Sunday, 31 January 2010

Did I Just See Captain Nemo's Streamliner?

Story courtesy of Rick Rucker
Last week, I was driving near Long Beach, California. I was in a neighborhood of
businesses and homes, waiting to pull out onto Pacific Coast Highway. There wasn't a traffic light, so I expected a long wait. Suddenly, a big pickup turned at the corner where I was waiting, right across my path. The pickup was towing a trailer, and on it was one of the most unusual cars that I've ever seen. It turned onto the street where I was, only now going the other way. I had to find out what it was!

In a moment of what can only be described as temporary insanity, I mashed on
the accelerator, and did a burnout into oncoming cross traffic, turned left, went up the street fifty yards, then made a U-turn. I turned where he had, then started to look for the truck. It wasn't far away, and luckily, it had stopped. I got out of my car, and walked over to talk to the driver of the pickup. I introduced myself, as he did, and I told him that I draw pictures of cars and race drivers. I really wanted to draw this car. I have a free newsletter that shows people how to draw cars at: www.drawingcarsiseasy.com. This car will make a great drawing lesson, it is so cool! He said that I could draw the car, but could NOT say where it is stored, or what else is at that location. That is fairly common with the owners of the cars that I draw, so agreeing was very easy.

There was another man in the pickup, and between the three of us, we got the car off of the trailer. Once on the ground, it looked even stranger than it did when it was on the trailer. The whole body was in raw aluminum, and it had less than two inches of ground clearance. It had been built by hand, obviously, and it was beautiful! I'm a terrible sucker for an old race car, and this was very old. It was very narrow, not very tall, and exremely long. I was totally mystified, and my expression must have given that away.

The owner said “You don't know what it is, do you?” If he had told me that it had been designed by Jules Verne, the father of science fiction, I wouldn't have been the slightest bit surprised! It looks kind of like the Nautilus submarine in the Disney version of the movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Instead, he said that “It is the Eddie Miller lakester,” as if that solved the mystery (it didn't for me). He went on to explain that a man named Eddie Miller had built the car, and driven it at over 150 miles per hour at Bonneville in the fifties! That didn't sound too hard to believe until the two men took off the engine cover.

In the place where there should have been a huge, supercharged V8, this slippery little racer had a Pontiac straight six FLATHEAD, which is normally aspirated! The engine has four Zenith carburetors, and everything is made by hand. Everywhere I looked, something else stood out as a special part that took entirely too much time to make. The guys said that Eddie Miller took over four years to build the car, but I can't believe that he could have done it so quickly! When we took off the engine cover, there was a spare, unused piston sitting on top of the engine. The pattern work that was done to cast that piston was absolutely flawless! The machine work was equally stunning. Eddie even designed, and built, his own dual distributor drive for dual ignition!

In case you aren't familiar with lakesters, they are cars that were built to run on dry lakes for speed records, hopefully. Probably some of the first ones were built from war surplus belly tanks designed for fighter aircraft. These external fuel tanks were hung on the outside of fighters to increase their combat range. When the planes were ready to engage in combat, the pilot would drop his tanks, in order to lighten the load, and to clean up the aerodynamics of his plane. These tanks are pretty thin aluminum, and they dent fairly easily. Once dropped, they were trash, crushed beyond repair. Luckily Uncle Sam had thousands of them made, and many were never used during the war. For many years they were bought by racers at surplus auctions.

Eventually, the supply of these tanks dried up, and racers began to build their
own bodies, instead of using belly tanks. This inevitably took more time, but it also allowed the builder to tailor the body to the size needed to just cover the mechanicals used, instead of a one-size-fits-all solution. Eddie Miller obviously subscribed to this theory, as his car is truly tiny in cross section, but extremely long. When we removed the cockpit cover, I was amazed how tight it was in the driver's compartment. I'm a fairly compact guy, but I would have been squeezed in there very tightly. Any fantasies I had about driving this car ended when I asked what the tank was that sat right over the driver's right leg. “Fuel” was the answer.

My horrified look caused them to laugh, but that thought was a little too much for
me. Imagine blasting down a measured distance, shoe horned into a bullet traveling a mile every twenty four seconds or less, trapped with gallons of gas in a cockpit that is hardly roomier than a “hoodie” sweatshirt! In order to help you visualize the shape of the body, just think of a Korean Warera jet, without wings and tail, or a helicopter without rotors and tail.

As slick as the body is, the weird part of lakesters is that they don't have fenders, the wheels and tires are totally exposed. The builder can streamline the axle shafts and the like, but not the rotating parts. Because the dry lakes are pretty long, acceleration isn't usually a problem, so, to reduce wind resistance, the wheels and tires are very narrow. There are wire wheels on this car, and they look to be from a 1930s era car. Like most wheels of that time, the wheels bolt on with several lug nuts, not with one central nut. Here again, Eddie Miller went totally over the top when finishing the car. Where the center of the wheel would normally be open, causing wind resistance, he cast and machined his own hubcaps out of aluminum. As if that weren't enough, they have the name “Miller” cast into them! This car is overkill squared!

When the owner told me that he and his friend are going to completely restore
the car, and show it at The Concours d' Elegance at Pebble Beach in California this year, I totally understood why. This car is absolutely stunning, a rare jewel. The level of workmanship is breathtaking! I was going to wish them luck with the judging, but something tells me that they won't need luck! I can't wait to see it completed.

See you at Pebble!

Rick Rucker


P.S. The photos you see here were supplied by one of the two men in the
pickup. As luck would have it, I didn't have my camera with me when I “found” this amazing record breaker.

Rick Rucker Mr. Rucker is a pen and ink artist who lives in Southern California with his wife of more than thirty five years. He is a member of The Motor Press Guild, a worldwide organization of journalists, photojournalists, and illustrators.

Examples of his artwork hang in museums and offices of corporate clients. A
CEO of an American car manufacturer has commissioned Rick to draw portraits of his whole family. Rick has even drawn a portrait of The Worldwide Head of Styling of another American car company, standing by his new model, shown for the first time at The Detroit Auto show.

He can be reached at: rick@DrawingCarsisEasy.com