You have probably seen the black and white pictures of the old hotrods with aluminum, torpedo-shaped bodies. These vehicles were built to break speed records in the 1940s-50s. The reason they are called Belly Tank Racers is because the body of these hotrods came from the aluminum drop tanks of WWII aircraft. These hotrods were built only for a decade or so but were responsible for breaking many land speed records. We wanted to know more so we got in touch with Suburban Chrysler of Troy, MI, a Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer, and they helped us with our research.
What are belly tanks
Belly tanks were the spare gas tanks that were strapped to the bellies of airplanes. They were designed to hold the extra fuel needed to extend a plane’s flying range. They were commonly added to P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings. After World War II ended, lots of belly tanks started to show up in scrap yards and hotrodders soon took notice. It wasn’t long before some used them to make land speed record vehicles.
There are two types
Some belly tank racers used a front engine design where the driver sat behind the engine. This configuration was necessary when using the smaller 165-gallon tanks from P-51 Mustangs. When hotrodders could get their hands on the larger 315-gallon tanks from P-38 Lightnings, they had enough room to put the engine behind the driver. This was the preferred configuration for those that wanted to use the really big engines, such as big block V8s.
Most belly tank racers had American-built engines because of their availability to builders at the time. American engines were plentiful and they could be hopped-up without spending a lot of money. The racers weren’t light, however, and designers compensated by mounting the wheels out to the side of the belly tank. It made the cars look like soap box derby racers but it was necessary for stability.
Natural race tracks
Breaking speed records required long race tracks. Fortunately, mother nature helped out by supplying spots in South Western part of the United States that were very flat and very long. These are the dry beds of prehistoric lakes and are located throughout California, Nevada and Utah. Often referred to as salt flats, wide-open expanses are glass-smooth. They’re perfect for high-speed runs in vehicles made to break land speed records.
The So-Cal Streamliner
One of the most famous belly tank racers is associated with Alex Xydias and his iconic So-Cal Speed shop. The So-Cal Speed shop was started in 1951 and it was responsible for some of the world’s early land speed records. They were the first to build hot rods that went 160, 170, 180 and 190 mph. In 1952, they built the “So-Cal-Streamliner” from the belly tank of a P-38 Lightning. Xydias managed to average 195 miles per hour in this belly racer and it made him famous.
The sunset of belly tank racers
At some point in the 1950s, belly tank racers fell out of favor. All the “slower” land speed records had been broken and the faster ones needed more sophisticated race cars.