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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.