The So-Cal Speed Shop was founded in March 1946 Alex Xydias, on the day he left the Army Air Corps, where he’d served as a B-17 engineer. Though he struggled to keep it running for the first year, his fortunes changed when he was joined by Dean Batchelor and Bill Burke.
The idea of using a belly tank – used to carry extra fuel under the wings of WW2 aircraft – to build a race car had first occurred to Bill Burke while he was serving in the United States Navy. Seeing a barge unloading 165 gallon P-51 tanks at Guadalcanal, he took a tape measure and worked out that it would be possible to fit the aerodynamic tank (usually made of steel or aluminium alloy) with a Ford Flathead V8 and a driver.
After the war tens of thousands of unused belly tanks were offered to the public as military surplus,usually selling for around $5.
Bill initially built a land speed car from a P-51 tank and managed a best speed of 131.96 mph in it, before discovering larger 315 gallon tanks from the P-38, which gave more room for the driver, engine, fuel tank, and chassis.
This car is the most famous of the P-38 belly tank lakesters, in which the So-Cal Speed Shop Special set five records at Bonneville using three different Ford Flathead V8 engines, swapping engines between runs; the best combined speed was an amazing 198.340 mph in 1952.
You’ll see that the So-Cal Speed Shop Belly Tanks has almost no roll over protection and the driver sits with his back against the fuel tank, his feet in the car’s nose, his hips between the frame rails, supported by a thinly upholstered seat just a few inches off the salt – and achieving almost 200mph like this.
Many original belly tank racers were scrapped in the 1950s and ’60s but the So-Cal Special survived, and has been preserved by LA-based enthusiast Bruce Meyer.
Photography by Ted7 courtesy of Petersen Automotive Museum