He swapped the
three Allison engines for one Rolls-Royce engine, then traded the Rolls-Royce
to a hydroplane owner who had a supercharged Allison he didn't like. The
Allison was finally enough engine for Graham.
He bought a
war-surplus P-51 fighter for $250, took the cockpit for his car and sold the
rest for $200. He got two aluminum belly tanks from a surplus B-29 and used
sections of them for the car body. He intrigued the Firestone Tire & Rubber
Co. with his theory that small tires (33 inches high) were better than big ones
for speed trials ( Campbell's are 52 inches high), and it agreed to provide
them. The only other aid he got was from a chemical company which gave him
$3,500 to help defray the $1,000-a-day cost of time trials at Bonneville.
Graham first tested his car on the Flats. With only four miles of the 12-mile
course usable, he reached 344.7 mph. It was an incredible performance for a car
that had cost him an unbelievably low $2,500. "Ingenuity is a great
equalizer," he said afterward.
Graham was to
make his initial record try this week at 9 a.m. Monday. He had
"reserved" the Flats for four days, but he said that he would "go
all out on the first run." There was a two-hour delay. The left front wheel
wasn't fitting properly. Mechanics bent out the fender, adjusted the tie rods,
and Graham was ready.
He kissed his
wife (his four children were not at the Salt Flats), adjusted his crash helmet,
strapped himself into the seat and moved off to the starting line. Minutes
later the City of Salt Lake was a wreck. Found far from the remains of the car,
where it had rolled after breaking off at the hub, was the left front
to his car's construction had been, superficially, a prudent one. He burned
aviation gasoline, calling other higher powered fuels too risky. He used
two-wheel drive for added control, and he placed the cockpit ahead of the
engine to reduce the risk of injury should there be an accident. "Why add
to the danger," he said last week, "when there is danger enough
Athol Graham was
no fool. The qualities of determination, ingenuity, perhaps even genius, that
he displayed in his 10-year project are the same ones that opened the West.
Graham's fault was that his reach was beyond even his very great skill—or
perhaps that of any one man.
No 400-mph car
can be built on a do-it-yourself basis. The tolerances are too fine, the risk
too great. In proving this, Graham became the first man to die in 25 years of
record runs at Bonneville.