THE beaming, round-faced man in the photograph looks like he could be your elderly uncle, or maybe someone you knew once who worked in a bank. He wears a neatly adjusted tie and a white collared shirt, and his overalls, also white, are immaculate. Surely this is no motorsport daredevil.
Yet he sits in front of a primitive rollbar, with a dragster’s cowl in front of him, racing slicks either side. On the edge of the photo you can just glimpse the back of a Chrysler wedge engine.
This is none other than Eddie Thomas, and his many nicknames – ET, Big Daddy, Fast Eddie – hint at his achievements.
Despite a brief racing career of just four years, Thomas was one of the most significant figures in the birth of the speed equipment industry in Australia. His impact on drag racing and its participants continued long after he’d ceased racing, helping to lift a fledgling motorsport out of its infancy and on a path towards the professionalism it enjoys today.
Thomas began racing almost as soon as he could earn a wage, buying a motorcycle and going scramble racing – an early form of motocross – around his home in Melbourne. He soon graduated to speedway competition at the Aspendale track and other venues around Melbourne.
The Second World War interrupted his racing when he enlisted in 1942, but after being demobilised in 1945 he was back at it, at sprint races, hillclimbs, road racing and his beloved speedway. He found that he could actually earn a living out of appearance and prizemoney on the dirt tracks, especially after the Maribyrnong Speedway opened in 1946.
Thomas’s car was powered by a Willys Jeep engine, but as he couldn’t afford all the fancy parts, he started making them for himself, and then for others. What began as a part-time activity in his home garage kept growing to the point where, in 1956, he and good mate Pat Ratliff took a lease on a shop in Melbourne’s Caulfield, trading under the name Eddie Thomas Speed Shop.
Thomas moved in his home-built cam-grinding machine and installed a Heenan & Froude dyno – the first in Melbourne – which attracted all the top teams from all disciplines of motor racing. The shelves were stocked with go-fast bits from all over the world, and Thomas became one of the first to start issuing his own T-shirts after American drag racer Wilson ‘Dante Duce’
Van Dusen stuffed a couple in a shipment of Moon items from the States.
When South Australian parts manufacturer Speco put its business up for sale, Thomas jumped at the opportunity and was soon marketing his expanded range of parts under the Speco-Thomas brand.
The business’s first employee was young hot rodder Greg Goddard, who had built the nation’s first dragster in 1958 from crude parts he’d thrown together, and then made a much more professional effort later that year with a car built around the sidevalve motor from his ’34 coupe. Eddie had been out to the drag strip at Pakenham to see it in action, but only really became interested when American circuit racer Chuck Daigh was billeted at Thomas’s place in 1962 and explained the popularity of drag racing in the States, stating that it was “the coming thing”.
When Goddard decided to pull the motor from the dragster in 1963 to put it into a speedboat, he left the rolling chassis parked at Eddie’s. A few weeks later, Eddie – then 46, comfortable with the success of his business, and having not raced competitively for a number of years – rang Goddard and offered to buy it.
Eddie’s friend John English, a keen racer at the new Riverside strip at Fishermans Bend, needed a car to maintain his lead in the points series at the drags. So Eddie loaned him the car, which English ran with his own sidevalve V8.
In the meantime, Eddie had pieced together a 318 Chrysler wedge motor, with a front-mounted Marshall cabin blower, and it was dropped into the chassis with English as the driver. The rear brakes, however, were pretty marginal, and after one pass where the car plunged off the end of the braking area into a nearby swamp, English returned to racing his own car.
Eddie, however, stepped up to the plate and was soon enjoying himself mightily behind the wheel. From May 1964 he began pushing boundaries, going to a track record of 10.74 and reaching speeds over 130mph.
He began to ask questions about parachutes from his US contacts. Again Duce came to the party and sent out a small drag ’chute designed for aircraft. When that didn’t work out in testing, Eddie went to a larger cargo-drop ’chute. It did the job and was the first on a quarter-mile car in the country.
With braking sorted, Eddie turned back to the go-fast bits, switching to a 365 Chrysler. In
May 1965 the car broke through the 140mph barrier, running 145mph, but the dragster was starting to feel old hat so Eddie bought a set of dragster plans he saw advertised in Hot Rod magazine, and set about building something a little more up-to-date.
The result was a 140-inch wheelbase, aluminium-bodied car that became known as ‘Old No. 17’. It was a huge jump in appearance, technology and performance over anything else in the country. It debuted in June 1965 and ran an Australian record of 10.33 seconds, still with the 365-cube Chrysler. In July it went 9.76@150mph, the first car into the nines and over 150mph, a British Commonwealth record.
Three weeks later, in Sydney, it went 9.51.
While in Sydney, Eddie put his car on display at the Sydney Boat Show and saw a 426 Hemi – the first imported into the country – and decided to buy it. Making 400hp with two carburettors, it had almost as much grunt as the old blown 365. And when fitted up with a front-mounted GM supercharger and a few more improvements, it jumped closer to 1000hp and went 9.33 in March 1966.
But the big deal of that year was the sixevent Dragfest tour of Australia that featured six US dragsters. Eddie was contracted to appear as one of the local heroes and shone brightest at the brand new but under-prepped Surfers Paradise track, where he became the first local to break the nine-second barrier with an 8.84-second run. Later the same day he charged to 178.92mph, the fastest quartermile speed yet for a local, and that was strictly on alcohol fuel as nitro was virtually unknown in Australia at the time.
Eddie had seen fireproof race suits advertised in Hot Rod magazine, made from a 3M material called Mylar. He discovered that 3M in Australia had some in stock, and they offered to donate enough of the material to have a suit made, the first in the nation. American racer Tony Nancy donated a face mask and pair of goggles for Eddie to use. These would come in handy during one of the regular monthly race meets at Riverside, when, near the finish line on one run, the car’s clutch exploded and flames shot up through the cockpit, the first serious fire in Australian drag racing. Appropriately clothed, Eddie managed to bring the dragster to a halt and extract himself from the still-burning car, but he suffered severe burns to his hands, neck and ankles. After receiving medical assistance,
he was returned to the start line where he stoically answered questions with his usual politeness before being taken to hospital, where he spent eight weeks recovering.
Three months after the fire, Eddie was back in action. Now he had the blower on top of the engine, as encouraged by the Americans, who said it would run better that way. When the Riverside track closed in October 1966, Eddie had to wait until 1968 before racing returned near home, at Calder Park. In April that year, with five per cent nitro in the tank, he pushed the car to an 8.57, followed in October by a best-ever 8.55 at the Nationals, but a broken crankshaft had him thinking about the future.
For Eddie it had always been about fun. He’d never won a major title – other than all those firsts – but he didn’t care. He loved chasing the improved times and speeds, essentially racing against himself, enjoying the successes of making new parts, solving problems, overcoming failures. Now racing had started to become serious. There was opposition from the likes of Ash Marshall and Graham Withers; it was becoming expensive to run the big numbers. His business had changed. He wasn’t dealing directly with the racers as he had once done. Now he sat behind a desk and others did the face-to-face stuff.
The race car was sold; the business followed.
A year spent working on Repco’s Formula 1 program for Jack Brabham was a welcome respite; then, in 1969, Eddie set up his own general machining company, Redline Engineering, with his son Ken.
Eddie never let the grass grow too deep beneath his always-polished shoes. Long after Ken took the helm at Redline, Eddie would be there tinkering with some pet project. He bought himself a JAP speedway bike and an Offenhauser-powered midget and restored them to within an inch of their lives. But with a growing level of recognition from those who came after him, acknowledging his pioneering achievements, Eddie’s interest in drag racing was re-ignited. Over the past decade it was not uncommon to see Eddie receiving honours or making appearances in the pits at major drag racing events, peering with interest at crew work or chatting amiably with the emerging stars of the day.
Pioneering work aside, if Eddie Thomas was recognised for anything it was his gentlemanly demeanour. And if there was any single souvenir that summed up Eddie Thomas and his drag racing career, it was a trophy that the six visiting American racers of 1966 chipped in to buy and present to him. It reads simply: “To Eddie Thomas, Australia’s gentleman drag racer, in appreciation of your assistance.”
The fun finally ceased for Eddie on 10 November 2017, when he passed away at age 99. RIP Eddie. s