It’s almost without argument the baddest-ass steel ‘34 Ford ever and it is among a heady group of cars that many point to as being the most iconic drag machinery of all time. A tire-smoking, nitro-burning, Hemi-powered, all-conquering machine in early-‘60s SoCal, this car was the one to beat on the Drag News Jr. Eliminator List. More on that later.
Like most hot rods of the day, the 554 started out life on the dry lakes as a full-fendered, flathead-powered coupe. When the strip at Santa Ana opened, Mooneyham would swap the rear gears from the 3.27s he ran on the lakes for a set of 4.10 cogs that worked better on the quarter mile. The car supposedly ran as fast as 120 mph on the strip, which is hauling the mail for anything flathead powered. It wasn’t long before the flathead grew tiresome and a carb’d Hemi was swung into action.
The car was an ever stronger runner after the heart transplant and all was well until Mooneyham wrecked the car at the now defunct Paradise Mesa strip outside of San Diego. With a taco’d frame and body that had seen better days the fate of the coupe was hanging in the balance. Cooler heads prevailed with the idea to repair the car, but take it to the next plateau of performance.
The frame was straightened using jacks, chains, and trees. The top was chopped a shade more than 3 inches and all the rest of the sheetmetal was straightened and smoothed. Car sponsor Al Sharp was impressed with the repaired piece and had it painted silver. In typical temperamental drag racer fashion, Mooneyham didn’t like the silver, so he had the car painted blue, the color it would remain through most of its career and the one color that everyone who knows the car thinks about when it is mentioned.
During the repair process, the lead body man was Larry Faust. He was a drag racer himself and went by the nickname “Jungle.” The guy was reputed to be able to drive anything and he said he could back that claim up. Mooneyham liked what he saw in Faust and asked him to drive the car, although with the new blower atop the Hemi, Mooneyham was worried that Faust would be unable to tame the beast.
As a test, Mooneyham brought Faust to San Gabriel Drag Strip on a day that the place was closed up and let him make a few hits, first with 25 percent nitro in the tank, to which Faust is reported to have said, “It don’t feel like much.” Upping the percentage to 50 percent resulted in Faust shutting down the car at half track and matter of factly telling Mooneyham that he needed to put a full load of pop in it so they could see what it was really capable of. Unfortunately the motor was broke so another run was out of the question. Faust told Mooneyham that he could handle the car. The next time he would drive it would be in competition.
Of driving the car, Faust was quoted as saying, “It would go left one time and right the next. It would hook up differently because it would smoke the tires so hard.” You just have to love these guys.
One of the really neat features of the car was the eight long, individual exhaust pipes. These pipes made the car insanely loud, especially for Faust who by all accounts was sitting inside a base drum, in his center-steer position, surrounded by noise.
The Hemi was a little bugger, a 331ci model that was bored and stroked to near 390 ci, typically running a 60-70 percent load of nitro. That depended on the day, the track, and the competition.
This car was famous for being the Drag News Jr. Eliminator champ. Back in those days the Jr. Eliminator category was reserved for cars running slower than 9 flat. If you dipped below the number, even once, you were booted. Once you attained hero status on the top of the list other racers on the list could challenge you for supremacy. The catch was that the guy in the number one spot got to pick the track, and that was this car’s trump card.
Mooneyham was early to master the art of knowing different tracks and he used that knowledge to put himself and Faust in a good place and his competitor at a disadvantage. The car was nearly unbeatable, and as a match race draw it was huge. The car had cult status going for it and frankly, if you saw this thing once, we’re pretty sure you’d chase it down every chance you got. It was rumored at the time, because of the car’s immense popularity and drawing power that track operators looked past the occasional 8-second lap to keep the car in the Jr. Eliminator hunt. No scoreboards back then made that kind of stuff easy.
In 1963 Mooneyham sold the car for the princely sum of $3,500. Faust kept on as the driver, but in the hands of its new owner, its success would be really fleeting. At the first event under new ownership, wearing a pair of cutting edge (for the time) aluminum cylinder heads, Faust ran 8.9 seconds, knocking the car off the list for being able to compete for Jr. Eliminator accolades. But worse, the motor had blown up and was belching fire.
Faust got the car stopped and got out with minor burns. The new owner got a total of about a lap and a half out of the car. It was over. Faust quipped, “It was pretty simple. Gene (Mooneyham) got paid Saturday morning and I blew it up on Saturday night.”
This car, many have argued, is the “first” funny car. Aside from the lack of a lift off body, it did have a blown, fuel-burning Hemi, center steer, and direct connections to the original body style, so we’re kind of in that camp. It certainly embodied an ethos in drag racing that morphed itself into the funny cars that we know today. May tribute cars have been built but as it is often said about other things, there can only be one original and this one was it. The longer I look at it, the more I think that this car could be my favorite hot rod of all time.