While this car was created to race, it combines a high level of technical
competence in construction with the highest standard of finish


Hot rodders Art and Lloyd Chrisman were early and successful pioneers of drag racing with their famous #25 dragster, which was the first to achieve trap speeds of 140 mph and 180 mph in the quarter-mile.

Early experience gained on the dry lakebeds of Southern California in a 140 mph 1934 Ford coupe led to the 1930 Ford-based car offered here, which set records in three divisions of the Competition Coupe class at Bonneville.

Hailed as "The Most Fantastic Coupe" on the cover of the February 1954 issue of Hot Rod magazine, Art and Lloyd Chrisman's Model A Competition Coupe featured innovative design and construction. It was purpose-built for top-speed competition on the Bonneville Salt Flats, across several Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) divisions.

While outwardly resembling a radically chopped 1930 Ford Model A Coupe, the Chrisman brothers placed the engine, transmission, and rear end assembly in the mid-rear position as a single modular unit, allowing quick and easy removal and replacement.

The straight front axle and leaf-spring suspension were liberated from a 1938 Ford, while the rear axle housing was bolted directly to the frame. The 1940 Ford rear end featured a Halibrand "quick change," which allowed a multitude of final-drive ratios. Drum brakes were included only on the rear wheels.

The body was drastically altered to provide a smaller frontal area, thereby decreasing aerodynamic drag. A 1940 Ford sedan provided the steel roof and the steep windshield was achieved by grafting the cowl and A-pillar from a 1935 Ford. The unique, streamlined nose cone resulted from two hoods being combined, one on top of the other.

The coupe was first campaigned during the 1953 Bonneville Speed Week; the team came with three heavily modified Ford flathead engines and made a one-way run of 163.63 mph.

The Chrisman brothers returned in 1954, armed with new Chrysler Hemi engines. A 243-ci Dodge engine was reserved for Class B competition, while a 276-ci DeSoto engine was reserved for Class C. The brothers broke both records, reaching 180.87 mph in Class B and 180.08 mph in Class C.

Returning in 1955 with a larger 331-ci Chrysler engine for a new attempt at the Class D record, Art Chrisman qualified the coupe at over 190 mph, with a 5% dose of nitro, and set the record at 196 mph. Hoping to reach the coveted 200 mph mark, the brothers contemplated an increase to 20% nitro; however, their friend John Donaldson died at the wheel of the Reed Brothers "belly tank racer," and the Chrismans retired to refocus on drag racing.

The 1953 Chrisman Bonneville Coupe was bought by George Barris, the "King of the Kustomizers," in the early 1960s and traveled the auto show circuit for a number of years until Art Chrisman was hired to return the car to its record-setting glory. Joe MacPherson purchased the coupe in 1995 and placed it on display at Joe's Garage, where it has remained ever since.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1953 Chrisman Bonneville
Years Produced:1953
Number Produced:1
Original List Price:n/a
SCM Valuation:$660,000
Chassis Number Location:n/a
Engine Number Location:Block top at front
Club Info:Southern California Timing Association
Alternatives:So-Cal Coupe, Pierson Brothers Coupe
Investment Grade:A

This 1953 Chrisman Bonneville Coupe sold for $660,000 at RM’s sale of the MacPherson Collection at Joe’s Garage in Tustin, California, on June 14, 2008.

The Bonneville Salt Flats became an annually sanctioned racing venue by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) in 1949. The Chrisman Bonneville Coupe first appeared on the salt in 1953, at a time when a number of undercurrent themes were swirling beneath amateur sanctioned racing.

There was an intense rivalry between organized clubs. A scoring point system accrued both individually, and also by club affiliation, and annual standings dictated entry numbers the following year. Historically, only open cars had been allowed to compete in SCTA sanctioned events before and after the war, which spawned alternative racing clubs and associations for the “lowly” coupe or sedan racer-most notably the Russetta Timing Association.

Disbelief that a coupe could outperform a roadster

As records were being set and reported in the emerging media now covering the various sanctioned races (Hot Rod magazine being the most prominent starting in 1948), there was disbelief from many that a coupe could provide a challenge to, let alone outperform, a roadster. This added to the emotional intensity when coupes were invited to participate at SCTA events, such as the earliest Bonneville events starting in 1949. Ironically, the Competition Coupe image, with radically chopped roof, sloped windshield, and mail-slot side and rear windows, now embodies the sport.

Aside from club affiliation and open versus closed car rivalries, another element in the timing of the Chrisman coupe is that it straddled the fence as engine technology was evolving. It first attempted to earn its stripes with L-head flathead Fords emerging during the last production year of Henry’s beloved flathead V8. But change was in the wind, as the Flatheads Forever camp was being forced to re-evaluate.

The magazines pronounced the shift “Flatheads Battle Rocker-Arms for All Out Supremacy.” In 1953, the Chrismans raced not only with very large displacement flathead Ford motors running Sharp equipment, but also with a Ford utilizing an overhead-valve conversion that provided a hemispherical combustion chamber. This was the Ardun flathead Ford conversion that had migrated from New York to England for the Allard sports and racing cars.

Results speak for themselves, as the Ardun-equipped Ford captured the Class B record (class lettering related to engine displacement size). For the following two years, the coupe appeared with an array of Mopar Hemi motors, competing in B, C, and D Classes, and it was successful in gaining a record in each year.

The placement of the car within the evolving years of the sport, as well as records in three successive years, provide an interesting backdrop to the Chrisman Bonneville Coupe and its value. The immediately distinguishable look of the car, however, coupled with its Hot Rod magazine cover feature, solidify its place at this crossroads in land speed racing.

Dramatic change from the 1933-34 coupe

Much of this unique look is based upon the Chrisman deviation from the more-often-used 1933-34 Ford coupe as the platform for a competition coupe racer. The dramatic lean of the A-pillar was done to satisfy rules that specified windshield height, but not angle. The Model A body was both smaller and squarer than the later Ford. Forward streamlining utilized two 1940 Ford Deluxe hoods, a simple but effective alternative to an aluminum hand-crafted nose section used by most.

Appearance was a large aspect of the competitive posture between clubs and even within the ranks of club members. And while this was a car created to race, aside from the high level of technical competence in construction, it also exhibited the highest standard of finish.

In 2001, Pebble Beach invited racing coupes to the lawn. The Chrisman coupe was an invited guest and took third, behind the So-Cal and Pierson Brothers coupes, which are both the more commonly used 1933-34 Fords. The short three-year racing history of the Chrisman car possibly hurt its Pebble Beach presentation, as the class-award winners boasted decades of racing and records under multiple owners.

George Barris Hollywood makeover

There is also a show pony side to this thoroughbred that cannot be ignored. TV viewers old enough to remember “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” may recognize the Chrisman Bonneville Coupe as the flashy XMSC-210 from this popular TV series.

George Barris bought the coupe from the Chrismans in the late 1950s and gave it a typical Hollywood makeover, which included shiny pearl paint and trim, a chromed engine, gullwing upper doors (to facilitate filming) along with oversized wheel pontoons that trailed the thin-spoked front wheels. While all relationship to the glitzy screen and car show parade vehicle has been removed, this is one of only a handful of hot rods to make a primetime appearance appealing to the youth of the day. That has to be a factor in the value.

Collectors and museums are also chasing authentic land speed racing cars. This is the fourth land speed racing vehicle I am aware of that has changed hands over the last few years. After the win at Pebble Beach in 2001, the So-Cal coupe was privately sold. While the price is unpublished, it is believed to have exceeded $250,000. Last year, the unrestored Tom Beatty Belly Tank Lakester (built from a WWII aircraft external gas tank) was sold at the Gooding Pebble Beach auction for $440,000. At the same time, over at RM, the Jim Khougaz 1932 roadster, which was a documented lakes racing car, went for $385,000.

Bonneville is just a cool part of our automotive past and present; note the recent Tommy Hilfiger commercial shot with three authentic-appearing bellytank racers.

For this car, the multiple Chrisman pedigrees and the racing era it represents are a powerful combination that is reflected in the strong price, which exceeded the pre-auction estimates. Not bad for a Ford coupe with a big dose of Yankee ingenuity.

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