Rev up your virtual engines, and prepare for a speedy bird’s eye view of hot vintage 1950’s Detroit street racing. Many street racing enthusiasts met at Roy’s Grand Avon gas station, on Avon and Grand River. This group regularly brought in their racers for repairs, or to gather news about upcoming street races. Engine tear downs usually took place at Frank Burrell’s shop, on Outer Drive. Every modification was done to make a hotter spark to ignite air fuel mixtures, and to increase engine power output. Some added features were modified cylinder heads, and modified pistons. High rise engine manifolds, and superchargers were also used to this end. Hoods and hood side panels were removed. Alexander Brothers did special custom blend paint jobs, for these street racers. Specialized fuel additives were used, at the risk and the discretion of the racers. The fuel additive of choice was nitro methane, which increased combustion pressure. The nitro was detectable by a sweet pungent odor, from the exhaust. Using nirto methane presented a distinct racing advantage.
Like minded racers would go to the Holiday Drive-In on Northwestern and Six Mile. On any evening, the packed Holiday was the place to set up a race. The most obvious characteristic of these specialized cars were their loud dual exhaust system Hollywood Mufflers. One favorite street racing venue was Northwestern Highway. Once traffic cleared, there were two types of contests. One was a race from a twenty mile an hour crawl up to seventy miles an hour. The other type of race started from a stop, with an immediate hard pressed accelerator to the floor. By the time either car reached seventy miles an hour, the winner was obvious. This was an exhilarating form of street racing, which drew a variety of participants from all over the Detroit Metropolitan area.
Most racing engines were Ford flat head V8’s. Later it became clear that the Oldsmobile Rocket V8’s were faster, even without modification. The Ford Flat Head V8’s had special aluminum cylinder heads, twin carburetors, special cam shafts, and dual exhausts. Notable in this racing mix was a green 1953 Studebaker with a stock 1952 Cadillac engine. This racer was called the Studillac. The Studillac had a highly modified Cadillac engine, after a total rebuild including a roller tappet cam, and increased compression ratio. The Studillac shook violently, whenever it was running. The hydramatic transmission was also modified, which resulted in neck snapping gear changes. This car took on all comers. If too much power was applied to the pedal, the Studillac would snap the beefed up Ford rear axle. With engine modifications, this car was reputed to remain unbeaten, until it was sold several years later. The new owner blew the engine to smithereens, when he up shifted from 2nd to neutral, at full throttle.
Other Detroit street racing took place on Woodward Avenue. These Woodward races were thrilling short length racing ventures that took place between traffic lights. One can’t mention Woodward Avenue without discussing the Lead Sleds. Lead Sleds were very fancy cars with chopped tops, wildly amazing paint jobs, special fender skirts, special dual exhaust features, and eye poppingly beautiful exteriors. These cars did not race. They did, however, spend a lot of time cruising very slowly up and down Woodward Avenue, during most summer evenings. Led Sleds usually didn’t exceed sixty miles per hour anywhere.
Another type of racing was done between Detroit and Chicago. The route was down Telegraph (no I-75 then) to the Ohio Turnpike and thru Indiana. The three hundred tweny-five mile trip was usually made in three hours and fifteen minutes in a Green 1950 altered Mercury Coup with other racers flying to keep up. If it was raining, there was no need for windshield wipers, because of the speed.
The Detroit street racing scene had yet another more spine chilling thriller type of street race, which was called Top End racing. Top End racing was a flat out blast of power gut tightening wild eyed race to the finish. A large group of Detroit’s best Top End racers appeared monthly, to see who had the fastest hottest racing road machine. In Top End racing, there were no rules. The only goal was to get to the finish line as fast as possible without regard to street racing manners. Street rods, containing modified engines, raced against stock cars with factory engines. Superchargers blew fuel air mixture into the engines of modified cars. Detroit Top End racers met on Thursday night from ten o’clock to midnight on a very special stretch of I-94, at Middlebelt. The race was called the Bill Over the Hill. The Bill Over the Hill referred to racing eastbound at I-94, and speeding over the hill at Wayne Road doing 100/140 miles per hour. There were a number of cars including a local Dodge Hemi V8, which usually reached the top 140 miles per hour speed. Regularly, cars doing 100/140 miles per hour would slam up against one another and into the cars ahead. The idea was to push the other car/cars over the hill or to shove them out of the way, for a win. Stock tires were used, because those were the only tires available. Later, as traffic density problems increased, the street racing was moved to the newly opened Detroit Dragway. At the Dragway, it was possible to use nitro methane hemi powered dragsters.
Another car deserves mention here. It was the Henry J. This racer was the smallest lightest car, at these events. The Henry J. was built by Kaiser-Frazer Motors, which was then located near Willow Run. The Henry J. was the only sub-compact made by an American manufacturer, at the time. With modifications, the car had room to accommodate a Chrysler V8 engine. The engine was a fully modified hand built, which meant that all of the engine parts were changed.