Back to Life - The King's Special pre-war Canadian racer

Written by George Webster on .

Kings Special - George WebsterThere are very few Canadian-built racing cars still in existence from the pre-war era. Al Cronk’s Model T-based King’s Special, which dates from about 1924, has to be one of the oldest. Although he has owned the key components for about 50 years, Cronk has been working on this project in earnest only since the turn of the century and now, his resurrection has produced a reasonably faithful rendering of the original race car.

The racing history of the King’s Special is set in the Thunder Bay area (formerly Fort William/Port Arthur), but it is an important part of the history of auto racing in Canada.

Kings Special - l George WebsterCronk’s part of the story begins back in 1964 when he acquired, in exchange for a running Model T Ford, the engine, transmission and some other components of the original King’s Special. He and his brothers installed the modified Ford T engine in a Model T delivery truck they owned, but gave up when the head gasket they had made from a copper sheet failed. The engine and other parts were set aside for years. Cronk continued to collect some of the other missing components for the car over the years, including racing-style 72-spoke wire wheels, until he was finally motivated to put it all together for display in 2001.

The story of the car started back in the Lakehead in 1922 when Art King and his brothers began building a race car based on a 1919 Model T Ford. We think of Model Ts as low-powered, slow, economy workhorses and not as fast, racy cars. But an aftermarket grew up which supplied improved performance parts that could transform the stodgy Ts into higher performance street cars and even remarkably fast race cars. Frontenac is probably the best known brand name here, but R.M. Roof was another manufacturer of performance parts for Model Ts and other makes.

As evidence of how these Fords could be transformed, Ford T-based racers ran competitively at the Indy 500. In 1923, one finished in fifth place at an average speed of 134 km/h (83 mph).

Virtually every part of the original Ford T engine except for the cast-iron block would be replaced: OHV or overhead cam head, counterbalanced crank, pressurized lubrication with an oil pump, high-tension magneto replacing the T’s version, different carburetors and so on. The original low-powered engine became a strong racing engine.

Peugeot had introduced the concept of the overhead cam four-valve per cylinder head before WWI, and this idea was copied by many others including Mercedes-Benz and Miller. What’s surprising is that multi-valve OHC heads were offered for such low-end engines like the Ford T.

Kings Special - George WebsterIn 1924, the King’s Special emerged from the chicken coop in which it was built. It featured an eight-valve SOHC head. One of its competitors, the Dreadnought, had a 16-valve head on a Dodge engine running in a modified Ford T chassis. The King’s Special also used a shortened T chassis, with repositioned transverse springs, which lowered the car by about six inches (15 cm). At some point the T’s planetary transmission was modified to remove the reverse gear and pare the flywheel down to a much smaller size. In keeping with racing practice of the day, the brakes — transmission and rear wheels — were also removed. The resulting car weighed about 500 kg (1,100 pounds).

In 1925, Art King himself raced the car, but the next year the more experienced Frank Colosimo took over behind the wheel. Racing mostly in the hometown area of Fort William/Port Arthur and nearby Murillo, the King’s Special and Colosimo proved to be an “unbeatable combo.” In addition, they raced the car occasionally in Wisconsin and Manitoba. However, on Labour Day in 1929, Colosimo was racing Ernie Boffa in the Dreadnought when he crashed. Colosimo had minor injuries, but the car needed a rebuild.

Kings Special - George WebsterThe repairs likely included a new donor chassis to replace damaged parts. This is when the sleek single-seater bodywork was built — and this is the form that Cronk replicated when he restored the car. The Great Depression had begun but Colosimo continued to race the car with success until 1934.

How fast was it? On the rutty, loose-surfaced half-mile dirt tracks of that day, it would run 97 km/h (60 mph) laps. Once, on a clandestine run on the public road from Fort William towards the U.S. border, it was timed at over 160 km/h (100 mph). Wind in your hair, and little to no protection around you.

After this, the record is spotty. As it passed from hand to hand as a now-obsolete used race car, it may have Kings Special - George Websterrun a few more races, but eventually it was dismantled and left in storage. Most of these pieces came into Cronk’s possession in 1964.

After its appearance as a bare chassis in Toronto in 2001, Cronk was determined to complete the car. He studied all the photos he could find and built replica bodywork to look like the original 1930 version. Given that he started with the original racing engine and only a few other original parts, and the rest of the car was built using old swap-meet parts, reproduction parts and new bodywork, Cronk avoids calling the car a restoration, but a resurrection instead. He still has to complete a few details before he can actually have the car running, but he is hoping it will be ready in the next few months.

Whatever you want to call it, Cronk is to be commended for his persistence in returning to life a car that is an important part of Canada’s racing heritage.

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