1930s roadster. While engines and the techniques to extract horsepower were easily available even by modern standards, the rest of the car was a small step removed from the horse-and-buggy era.
"A lot of us guys had an interest in hopping up cars, and I finally said, 'Let’s get a little organization together.’ So we met in one of the guys’ garage. Armistice Day, the 11th of November, 1937, and cooked up the logo and the name, the Road Ramblers. We all had black shirts — real shirts, not T-shirts — and license plates with the logo on them. The plates all had numbers on them. I had plate number one."
Road Ramblers today: Bill Russo, Nolan Wright, Ralph Sawde, Bill Holt. “To get into our club you had to have a car that would do 80 miles an hour."
Nolan Wright is 78, short and wiry, with a good head of white hair and a face that remains boyishly handsome, easily identifiable as the young man in the 57-year-old photos.
On a recent afternoon we sat in the den of his condo on Soledad Mountain and went through a folder labeled “Road Ramblers.” There was the picture of all the club members gathered in the meeting room of a long-vanished restaurant in Balboa Park, their black shirts and ties giving them a vaguely menacing, paramilitary appearance.
It was the eighth of January, 1939, and there were 2000 people gathered for the time trials. The first cop to show up on the scene was coming from the Poway side.
There were yellowing newspaper dippings, letters written on stationery with the Road Ramblers letterhead, photographs of cars, and sheet after sheet of times and speeds recorded at the Ramblers’ time trials.
“To get into our club you had to have a car that would do 80 miles an hour. Now, 80 miles an hour, a true clocking, was pretty good. A stock Ford V-8, a ’32, ’33, ’34, had to be tuned pretty good to do that. I had a ’34 coupe, it looked totally stock, but it was supercharged and would do over a hundred. That was a running start, not a quarter-mile drag; we had a lot of room to wind up. That car was very fast, but I had a problem with the radiator.
"I had a tachometer on one of the hubs of the water pump, and one time I revved it up to about 5000 rpms in low gear and the tach drive came off the hub and flew into the fan, bent the fan, and made a big crease in the radiator. I didn’t have enough money to get a new radiator, so I just had a radiator fellow solder it up, and I lost a lot of cooling. I was running a water pump out of a truck, a high-volume job, and that radiator was so constricted that it wouldn’t circulate enough, and it would throw most of the water out in the run-up. Steam pockets would form in the head. By the time I got to the time trap, it’d heat up and I’d crack a head: Pinnng! Ding, ding ding, ding. I’d put in the clutch and coast the last half of the trap, still average over 90 miles an hour.
“I never figured out what the problem was until I loaned my supercharger to a friend — he had a ’35 roadster — to go run at Harper’s dry lake — now that’s Andrews Air Force Base where they land the space shuttle. I went rabbit hunting out by Julian, and to get out of there you had to come up the Banner Grade. I barely made it up there; that ’34 kept overheating and that’s when I finally understood that the radiator was the cause of my problems. I got a new radiator, but we’d lost our speed strip by then, so I never knew just what that car would really do.”
By the late ’30s, Southern California already had the highest per capita number of cars in the world and most certainly the highest number of hot rods. Young men had been hopping up cars for more speed since the first automobiles were sold. and Southern California had always been at the leading edge of the hot-rod culture. Up in LA., a little outfit called Bell Auto Parts, started as a wrecking yard in 1919, had evolved into the world’s first “speed shop,” selling carbs, cams, and heads that turned sedate Model Ts and As into racing machines. For $100, an overhead-valve Crager head and a Winfield racing carburetor boosted the Model A’s four-cylinder output from 41 horsepower to a fire-breathing 86. When Ford came out with a V-8 in 1932, it was a hot rodder’s dream come true, an affordable car with almost unlimited power potential.
The downside was that while engines and the techniques necessary to extract horsepower were easily available even by modern standards, the rest of the car was still just a small step removed from the horse-and-buggy era. Nolan just laughed when I asked him if brake and suspension modifications accompanied the souping up of their engines.
“The brakes on those things were terrible, and we didn’t even know what suspension meant! Some of the cars didn’t even have four-wheel brakes, and mechanical, not hydraulic, at that. We paid a lot of attention to what’s under the hood, didn’t really think too much about anything else.” Headlights were feeble affairs; tires were narrow, still mounted on wooden-spoked rims on the older cars. It all combines to make Nolan’s youthful exploits even more impressive.
“Once we formed the club, we joined the Southern California Timing Association. They had a meeting at Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles, I think it was the first Monday of every month. The meeting started at eight o’clock. I had a hard time getting home from work and changing to leave San Diego by six! But, you know, I was never very late for one of those meetings. The old road ran right through the middle of all the towns up the coast, and. I’d slow down through them, but in between, 80, 90 miles an hour all the way. The road was narrow and twisty, and we took some side roads to miss some of the towns. Talk about daredevil; I’m lucky I got away with it! One night we timed it, it took two hours and five minutes. Coming home I wouldn’t be so chesty, maybe take 15 minutes longer. That ’34 V-8 had an overdrive and lots of power; it wasn’t any strain for it to roll along 90 miles an hour all day long.”
San Diego was a smaller town then, less people, less cars, and the Road Ramblers used it as a racecourse. “After our monthly meeting of the club, we’d all drive out to a hamburger shack on Midway Drive. We called it the causeway then because it was all mud flats out there and the road was built up over them. The burger shack was across from where the Marine base is now. We’d have a burger and choose up who we’d race, drive up to where Rosecrans crossed Midway — Rosecrans then was just a dirt road, not even a through road — and drag race back to the burger shack. We’d have four or five of those races, then we’d all form up and drive up Midway, cross the causeway and over the bridges, up through Crown Point and back down through Mission Beach, cross the old bridge that used to go from Mission Beach to Ocean Beach — that’s gone now — come back up West Point Loma Boulevard, and head back down the causeway. We’d do the cruise at nice legal speeds and everything, until we’d get back to about where Nimitz crosses now, then it was just mud flats, and then a couple of the guys would choose up, and off they’d go, racing each other down to Midway.
“Well, one time a couple of cops were laying for us, hiding their motorcycles — Harley HDLs I think they were — right about where Nimitz is. A couple 6f guys in ’32 Ford roadsters took off and the cops took off right behind them. I don’t think the fellows even noticed the cops until they got up to Midway and idled down, then suddenly there were these motorcycles with their lights flashing and all. So they took off again up Midway and turned into Rosecrans.
One guy made the turn, but the other spun out, made a complete circle in the dirt, throwing so much dirt and mud around that those cops couldn’t see where they were going. The roadsters headed across those mud flats, going so fast they just flew across what’s now I-5, and they lost the cops up in Mission Hills. Those cops were so mad! They tried their damnedest for the next month or so to figure out who those two idiots were that they had chased!
“We used to race on the road that’s now I-5. Where it runs up along Mission Bay, it was in the late ’30s a good two- or three-lane road, and by 9:30 or so at night there wouldn’t be a car for as far as you could see. We’d choose up on one another, and we’d be going down that road at over 100 miles an hour. Side by side!”
Street racing was fun, but the Road Ramblers were serious hot rodders, and serious in those days meant time trials, measuring the top speeds of their cars by clocking them through a quarter-mile speed trap. Out in the high desert, at Muroc, Rosamond, and El Mirage dry lakes, there were legal speed courses, but the boys wanted something closer to home. “We sort of took over a road that went through what’s now Miramar Naval Air Station. Back in World War I, that was called Camp Kearny, an Army base, and they had built a lot of paved roads in there. They hadn’t been kept up for years, had glass and rocks and stuff all over them, but we cleaned some of them up and we’d go out there, usually at night, and we’d choose one another, you know — VROOOOOOM! Drag racing. Then, there was the main road that connected what’s now I-5 clear on over to 163, the Miramar cutoff. It was hardly ever used, and there was one quite long stretch. We had a quarter of a mile in the middle of it marked off; that was the time trap. At first we had two guys in the car, one with a stopwatch, and when the car went by the first marker he’d punch the watch, then punch it again when they passed the second mark. You could get a pretty good estimate of the time, and hence the speed, but we wanted something better.
“You remember 20 years ago, you drove into a service station, you drove over a rubber hose, and it dinged a bell? We had a hundredth-of-a-second stopwatch rigged up with a solenoid so that when you went over the first hose, a little hammer would bang it; when you went over the second hose it would bang it again. A fellow named Crocker, he worked in an electric shop, made it for us. He got so interested in the idea he wound up spending the rest of his life working on electronic-timing devices for all kinds of speed trials, especially boats. He got to be very famous for it.”
The first time trials were held on Sunday, December 19, 1937, and were such a success that the club decided to make them a regular event, the first Sunday of every month from 6:00 to 10:00 a.m. “It was just sagebrush out there, and we’d gone out with picks and shovels and sloped the barrow pit so we could drive off the road and park out in the brush. There was a curve down at the east end of the course that you couldn’t see around, so we put up a traffic light there: red to warn that there were cars coming, white when it was okay to go. The cars would start down past the curve and build up pretty good speed before they came around it and then have another quarter, three-eighths of a mile to hit top speed before they came through the timing trap. One hundred miles an hour is nine seconds through the quarter mile, and as long as they’d give us a couple of seconds to read and reset our clock, we could just run them through there one after another.
“We usually did groups of five or six at a time, then there’d be a couple of minutes for the next bunch to get ready, let any traffic that had backed up get through. When a motorist came along, we’d flag them down, tell them, ‘Would you mind waiting for a few minutes? We’re testing some cars here, you might find it kind of interesting.’ Then, ZOOM! ZOOM! ZOOM! These cars would go by at 90, 100 miles an hour. Well, a lot of people did like it; some would park their cars and watch for an hour, but one old biddy came through there and she didn’t like it a bit. She found a phone somewhere — I don’t know where she went, there certainly wasn't anyplace nearby that had a phone — but anyway, she called the highway patrol.”
It was the eighth of January, 1939, and there were 2000 people gathered for the time trials. People had started coming down from L.A. months before, and finally a formal invitation had been extended to the L.A. clubs. Over a hundred cars had flashed through the traps that day before the cops arrived. “The first cop to show up on the scene was coming from the Poway side. His name was Dowdy and he was a nice guy, really a nice guy, but he knew something was wrong. There were about six or seven of us and our cars on that end of the track. Most of the guys were down at the far end. He pulled up on his motorcycle and said, ‘What’s up, guys?’
“We said, ‘Oh, we’re just cruising, testing our cars.’ And of course, by then nobody was running, so he couldn’t give us a ticket for speeding, but he wandered around looking at the cars.
“ ‘Well, you don’t have any headlights, and this one doesn’t have any exhaust system, and this one has no windshield, and let me see your registration slip. Now, I’ve got to give you some citations. You can’t drive on the roads like this.’ He didn’t pay any attention to our speeding. He knew, But he was just going to write us up these little tickets for no headlights or no exhaust.
“So the first couple of guys got their tickets, got in their cars, and casually drove off. After they got around that curve, they went like hell down to the bunch at the other end. ‘Gol dang cops are coming!’ As soon as they heard ‘cops,’ these guys from L.A. were out of there— WHOOM! WHOOM! WHOOM! They were used to cops up in LA.
“We pulled up the rubber hoses and the timing equipment and got them in the trunk of my car; we were always prepared to do that pretty quickly, But there was still one guy standing way down there with that light. The cops coming from the other end pulled up to him — they must have been mad because all those guys got away — and one of them, Jensen was his name, to show off or something, pulls his gun out and shoots a hole through one of the lights on the signal stand. Then they came down to where we were and confiscated all our equipment.
“That crazy Jensen, he really saved us. They had rules for when you could pull and shoot your gun, and what he did was an absolute no-no. The secretary of the club’s dad was a professional lobbyist, a real smooth-talking guy, and he went down to the captain of the highway patrol, Captain Schmoke, and read him the riot act. Oh, he was pounding on the table and yelling; that poor captain looked like he wanted to crawl through the floor. It was all about ‘Total disregard of the law! Endangering innocent bystanders! Shooting an innocent light!’ and Bang! Bang! Bang!The captain said. Take your damned equipment and get out of here!’ I got a ticket, they had to write somebody a ticket, for operating an illegal traffic device. So I appeared before the judge and he wanted to know all about it. I told him the whole story. He said, ‘Are you going to continue the operation?’
“I said, ‘No, we’ll cease and desist.’
“He said, ‘Well, if you’ll do that, we’ll just kind of pardon you.’ He let us go, didn’t fine us or anything. He was a nice judge.” That was the end of the Road Ramblers reign as the speed kings of Kearny Mesa, and shortly after, as a club at all. Nolan walked me out to my car and past his wife’s shining Cadillac. “A friend of mine has one of these with that new Northstar V-8,” he said, “a really fast rig.” There was a speculative sparkle in his eye.