I grew up in England where, in the early Sixties I had a paper route. Somebody on that route subscribed to Hot Rod Magazine and I'd sit on the kerb under grey skies surrounded by grey cars and read about red and yellow cars under blue, California skies. I so wanted that life.
In 1963, two American dragsters owned by Dean Moon and Mickey Thompson, visited England. My dad took me and my friends to see them and I was hooked on "Americarna."
It took a long time to figure out how to make a living in this business from “across the pond” and eventually I had to move to California where I am now the Executive Director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, Pomona, Calif.
It’s a dream job and I get to meet all my heroes one of whom is “TV Tommy” Ivo.
Little Tommy Ivo was born in Denver, Colo., in 1936 where his mother had him tap dancing at the same time he was learning to walk. Tommy enjoyed great success in local talent shows but the cold weather caused his mother, who had sever arthritis, to move the family to Burbank, Calif. Close to Hollywood, Tommy was soon pushed deeper into show biz and at age seven entertaining at a variety of talent shows all over the Los Angeles area, where he got a part in a movie called Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Like many a movie star story, a producer spotted Tommy and he was picked for his first movie—the first of more than 100 which included "Tarzan" and the legendary "Rebel Without a Cause" with James Dean.
Tommy also went on to appear in more than 200 TV shows including a recurring role on the “Donna Reed Show” as well as a staring part on the “Margie” TV series. By the time he was 16, Tommy had stashed enough to buy a brand new 1952 Buick Roadmaster two-door hardtop signaling a long affinity with the brand.
Back in 1952, the drag races were just getting started and one day a friend took Tommy down to Santa Ana to see the races. Tommy was hooked and on his second visit raced the Buick which by now had shaved door handles and frenched headlights. The Buick’s Dynaflow trans was its weak point and Tommy was for ever fixing it. However, he eventually set the track record for his class and got to admire those Buick motors.
First came a ’55 Buick-powered 1925 Model T roadster–the E-ticket of the time—that cleaned up the local tracks. Soon Tommy realized he need a more purpose-built race car and had legendary chassis expert Kent Fuller build his first rail with an injected Buick—what else?
The car ran hard but the showman in Tommy asked, “If one is good, two must be better.” So he slotted in another Buick along side the first in a W-16 configuration. With one motor blown and one injected, Tommy became the first to run the quarter in under 9 seconds and the first to go 170 mph and then 180 mph on gasoline.
That same year, 1960, he became the first drag racer to tour the country with a nationwide, season-long tour. Appearance money made him drag racing’s first touring professional. And, because of Ivo’s acting career, drag racing was introduced to media not available before. The performance and appearance of the dazzling red and chrome showpiece impressed crowds from coast to coast.
Never one to let the grass grow, Tommy thought, “If they liked two motors, they’ll love four!” Consequently, he designed and built his spectacular 4-motored dragster, arguably the first and most successful drag racing exhibition car of all time.
Smoking all four tires, it became known as “the moving fog bank” and thrilled race fans from coast to coast.
Once again, Tommy turned to renowned chassis builder Kent Fuller to bend the tubes. Unfortunately, Tommy was impatient to get going and Fuller was juggling customers so it took a year to build the car.
A young Don Prudhomme works on the body.
Don, whose dad owned Van Nuys Body Works, was eager to get into the sport, had purchased Ivo’s first Buick-powered dragster and traded paintwork for knowledge.
Ivo’s 2-engine dragster paved the way for the 4-engine car and helped solve many of the mechanical issues. The Buicks proved extremely reliable but can you imagine working with 32 pistons, 96 rings, 64 valves and 128 valve keepers?
The left pair of motors drove the front wheels through a rare–they only made 6–Halibrand quick-change centersection made originally for the Novi Indy 500 car. The motors on the right drove the rear wheels, again through a Halibrand QC located beside the driver’s lap. Surprisingly, Tommy says everything was fairly simple to build and run. After he had caught onto the knack of running more than one engine in a race car, with his twin engine car—there’s was just multiples of four of everything.
The 4-motor car, sans body, was quite the monster sporting 1,856 cubic inches and 2,000 horsepower. At the time, it was reported to have cost $13,000 which was a lot of money at back then.
The 4-motor car, christened “Showboat” debuted on July 23, 1961 at the San Fernando drag strip in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles where, as always, a crowd gathered. A very young looking Tommy is to the left.
At the time of the car’s debut, Tommy was still working in TV, primarily on the show Margie in which he played the part of Haywood Botts—a rumbling, fumbling boyfriend as Tommy describes his character.
Dressed as Botts alongside Cynthia Pepper, who played the part of Margie, Haywood’s girlfriend in the TV series, Tommy poses with the 4-engine car on the set of Margie. When the studio saw this issue of Hot Rod they understood just what Tommy was racing—not his father’s Oldsmobile, or Buick—and immediately banned him from all further competition. At first, Prudhomme was going to stand in for Ivo but then he couldn’t go so Ron Pellegrini, who had purchased Ivo’s twin-engined car, stepped in for a nationwide tour.
Because of the studio’s driving ban, Tommy turned to Prudhomme to handle the majority of the driving chores at first. That’s Don pushing with one hand on the roll cage. Anybody counting would notice that there are only 14 instead of 16 tubes in the central bank of headers. That caused a lot of head scratching but the reason was simple. Tommy wanted the headers to align with the roll cage and to make it look right two headers dipped down between the blocks and dumped beneath the car.
Although slightly blurred, this shot of Tommy behind the wheel belies what is to follow as the car makes a run.
Here’s comin’ at ya! Tires boiling and very little in the way of spectator safety. Flowers and a wooden rail fence!
Not only could the driver not see where he was going for the first few hundred feet, but the spectators could only see smoke. Tommy said, “It was all you could do to point and stab the thing, hang on and hope it went straight.”
With smoke from all four wheels billowing all around the driver and the exhaust directed right in his face, Showboat made for an exciting spectacle.
Eventually, towards the end of the strip, the smoke started to clear and everybody, driver included, could get a look-see. By then the car was usually going about 190 mph.
The good news was Showboat was a spectacular crowd pleaser. The bad news was, the car was a spectacular crowd pleaser and the NHRA, concerned that more 4-engine, four-wheel-drive cars would be built decided that it couldn’t be raced and that only exhibition runs were allowed. This was OK with Tommy who put the show on the road and more or less invented the travelling exhibition car.
In 1963, the NHRA lifted its ban on nitromethane and Tommy had a hankering to go Top Fuel racing so Showboat was sold to fellow Road Kings car club member Tom McCourry who also crewed for Ivo. McCourry toured the car for a couple more years as it was but interest began to wane as the racing fan became more enamored with a new, emerging breed of race cars called Funny Cars.
By 1965, McCourry had decided that Showboat could have a second life if he replaced the dragster body with something both recognizable and outrageous. He decided on a Buick station wagon and commissioned ace metal shaper Tom Hanna (left) to build a new body in his Los Angeles shop.
Completely formed of hand-shaped aluminum over a wooden buck, the new Buick Riviera body takes shape in Hanna’s shop. This was the first Funny Car-type body to have an escape hatch in the roof—it even had a roof rack. The nose section was also hand-formed from aluminum.
The first iteration of the new Wagon Master was debuted in 1966 and considering everything was hand made, the new car had pleasing lines.
Running here in Minnesota, Wagon Master became an instant hit all over again. Can you imagine trying to see???
Keeping exhibition cars fresh is all part of the show and here, a little later in its life, the Wagon Master got a new red paintjob. Notice the central row of headers originally made by Barr’s Mufflers has been replaced with upright pipes instead of the earlier versions that leaned back.
The twin chutes were from Diest.
The car was successfully campaigned for 15 seasons making it one of the most popular exhibition cars of all time.
Something else that made the car popular and displayed Ivo’s penchant for showmanship was this glass-sided trailer—one of the first of its kind. Ever the showman, Tommy had a similar trailer for his Top Fuel dragster which also had room on top for his Corvette road car.
You can see why this was a crowd pleaser with all four Goodyears smokin’ the full quarter mile.
As always, the smoke would begin to clear by the time the Wagon reached the end of the strip. Tom has no idea how many runs the car made but can you imagine climbing into this thing day after day and not being able to see where you were going?
In 2005 the America’s Car Collection Museum being planned in Winnemucca, Nevada, acquired the “Wagon Master” intending to remove the station wagon body. Rather than destroy the body, Ivo convinced them to build an exact replica of the original dragster and show them side-by-side.
Working alongside chassis builder Bruce Dyda, the new “Showboat” was born.
The attention to detail by both Dyda and Ivo is amazing, and the replica is identical to the original down to the Packard 440 spark plug wires and Rajah clips.
Notice here that the exhaust headers have once again been configured to the original style with two pipes exiting down between the motors.
The ever young looking “TV Tommy” Ivo with the tribute car to his original Showboat. There are no many old drag racers who can boast such a legacy but Tommy remains forever the ultimate showman of the sport.
Special thanks for Tommy Ivo for all the photos.
Wow, those are some extreme Hot Rods! I couldn't imagine seeing one of those roll down the streets of Burbank... i would probably take out my camera phone and pop a few quick shots...