We are just making it up now. Emulating. Pretending. Imitating. Flipping through magazines, listening to old timers and watching the same few tired documentaries over and over. We scavenge for parts. A piece here, another there. Swap meets, online bidding sites. The old guy in town that still has a stash of vintage speed equipment. Whatever it takes-whatever we have to do to get the pieces of the puzzle together enough that it begins to take shape. We jack the front ends up and get excited. We paint it to look the part. Give it a clever name. Maybe put a number on it. We tell our buddies what we're doing, “Building a gasser” - it's a tag line.. Some hit the strip, a lot don't. It's all well and good, but there was a time in history when these cars we're copying now weren't being built to be driven to your stupid local cruise in on a Wednesday night. They were built to go fast and to win, at any cost. These cars were primitive. Often downright unsafe. They were flat-towed to the track behind some shitty station wagon and raced hard, hitched up and hauled home to fix whatever broke before the next weekend. The guys that piloted these fire-snorting, rudimentary rolling war zones were the real deal.. This stuff was no joke, they weren't pretending, they were making history. All we are left with are the photos and for a lucky few, some fleeting first hand memories. Even more rare is to find examples of these old racers as they truly were. This is what we're looking at. What you see here is what it was to be a hard-racing weekend warrior in the gas-class craze of the 1960's. These cars are it, and this story is about what they craved – winning.
Robbie Davis in the Erwin Von Homeyer Willys
Erwin Von Homeyer of Portland, Oregon was about as good of an example of the type of brass-balled racers trolling the drag strips of the day as you can get. He was a regular guy. He worked for his family's dry cleaning business, Homeyer's Cleaners, which was in a rough part of town in North Portland. Outside of work, one thing mattered to him: Drag racing. Like most young men of the time, it began on the street: Taunts of “drag it out,” directed at some local-yokel in a parking lot leading to a gear-jamming ride down some country road, or even the main-drag, Union Avenue. Around this time, sanctioned drag racing on designated strips had become the norm, and Erwin found himself looking to build a full-blown race car.
Drag race flier circa 1961
It began with the acquisition of a 1939 Willys Coupe, which Erwin dragged out of a farmer's field in late1961. He started gathering parts and making plans. In 1962, hot rod and drag racing publications started to buzz about California's Bing's Speed Shop and the dominance they had displayed in their class with a 1941 Willys Coupe sporting a full-race Flathead Ford. Erwin had taken note of this publicity. A fan himself of winning races, he placed a call to Ed Binggeli to see about having an engine built to the exact same specifications. Ed and his shop however were too busy to take anything else on at that time. It seemed all that publicity had set fire to their phone lines and they were booked for the foreseeable future. Instead, Ed offered to sell Erwin the actual engine that had been doing all that winning. A deal was made and the pumped-up flathead was plucked from Ed's Willys Coupe, stuck on a pallet and shipped by rail to Portland, Oregon, to a waiting Erwin Von Homeyer.
The Bing's Built Flathead - Photo by Kleet Norris
Erwin wasted no time stuffing Bing's engine between the frame rails of the Willys. And as you probably could have predicted, the results were exactly the same. Erwin began his campaign of terror immediately. He continued to win. And win. Up and down the Pacific Northwest, the blue Homeyer's Willys became virtually unbeatable. In fact, Erwin was so dominant at his home track, Woodburn Drag Strip, that as time went on, the admiration of fellow racers and in some cases spectators alike, who were initially in awe of the winning streaks, began to turn into something else.. People began to get a bit jaded. After a couple of years, it was not uncommon for the Willys to be boo'd on the return road after yet again sending the competition packing as predicted. His cousins, Hans and Carl were often with him, helping with the Willys and racing their own cars in other classes. After a while, it began to seem like it was the Von Homeyers vs. everyone else. The boys fed into this and it was not uncommon for them to make a scene, behave oddly, or even get into fights on any given weekend.
A local write-up featuring Erwin Von Homeyer
As a sidebar: I actually ran into an old guy about five years ago who it turned out ran the lights for several years at Woodburn Drag Strip, the Von Homeyer's local haunt. I asked him if he remembered them and he instantly recoiled, and got a startled look on his face. “Oh GAWD.” He said, “Yeah I remember the Homeyers..They won a lot and were always getting into some kind of shit..” I asked him to elaborate and he just smirked and as he shook his head he said, “I don't know how to put it other than they were the guys that when they were there, everyone knew it. They were just always in the middle of something. They ruffled a lot of feathers.”
One of Erwin's pit passes circa 1964
One particular example of feather-ruffling was done with a brush and a can of One Shot: In response to the booing at the starting line and on the return road, on both sides of his car, just behind the doors, Erwin painted large hands prominently flipping the bird. The message was clear: “Don't like me? Fuck you.” It was a bold statement, but one that summed up the Von Homeyers and their personas pretty well. It was also short-lived, as track officials gave Erwin an ultimatum: Scrub it off, or don't come back. He decided to continue to let his racing do the bird flipping instead. He removed “The fingers” and returned the next weekend with what he described as “the nagging woman” painted in their place. Those are still on the car to this day.
Still just as it was when painted onto the car in the 1960's
In a quest for more speed, Erwin eventually bought a 1948 Anglia and painted it the same shade of blue. He then transferred the Bing's flathead from the Willys to it. The theory was, smaller car with the same drivetrain=faster times. But ultimately there was no vast improvements in ET or MPH, and the Anglia proved to be a much harder car to drive than the Willys, which had been relegated to the corner to wait for a small block Chevy that never came. By this time, it was the late 1960's. Drag racing rules were changing, becoming more restrictive and strict. The final straw for Erwin came when the NHRA began to require drivers to be licensed. In order to get said license, you would have to have a physical performed. Erwin was convinced that this was a ploy to allow the government to freely size men up for the draft. After all, drag racing was an enormously popular sport, with thousands of men racing on any given weekend. By this time his cousins were beginning to get out of the hobby as well. And for Erwin, the license requirement spelled the end of his drag racing career. The Anglia was parked in the corner of the garage at Homeyer's Cleaners, beside the Willys, and both were all but forgotten for almost 30 years.
One of the many Drag Strip Champion jackets Erwin earned
By the 1990's, Homeyer's Cleaners had been long closed. The building sat mostly vacant for a number of years. Vacant that is except for a few cars stashed away in the back. Most were delivery vehicles for the cleaners, but among them sat two specific blue cars.. Both were just as they had been left, the Willys missing it's drivetrain, the Anglia still sitting on the trailer it had come back from it's last race on. Neither had moved an inch, but both had deteriorated. Now the property had changed hands and the old racers were yanked out and sold off. Unfortunately, the two did not stay together and it would be another twenty years before they would be reunited.
Circa 1990's, the Willys finally seeing daylight again
Erwin on the left examines his once proud machine
Robbie Davis is the kind of guy that's always on the hunt. He's always on the move, always in the middle of some type of deal and above all, always buying and building ridiculously cool cars. It was on one of these hunts that he would make a find that would prove to be life-changing.. It wasn't even his deal that day, he was just helping a friend go pick up a 1956 Chevy Nomad. Coincidentally, that car ended up being the Russ Meeks Nomad, which gets some significant mentions in the story I wrote about Russ for Hop Up Magazine volume 14-3. As his friend looked the Nomad over, Robbie's eyes were drawn to an old Willys Coupe sitting just beyond it. When asked, the story was vague and the point was that the car was not for sale. They loaded up the Nomad and headed home, but there was no way Robbie was about to let it go. Within a few months, the Willys came home to The Temple of Speed, Robbie's enormous shop at his home in Fairview, Oregon. It's just his hobby shop, not open to the public, but the number of insanely cool and often historic cars that have rumbled out of the bay doors there would leave you weak in the knees and wondering what you've been doing with your life.
The same day as above
It would still be a lot of years before it makes it to Robbie
Now, we've all heard the story, it goes something like this: “Two brothers built this car in the 60's to go racing. One brother was drafted and killed in Vietnam. The other brother was so grief-stricken that he pushed the car into the garage, covered it with a tarp and never touched it again.” About 10% of the time, the truth resembles that story in some way, but usually it's just the go-to for some bozo romanticizing the car he's trying to sell you. Or maybe that's what he was told and he believes it. Who knows, and really who knows where these stories come from. The tale that came attached to Robbie's Willys wasn't exactly that verbatim, but it mimicked it. The gist of it was basically the same and the end result was that the guy, “Erwin” was long gone. Not having any reason to doubt it and with no particular sense of urgency, Robbie stashed the Willys in his shop and made tentative plans to totally rebuild it from ground up. Plans included things like swapping the front end for a '40 nose and painting it a different color, etc. After all, he had no particular kinship with the car's history, or the mysterious “Erwin.” who was apparently long-dead. It was just an old race car and it needed everything anyway. He stuffed it away and went back to work on the cars that were ahead of it in line. Before long though, Robbie's curiosity got the better of him.
An almost identical scene, but nearly a decade later
This is how Robbie found the Coupe after it had changed hands a few times
As time passed and the Willys waited it's turn, Robbie went looking for information. He wanted to know about Homeyer's Cleaners, who Erwin was, and the story behind his car. He found that the building itself was gone, but after many dead ends, he eventually found the man who had purchased it from the Homeyer family. What he told Robbie changed everything: “I don't know who told you that.. Erwin is still very much alive. In fact, I can put you in touch with him.”
Robbie wasted no time. Before long, he met with Erwin, who was in failing health. A strong friendship quickly blossomed out of the encounter, one that lead to Robbie essentially turning into Erwin's self-appointed care taker for the remainder of his life. Along the way, Erwin began feeding Robbie the story of the car's history. He also slowly gave him some things associated with it: Trophies, drag strip jackets, time slips and photos, and told him where he could find more of it, at his cousin, Carl's house. (this turned out to be a long saga that continues to this day) And oh yes, there was one more thing Erwin told him right off the bat: “There was a sister car. An Anglia.”
The sister car to the Willys, a 1948 Anglia
Photo taken in the mid-90's and car is where it had been since the 1960's
This of course changed things drastically. Now, rather than just some old race car shell, the old blue Willys took on a new identity: No more mystery, no speculation: It was Erwin Von Homeyer's car. Now, with the story and meeting the man, that meant something to Robbie. “I couldn't erase that.” Robbie says, “Once it's gone, it's gone. That's Erwin's car.” Not wanting to be the guy responsible for erasing history and wiping away a significant part of his now good friend's life, Robbie's plan changed. Now the name of the game was preservation. What couldn't be saved was rebuilt as it was. Although the car had ran a built Flathead, Erwin had always planned to replace it with a Small Block Chevy. Robbie decided he would compromise on exact replication in this area, in favor of being the one that did what Erwin had planned next for it. He installed a healthy 383 and 4 speed and in the back of his mind, he made plans to locate and purchase the matching Anglia.
Photo of the completed Homeyer's Cleaners Willys
Photo by Kleet Norris
After a few years, the Willys was almost done and Robbie worked feverishly to complete it in time to show Erwin. By this time, Robbie had arranged to have him put in a nursing home, where he went multiple times a week to check on and care for his friend. Meanwhile, the coupe turned out to be no easy build. Wanting to preserve the car while at the same time making it safe and rebuilding what had deteriorated over the years was a difficult juggling act. In the end, the car was completely rebuilt from the bare frame up, engineered by Robbie to drive well and get to the other end of the track quickly and safely. The body itself was able to be cleaned up and saved, it still wears the $20 Earl Scheib paint Erwin had put on it in the early 1960's, along with the nagging women and stickers added in the mid-60's. The paint on the nose was too far gone to clean up, but was perfectly replicated by Robbie's cousin, Lester.
Another angle of the condition when found by Robbie Davis
Sadly, just days before the Coupe would drive under it's own power for the very first time in almost 45 years, Robbie received a call that his friend Erwin had passed away. The news was especially devastating, given the fact that he had wanted so badly to take the finished car to Erwin, to show him that his story would not be lost to time and to give him one more white-knuckled ride in his beloved old racer. It was a tough blow, and it made the quest to find the Anglia and to reunite the two cars and as much of the memorabilia as possible that much more intense. To Robbie, it was important. And he wouldn't be stopped.
The Anglia going to the track at Eagle Field
Driven by Robbie Davis
Information on the Anglia was sparse. It turned out to be just as difficult as his original journey with the Willys. Eventually through some serious investigative work, the car was located in Southern Oregon. The good news was, it still had the Bing's Speed Shop-built Flathead in place, which the current owner had had correctly and carefully freshened up. The bad news was that it had been painted a metallic blue, the Homeyer's Cleaners history painted over. The worst news, it wasn't for sale and the guy didn't seem the type that might be hurting for money any time soon.. A different approach had to be taken, one that appealed to the guy's better nature.. Robbie had to sell him the story - the plan to put all of the scattered puzzle pieces back together. It took a long time, a lot of conversations and an aggressive offer, but eventually Robbie was able to load the Anglia up and reunite it with it's long-lost racing buddy, the by now completed Willys Coupe.
The pair reunited and on display at the famous World of Speed Museum where they spent more than year
The Anglia was pretty perfectly preserved other than the fresh paint. The Bing's Flatty ran well and it drove, albeit a little on the scary side, just fine. Robbie tasked Aaron Clyde of Southbound Customs to respray the car in it's as-raced blue, matching the Willys. He then had the lettering exactly replicated from photos by local striper, Spiderman. Robbie corrected a few things with the Anglia's steering geometry to improve it's manners as much as possible and hit the strip. There are a few photos of both cars lined up side by side at Eagle Field that could wet the eye of just about any hot rodder or old racer that might have taken the time to learn the story.. On top of that, if I remember correctly, Robbie was in the Anglia and our dear, late friend, Shorty was piloting the Willys that day. At any rate, it was truly a site to see and one that I'm sure Erwin was watching and smiling about.
Both cars side by side at Eagle Field circa 2015
Robbie in the Anglia, Shorty Brown in the Willys
Cockpit of the Willys - Photo by Kleet Norris
Another monster wheel stand
Robbie is happy to put on a show at any track
As it sits now, Robbie Davis has been able to put together both cars, around 100 trophies, (many of which have the date and ET hand written on the bottom) two Championship jackets, a dozen or so old photos, time slips, pit passes and a few other sporadic pieces of the puzzle. He even has the old custom-built trailer the Anglia rode to the strip on. One thing was made clear by Erwin though toward the end of his life: All those trophies Robbie has, which when viewed together in a group is pretty staggering, are not even a drop in the bucket. There is no telling how many were lost, thrown away, misplaced, etc. His cousin, Carl is still alive and it is known that he still has plenty, along with other things related to those hard-racing days. He is not particularly concerned about giving them up though, despite many, many attempts to recover whatever may be there. For now, that's where they rest, leaving us to daydream about what may be there, and powerless to do anything about it. As it turns out, it seems the Von Homeyers still like winning..
Just a handful of the approximately 100 trophies associated with these cars in Robbie's possession