By the end of the 19th century technological miracles were commonplace. Railroad trains routinely traveled a-mile-a-minute. Electric lights could turn night into day. Voices traveled over wires. Pictures could be set into motion. Lighter-than-air balloons and dirigibles even offered access to the sky. But the age-old dream of flying with wings like birds still seemed like a fantasy. In a simple bicycle shop now located in Greenfield Village, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, turned the fantasy of heavier-than-air flight into reality.
1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester Land Speed Race Car / THF90122
What do you get when you mix a war surplus fuel tank, an Oldsmobile engine, and a boatload of ingenuity? You get The Henry Ford’s latest automotive acquisition, the Lakester.
During World War II aircraft designers looking for ways to extend the range of fighter planes came up with the idea of hanging expendable auxiliary fuel tanks under the wings or fuselages of aircraft. These teardrop-shaped tanks could be jettisoned when they were empty. When Bill Burke, a California hot rodder serving in the Navy, saw some of these tanks on Guadalcanal, he thought they would make nifty bodies for streamlined racing cars. After the war, Burke put his idea into action.
Surplus drop tanks (also called wing tanks or belly tanks) were available for as little as $35. Burke squeezed an engine, driver’s seat, and running gear inside the tank, leaving the wheels and axles exposed. Burke raced the slick little car at El Mirage, a large, flat dry lake bed north of Los Angeles where hot rodders ran their vehicles in straight-away top speed runs against the clock. Other hot rodders soon copied Burke’s idea and over time the new cars came to be called “lakesters” because they were built to run at the dry lakes.
Cockpit of the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90112
I have long wanted to add a lakester to The Henry Ford’s collection of race cars, because lakesters embody ingenuity and resourcefulness, and because they are peculiarly American. For years I have had my eye on one of the most successful and famous lakesters, a car built and driven by another California hot rodder, Tom Beatty. In 2009 the car came up for auction and we were finally able to acquire it.
Techno Talk Warning: The following paragraph is a technical description of Tom Beatty’s car for the benefit of “car geeks” (like the writer). If you are bored by discussions of chrome-moly tubing and swing axles, skip to the last paragraph.
Part of the attraction of Tom Beatty’s car is its sheer technical virtuosity. It looks like lots of other belly tank lakesters, but underneath the aluminum teardrop it is very different. Most lakester builders used a simple parallel rail frame, but Beatty welded up a complex space frame from chrome-moly steel tubing. It was stiffer and safer in an accident. Most lakesters ran without a rear suspension, but Beatty devised a swing axle independent rear suspension that helped the car maintain traction over the sometimes rough dry lake surface, or at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Engine and Drivetrain on the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90115
Beatty was also one of the first hot rodders to experiment with supercharging, adapting GMC blowers to his flathead Ford engines. The car first ran at the 1951 Bonneville Speed Week, turning a top speed of 188.284 mph. Over the years Beatty kept improving the car, moving to supercharged Oldsmobile engines in 1959. By the time Beatty retired from racing after 1965 season, the lakester had gone 243.438 mph, and was the oldest car running at Bonneville.
As it sits on the floor of Henry Ford Museum, Tom Beatty’s car looks a little rough. The paint is chipped and the body is dinged. But it looks today much as it did the last time it ran in anger at Bonneville, and we will not restore it. We will do only what is necessary to preserve it. After all, you don’t mess with an American original.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in March 2021.
Bob Casey, automotive historian and former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, offers up some insight into the many books written on auto pioneer Henry Ford. Two of his favorites – both of which can be found in the Henry Ford Museum Store and the Greenfield Village Store – are The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, by Steven Watts, and Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, by Sidney Olson. “Watts’ book is the best one-volume biography of Henry Ford that I have ever read – despite all that has been written about Ford, Watts still manages to find new insights,” said Casey. “Olson mined the Ford family and business records to create a lively, well-illustrated account of Henry Ford’s first forty years, from his childhood to the initial success of Ford Motor Company.”
Jeff Seeno, intern in the Media and Film Relations department at The Henry Ford, asked Casey some questions recently about Henry Ford and these reflections of Ford’s life.
Many books written about Henry Ford either vigorously attack him, or grant him extraordinary praise for his accomplishments. Do you feel these books in any way distort the picture of the true man?
Both of these books are very balanced accounts of the true Henry Ford. These are also very personal accounts of Henry Ford’s life. For example, Ford did not appreciate the talents of his only son, Edsel, who had a great eye for cars. He loved the way cars looked, and according to Watts, Ford Motor Company could have completely dominated the market if they had harnessed Edsel’s insight. But Henry Ford loved to lap up the acclaim and position himself as an incumbent visionary, and he could articulate his vision so well that everyone wanted to jump on board.
How do these books establish the essential Henry Ford – not only as a social visionary, but as a figure who has a controversial personality?
In Olson’s book, he is not afraid to talk about the mean side of Henry Ford. He mentions that Ford was a prankster, and a mean one at that. He tells the story of a time when one of Henry’s employees, George Flint, who was rather sloppy, would leave his shoes lying about when he changed from his work clothes to his street clothes. In an effort to teach Flint to be neater, Ford nailed Flint’s shoes to the floor.
On the other end, Watts’ book shows that Ford had much strength in regards to charity and the growth of the Ford Motor Company. He was very philanthropic in a quirky way, but after executing his “Five Dollars a Day” plan, his forthright genius and creative power went to his head.