Photos and words by Kleet Norris
The 1960's was a defining decade for the world of drag racing. The cars were getting faster, the technology better. Everyone from the top professional racers to die-hard weekend warriors were pushing their machines and testing the limits of safety and reason, in a quest to be the first to the finish line. There is no question that in this era of racing, the gasser was king. And for many still, the “gasser craze” of the 60's is a blip in time that cannot be ignored.
Jake Steele: native Portlander obsessed with hot rods
“When I was a kid, my dad was always wrenching on something, and since he grew up in the late 1960's and 1970's, it was usually a muscle car of some kind.” About 15 years ago, Jake began to take an interest in traditionally styled hot rods and customs. As time went along, he would be lucky enough to meet enough like-minded people to form what would eventually become the Estranged Car Club. It was one of these like-minded people, Robbie Davis, that would introduce Jake to a whole new kind of sickness: The gasser. “The first time I met Robbie, he was doing a smoky burnout, completely sideways, in the middle of the street in a '41 Willys with a blown Hemi. It was the gnarliest burnout I'd ever seen. I knew I might get along with whoever was driving that car.” Jake recalls. It turns out, “that guy” would end up making a huge impact on his life.
Robbie Davis: hot rodder and race car enthusiast
For those who may not know Robbie Davis, he is a hot rodder and race car enthusiast with a taste for steel bodied Willys gassers. “I could only take so much, being around his cars and going to the drag strip, I had to build one of my own and go racing.” Jake said. “He's a bad influence, that guy.” After some talk, Robbie agreed that Jake could build his gasser at Robbie's shop, “The Temple of Speed” and that he would help guide him along the way. The only stipulation from Robbie, being that it could not be sold, or at least not right away. As Jake put it: “I have a history of getting a car done and then selling it to get something else-whatever I get in my head that I think I need next. He told me if we built it, I had to hold onto this one.” Jake agreed, but had a stipulation of his own. With two of Robbie's cars named Hustler, and Hustler II, Jake told Robbie that he wanted to build Hustler III. The two agreed and the hunt was on.
Eventually, a 1938 Willys pickup was located for the project. It was complete and stock, and what appeared to be decent shape. The first order of business was to tear it down to the frame. Once apart, it was obvious that the truck wasn't as nice as it seemed. In short, it needed everything. The only thing left from that original truck that is a part of what you see now, is the cab. Everything else is different, even the frame had to be scrapped, it was too far gone.
“It's funny when you're young and you've slapped together a couple of hot rods-you think you know everything about building cars. Then you get around someone like Robbie and realize how much you had to learn."
In just 6 months, with Robbie's help on weekends and in the evenings, Jake's dream became a reality. Influenced heavily by the iconic “Silver Dollar” Willys gasser pickup, and with the visual aid of a rendering by the talented Eric Black, it all came together. As Jake recalls, looking back “I learned so much during this build. It's funny when you're young and you've slapped together a couple of hot rods-you think you know everything about building cars. Then you get around someone like Robbie and realize how much you had to learn.”
The Hustler III sports a punched out small block Chevy backed by a 4 speed Muncie, and spooled 9” rear end. It is simple, functional, fast and fun. “I wanted to build this truck to go racing, not to win shows.” Jake explains. “It gets hammered on every chance I get when it's racing season.” The pickup is a hit at the local tracks, where he gets in as many passes as possible whenever he can. While the truck is “done” for now, with plans on adding a blower and some other minor tweaks in the future. “It's fast, I just want to go a little bit faster...” Jake says. Famous last words...