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Dreossi special racer (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Dreossi special racer (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Classic Cars

Racer built from jet fighter's fuel tank Add to ...

Canadian racing has a long history of home-built "specials" created from often-unlikely combinations of inspiration and componentry, but easily one of the most imaginative and exotic is the Dreossi - built from an F-86 Sabre Jet drop tank.

Designed by Cecil Simmons and built by Ray Dreossi in the early 1960s, the tiny, shiny, aluminum-bodied racer will make its European debut at the Goodwood Revival historic racing meet in England in September with current owner and vintage racer Doug Elcomb at the wheel.

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Half a century ago, there was nothing vintage about this innovative little open-wheel racer, designed to run in the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs' Canada Class, created in 1958 to foster the creation of affordable home-built machinery.

Dreossi special racer

Its jet-fighter link is courtesy of the Canadian Air Force which flew Canadair-produced versions of the North American Aviation F-86 jet fighter in the 1950s, that could be equipped with range-extending auxiliary fuel tanks that could be jettisoned in flight.

Multi-talented engineer and amateur racer and car designer Simmons, who had already created one special, decided one of these lightweight, streamlined and strong aluminum tanks would make the perfect basis for his second project. Which he'd just talked young racing enthusiast Ray Dreossi into participating in.

"I'd been putting up a fairly decent show in novice racing in my (Triumph) TR3," recalls Dreossi. And Simmons, who was becoming less interested in driving himself, asked him if he'd like to drive his unique DKW-engined, aluminum-tube-framed special. Dreossi naturally jumped at the chance, although the car was approaching its best-before date in competition terms.

Simmons then made him another offer he couldn't refuse. He would design a revolutionary new car that Dreossi would finance and build with his guidance and assistance.

"It would be a sort of apprenticeship," says Dreossi, who was then in his early 20s. His new mentor pointed out the project would require patience, as a build time-frame of or two or three years was anticipated.

"But he said if I maintained the keenness to see it completed, the positive lessons learned would transfer to other aspects of my life," says Dreossi, who's now retired after a career as a machinist at General Motors and still friends with Simmons, who is now in a nursing home.

Doug Elcomb driving Dreossi special racer

Simmons decided his new car would be based on a monocoque or frameless design, making him a pioneer in this form of race-car construction at the time, and realized a surplus F-86 drop tank would be a ready-made starting point.

"I pushed for a bigger tank, but he sat me on the garage floor and measured me up and said, yup, I can get you in it," says Dreossi, who lives near Port Perry, Ont. From there, Simmons created a drawing that Dreossi says is "a masterpiece" and after a couple of years the car was ready.

The Dreossi was powered by a Simmons-modified BMC, 998-cc, four-cylinder, overhead valve motor tucked behind the seat and driving the rear wheels through an upside-down Fiat four-speed gearbox. Fast, but fragile, it revved to "astronomical" numbers, 8,000 rpm or better and gave the car a top speed of more than 160 km/h.

Front and rear suspension is unique, comprising a transverse leaf acting as the lower control arm with fabricated upper pieces. The steering rack is ex-NSU, the drum rakes are Triumph Pennant up front/Mini in the rear. Widened 10-inch Mini wheels are used up front and modified Corvair rims at the rear.

"There were teething problems, but by and large the thing worked. It was quite successful," says Dreossi.

But by then he was married and raising a family which consumed racing resources, "so it didn't really see the action it might have." By the mid-60s, it was parked in his garage and later sold, since then becoming known as the Dreossi. "It's not my fault," says Dreossi. "We never had a name for it. But calling it the Dreossi makes me feel like I'm usurping the credit from Cec."

In 1983, it came into the hands of Doug Elcomb and his mother Scooter as a more potent replacement for the minuscule, 1957, two-stroke bike-engined Berkeley racer they'd shared since his university days.

"It was weird enough to be a good fit with our family," says Elcomb. "The Morgan, the Berkely and the Dreossi, there's definitely a trend there."

Doug's father Dave had raced three-quarter midgets on ice in arenas in the early 1950s before switching to Morgans and road racing. And he apparently turned up in the waiting room at the hospital where Doug was born wearing his driving suit. Which wouldn't have fazed his wife and ice-racer Avis - who felt that too ladylike a monicker, preferring Scooter.

The senior Elcomb went on to become a founder of the Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada in 1976 and raced a Morgan three-wheeler until 1999.

Car builder Ray Dreossi (left) and owner/driver Doug Elcomb (right) with Dreossi special racer

Elcomb and Scooter shared the Dreossi as they had the Berkeley. "And mom was quicker than I was. No fear at all," says Elcomb. "I was the one who had to fix it, so I was a bit more careful."

This approach worked until a race at Mosport when he got up on the curbing in very fast turn two and the car snapped around and went driver's left into the concrete wall. The impact shortened it by three feet, although Elcomb managed to limp away with just scarred shins. "Canadair's skills in building the tank were proven, but it was pretty much a write-off."

A new drop tank was soon found at an aircraft scrap dealer in Uxbridge, Ont., (he's got a line on 30 more in Nova Scotia) but Elcomb says life then got in the way and it wasn't until 1993 his enthusiasm was rekindled and the Dreossi restored.

Since then, Elcomb, an electrical engineer with auto parts supplier Continental Automotive in Chatham, Ont., has raced it at least three times a year.

And in September he will take it to England to run in the Goodwood Revival (in the Formula Junior class), in a meet at Brands Hatch and in a continental outing at Spa with mom Scooter and friends Dave and Carol Johnston acting as pit crew.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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