One of the most famous fiberglass sports cars of the 1950s is the lead car from the 1954 movie Johnny Dark. Much speculation has taken place over the last many years concerning whether the car survives and who might be the lucky owner – if the car exists at all.
Making it interesting, many people claim to have the car. Some of these cars are powered by Willys drivetrains, while others are powered by Chrysler, Buick, Ford, and even Jaguar. These cars differ in many ways such as their frame and cockpit/dashboard layout too.
It’s an interesting question to answer. Knowing the significance of the Johnny Dark Wildfire sports car, let’s review what we know about this car based on:
- Recent research
- Previously conducted research
- A thorough review of vintage photography
- An interview with one of the original builders and drivers of a car in the film: Chuck Tatum
And away we go.
Timing of the Film:
Although the film debuted on June 16th, 1954 (click here for a story on the world premier) filming started in late summer of 1953. The first race in the film contained footage of an actual event/race that occurred in Santa Barbara, California at the Goleta Airport on Labor Day, 1953. And…the footage shows the Wildfire at speed on the course, as shown in the 3 minute movie trailer below:
What’s fun about this is “fiberglass fact” is that the Wildfire was actually entered in the race and driven by stunt driver – and race car driver – H. Haile Chace. Chace was the “Technical Director” for Johnny Dark, and it was in this official race (as seen in the program below) that he squared off against the most famous Glasspar G2 sports car at the same time – a car owned by Bill Tritt and piloted by Bill Pollack.
What I would have given to see both of these cars on the track at the same time!
So the two fiberglass sports car heavyweights went head to head at this airport race in 1953. You can see both cars registered for this race in the program below.
Additional confirmation on this timing comes from two sources:
- A personal interview with Chuck Tatum whose car was in the movie and raced by him on screen.
- An article published in December, 1953 in Car Craft Magazine that discusses the movie being filmed at the race. Click here to review the story of the race in Santa Barbara on Labor Day in 1953.
When Was The Car Built?
The first Woodill Wildfire debuted at the November, 1952 Petersen Motorama and was one of at least three built in late 1952 and early 1953. This first Woodill Wildfire was of a different design than the later more famous design – a distinction which we delineate as either Series 1 (early design) or Series 2 (later design) Woodill Wildfire. Click here to review a story on the first or Series 1 Woodill Wildfire.
The first Series 2 Wildfire appeared to the public in the July 17th 1953 issue of Motor World Magazine – as shown below. Given a reasonable estimate of 4-6 weeks to build this first car (fit, finish, and prototyping could take shorter or longer) we’ll estimate that the first Series 2 body was produced by the end of May, 1953.
Based on the work of Woodill Wildfire Historian Emeritus – Frank Cornell – we are lucky to have a four page copy of the serial numbers of both the cars and kits that Woodill sold. This list was shared directly to Frank by Howard Miller who was the Foreman for Wildfire and the person most responsible for producing/building all Woodill Wildfire sports cars and bodies.
Using this list, we can look up the serial numbers of Woodill sports cars to identify the year that the body was produced. Less than twenty “Series 2” bodies / cars were built prior to the magazine cover car appearing in July, 1953.
Point: Assuming the Johnny Dark Wildfire was built before Labor Day (September), 1953, this leaves just over twenty “Series 2” bodies produced. The Johnny Dark Wildfire would have an ID/VIN from this list of approximately 20 possibilities.
Interviewing Chuck Tatum:
We’ve been fortunate in the past many years to have one of the original drivers and builders of a car that appeared in the movie Johnny Dark. Chuck Tatum built his own race car and drove it in the race sequences that appeared in the second race of the film.
Below are salient points made by Chuck over the course of several interviews between 2008 and 2014:
- Haile Chace was person who hired the cars. Most people just rented them their car. Chuck Tatum was only person who drove his own car – to his knowledge. The movie producer wanted to use race cars – not sports cars.
- The Director wanted his car (the Tatum Special), but Chuck would allow him to do so only if he was driver and they paid for his SAG card too – cost of about $250. After the movie studio balked several times, they finally said “yes”.
- Two days before shooting (Saturday) there was a race and it was filmed for Johnny Dark. This was a real race, and this is where they met Chuck Tatjm for first time. Two days later on Monday, they came back and did more filming for background. Three months later, they finalized their negotiations with Chuck Tatum and they begin filming races in the fall of 1953.
- No doubles were used for any car in the film. If they wrecked a supporting car, they just wrote it out of the script. The only car that would have had a “double” would have been the “Wildfire” and Chuck never saw another car including a double car for the Wildfire.
- The Wildfire definitely had a Willys engine – and it wasn’t very strong. If there was a “Woodill” double, they would have used it when there were problems – no double stepped in.
- Chuck says this was a top notch – A – film. First, Tony Curtis, Piper, Don Taylor, Paul Kelly, Ilka Chase, Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Hampton and Scatman Crothers, were A list stars. Next, the fact it was originally going to be a 3-D film. Also, George Sherman was director who did over 100 films in Hollywood. This was not a B film. Universal promoted it as a top notch film.
- Chuck says that filming of the racing scenes started after labor day race of 1953, and started 1-2 months later. Filming of the race scenes started and concluded in fall of 1953 – probably late September to late October/November.
- One morning the studio asked Chuck Tatum to use his car and they put sound machinery over entire car. Drove up, down, stop, start, over street, and created all sounds they were to use in the studio.
- Most race car shooting was done on a heavy duty platform built on front of Lincoln. May have been on back too. All drivers admired the guy who drove the Lincoln – very skilled. The guy that drove the Lincoln car deserved an award says Chuck.
- Also, this was one of first times a helicopter was used to shoot race scenes – shooting back against the mountain going down the hills.
- Woodill Wildfire: This was really 6 cylinder engine out of the Willys according to Chuck Tatum. The Woodill people who built it were Willys dealers – confirming the heritage. When filming got to high altitudes, the Wildfire wouldn’t run. This was 6000 feet, and the car had no power. Chuck’s partner who was Andy Botto who was co-driver of car in movie. Studio’s mechanics could not fix it. Chuck volunteered his partner – Andy Botto. George Sherman was director, and after this was successfully fixed, George always asked how the “star car” doing (implying all other cars were ordinary). Woodill never sent anyone with car. Botto kept car running thru picture, and he got a generous tip at end of picture for his help.
Drivetrain – Further Confirmation:
In 1986, research was conducted to determine the engine / drivetrain of the Johnny Dark Wildfire. Two letters are presented below. The first letter was from an appraisal and research firm that reviewed available information at the time and did not find confirmation that a Jaguar XK120 chassis/drivetrain was used.
The second letter was written by Robert Hill again searching for confirmation of the drivetrain and was addressed to one of the lead actors in the film – Don Taylor. Don wrote his response directly on the letter discussing his memories of nearly 40 years prior that he believed the car was powered by a Willys drivetrain.
During a scene in the first race, the Woodill Wildfire is turned on its side as shown below:
If this is the Johnny Dark Wildfire then the chassis is revealed to be either made by Mameco (click here for information on Mameco) or more likely a very early version of the soon to be released Woodill Wildfire frame – variations shown below.
This chassis in the movie photo above is NOT a Shorty Post chassis which was made for Glasspar G2 sports cars from August, 1952 to March, 1953. The Shorty Post chassis was also fitted to Series 1 Wildfire sports cars and some early Series 2 Wildfires too.
Point: Based on available evidence, the Johnny Dark Wildfire would have a frame made by Woodill Wildfire or Mameco.
Dashboards are like fingerprints on vintage handcrafted fiberglass sports cars.
Even with a production run of approximately 100 cars, we’ve found few if any dashboards that are exactly the same. All vintage photos available of the Johnny Dark race car show a four main gauge dashboard as shown in the photos below. If the car remains unaltered today, it should either have or show evidence of these four main gauges and other features shown on the dashboard.
If found, the Johnny Dark Wildfire should show evidence of a side mirror as shown below. This can be seen in earlier photos above, too.
Fred Roth, Chassis And Windshield:
Collector and historian Fred Roth has been studying the history of Woodill Wildfires and other similar marques since the late 1960s. In the automotive community that recognizes the significance of the history of these cars, Fred is considered the “founder” of research and preservation for American fiberglass specials. Fred also has the unique distinction of working with Special Interest Autos magazine in 1974 to produce the first historical article on Woodill Wildfire sports cars.
The first comments, below, are from a personal communication with Fred in 2012:
Fred Roth: I was approached by the owner of the Woodill bodied Jag car many years ago. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t now. There are several scenes in the film that show the car/s used were Willys powered with Willys running gear. (Check the parts lying around in the garage scene)
Second knowing Woody as I did, his main interest in putting his cars in movies was for the publicity. As you said, at that time he was pushing to build these as Willys Sports cars and would have defeated his purpose – especially using foreign running gear.
Second, the comments below are summarized from from a recording with Howard Miller in 1974 made by Fred Roth in documenting the history of Woodill Wildfire sports cars. Howard Miller was the Production Foreman for Woodill Wildfire:
Howard Miller: The Johnny Dark car had a Corvette windshield put on it before it was finally sold. It was built using a modified Willys engine/drivetrain.
Shown below are photos of several Woodill Wildfire sports cars. The first car shown in the photos is believed to be the Johnny Dark Wildfire with the newly installed Corvette windshield.
How Many Cars Appeared in the Movie?
According to Woodill Wildfire brochures such as the photo and caption below, three Wildfires appeared in the film.
Additional evidence is provided by automotive historian Gregg Griffin whose father is one of the original owner/builders of a Woodill Wildfire. In personal communication in 2011, Gregg shared the following:
If you look at the three Wildfires from the movie, I’m 99.99% sure these cars are represented on the contents page of the “Manual of Building Plastic Cars”, (circa. 1954)
In this picture, you see the black one (note the grill) to the right, the Idaho Special in the left foreground (note the windshield) and the guys “rehearsing” the body installation from the movie……again, my two cents, but it reinforces the “theory of the three”…
The magazine and specific page are shown below:
And here are three movie stills from Johnny Dark showing these three cars:
So…what do we “know” about the famous Johnny Dark racecar? Let’s review:
- It was an early Series 2 body with an early serial number – a number that can be verified as shown in Howard Miller’s serial number registry
- All evidence points to the use of a Willys drivetrain – confirmed by the business partner (Chuck Tatum) of the person who drove the car during the movie (Andy Botto)
- The chassis is either a Mameco or more likely the newly designed Wildfire chassis. This is best revealed by the car turned on its side during race 1 of the movie.
- The dashboard configuration is rare – even for a Wildfire. It shows four main large gauges and some auxiliary functions/dials too.
- The racing windshield was replaced with a Corvette wrap-around windshield before being sold by Woodill. However, evidence of the holes/mounting brackets of the original racing windshield should remain on the body for further verification.
So if the car is out there, it should match the criteria established above to allow confidence that that car might be the elusive, often sought after, missing for 60+ years….Johnny Dark Wildfire.
And what’s that I hear??? You want to know about the other two Wildfires in the film? More about that in a future story here at Forgotten Fiberglass.
Hope you enjoyed the story, and remember gang…
The adventure continues here at Forgotten Fiberglass.