by Dan Smith
About six months ago I caught a glimpse of the remains of a land speed record car on the TV show "American Pickers."
That sent me looking for the car all around the Ormond Beach-Holly Hill area. Few clues to its whereabouts were offered on the program and the producers at the History Channel would give out no details. I approached practically everyone I knew for help and drove out several tanks of gasoline in my search. Imagine my surprise when about a month ago I received an email from James McLynas asking for my assistance in verifying the history of a car he had just purchased.
Yep, it was my car.
Now I was supposed to help the new owner. The irony was not lost on friends, family and me.
Of course, I agreed to help. I take my job as unofficial beach racing historian for the city of Ormond Beach very seriously and considered it to be my duty. The car in question is a 1931 one-off Pierce Arrow racer that is powered by a factory straight eight engine with four one barrel down draft carburetors. The car has full instrumentation, including a 300-mph aircraft speedometer. The outer shell is missing, but was obviously made of fabric and dope, as were the airplanes of that period.
Soon after that first email, I met with James at the Halifax Historical Museum. He had driven over from his home in the Tampa Bay area at my suggestion to pore over the archives at the museum. Did the car ever run our beach? Who built it? Was it entered in a class other than Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird, which then ruled the beach? In 1931 and '32, the Bluebird set records in the 250 mph range and I knew this car would not be able to reach such speeds. After two days, few clues were produced.
What we do know is the car was last purchased in 1988 in Ormond Beach. Before that it may have rested in the basement of Pappy Hankinson's hotel in Orange City. That big wood framed building is now The Heritage Inn. How long the car could have been there is not certain, but it may have resided there for 40 years or more. Another lead suggested the car could have been built by "One Finger" Fengler who worked at the Indianapolis Speedway for many years. That proved to be a dead end when we discovered that Fengler did make a similar streamlined racecar, but not the Pierce Arrow.
Another tip was the car was only a movie prop built for the 1937 Jimmy Stewart movie "Speed." I discounted that right away for this car is much too complete to be a prop. Besides, no one would begin a movie car with such a high dollar machine as a Pierce Arrow.
Eventually James discovered the car may have a connection to Preston Tucker, the famed auto builder whose life was captured in the movie starring Jeff Bridges. Tucker was an exec at P. A. in Buffalo, N.Y. during the early 1930s and was very interested in racing. He had been impressed by a speed record set at the Bonneville Salt Flats in a stock Pierce Arrow driven by Ab Jenkins. It seems entirely plausible he ordered the car be made to try and better that record. So far we have been unable to nail that down.
In my search I have contacted Bill Warner of the Amelia Island Concours, Buz McKim of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and recently got off a letter to Jay Leno. James has reached out to Don Davidson of the Indy museum, and is trying to reach Francis Ford Coppola, the director of "The Godfather." Coppola has ties to the Tucker family and is a car collector.
In the meantime, I know one of you reading this could have a tip for us. Search your memory. Did you see the car on the beach? At Ormond Beach? At Orange City? Anything could be a help in solving a mystery. (Please direct any information to my email or phone number that follows this column.)
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.