Is riding in a brass-era race car really that terrifying?

By Chris Tropea
May 18, 2024 | race car, Column, Brass-era, Chalmers, E-M-F | Posted in Columns | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Riding in the passenger seat of a brass-era race car was possibly the coolest and most terrifying car experience I’ve ever had.

Before this, my weirdest car experience came in a Messerschmitt, a microcar that’s more scooter than car. I thought that would be the most dangerous-feeling thing I would ever ride in. Turns out I was wrong.

[Driving Microcars: Equal parts fun and scary?]

Recently, Tim Suddard and I took a trip up to Savanah, Georgia, to do a photo and video shoot for a story about two prewar race cars: an E-M-F from 1911 and a Chalmers from 1908.

When we were getting ready to wrap up the shoot, Tim asked me, “Do you want to ride in one of these?” After a little hesitancy, I said yes, and I’m glad I did. When will I ever get the chance to do that again?

The moment I stepped into the Chalmers, I was transported back to 1911. You don’t sit in one of these cars so much as you sit on it. One of the first things you notice is that getting into the seat requires climbing over the hot, open header that sits directly next to you on the floorboard.

Once in the seat, which more closely resembles a bench, I noticed another thing: You are completely exposed, sitting up high with nothing to keep you in place.

I was instructed to hold onto the back of the driver’s seat, just as the ride-in mechanics did back when these cars were raced.

Then we headed off to take a loop around what is left of the Hutchinson Island race track. While now surrounded by a golf course, this track was built in the ’90s in the hopes of hosting an IndyCar event. It didn’t pan out, and now the track sits unused as a stretch of public roadway.

Once underway, I finally realized just how crazy the people who raced these cars must have been. While we got nowhere close to the speeds that the cars are capable of, even at 35 mph I felt like we were going 50.

The sound of the four-cylinder engine’s exhaust right next to me, the whine of the gears, and the wind in my face was an experience I will never forget.

A little way down the track, I remembered what the mechanic that joined us that day told me about these engines having an open valvetrain as oil started sprinkling onto my face. Track debris was also being kicked up from the skinny, tall tires. I realized quickly why drivers are wearing goggles in those old photos. This just enhanced the experience for me, though.

And as the driver reached over to shift into another gear, the second car on our shoot came up alongside us, and the cacophony of the two cars surrounded me. It was unlike any experience I have ever had with cars.

Most cars I’ve been in have been designed with safety of the driver and passenger in mind, and this car seemed to completely forgo safety in the effort of going fast and winning races.

Now I can’t help but think about what it must have been like in the early 1900s to see these cars racing in person or, better yet, to be part of the race.

What was it like to actually drive these cars? Keep an eye on a future issue of Classic Motorsports.

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Woody (Forum Supportum)
Woody (Forum Supportum) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/18/23 9:08 a.m.

I want a Brass Era speedster. 

4/18/23 9:26 a.m.

I kinda wanna MAKE a brass-era speedster. 

Woody (Forum Supportum)
Woody (Forum Supportum) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/18/23 9:37 a.m.

Maybe we need a Brass Era Speedster class at the next Challenge. 

4/18/23 1:49 p.m.
Woody (Forum Supportum) said:

Maybe we need a Brass Era Speedster class at the next Challenge. 

  1. Only pushrod engines.
  2. Only manual transmissions.
  3. Only leafspring suspensions or period-correct systems.
  4. Seat has to look like a Presidential barcalounger
Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/18/23 1:52 p.m.

In reply to GIRTHQUAKE :

5. 145 section width tire, max.

4/18/23 2:03 p.m.

In reply to Pete. (l33t FS) :

6. Obviously, only carburation, though you can use more than an updraft.

7. Mechanical fuel pumps are acceptable?

BA5 GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
4/18/23 2:14 p.m.

In reply to Pete. (l33t FS) :

But they have to be on 22"+ rims.

RadBarchetta New Reader
4/18/23 3:15 p.m.

8. No safety gear other than leather helmet, gloves, and goggles allowed.

Apexcarver UltimaDork
4/18/23 4:17 p.m.

9. Drum (or more primitive) Brakes ONLY

10. Bonus points for hand crank starter. 

4/18/23 4:29 p.m.

In reply to Apexcarver :

11. If you're injured by said starter, you get free refills for the period of the race laugh

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