It wasn’t always the case but it is now—old dragsters never die, they just get reborn. Such is the fate of the famed Howard Cams Rattler which has been restored to cackle and maybe even make a burn out or two.
Born in 1910 near Selby, Nebraska Howard Andrew Johansen began his racing career on the dirt tracks of the Midwest prior to World War II. Regarded as a mechanical genius, he moved to California in 1941 and worked in the aircraft industry while learning to grind cams on a turret lathe. After the War, racing resumed and Howard’s Cams became the ticket to hot times—a business was born.
At the dry lakes Howard raced innovative machines like a rear engine Marmon V16-powered ’29 roadster that was sometimes a coupe, a twin-tank streamliner, as well as a four-port Riley track roadster. But a significant win at an early drag race in Goleta, California by Howard’s driver Ed Osepian opened up a whole new world of opportunities as the new sport of drag racing exploded across the country. Over the ensuing years, the Howard’s Cams name appeared on dozens of race cars that were either owned or sponsored by Howard including those associated with Jack Chrisman, Larry Dixon, Norm Wilcox and Rick Ramsey. Howard and Jack won the ’61 Winternationals and ’61 NHRA world points championship with their dual-Chevy “Twin Bears” rail.
One of the most successful cars was the Howard Cams Rattler put together by the team of Howard’s son, Jerry Johansen, Ed Osepian, Danny, Tony and Jim Porche and Roy Miersch.
First campaigned in 1968 at Lion’s Drag Strip, in bare aluminum with no nose section, the Rattler featured a 175-inch Roy Fjastad Speed Products Engineering chassis and a body hammered out by Kenny Ellis with paint by George Cerny and lettering by Tom Kelly.
The motor, a 392-cubic-inch Chrycler Hemi, was built by Jerry who also ran the company once Howard retired. The first driver was Rick Ramsey but mid-year Larry Dixon Sr. took over the butterfly and took the car to numerous wins including the HOT ROD Magazine Championships, the PDA Championships and set Low E.T. (6.81) at the NHRA Winternationals–all in 1969. Best time for the car was 6.42 at 230 mph.
The car was sold in 1972 and competed in various classes until it fell by the wayside and eventually wound up in a private collection in Washington state. Unsure if it was even the right car, Ken Logan towed it down to the 1996 NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion where Danny Porche identified it as his original car. Apparently, the chassis had begun to sag and Fjastad had welded a couple of doublers on the top frame rails—it was definitely the Rattler. Remember these cars were built to be light and not necessarily raced over such a long period of time.
The following year, Nick Arias III and Brett Johansen (Howard’s grandson and Jerry’s son) got into the restoration seriously once Steve Gibbs asked if the car could be at the grand opening of the then new Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in April 1998.
Much of the chassis work was handled by Dave Tuttle who also handled some of the panel work. Danny Porche also played a pivotal part in the restoration providing many much-needed parts. He even had the original Scott injector, lines and all. Meanwhile, Nick and Brett were hunting for a motor which was eventually supplied by Frank Hedge. Things were coming together quickly as the frame was powder coated by Pisano’s, the body painted by Swede’s and Bruce Dyda finalized the motor.
When it was all together the team trailered it out to Hedge’s house in Studio City, Calif., where it was rolled part way out of the trailer, fired up in a residential neighborhood and quickly pushed back in the trailer before the cops arrived. The car made it to the opening of the Parks Museum with just a few hours to spare after stopping off for some final lettering by Kelly & Son. Soon after this inaugural event, Danny Porche donated the car to the Parks Museum.
Fast forward two years and the concept of the Cacklefest was born even if Parks Museum curator Greg Sharp had net yet coined the term. Nine cars including the Rattler were push started just like the old days at what is now AutoClub Famoso Raceway (Bakersfield). The event was such a huge success that the NHRA invited the participants to repeat the exercise at the 2001 Winternationals. The crowd went nuts.
Since it first reappeared the Rattler has been to every Hot Rod Reunion including the Holley National Hot Rod Reunions in Bowling Green, KY with everybody from Larry Dixon Sr. to Bob Downey, Marvin Graham and Ronnie Hampshire taking a turn behind the wheel. The car is an eternal crowd pleaser.
With several years cackling nitro under its toothed belt, the ol’ Rattler was in need of some resuscitation and so Museum Vice President – Race Director Steve Gibbs and Dusty McWilliams assisted by Jim Adolph, tore into the motor. Hot Heads Research & Racing (major sponsors of the Holley NHRA Hot Rod Reunion) supplied new cylinder heads, Arias the pistons, Bobby Hansen Chassis for fabrication, Chrisman Driveline Components the rear end, Design Deluxe Manufacturing the wheel spacers, Donovan Engineering the gear drive, Howard’s the rods, Hedman the headers, Lamb Components the braking system and machine work, Strange Engineering the axles, S&S Engineering the driveline linkage, and the Howard Johansen family the cam. Brett Johansen supplied the crank, Lucas the oil. Don Hampton rebuilt the blower and Lenco supplied the driveline disconnect. Also, high on the thank you list for all their help and assistance were Danny Porche, Roy Miersch, Tom Shelar, Roger McMartin, Jimmy Scott, Dode Martin and Mike Kuhl.
Once all the parts came together, the team began assembly in Wally’s Garage at the Parks Museum. Wally’s Garage is and area within the museum that can be used for simple rebuilds and restoration projects. When it’s convenient and makes sense, the public are allowed to watch the rebuilds and talk to the builders about the way these old cars went together.
The Rattler rebuild was completed in time for Larry Dixon Sr. to drive at the Holley NHRA Hot Rod Reunion and from there it went by container to England for the famed Goodwood Festival of Speed. Even event organizer Lord March got behind the wheel saying, “It’s the wildest thing I’ve done sitting down!” Next stop on the Rattler tour is the California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California. Scheduled for October 15-17 at AutoClub Famoso Raceway, Bakersfield, the Reunion is one of the premier events on the nostalgia calendar and a must see for gearheads. Try to make it to at least one of these spectacular events and hear the old digger cackle or, is that “rattle?”