Historic Willys Gasser Returns to the Track after 45 Years

It was the mid 1960s and the gasser wars had taken over South Carolina. Countless car guys were spending every dime they earned on a 1955 Chevy, a Henry J, an Anglia, or even a Willys coupe. The racing was intense and spectators certainly got their money’s worth when they watched a drag race unfold. Many say it was the heyday of drag racing, and for guys like Gene Cromer, it offers up an overwhelming number of memories—some good and some bad. His 1941 Willys coupe, named “The Moonlighter” gave him a lot of great memories, but after 45 years of hibernation, he wanted this car to be more than a memory. He wanted to rebuild it to all of its former glory but not to be some static display in a museum. The intention with the Moonlighter resurrection was to put it back on the track, where it belongs. And, with help from numerous friends, he did just that.

The Moonlighter is one of the few cars that is grandfathered into the Southeast Gassers rules package, making it legal to run an automatic transmission in the A/Gas division. Although it doesn’t leave the line quite as violently as the high winding four-speed cars, the Willys hangs the front wheels in the air on every pass.
The Moonlighter is one of the few cars that is grandfathered into the Southeast Gassers rules package, making it legal to run an automatic transmission in the A/Gas division. Although it doesn’t leave the line quite as violently as the high winding four-speed cars, the Willys hangs the front wheels in the air on every pass.

The car serves as a perfect example of a 1960s style gasser, and that makes sense because it is built with the same parts that it had in 1967, which is right about the time a young man by the name of Quain Stott saw the Moonlighter for the first time. Quain went on to be a very successful drag racer in the Pro Modified ranks, thanks in part to his exposure to the Moonlighter in those early days. A few years ago, Quain retired from Pro Mod racing, and started an organization called the Southeast Gassers Association. He created a very strict rules package, something that typically doesn’t happen with nostalgia drag racing. His rules called for period correct looks with modern safety features, and heads up, old-school action to help people understand why the 1960s was the heyday of drag racing. Long burnouts, wild dry hops and wheels-up launches are part of the fun, making the Southeast Gassers racing series a huge success. And with the addition of a historic drag car such as the Moonlighter, it continues to get better with each race.

It’s like stepping back in time 50 years when you see a car like the Moonlighter. With period correct details throughout, this old drag car is an irreplaceable piece of southern drag racing history, and it’s still putting on a show with the Southeast Gassers.
It’s like stepping back in time 50 years when you see a car like the Moonlighter. With period correct details throughout, this old drag car is an irreplaceable piece of southern drag racing history, and it’s still putting on a show with the Southeast Gassers.

Gene travels the Southeast Gassers circuit (8-10 races per year) with his wife, Ruth and his two daughters, Julie and Robin, along with their families. Another member of the traveling gasser bunch is Melvin Craft, a guy who started hanging around with Gene during the original buildup of the Willys in 1964. Melvin admits that he didn’t know a lot about cars when he started hanging at Gene’s Speed Shop during the evenings and weekends, but he caught on quick and became Gene’s right-hand man when it came to tuning the Moonlighter between rounds at countless drag races from 1965 to 1967. What a great sight to see, as Melvin turns wrenches on the car that he cut his teeth on some five decades ago.

The fellow backing Gene into the groove after his burnout is Melvin Craft, who is a lifelong friend of Gene’s. The two started hanging around together during the first buildup of the Willys back in 1964, and they’re still at it today. These guys have forgotten more about drag racing than most people will ever know.
The fellow backing Gene into the groove after his burnout is Melvin Craft, who is a lifelong friend of Gene’s. The two started hanging around together during the first buildup of the Willys back in 1964, and they’re still at it today. These guys have forgotten more about drag racing than most people will ever know.

Turning back the clocks about 50 years, you’d find Gene and Melvin in the garage trying to find ways to make more horsepower with the FE-based Ford engine or take weight out of the Willys body. With the big-inch engine combination (for the time) and a very light car, Gene ran in the A/Gas ranks, which was a very competitive class of racers. All those nights in the shop explains why Gene’s wife named the car “The Moonlighter.” By 1965, the Willys was ready for its first race, an NHRA-sanctioned meet in Greenville, South Carolina. The car was freshly finished and it didn’t even have its signature lettering on the side when Gene took home the A/Gas victory in his first attempt.

The Moonlighter is seen here on its first outing, a huge race in Greenville, South Carolina. The A/Gas prepared Willys was fresh out of the shop, so it didn’t have its name or signature lettering.
The Moonlighter is seen here on its first outing, a huge race in Greenville, South Carolina. The A/Gas prepared Willys was fresh out of the shop, so it didn’t have its name or signature lettering.

Although Gene originally built a 468-cubic inch FE engine using a Crankshaft Company stroker crank, Mickey Thompson aluminum connecting rods and ForgedTrue pistons, he chose to build a stock-stroke combination in the most recent rebuild. Gene handled all of his own machine work and cylinder head work on the car original build, and he knocked the dust off his machines and tools during the restoration process. Gene originally used a Holman & Moody roller camshaft, but currently uses a stick from Crane Cams.

You might be thinking, an aluminum radiator in a 1960s period correct car? That, friends, is an original piece from a factory lightweight Ford Galaxie and it was originally on the Moonlighter in 1965. The Moon tank is also a piece from the original build.
You might be thinking, an aluminum radiator in a 1960s period correct car? That, friends, is an original piece from a factory lightweight Ford Galaxie and it was originally on the Moonlighter in 1965. The Moon tank is also a piece from the original build.

The same Hilborn mechanical fuel injection system that was on the car in the 1960s is still in use, while a Vertex magneto lights the fire. The original setup included a four-speed manual transmission, but Gene swapped to a C6 automatic transmission in 1967. The car currently uses a C6 transmission, rebuilt by Cameron’s Torque Converter Services in Columbia, South Carolina. It is one of the few cars grandfathered into the Southeast Gassers rules package, as all other cars are required to have a manual transmission.

Quain Stott pulled out all the stops, when it came to making the Moonlighter’s interior period correct. He upgraded the roll cage, but tucked the A-pillar bars very tight to the body and even made a false firewall, so that the bars are not visible.
Quain Stott pulled out all the stops, when it came to making the Moonlighter’s interior period correct. He upgraded the roll cage, but tucked the A-pillar bars very tight to the body and even made a false firewall, so that the bars are not visible.

While Gene and Melvin found all of the original bits and pieces for the Willys and assembled the engine, it was up to Quain Stott to rebuild the chassis and suspension to be period correct and safe. This turned out to be Quain’s biggest challenge, as hiding the safety features took a great deal of time and energy. In the end, it was worth it, as the extensive roll cage is barely detectable, and he knows it will offer plenty of protection for Gene. Let’s hope he doesn’t need those safety features, but in the world of period correct gasser racing, the action is unpredictable.

Although it looks extremely simple, the rear suspension beneath the Moonlighter was revolutionary. The car worked very well in the 1960s and continues to launch hard and go straight in its modern configuration. Here, you can see massive traction bars, which have been modified by Quain Stott. Gene installed Koni coilovers on the car in 1967.
Although it looks extremely simple, the rear suspension beneath the Moonlighter was revolutionary. The car worked very well in the 1960s and continues to launch hard and go straight in its modern configuration. Here, you can see massive traction bars, which have been modified by Quain Stott. Gene installed Koni coilovers on the car in 1967.

The front axle and leaf springs are stock Willys pieces, but Gene used a 1963 Fiat steering box to save weight and space. Out back, Quain modified a 9-inch rear end housing from a 1965 Mustang, and packed it with 4.88:1 gears, a spool and Moser axles. The rear suspension originally consisted of home-built traction bars, made from rectangular tubing, but Quain added a turnbuckle for adjustment, as well as a Panhard bar for stability. Original Koni coilover shocks, sourced from Holman Moody in 1967 reside beneath the Moonlighter. Koni rebuilt the front and rear shocks, and the car obviously has no problem planting the rear tires, as evidenced by wheels-up launches on every pass.

The Moonlighter rolls on the same type of wheels that it did in 1965—American Racing Torq Thrust. These magnesium wheels have been refinished, and painted to match the original configuration, and of course, fitted to a set of modern race tires, measuring 5.50 x 5-inches up front and 30 x11.5-15-inches out back.
The Moonlighter rolls on the same type of wheels that it did in 1965—American Racing Torq Thrust. These magnesium wheels have been refinished, and painted to match the original configuration, and of course, fitted to a set of modern race tires, measuring 5.50 x 5-inches up front and 30 x11.5-15-inches out back.

Although Gene moved on from the gasser racing scene in the late 1960s, and stepped into a Mustang funny car, and eventually a Maverick Pro Stocker, he held onto the Willys, and put it away in storage. The same cannot be said for many racers, as so many iconic cars got sold off the moment they were considered outdated. Gene and friends rebuilt the car in a matter of months, and it’s a spectacular piece of drag racing history that gets put through the wringer on a regular basis, just like it did way back when. The car continues to give people the drag racing bug, just like it did back when Quain Stott first saw it run. These days, the car is actually a few tenths quicker than its 1967 configuration, as it has run a best of 6.10 in the eighth-mile (which translates to low 9-second passes in the quarter mile) for this historic drag car and its 84-year-old pilot.

Gene has a few years on him, but even at 84 years old, he still loves crawling into the Willys and making a blast down the drag strip. During the rebuild, Quain Stott made sure the period correct gasser had the appropriate safety equipment.
Gene has a few years on him, but even at 84 years old, he still loves crawling into the Willys and making a blast down the drag strip. During the rebuild, Quain Stott made sure the period correct gasser had the appropriate safety equipment.
Gene and his wife Ruth traveled quite a bit in the 1960’s, and they took their two daughters, Julie and Robin with them. These two drag racing kids have grown up since this 1965 photograph, but they still travel with their parents to many of the Southeast Gasser events.
Gene and his wife Ruth traveled quite a bit in the 1960’s, and they took their two daughters, Julie and Robin with them. These two drag racing kids have grown up since this 1965 photograph, but they still travel with their parents to many of the Southeast Gasser events.
Gene is seen here with a menacing smirk on his face, while sitting behind the wheel of the Moonlighter. For the first couple of seasons, Gene ran A/Gas with a four-speed manual transmission, but later swapped to a C6 automatic.
Gene is seen here with a menacing smirk on his face, while sitting behind the wheel of the Moonlighter. For the first couple of seasons, Gene ran A/Gas with a four-speed manual transmission, but later swapped to a C6 automatic.
Even though Gene hadn’t drag raced in decades, he still had a sizable stash of speed parts in his garage. The new Ford FE combination is a little different than his original 468ci stroker, but it makes plenty of steam and uses the same Hilborn injection that was on the car in 1965.
Even though Gene hadn’t drag raced in decades, he still had a sizable stash of speed parts in his garage. The new Ford FE combination is a little different than his original 468ci stroker, but it makes plenty of steam and uses the same Hilborn injection that was on the car in 1965.
A blue metalflake steering wheel is the centerpiece in this basic race car interior, as it stands out in a sea of bare aluminum. The custom dash panel holds a couple gauges, a mount for the cable-drive Accutronic tachometer and a special Bible verse that Gene holds dear.
A blue metalflake steering wheel is the centerpiece in this basic race car interior, as it stands out in a sea of bare aluminum. The custom dash panel holds a couple gauges, a mount for the cable-drive Accutronic tachometer and a special Bible verse that Gene holds dear.
Source: hotrod.com

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