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Resurrection of a King
Part I: Early History of the King's Special
A vehicle that garners a lot of attention, wherever it is shown, is a little white Canadian race car that has a history dating back over ninety years. Named after the people who built the car, the King family of Port Arthur, the 'King's Special' was renowned for its performance on the local track between 1925 and 1934. Its reputation developed, not only on the dirt tracks in Fort William/Port Arthur and Murillo, a town just west of the twin cities, but in Winnipeg, Duluth, and Superior as well, where it raced against the fastest Class A racers of the time.
This was no ordinary stock car. Although often referred to as a Ford, only the bare essentials were Model T components. The rest was pure racing 'iron' that could hurl the car down a straight-a-way at speeds in excess of 100 mph (170 kph). Even on the early ½ mile dirt tracks, it 'showed its rear tires' to the competition, as one reporter had stated.
In this story of the King's Special, Model T enthusiasts will get to see how a car that would normally run comfortably at 30 mph would have its top speed boosted to more than three times that figure. For the racing and muscle car fanciers, this story offers a glimpse into that first muscle-car era, the 1920's, when ordinary fellows were experimenting with production models and trying everything to enhance their performance. For the historians among us, this essay should be encouraging in that it promotes the preservation of rare artifacts, as well as the literature and other related documentation that enhance them.
Much of what we know about the King's Special is from the two local newspapers at the time: "The Daily Times Journal" of Fort William, (abbreviated here to "TJ") and " The News Chronicle" of Port Arthur" (NC); the two cities at the head of Lake Superior are now known as Thunder Bay. Primary sources have been used where possible, since later accounts have had the tendency to exaggerate, or repeat inaccurate information. The balance of the content comes from the research and dedication of one of our finest automotive historians, Kevin Mowle, who, from the early 1980's began a tireless campaign to piece together the famous car, and its history. Dave Boon, Russ Wanzuk, the staff at the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, and many other individuals contributed to this effort. Let us start at the beginning.
The concept of building a race car seemed to have originated around 1922 (TJ, Sept. 25, 1957). The '57 newspaper identified only two brothers, Art and Arnold King as the sole builders, but a third brother, Horace, drove the car at least once, officially, when the car was done. In 1922, the ages of the boys were: Art, 24, Horace, 22, and Arnold, 12 (Census Canada, 1911). They began their project in a chicken coop in their back yard at 64 Algonquin Street, Port Arthur. A wall of the building had to be taken down to remove the car. By the time the car was ready for its first race, at least two years had gone into its construction, as well as $2200, an amount that could have bought four brand new Fords or Chevrolets at that time.
Most cars on the track in 1922 were stripped-down stock cars that had a top speed of something well under 70 mph. Considering the world's record for the ½ mile dirt track in that year was only 60 mph, you didn't need anything faster to win most competitions. You wanted a car with power, but also, one that could accelerate quickly and be able to maintain high revs. The popular manufacturers at the time, such as Ford and G.M., were making relatively slow-turning engines that had solid crankshafts, babbit bearings, and, generally, no pressure oiling. They would run forever at 1000 - 1500 rpms, but would blow apart at sustained high speed. The stock engines of Essex and Hudson were exceptions, however, and they had many successes in the early 1920's. To master the track, the King brothers had to design a car that would not only be faster than the best of the stock cars, but be able to surpass a new breed of vehicle that was making a name for itself. The following describes one of these cars (TJ, Aug. 1, 1922):
16 valves! Sorry, Mopar fans, Dodge didn't make any four-cylindered motor at that time with 16 valves. It was no doubt a "super modified" form of a Dodge engine. If it was the same power-plant that the later well-known racer, Ernie Boffa, was to drive to fame, it had more than just a special head: it featured full pressure oiling, roller lifters, special carburetion, and high tension magneto as well. It would have been capable of very high speeds.
Through mail-order businesses, several companies had begun to offer speed equipment as early as the late teens that would fit Ford and Dodge engines. One name, "Frontenac," (actually built by Arthur and Louis Chevrolet) became synonymous with speed after an Indianapolis run in 1922 in which a Ford Model T, fitted with "Fronty" head and accessories, ran 440 miles at an average speed of 85 mph. A second Fronty covered 420 miles at 80 mph. The 1923 Indy saw a modified Model T come in fifth against the fastest cars in the world, averaging 82.85 mph over the full course of 500 miles! Besides Frontenac," Roof" was another one of those companies that was well represented at the Indy in those days, and was likely the manufacturer that supplied the Port Arthur Dodge with its special head and accessories. Besides individual speed parts, Roof offered an entire race car, body and all, for $1700 U.S. Unfortunately, there were stiff tariffs on importing cars during those times, so the Kings were likely better off buying what they needed, and making the rest from what was available. Their familiarity with Mr. Campbell's Dodge would have introduced them to the quality of Roof engineering.
The car would comprise of a home-built body fitted to an altered "T" chassis, their choice reflecting what had already proven itself at Indianapolis. But unlike the early Indy cars that had to adhere to a strict minimum weight standard of 1650 pounds, the Kings chose to build a much lighter car, by about 500 pounds, using a shortened Model T frame and a body just wide enough for one person, not two. By today's standards, the cockpit of the car was exceptionally small; however, considering that "the fattest man" contest at the Lakehead exhibition in 1922 resulted in the winner weighing only 232 pounds, people were much skinnier then than they are today! For the power-plant, the brothers decided to go one better than the rocker arm 16 overhead-valve head: they would purchase the Roof Single Overhead Camshaft which the company's literature boasted was "the fastest Eight Valve Head possible to design." More will be said about the engine later in this story.
As far as the geometry of the car is concerned, one early picture shows the car's body offset about 6" to the left and probably reflects how the car looked when it was first built. The theory was that on an oval track, the driver would always be turning left and had an advantage having the center of gravity closer to the center of the track. Where the idea failed was the necessity of steering in both directions when skidding on dirt, and once the car was in a right turn, the advantage turned to a decided disadvantage and would often result in the car's turning over. Other than this feature, the car was well-designed.
As future performances would show, the young "speed artists" had made good choices in their speed acquisitions. They were also very adept at putting the car together, using available materials and modifying Model T parts to function for different purposes than Henry Ford had intended. There seemed to be only one other factor that could possibly hold them back from a successful racing career: more experienced drivers. The Daily Times-Journal (Sept. 5, 1922) noted this quality:
The name, Frank Colosimo, was going to figure prominently in the story of the King's Special, but at this point, it meant only 'dreaded opponen' to the King brothers.
By spring of 1925, the King's Special was ready for the track. In an undated newspaper clipping was the following headline:
When Art King took the wheel and started his time trials he must have dreamed of becoming the greatest race car driver ever, piloting the fastest car, at least in the Thunder Bay Area. As he recalled the event later (TJ, Sept. 25, 1957) his career started with the time trials and ended 20 minutes later.