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1957 Townsend Typhoon MK 2: The Purple People Eater

Submitted by on June 17, 2010

Inspiration comes in many forms, for Owen E. Gibson it resembled an over-sized crumpled potato chip and had a tree growing out of its hood.

Owen E. Gibson is a lifelong racing and hot rod lover with mechanical and fabrication know-how, passed down from both grandfathers and his father, a machinist and auto mechanic for 50 years. Owens automotive passion and skill have developed through his lifetime as a mechanic, builder and engineer. Though it wasn’t until his 1999 discovery of a discarded fiberglass shell resembling a crumpled potato chip, in a forgotten pasture in the dusty cow town of Arivaca, Arizona that his path would lead back to the racecars he loves.

An afternoon flight in a friends micro-light sparked the interest in the only rust-free car in an unkempt field littered with old car wrecks. Back on solid ground Owen got in touch with the rancher that owned the land and went in for a closer look. It wasn’t much to look at however, something in Owen connected with the de-laminated fiberglass shell, or perhaps he couldn’t stand the thought of a machine made to race being relegated to the status of a makeshift tree planter.

What Owen E. Gibson uncovered, after much research, was in fact the 1957 Townsend Typhoon MK 2, the brainchild of well-known Drag Racer Frank Townsend from Tucson, Arizona. Inspired by the racecars history Owen transitioned from life-long racer and part-time mechanic to a retired engineer, full-time automotive historian and vintage race restorer. Coinciding with the restoration of the Townsend Typhoon Owen formed T2V Racing & Restoration in 2000, his homage to the Typhoon, lending to the company’s namesake: Townsend Typhoon Vintage Racing and Restoration. Known today as T2V Racing and Restoration.

What follows is the Townsend Typhoon’s racing and construction history, as compiled by its now owner and driver Owen E. Gibson, creator Frank Townsend and information from www.Tamsoldracecarsite.net. The American Special’s story begins with its inception and spans 6 decades to it’s post-restoration racing debut.

The Townsend Typhoon Beginnings

The Townsend Typhoon was the brainchild of Frank Townsend of Tucson, Arizona. It started as a wood model in the early 50’s while Frank was still in high school and driving a 40’s Oldsmobile. In the mid-50’s he transformed the model to a masonite and plaster plug with help from Robert Townsend, Jack Voevodsky, Pete Voevodsky and other friends.

They built the fiberglass mold and created the first Typhoon body in a 16-hour workday by three people. The crew next set the body on a 1949 Plymouth chassis with an Olds power plant. Grille and lights were Hillman, with Ford tail lights.

They built a second Typhoon as soon as Townsend’s business would support the project. Frank raced it at NHRA and SCCA events, and even street raced it a few times in Tucson. This car again used a Plymouth chassis, Olds-mobile power, and Hillman trim.  Upgrades were a Corvette windshield and body modifications for strength.

For their next foray into SCCA racing, Frank and friends Butch McDaniel, Larry Randell, Jack Voevodsky and Pete Voevodsky created the third of the Typhoons (the # 27 racecar). It was a class “B” Modified car called the “Purple People Eater” by the press and competitors for it’s signature purple color, a fluke occurrence when not enough red or blue paint were on-hand for the final paint job.

Frank recalls, “The # 27 car chassis was fabricated in 1956-57.  It was based around a Kurtis Kraft 500C design modified to use 4-link front and rear axle.  The front axle was taken from the dual-wheel assembly of a B-29 wheel strut. The rear axle was mounted with rubber landing gear donuts. This axle pair was quickly upgraded to 55 Chevy IFS and an Oldsmobile rear coil-over shock assembly. The frame tubing was from scaffoldings used to work on B-29 engines. The belts, gauges, switches, and seat were from WWII aircraft salvage.”

Frank remembers Larry Randell and Jack Voevodsky as the prime helpers on that early car.  The night they were finishing the # 27, Frank finished the body and went home at 2:00 AM the day of the race to get some sleep. He returned at 8:00 AM and found Larry sound asleep in the seat still holding the tools and wire.

It had many changes, numbers, drivers, and upgrades over the next 5 years.  The speed-machine saw races and events in California, New Mexico and Texas from 1957 thru early 1961. When the “Purple People Eater” had served its time on the track in late 1960 it was stripped of it’s racing parts and purchased by local cowboy Bud Marley. Bud modified the Typhoon with the flathead from his race boat and used it as a dragster to whip the cowboys on the dirt roads of Arivaca, AZ until its soon retirement to a forgotten field for over 35 years.

Typhoon Rediscovered

Today many of the people involved with this hometown Tucson effort have passed away. Much of the early information had faded to bare glass fibers by the time the original Townsend Typhoon body was found on a ranch in southern Arizona by Owen E. Gibson. The surprisingly bullet-hole and rust free car rested among rusted out car frames of 1946 through 1958 Oldsmobile Rockets. It resembled nothing of its past glory and was the receptacle for a Hackberry tree, growing out of its hood.

Owen recovered the original Townsend Typhoon body. He at first wanted a street rod out of the fiberglass remains. It wasn’t until he began to unearth the cars history that the race machines identity and creator, Frank Townsend, came to light. Upon Frank’s reintroduction to his creation Frank immediately teamed with Owen to resurrect the legend of the 1957 Class “B” Modified “Purple People Eater”.

Miraculously Frank Townsend still had the back part of the Typhoon mold and Owen remade the front ¾ of the mold.  An original Golden Rocket Export 1958 Oldsmobile V8 with a 6-deuce Offy carb setup powers the car, 1957 Oldsmobile rear and Chevy front-ends and Buick Aluminum fin drums were acquired to replace the corroded originals while Owen rebuilt the frame. The Typhoon’s immaculate restoration took Owen years of fine-tuning with the guidance of originators Frank Townsend, Pete Voevodsky, and Gene Wright (mechanic on SR’s and Corvettes in the 50’s).

Approximate Specifications on the original Typhoon MK2 car (as Frank remembers):

Wt. dist. f/r): 54/46
Frame: 3 compartment 4 tube KK500C type
Material: 2″ tube mild steel.  Gas welded.
Wheelbase: 98- 101 inches
Tires: 670 x 15 Blue Dots
Track (f/r): 57/59 inches
Length: 158 inches
Width: 72 inches
Height: 54 inches
Steering: Recirculating ball
Front Suspension: Independent unequal-length A-Arms, coil springs,

anti-roll bar, direct-acting shocks (55 Chevy).

Rear Suspension: 4 link/A frame, coil-over springs, live axle (’57

Olds Posi)

Front Brakes: Buick Al-Fin Buick S/W drums
Rear Brakes: 12 x2 ¼” -inch diameter drums
Master cylinder: Mason jar w/ rear bias

Post-Restoration Debut

The Townsend Typhoon donned its trademark purple metallic paint again in 2006, preparing for its post-restoration racing debut. Owen crafted the Typhoon to its 1957 racing glory as witnessed at the Monterey Historics. Driven by its original driver, Jack Voevodsky. The American Special had not seen the raceway in over 40 years. Its reception was worthy of gold medal status; though the Typhoon lost it’s oil pressure in the preliminary race and had to sit out the final race day.

The Townsend Typhoon has since seen the raceways of Phoenix, Coronado and raced at the Monterey Historics four consecutive years.  The treasured vintage racecar has graced the pages of Classic American Magazine, Hemmings Muscle Car and Motor Trend and can be found at T2V Racing and Restoration in Arivaca, Arizona where it continually finds new ways to inspire, bemuse and confuse Owen with it’s squirrelly rear-end and sensitive coolant system. It’s rumored the Townsend Typhoon may soon have a younger sibling, as whispered plans for the restoration of the USRRC 4th place Typhoon MK5 float about the T2V shop.

For more images and updates on what Owen and T2V are racing and restoring log on to: www.T2Vrestoration.com

Dusty Marie

Images: www.T2Vrestoration.com

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