Al O'Connor's story - Part 1

As told exclusively to

Al O'Connor lived near Podington Airfield and worked on auto mechanics from his teens. He had his first American car when he was 15 and, a couple of cars later, owned a Ford Zephyr which he called Rocky II after his son. In 1973 he bought Motor Psycho from the Gleadow brothers and converted it to a Street Altered which was named Al's Gasser. Al took Al's Gasser to events around the UK and to Sweden, however in 1978 the car, which had become well known for wheels up launches, crashed at Santa Pod, Al fortunately escaping serious injury.

I was born 14th July 1948. I went to loads of schools because my dad was killed in a plane crash in 1950, I lived in London, Hillingdon, Uxbridge and ended up in Newport Pagnell. The last school I went to was in Harrold; I lived in Wymington and used to bike to school. I’d go through the disused Podington Airfield and come out at Odell, then it was about a mile to the school. My stepdad worked for a sand and gravel company, and they dug up all the runways at the Airfield using it as a hard core to build the M1. They were still building the Newport Pagnell section; I think it only went as far as Luton or somewhere. In the school holidays I would go to the airfield in the sand and gravel lorries. All but one runway was dug up and that runway became Santa Pod Raceway.

I was never much for going to school. My stepdad was a mechanic, so I ended up going into a garage in Sharnbrook. I started an apprenticeship but didn’t earn a lot of money, about two and a half quid a week. So, I gave that up and worked on trucks which paid £10 a week, but it wasn’t an apprenticeship, I didn’t end up with any papers. I just learnt it all as I went along.

My first car was a 1949 Ford V8 Pilot when I was 15 and I drove that on the road illegally for a while until I’d passed my test at 17. Then I found a 1959 Dodge with a knackered engine in it for £40 when I was 18. I found an engine in Ampthill, Bedfordshire in a big truck, a Dodge Power Wagon and it was a 354 Hemi. I thought I like that; I’d been to Santa Pod in 1966 and seen the Hemis running in the American Fuel Dragsters that came over that year.

I fitted the Hemi and cut the exhaust off with just two Norton Dominator silencers on it. I painted it myself with blue and copper metal flake which was the thing in those days. Having fitted the Hemi to the Dodge and after a year of smoking the tyres round everywhere I lost my licence. I sold the Dodge to a guy who then sold it to the Dorset Horn/Fire In’jun crew. Then Pat Cuss ended up with the Hemi in his Ratcatcher dragster.

Al's '59 Dodge

Flames became a feature on Al's cars

354 Hemi under the hood

Once I got my licence back, I found out I couldn’t insure anything big, so I ended up getting a 1956 MK 2 Zephyr and I fancied going drag racing. I’d learnt a bit in the garage including welding and painting and I’d taken the Dodge to a couple of Run What ya Brungs at Santa Pod. It wasn’t that fast, or it didn’t seem as fast on the drag strip as it did on the road. That was 1968 or 69 before I’d lost my licence. When I got my licence back, I got the Zephyr. I made an inlet manifold and fitted three SU carburettors. I made up some headers with half-moon adapters. It was basically a stock motor with a half race camshaft and a 4-speed floor change gearbox out of a Mk3 Zodiac export car.

I painted it orange and white with flames coming off the rear wheel arches and started racing at Santa Pod 24th May 1970. My best times were 15.49 and 89.91mph with the Zephyr engine. I got married to Maggie in 1969 and we had our first son, we named him Rocky and that’s where the name Rocky II came from for my car. My daughter, Rhonda, was born in 1971.

Maggie with Rocky II

This was Rocky I

Taking on a Mini at Santa Pod 1970

In 1971 I chopped the roof and replaced the windows with black perspex to save weight.

1971 saw a few mods

Roof chop and more flames

Then in 1972 I decided to totally rebuild it to race in the Street Altered class. I fitted a 383 Chrysler engine and 4-speed out of a Facel Vega and used a Mk2 Jag rear axle. I had a straight tube axle up front with 100E hubs, Ford Pop spindles and a Mk2 Jag steering box.

The straight six motor from Rocky II went in Al’s yellow Zephyr tow car. Andy Fenn pic

Rocky II had 383 Chrysler power for 1973. Ken Robbins pic

Looking tough with straight tube axle and wide Dunlop racing boots Pete Blake

Smokin' Pete Blake pic

I ran a best of 13.2 and 111mph in 1973, then I blew the clutch and broke the bell housing. It was going to cost about £300 to fix. At the end of the 1973 Rocky II was broken up and sold in parts. The bodyshell ended up as the ‘Victim’ run by Vic Mears and Tim Claxton and the engine I sold to a stock car guy. That’s when I bought Motor Psycho from the Gleadow brothers for £500. It was a good deal, but I had to get a bank loan; my wife had a colour TV, and I had the car.

Rocky II ended up with Vic Mears and Tim Claxton. Roy Thomas pic

Motor Psycho came up for sale in 1973

Al snapped it up for £500

I took the engine apart and replaced a bent con rod as Mick Gleadow did say they’d flooded it when push starting it the last time they raced. They had run it in Competition Altered with no radiator and a filled grille. I wanted to run it in Street Altered so I fitted the rad from Rocky II and cut openings in the grille. I also fitted wipers and headlamps as the class required all street equipment, but it didn’t have to be street legal. I ran it with the cross ram manifold in 1974 with two small hood scoops then swapped it for a tunnel ram and made up a bigger scoop. I painted the car black and flames, someone else did the sign writing and I called it Al’s Gasser.

My best times in 1974 were 11.29 and 120mph. I kept the fibreglass doors for a while but later put steel doors on as the glass ones would lean out at the top end. Even now in 2022 it still has the same boot lid and rear wings which are just raised up in the body, and there's a few other bits still on it from Motor Psycho. I won my first trophy at the 1974 Hot Car Big Go when I beat Bob Oram in his E-Type in the final. I ran at an NDRC Meet at Silverstone in 1974. I still had the Oldsmobile axle in it with only 2.9 gears and I could only get first and into second at the end of the quarter.

Al with Rocky and Rhonda

Al's Gasser debuted as a Street Altered in 1974

Al kept the cross ram for 1974

I knew Dave Lee Travis back then and saw him a few years ago and he still remembers me. He was known as the Hairy Cornflake, and we used to race him quite a lot when he drove Tender Trap with the Stones. My first visit to Sweden was to the Vargarda Drag Festival in June 1975. I went out there with Dennis Priddle, Barry Sheavills, John Hobbs and a few others.

Al with DLT on his monkey bike and crewman Kev Brawn

Al had many matchups with DLT in Tender Trap

Al's Gasser at Vargarda Drag Festival 1975

I became well known for pulling wheel stands off the line. I used to bend the front axle then bang it straight again with a sledgehammer. I fitted wheelie bars after the first time but continued doing them and enjoyed riding along with it. There are a few photos about with the front in the air and the rear tyres smoking.

Al's first big wheelie before he fitted wheelie bars

Wheels up and smokin' Roger Gorringe pic

I remember going to Snetterton and doing a best of three with Tender Trap and another time I did a best of three with Mickey Bray in Pinball Wizard. I didn’t do many NDRC meetings as I was so close to Santa Pod. There were not the number of cars in each class at NDRC meets so you did mostly match racing.

I went to Florida for the Gatornationals in 1976. I borrowed a 454 El Camino to drive about in. I just borrowed it off somebody there, Americans are so friendly. I went to Don Garlits workshop and ordered a camshaft before I ran out of money, and he brought it with him when he came over to Santa Pod at Easter. Best times in 1976 were 10.75 and 129mph.

Al in Florida 1976

Visiting the Gatornationals at Gainesville

Al borrowed this 454 El Camino

I had several tow cars, the Ford Pilot Al’s Hauler, my garden was full of V8 Pilots. A Vauxhall PA Cresta station wagon with a wing on the roof, I towed the Gasser to Sweden with that and ended up breaking the back spring. I had to tie a block of wood between the Chassis and axle, roped it all up and still got back with the trailer but it was a bit bumpy. There was also a 289 4-speed Mustang called Al’s Cruiser and a 1969 Chevy van. All these were painted black and flames to match the Gasser. I also had a 1956 Cadillac tow car which was perfect for the job, this was just painted black and there was a white 1965 327 Chevy Impala which I used to tow the Gasser to Germany. I think this was the car the Muncie box came out of for the Gasser.

Al's Ford Pilot tow car

Vauxhall Cresta estate tow car with wing on roof

Mustang known as Al's Cruiser

Al's 1969 chevy van

1956 Cadillac tow car

Chevy Impala tow car in Germany

It was all great fun in those days and not so much about winning but just having as much fun as possible. I didn’t chase points and Championships; if it came along then it came along. It was about the moment for me, I was really enjoying it all and had no desire to do any more changes at the time.

I had Al’s Gasser on a float at the Street Freak’s Carnival. They were celebrating the Hull Pioneers, Amy Johnson and William Wilberforce. They’d asked me to go with the car, I think John Hobbs was on that float somewhere too. Others went as well; we had a good time and it was free beer.

Al's Gasser at Snetterton. Mike Key pic

Now fitted with a tunnel ram

Check out Al's jacket and trousers. Dave Dick pic

A big crowd at the 1977 Internationals. Al smokes away from Norm Wilding on his way to a Top Modified win. Terry Richards pic

The Street Freak’s Carnival

At the 1977 Santa Pod Internationals I had a best of three with Tony Merry in the Liquidator Pop for the title of the country's top Pop. The Gasser took it with two straight wins, it was close, we were both running high tens. The following year I narrowed the rear axle to bring the wheels inside the arches and fitted some bigger tyres from Liam Churchill’s Sting Funny Car.

Narrowed rear axle with bigger tyres from Liam Churchill's Funny Car

Not sure what the photog on the other side is looking at?

Modified hood scoop at York Raceway

A 10.28 and 138mph were the quickest times it ever ran with the Motor Psycho stock chassis; this was 1978 and I crashed it in August 1978 at the Supernationals. I was racing Dave Stone in Tender Trap in the final of Top Modified.

Top Modified final, August 1978, the last race for the first Al's Gasser

Al's helmet exits the car

I’d got the Muncie in there with the vertical gate shifter and I couldn’t get it in 1st gear. I had my seat belts a bit loose so I could lean forward to select 1st. I came out of the seat belts when I crashed and just wondered about the inside of the car, my head popped out the back window at one point. My crash helmet came off and the helmet strap ripped off one of my sideburns which I had in those days. I remember Gerry Andrews afterwards said he thought my head had got chopped off when he saw the helmet come out the car. The crash helmet came off because it got caught underneath the roll cage which ripped it off the back of my head.

At the top end the car went left then right towards the barrier. I got it away from the barrier but by then all I could see was tarmac out of the front window. It was pretty much all over by then, I tried to steer it and hold onto the steering wheel, but it just ripped it out of my hands taking all the skin off my fingers because I wasn’t wearing gloves. I did just run with a T-shirt but on this run I had a jumper on because John Ledster had told me to cover my arms when racing. I was very lucky to get away with that one. I had a few stitches in my head and plenty of bruises and stayed the night in hospital with concussion.

Al holds up his bandaged fingers

Al salvaged the engine and gearbox

Bootsie said to me I’d ruined the strip as they’d just resurfaced it that year. Acid came out of the battery once I’d stopped and melted a hole in the tarmac. He was only joking...

Video links (click on title)

Rocky II in 1971

Al's Gasser racing Mike Churchill in 1975

Smoky wheels-up start in 1976

Gallery: click on any thumbnail for a large image.

Feature ©

Back to pioneers index

Back to News page