. We never ran the car again."

But that's not the end of this story…not by a long shot.

"I sold the car to Duncan, says Art, and he painted it purple and continued to run it and I lost track of it. I know it passed through John Geharty's hands in Glendale and after that it wound up in Barris' shop where it was butchered into a show car…with gull wing door openings, a Cad engine and antenna sticking out of fake scoops above the windshield…painted white pearl with red accent…awful."

After many years of languishing on the show circuit, show promoter Bob Larivee acquired the coupe and commissioned Chrisman to "put it back exactly like it was" when it raced at Bonneville. This Chrisman did and Larivee returned it again to the show circuit only this time it was presented as the historic Chrisman Brothers Coupe in its original livery complete with a 331 Chrysler.

Several years later Joe Macpherson (auto dealer and Chrisman benefactor) bought the car from Larivee and added it to his collection "as is" at "Joe's Garage" in the Tustin Auto Center in Orange County California.

When the promoters of the world renown Pebble Beach Concours de Elegance decided to include "famous Hot Rod Coupes" , one of the six cars selected for competition "on the lawn" was the Chrisman Brothers Coupe. Owner Macpherson was contacted and agreed to enter but only if Art and his son Mike were interested in participating. After some arm twisting Art agreed to prepare the car to run (on 50 % Nitro) and polish and detail the coupe for display.

"I knew going in we weren't going to win…I just knew it, says Art. When we were picked along with the Pierson Coupe and the SoCal Coupe as finalists, I thought MAYBE we have a and chance then they called me up first which meant we got third place. I thought about tossing the ribbon back to them, but that would be showing no class. Instead I fired up the engine and ripped the throttle several times and smoked the tires off of the platform. I know the nitro made all those stuffy folks eyes water and the ladies mascara run."

"Here we had the original builder,--me, the original restorer,--me and the original driver,--me and we lose to a couple of rich politically connected guys who bought and spent huge sums of money to restore cars that they never had anything to do with in the first place. That sure beat's me all to hell."

"Don't get me wrong it was fun and I enjoyed myself---but I won't ever do it again."

"It's really funny, I learned later from one of the judges that the reason we lost points was because we had stainless steel allen bolts in the rear end housing. Truth is: Those are the same bolts we put in the car when we built it originally. In fact they are exact ones that my dad pilfered when he worked for Todd Shipyard during the war. So much for authenticity. I'd rather race."

There you have it. From the horses mouth to the printed page.



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