Building your own sports car was often much more than a solitary event – it was something to celebrate….an adventure to remember and a story that became part of a family history – just as it did with Joe Holderness and his family.
The adventure in today’s story was spearheaded by Joe and included his wife Arlene, their sons Vic and Mike, and daughters Jane and Amy. It truly was a family adventure 🙂
I’ve had a chance to get to know 93 year old Joe Holderness and his son Vic. Vic was kind enough to write up the story for us which I’m honored to share here. And away we go….
The Adventure Begins: The Crosley Special
By Vic Holderness
During the late fifties my father took my brother and me to a number of sports car races staged at Thompson Raceway and Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. The trip to the track always seemed endless because these were events that rivaled the excitement of Christmas morning itself.
I can vividly recall the likes of Carol Shelby driving a big red Ferrari, Walt Hansken in a D-Jaguar, numerous Porsche Speedsters, Jags, Austin Healeys, a really futuristic car called a Lotus 11, the infamous Old Yeller, and the Cadillac Allards going up against the best that Europe had to offer in a sport that had just made its way to American soil. The liveries were bright and the characters were larger than any Disney creation as the cars were not only loud but fast, some very fast.
My brother and I usually managed to jump the pit fence (chicken wire if I remember correctly) and wander amongst the drivers and the mechanics that hovered over these brilliant machines. I’ll never forget the distinct smell of racing fuel, Castrol’ R’ oil, engine exhaust, and rubber which permeated the air. Then the occasional crack of an overhead cam racing engine coming to life was enough to make the unsuspecting jump back and look for safe haven.
But it was the overalls of one driver that stuck in my mind. His name was Carol Shelby and he drove big, red Ferrari. Something didn’t seem to fit here, a man wearing bib over-alls by the name of Carol who drove a beautiful, loud and very fast Ferrari.….Hummmm…little did I realize that we had a front row seat to history in the making.
In the pits we discovered many unusual creations, one I will never forget was a Porsche Speedster that had its entire body ‘Swiss Cheesed’ with a number of different sized holes! Light weight was the big thing back then…anything that would make it lighter would make it faster was the theory. I’m not sure if the theory held water in this case, but wouldn’t it be entertaining to be a fly on the wall for the ‘barn find’ of this car today! OMG!
Also in the pits we discovered a little special, embodied in a pleasing aluminum shape. Class H was the designation and the car was powered by the might of a little 750cc Crosley engine. They said it was a handmade machine that tipped the scales at a whopping 1000 pounds. The builder and driver, one and the same, was a man by the name of Candy Pool. He called the car a PBX Special.
When Candy took to the track the car always looked bigger than it really was. He sat bolt upright in the seat consequently sticking out of the cockpit with a fair amount of animation as he negotiated the turns and screamed down the front straight. The PBX Special was the proverbial engine that could, the David against the might of those bigger displacement machines such as the 1500cc MG’s which never seemed to pose much of a problem for Candy’s little 750cc screamer.
My Father, also captivated by the charm of this little Class H Special, was attracted to just about anything ’Do It Yourself’, as this was the craze at the time. I think it was pretty much then and there that he decided to build his own sports car.
Joe Holderness was born in 1922 and by the time he decided to build his own sports car he was in his mid 30s – a seasoned veteran considering most of these cars were put together by young men in their 20s. He was working full time and that meant nights and weekends would now have something to occupy them. And he wanted to have fun building it – and that’s exactly what he did 🙂
Starting in 1955 he choose the donor car based what they saw racing on the weekend – a Crosley with a convertible top – the kind where the window frames were rigid, but the soft top slid backwards on rails.
Curiously enough there was quite a bit of information on sports car specials back then, and in particular the Class H , SCCA’s designation for 750cc machines, was quite bountiful. Many were derived from the Crosley automobile which was the micro/econo car of the time.
After locating a potential donor, we headed to downtown Hartsdale, New York and promptly purchased a Crosley Sedan for the grand sum of fifty dollars. I remember crawling into the back seat for the ride home.
Everyone, my mother included, just thought this was too cute of a car to be chopped up for some kind of hair brained project, but after all the pleading and tears were shed cooler racing heads eventually prevailed. Employing the help of a block and tackle and a big oak tree next to our driveway, we hoisted the body off the frame. I think I still have a picture of this event somewhere.
Off came the body revealing the frame which Joe planned to modify. After all, you had to “Z” or lower the center section of the Crosley frame in order to reduce the center of gravity and make it handle more like a sports car.
When you interview folks who built their own cars back then, you get to appreciate the hard work and dedication that it took to finish one as nice as this turned out. Joe modified the standard Crosley chassis by using a hacksaw to make all necessary cuts. Then, he put it back together exactly with clamps as he wanted it finished, put it on a boat trailer, and moved it outside.
Joe hired a welder to drop by his home in Hartsdale, New York and complete the frame as designed. Joe had help for the next phase – he put his two sons Vic and Michael to work. They used a quarter inch drill to lighten and swiss cheese the wheels and other components on the car – but not the frame. He remembers that he also had to stretch the wheelbase a little bit.
The mounting of the rear spring was unique to this car and Joe referred to as a “leading axle.” The springs came forward to the axle. This was based on the engineering of a race car that Joe had seen racing back east in the 50s.
Ahead of us were countless nights of cutting, drilling, and welding….well we had a guy actually come over to accomplish that part. He welded the chopped frame at points where c-clamps held it firmly in place all in preparation for the really cool fiberglass body manufactured by a guy in New Jersey by the name of Almquist.
The Crosley engine, a good block made of iron and not braised, went to my Dad’s good friend who was a real crafty guy. Harry owned a machine shop and could build just about anything. He installed domed high compression Italian pistons, did something with the cam, and torqued the connecting rods onto the crank by hand with an open end wrench.
When he attempted to turn the engine over…well he discovered that it wouldn’t! Those high topped pistons were too tall. Out they came then were promptly machined to accommodate the tiny block. Compression ratio? Who knows, but let’s just assume it was up into the stratosphere somewhere. He used to race on roads with a friends MGA and his friend couldn’t get away from him.
Finally, the engine mounted on the dropped frame and the body on order, my father and I took his creation for a shake down spin. Sans body, up the block we went. I remember watching the mechanicals of the engine at work as we sat in the aluminum aircraft seats, you know that light green. I think they were scavenged from a WW II, TBM Avenger or maybe it was a J-3 Cub. WW II surplus purchased for 3 dollars each, if I remember correctly! Not my first go-kart experience but quite an experience it was.
The fiberglass body was picked up in New Jersey and strapped it to the roof of the family wagon, a 51 Ford Woody, for the ride back to Hartsdale. The installation process was less than complex as it was secured to the frame by brackets with long bolts, nuts and really big flat washers. A couple more test drives then came the paint.
This process was not your current base coat clear coat job of today’s technology but a much more basic one in which I will have to call a’ brush and bucket’ job! Yup, a big wide paint brush to apply the white to the fenders and the blue down the middle. Good old American racing colors you understand.
Now with the project essentially finished, I think it actually took a couple of years, the final test drive was with my mother as a passenger. I could see that she humored Dad thinking that he had probably watched the movie, “The Racers”, one too many times and would get this whole crazy Class H racing thing out of his system pretty soon.
She wore huge sunglasses, I think it was more of her way of making fun of the whole project than protecting her eyes….. but none the less she did take the ride up and then back down the block. Included are photos showing my Dad (Joe) and Mom (Arlene) in photos. It was the only ride she ever took in it.
The engine screamed in protest as Dad pushed it to what sounded to me like about eight grand in second gear before dropping it into high (which was the third gear of the stock Crosley crash box).
Car complete (or is a project like this ever complete?), life has a way of changing those best laid plans. In 1959 Dad decided that we should move to Florida and go into the fast food business. He purchased a Burger Queen franchise as McDonalds was too expensive and neither one was a proven front runner at the time. Who’d a thunk!
Everything was packed up for the big move…all but the little Crosley Special; it would be left behind in the hands of a good friend, who lived in New Jersey. Dad just up and gave him that car. I think he did not want his soon to be teen age sons doing something stupid like racing the damn thing.
The whereabouts of the car now and subsequently what happened to it after we left..…well who really knows. Did some kid eventually get his hands on it and drive it to high school or did it end up in the bone yard? Your guess is probably as good as mine but I would sure like to find that little Crosley Special someday and maybe treat it to proper base coat clear coat paint job.
The car was only painted once when Joe owned it – a two tone dark blue and white. It’s actually bare fiberglass in the photos when it seems to be just one color. He used a two-piece windshield. At first both pieces of glass were the same height. However, soon Joe realized that his extra height meant that he needed to use larger glass on the driver’s side.
The hood was hinged at front and strap on each back side held it down at the back, and the driver and passenger doors were hinged at the back – suicide doors. The headlights from the Crosley were installed inside the grille, Used original rims, but turned them inside out to gain about 2 inches in tread.
It took 2-3 years to build the Sabre and they finished it in 1959. Their sons Vic and Mike as well as their daughters, Jane and Amy, were excited to see the final car finished.
Joe is 93 years old this year. In recent years, Joe contacted the family who said they held the car for many years and had sold it in the late 1960s. It’s not been seen since. Vic shared with me a clue to where it might have gone, but so far we’ve been unsuccessful reaching the owners. Perhaps in time we will, and there will be a next part of this story we can celebrate with Joe, Vic, and the Holderness family 🙂
Hope you enjoyed the story, and remember gang…
The adventure continues here at Forgotten Fiberglass.
wonderful story of the fifties when families could do it all . at 74 I can picture it all thanks
Hi All Ive been racing a 1962 Sprite with early Ashley ( mini XKE look )nose and fiberglass bug eye tail since 2010 ( LRP ,Thompson ,Pocono,NJMP , PVGP ) Anybody with first hand knowlage on how to make full size molds. I would really like to make copy of my nose lest I damage original . Thanks Pete
And I thought my Diahatsu Copen sports was tiny.
A Crosley engine will easily rev to 8,000 rpm. With a shortstroke and five main bearings it will run to 8,000 rpm anytime. How many other engines run to 8,000? Since the head is part of the block you cannot use high dome pistons in a Crosley.
Agreed, the Crosley head is integral with the block. But, like virtually all overhead valve engines, the shape of the piston head is limited by the allowance for any valve opening that may exist near the top of the stroke (depending on cam profile), and has nothing to do with the integral head. (Offenhausers, although of four valve configuration, are similarly “headless”.)
i alys looked longingly at the ads for this body. i still like it a lot. o the memories!