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Ollie Morris' Smokin' White Owl

By Rotten Rodney




According to Hot Rods & Custom Stuff proprietor Randy Clark, Fred Offenhauser’s chief engineer, George “Ollie” Morris was a hell of a nice guy, a good friend, and even a customer of Hot Rods & Custom Stuff. So, it seems only appropriate that the respectful restoration/recreation of Ollie’s circa 1954, Harvey’s Auto Glass-sponsored “Smokin’ White Owl” rear-engine dragster be conducted under Randy’s watchful eye.


In the beginning of this automotive icon’s heyday, rear-engine drag cars were far from in vogue. Ollie’s novel notion came about through safety concerns, based on personal experience at a time when engine fuel system fires were all-too-common occurrences. According to our history books, the rear-engine concept was not quickly embraced by fellow racers, racing promoters, and/or the era’s tech inspectors for that matter. By the middle of the ‘50s, however, Ollie and co-builder, Bruce Terry had the bugs worked out as Ollie went on to campaign the ‘Owl with great success, competing with the famed Chrisman brothers, the Bean Bandits, and Calvin Rice.


Although others would follow Ollie’s lead with rear-engine experimentation, the design would not catch on for keeps—not ‘til its later adoption and continued development by-and-for Don Garlits in the early 1970s.


This noteworthy project came to HR&CS as a byproduct of a neighborly friendship ‘tween Ollie Morris and Randy Clark. The two worked together in collaboration ‘til Ollie’s unfortunate passing in 2008. At that time, the project was inherited by Ollie’s grandson, Dan Marvin—a true traditional hot rodder who owns and operates Exeter Auto Supply in Exeter, California. As a fitting tribute, Dan has commissioned HR&CS to continue with the project—just as his grandfather, Ollie would have liked.


In the early days of Hot Rod Magazine, Ollie Morris’ “Smokin’ White Owl” made numerous appearances in print, and as the restoration/recreation continues, the ‘Owl is already registered to be displayed at the upcoming “Hot Rod Homecoming” car show—Hot Rod Magazine’s 65th anniversary celebration. The very special show will be held on the weekend of March 23-24, 2013 at Pomona’s Fairplex. Hot Rod’s intention is to round up as many of its 65 years' worth of feature cars as possible, in one place, at one time, for all of us to enjoy. Additional event information is available in the events section of this ‘site, and ‘til the unveiling, we’ll keep y’all posted on Ollie’s ‘Owl as the project quickly progresses.   



These very recent photos illustrate the project as it appeared just a few days ago. The car is partly authentic/original and partly clone, with all chassis-related items built or restored by Ollie Morris. The single-piece aluminum belly pan and body skins are the artistry of HR&CS sheetmetal fabricator, Scott, who carried out the task in exact accordance to Ollie’s specifications.


As with other racecars, the ‘Owl had evolved with minor refinements over its years of drag strip duty. However, other than the evident roll-bar safety upgrade, this car remains very true to its original form. Instrumentation will be Stewart Warner as before—in the 1950s, and as the story goes; the car’s original cast-aluminum steering wheel was actually war surplus—liberated from a B-25 bomber.


In 1954, the ‘Owl’s power package consisted of a 275-inch flattie, backed by a ’41 Ford side-shift manual transmission. Then later in 1955, the ‘Owl became the first dragster to be powered by the new Chevrolet overhead-valve V8.


Wait a minute! Where’d it go? Due to this shop’s fast-paced production, a writer/shooter can be spread fairly thin. Let this shot exemplify what happens when yours truly misses a day or two at HR&CS.


At this particular point in time, the project is scattered as HR&CS’s various departments are doing their parts. The man with the hammer is Eric, a combination mechanic/fabricator who knows well the inner workings of a Halibrand quick-change.


In another section of the same building, HR&CS fabricator, Jeremy is makin’ some noise as he chases away remaining wavelets in the ‘Owl’s new aluminum skins.


Meanwhile, back at the paint department, painter Andy and the crew have been very, very busy with the cigar-shaped skins.


Those who’re familiar would know that the “Smokin’ White Owl” was actually black for a spell—back in the ‘50s. As denoted by the interior side of the single-piece, aluminum belly pan, we’re restoring/recreating the original white version.


The outer sides of the body skins are actually in a whitish, California-compliant primer-surfacer. Only the interior sides are in color at this time, but that’ll change very soon.



And here we are, back in the fabrication department, just a day or two later. When the painted white skins are ready, so will be the chassis.


Eric has the quickie back together, and while yours truly wasn’t lookin’, it found its way home and reassumed its rightful position. This might be the last clear view we get of it for a while or two, too.



'Bout a week since our last update, the view has changed dramatically. It’s nice when projects roll along on schedule. It’s even nicer when they roll along ahead.



When a certain job demands it, Randy might call in a ringer. This particular time, the legendary Lyle Fisk has been called in to duplicate the Smokin’ White Owl’s lettering as it was in its earliest guise. In and around the greater San Diego area, Fisk is responsible for more signs, lines ‘n’ designs than anyone. In fact, he’s been draggin’ brushes since 1955, which is coincidentally close to the year this car was lettered the first time.


With only black ‘n’ white photos to guide him, Fisk knows the 606 and Offenhauser logo should be bright red—and we all know it should not be peel ‘n’ stick vinyl.


That’s a Mack quill in action right there. I did ask what number, but it had been used so much that the number on the handle was worn smooth.


‘Round this time, Fisk is down to the short strokes as a smaller Mack quill (also with no visible number) screeches toward the finish line.


After some discussion, it was decided that the red lettering could benefit from a black outline. As y’all can plainly see, that was an excellent call.


The very next day, here on display at the Hot Rod Homecoming, the faint fragrance of mineral spirits still lingers. Through the talent pool of Hot Rods & Custom Stuff, with finishing touches by Fisk, it was Ollie Morris’ own grandson, Dan Marvin who made this fine tribute happen.



In the cockpit is Ollie’s grandson, Dan Marvin. To the left is Lynda (Dan’s mother/Ollie’s daughter) and to the right is Dan's wife, Paula.


To be continued...