- After World War II, US junkyards were filled with discarded fighter planes and their leftover parts.
- Racers became particularly interested in their drop tanks, the extra fuel cell these planes carried.
- From these “belly tanks” they began building hot rods that are still popular amongst enthusiasts today.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Why warplane fuel tanks make great hot rods
Narrator: If you’re not sure what kind of car this is, you’re not alone. These tiny metal capsules with wheels are called belly tanks, or lakesters, and they’re a major part of hot rod culture.
So where does that strange-looking ‘bodywork’ come from? The short answer? The sky. Following World War II, US junkyards and surplus stores were filled with an abundance of leftover warplane parts, which included plenty of drop tanks, or belly tanks. Belly tanks were supplemental gas tanks strapped to World War II fighter planes to help boost their notoriously poor range. However, after the war, racers found another use for them. America’s gearheads quickly began transforming these discarded fuel cells into miniature speed demons and racing them out on dry lake beds, hence the name lakesters.
Bruce Meyer: The belly tank was a natural because it was an extra fuel tank attached to the bottom of a P-38 fighter plane. So it was already proven to to be aerodynamic. So it was the perfect shape for land speed racing.
Narrator: One of the most famous belly tankers belonged to Alex Xydias, founder of the iconic So-Cal Speed Shop. Owned today by rare car collector and enthusiast Bruce Meyer, this legendary lakester still looks just as good now as it ever did.
Bruce: The top speed that this car attained was 198 mph, and that was piloted by Alex Xydias. When we found the belly tank, it was very much complete. It had the original interior, original dash, all the original metal and suspension. So it was all there. Nothing had to be fabricated, but it still took a year of research with Alex Xydias and Wally Parks working with Pete Chapouris, who restored the car, to make it what you see today and as accurate as it is. It is 100% the original car.
Finding a belly tank in the ’40s and ’50s was very, very easy. Today, not so much.
Narrator: That hasn’t stopped plenty of car builders in shops and garages today.
Sundeep Koneru: Sunrise Racing Division is our take on preserving vintage hot rods, especially the different eras of racing. Building our car took us about eight months. The process was first finding these tanks, which are becoming harder and harder to find. Next step was sending it to Steve Pugner, my buddy in Virginia. He does great metalwork, and he’s the one who did all the metalwork on this car. Next was finding a motor.
The biggest challenge we faced was one, me and Steve are pretty tall guys, so trying to fit us in the back of that tank was a challenge. And of course fitting a big motor which ends up sticking out was a bit of a challenge too.
I think belly tankers are still as popular as they have ever been. There’s more and more guys in their garages building belly tanks than I’ve ever seen before. Some of the big events you can go and see these are Bonneville during Speed Week or even El Mirage during their time trials.
Bruce: Belly tanks were prolific back then, and some people used them to build land speed records. Today, it’s not so easy. You don’t see belly tanks just laying around, and the few that were used for land speed racing are few and far between. But they do exist and are being held by enthusiasts and people who understand the importance of them.
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