There have been a few brave souls among those who organize fancy-schmancy concours d’elegance who have made room among the luxurious pre- and post-war classics and the exotic sports cars and concepts for a special class for vintage drag racing machines to be displayed. On occasion, they even have attracted to those classes a handful of the factory “lightweights,” cars specially prepared by Detroit’s Big Three for head-to-head-to-head quarter-mile competition in the 1960s.
Some even have been brave enough to allow those cars to engage in a brief but memorable “cacklefest,” setting a specific time during the day when the engines of those drag racing vehicles ignite in a symphony of sound.
If you’ve witnessed such a show, you know how memorable it was, and you also have the proper perspective to anticipate what might happen in a couple of weeks in Kissimmee, Florida, when the Mecum Auctions’ docket includes not merely a handful but an entire collection of factory lightweight drag machines. Among the 17 cars being offered from the Nick Smith Collection are more than a dozen of those famed Detroit factory lightweights.
Now retired, Smith was among those participating in drag racing during the lightweight heyday. His family owned Bev Smith Ford and he raced against the likes of Don Nicholson, Phil Bonner and Hubert Platt, and later in life became friends with Gas Ronda, Arnie Beswick and others.
“Now successful in retirement, he established what many consider to be the ultimate collection of famous race cars with his business Factory Lightweights,” Mecum Auctions says in its catalog. “Smith’s lifelong career in the automotive business also helped him make well-discerned decisions on these purchases.”
In the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” era when motorsports success over the weekend meant showroom traffic in the ensuing week, Detroit automakers knew the importance of winning races and created factory specials that were light and fast, cars that might have looked relatively stock, but that were stripped down and souped up, modified with one purpose in mind, to be the quickest to trip the lights at the end of a quarter-mile sprint race.
Though Smith raced Fords, the collection includes Dodge, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Plymouth lightweights as well.
“I had always been a Ford guy growing up in the business,” Smith is quoted by Mecum, “but as I developed the concept for my collection, I realized that the big picture of what was happening in the ‘Golden Age’ of drag racing went far beyond just one manufacturer.
“My goal changed to somehow find the most important examples by each of the manufacturers.
“It has taken a lot more time and effort than I ever imagined, but it’s been a great adventure. The friendships that we’ve made mean as much to me as the cars, and none of them will ever be forgotten.”
The stars of the Smith collection heading to Kissimmee are the 1965 Dodge Hemi Coronet A/FX raced by Dick Landy, the 1965 Ford Mustang A/FX raced by Gas Ronda, the 1966 long-nose Ford Mustang also raced by Gas Ronda, a 1964 Ford Thunderbolt driven by Bob Martin, and the only 1963 Chevrolet Impala Z11 built and wearing Azure Aqua colors.
Carrying a pre-sale estimated value of $750,000 to $1 million, Landy’s Dodge won 39 of 40 match races.
“The showmanship aspect of drag racing can never be denied, and in 1965, this special Dodge Coronet made its owner, Dick Landy, into a nationally known star,” the Mecum catalog notes. “Moreover, this factory-designed race car is one of the most original cars remaining from the infamous altered-wheelbase program that placed the term ‘funny car’ into drag racing’s lexicon that year.
“Eventually, a total of 12 cars were built for the factory racing program, in a season which saw nitromethane used as a fuel and elapsed times tumble. For Dandy Dick and his trademark unlit cigar, this was the year he moved into the highest echelon of door-slammer racers.
“These ‘outlaw’ 426 Hemi race cars became legendary almost immediately. Constructed with fiberglass parts on a lightened body structure, Chrysler’s engineers chose to throw away the rule book and build something solely for function. Internal paperwork called it an “AFX Dragster,” though they were never A/FX legal after the wheels were moved up 10 inches in front and 15 inches in the rear. This may have looked funny, but their epic performances were very serious, with Landy and his compatriots playing to huge crowds at drag strips across America.
“Few survived the ravages of time, with Landy’s Dodge now considered to be the most important of the cars that still exist.”
Of the ex-Ronda Mustangs, the ’65 was built by Holman and Moody, was the 1965 AHRA World champion and is estimated to sell for $300,000 to $400,000. The long-nose ’66 also was prepared by Holman and Moody, won the AHRA World championship and has a pre-sale estimate of $500,000 to $750,000.
The ex-Martin ’64 Ford was one of the original 14 Ford Thunderbolts the automaker commissioned from Dearborn Steel Tubing and is expected to sell for $250,000 to $350,000.
The ’63 Impala won both the NHRA National and Winternationals events with Frank Sanders at the wheel as it won 19 of 20 races in its debut season. Only 50 Z11 cars were produced. This one is expected to sell for $375,000 to $450,000.
Also in the collection are an ex-Jack Shick 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 lightweight, a 1965 Dodge Hemi Coronet A990, a 1964 Dodge 330 lightweight, an ex-Al Joniec 1968 Ford Mustang, 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 lightweight, a 1964 Plymouth Hemi Savoy lightweight, an ex-Bob Martin 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 lightweight, as well as a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette, a 1968 Shelby GT350 Mustang convertible, a 1960 Pontiac Catalina (389 and 4-speed), a 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda and a 2008 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet.
Mecum’s annual Kissimmee auction is scheduled for January 5-14 at Osceola Heritage Park.