Like the guy who first saw an egg drop from a chicken’s butt and say, “I’m going to eat that,” the first guy who thought of dropping a nitro-burning blown Hemi between the rails of a Model T Ford must have been a little crazy. Indeed, you could say being crazy is a prerequisite of involvement in a Fuel Altered.
The lineage can be traced back to the earliest hot rods when most everything was a Model T with a bigger than stock motor. Recognized as one of the first was Smokers’ member, Tony Waters, who stretched out the front end of his Barnstormer turtle deck T, fitted a blown De Soto motor and was runner up to Art Chrisman’s Hustler at the very first U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships (now the March Meet) at Bakersfield in 1959.
The class became known as Altered because, well, they were altered from stock, AA because they had big blown motors and Fuel because they ran nitro as fuel. Makes sense, yes!
By the early 1960s the class was emerging as racers fitted a variety of small bodies, many of them European, to short wheelbase chassis: Austin Bantams—roadsters and sedans, Fiat Topolinos, Ford Anglias and, of course, Model Ts were the favorites because they were easily splashed and readily available in lightweight fiberglass.
In effort to control speeds NHRA instigated a nitro fuel ban in 1957 which was lifted in 1963 and this action allowed the altereds to run wild resulting in such outrageous rides as the Winged Express—perhaps the wildest of them all with "Wild Willie" Borsch driving one handed at 200 mph.
There was also Rich Guasco's Pure Hell and its counterpart Leon Fitzgerald's big-block Chevy powered Pure Heaven II.
Leon drove his fuel-burning Fiat to the number three spot on the first ever Altered Eliminator list before switching out the Fiat for an Austin Bantam roadster body and installing a blower on the motor–viola, Pure Heaven I.
Leon operated Anaheim Speed Engineers with partner Glenn McCulloch but a young Dave Brackett was responsible for a different chassis that would become the basis of a new car. The chassis was split, the lower half going to the front wheels and the upper half connected to the motor which rested on the lower half on saddles. This allowed the motor to move independent from the rest of the chassis allowing the upper part to flex.
Before he finished, Dave was drafted into the army and Leon and R.T. Reed finished the car as Pure Heaven II. Although one of the better handling Altereds there are plenty of shots of it on less than four wheels—sometimes only one!
With or without one-armed Willie, the Fuel Altereds were wild to watch. Their short, mostly 98-inch wheelbases and crazily angled engines made for spectacular wheel stands and hairy passes at around 7.5 seconds and 200 mph.
There were plenty of safety concerns but the crowd loved them so… the tracks, mostly Lions, Irwindale and Orange County all paid good appearance money resulting in more cars being built to compete.
By the late sixties the altered builders were learning from the Top Fuel and emerging Funny Car builders and were forever decreasing times and bumping top speeds.
Sadly, all good things come to an end and many of the AA/FA guys switched to the Funny Car ranks as interest and money for that class grew.
However, nobody forgot the Fuel Altereds and many of them including Leon's Pure Heaven survive to be cackled while new versions of the Winged Express, Nanook and Rat Trap all make regular exhibition runs at nostalgia events like the California Hot Rod Reunion.