The McCathren Special was a modified Model T exemplifying typical serious racers of the 1920's. The wheelbase was shortened to 88" and the engine them moved back 8" per “Complete instructions for building a Fronty Ford Racing Car” by Arthur Chevrolet. The chassis was dropped 6". Front and rear radius rods were connected directly to the frame and the single front rods replaced with wishbones. It had a 4:1 rear end for short track racing. Ford ignition was replaced with Eismann high tension magneto driven off the right side of a 3-in-1 front plate. Wheels were changed to racing spoke wheels with knock off hubs and external hub brakes added to the rear. Steering was replaced with an unknown brand of racing worm drive gear.
The engine had aluminum pistons and connecting rods, an oversized crank, RAJO C35 OHV head, high lift camshaft, and pressure oiling system with reservoir. The carburetor was a Winfield Model M feeding a Gregg supercharger by Green Engineering.
With enough modification, you could get nearly 90 mph out of a stock T block that originally only developed 22 hp. The down side is that you were driving those speeds on running gear that was only engineered to go 30 mph. Seven people died at the first Indy 500 and it was not uncommon for drivers and mechanics to pool money, the night before a race, to give to the widows of drivers who would die the next day.
After its final crash, the car sat in a scrap yard in Breckenridge until the proprietor died in the 1970's and his heirs sold all the yard contents as scrap.
The recreation of the McCathren Special takes pains to honor the original and maintain era correctness by using only original parts from 1926 or earlier and only reproduction parts that were originally available in 1926. Beginning with a 1926 Model T, the chassis was shortened and lowered according to Murray Fahnestock’s article “Lowering the Ford Chassis.” The engine was moved back 8" and the radius rods were modified to match the photographic record. A Gemmer steering gear from a 1926 Dodge was used and Rocky Mountain brakes were added. Rear end ratio was changed in differential rebuild. The motor features a RAJO BB reproduction head from Chaffin, Bosch magneto, pressure oiling, oil sump, Stroker crank, Stipe cam, and aluminum pistons and rods. The intake manifold is a modified 2-up 2-down (Ed Winfield) with a Winfield Model M 1-1/2" carburetor. Exhaust system is shop fabricated to match the photographic record. The emergency brake lever was replaced with a fabricated lever matching the photos.
We have made the car street legal so it can be enjoyed by a much wider audience. Brackets were installed for removable 1926 Pontiac headlights and a Ford taillight. Seat belts are installed as well as a removable rear view mirror. The seat was widened 6" so it is possible for thin adults to fit and the gas tank was moved over the rear axle for mechanic leg room. This configuration is accurate to the era and seen on many bob tail speedsters with a riding mechanic. A modern in-line fuel filter and cartridge oil filter have been added for practicality and are the items which are not period correct.
Earnest Raphael (Mac) McCathren (1895-1957) typifies the car business and racing in the early days of speed. He was a WW I Navy veteran and active in the American Legion, City Water Commission, Methodist Church, Lions Club, and Chamber of Commerce Board. McCathren Motor Company began when Mac purchased Frost Motors, in Breckenridge, Texas, in June of 1923 and thereby became the Dodge Agency for the area. The name was changed to McCathren Motor Company January 1, 1925. Mac is quoted in an article in the Breckenridge Daily American, “The same business like methods and fair dealings, as well as efficient and prompt service will be continued. We believe in an all-the-year round spirit of Christmas - friendliness, good will, and efficient, prompt and unselfish service to all.” The location continued to be located at the old “stand” at 309-11-13 West Walker, at the corner of McAmis street. Mac lived by these values and the showroom was the venue of many community activities and philanthropic fund raisers.
In August, 1925, McCathren Motor Company let a contract for a “big brick garage” to J.S. Murphy of Mineral Wells. The 15,000 square foot facility was built across McAmis street at the Southeast corner of Walker and McAmis. Total cost was $26,779. The newspaper reported than new and additional equipment for the service of Dodge cars and Graham trucks was installed.
A newspaper ad from July of 1926 lists a new Dodge touring car for $917.50, a Coupe for $963.00, a Roadster for $911.50, and a Sedan for $1,027.50. In comparison, a 1926 Model T touring car sold for $290.00.
Through out the early years, the McCathren Motor Company showroom continued to be a hub of civic activity, hosting events and bazaars for groups such as the Junior Class and the First Christian Church.
By 1929, McCathren Motor Company had added Plymouth to its lines. In April of 1929, the company was sold to L. E. Seaman and Henry Seaman of Mineral Wells who continued with Dodge and Plymouth.
Mac went on to pursue development of his Acme pump, an improved deep well steam driven pump that fit down smaller bores and pumped from the bottom of the hole. He formed Grant Manufacturing Company, in Breckenridge, and received patent 276780 in August of 1929. The west Texas oil boom was waning and rural electrification was replacing steam and the pump saw limited commercial production.
Mac went back into the new car business in December of 1932 with a partnership with J. J. Liles. The Liles-McCathren Motor Company sold Plymouth and DeSoto. Liles began trading new cars for livestock and Mac split in April of 1933 and both Plymouth and DeSoto pulled their agencies by December of 1933. Liles moved into the used car business and continued trading for livestock.
Mac’s racing involvement then ended and he became Breckenridge City Secretary where he served until 1945 when his eldest son, Earl Richard McCathren, returned home from his WW II duty as a B-24 pilot. The new McCathren Motor Company opened in November in a new facility at 108 West Elm. They were the Dodge and Plymouth dealer and later added the Chrysler line. Mac died in 1957 and Earl continued the McCathren Motor Company until his death in 1979.
Thomas Robert (Bob) Stilwell (1904-1938). Little is known about Bob before late 1926 when he joined McCathren Motor Company as driver and mechanic. On September 22, 1926, at the Fair Park track in Abilene, Stilwell, in a Fronty Ford, caught fire. This was the end of his Fronty and the beginning of his career with the McCathren Special. Also in that race, Fred Frame (1932 Indy 500 winner), of Los Angelos, in his Miller Special, ran into the fence and was out of the remainder of the events. Freeman Midyett, 33, from Breckenridge, went full speed over the embankment at turn one of the second lap of a 5 mile event. The car landed right side up and was not seriously damaged. Midyett was thrown out of the car, over the fence, and landed on his head. He was pronounced dead a few minutes later. Upon inspection, steering and brakes were still functional on the car and the accident was attributed to blinding dust so thick that Midyett could not tell where he was on the track.
Bob raced the McCathren Special though out the southwest and even tried his hand at race promotion with a 1932 card at the Miller Park track in Breckenridge. He continued to race the McCathren Special until his death, in a crash, at a track in Dallas, Texas in 1934.
Breckenridge Texas was at the heart of the West Texas oil boom which began in 1918. In the three years that followed, Breckenridge’s population exploded from less than 800 to more than 30,000. In 1921, Stephens county produced over 31 million barrels and it is said you could count over 1,000 wells from a high rooftop. This provided a lot of skilled men with good wages and little to spend them on. Couple this with a flood of cheap, mass produced automobiles and what better breeding ground for auto racing?
The premier tracks in the region were in Breckenridge and Abilene. Breckenridge’s Oil Belt Fair drew up to 50,000 visitors and, in 1927, featured a 330' long tent for an auto show. The fair ran from 1925 to 1928 and the track was a 5/8 mile oval which went dustless in 1927 by emplying calcium stabilization at a cost of $1,100.00. The Abilene track, at Fair Park, was a ½ mile oval. Both venues were AAA sanctioned and famous Abilene businessman D. H. Jeffries was the AAA representative and starter at both tracks.
In 1926, the Oil Belt Fair racers were delayed 3 days due to rain. Several racers were coming in from a northern race track and were stuck in the mud in Tulia, Texas, 250 miles northwest of Breckenridge. Racers in the 1926 Fair included Babe Stapp (Indy 1927-40, 6th in 28, 5th in 39) Fred Frame (Indy 1927-36, first in 32), and George Souders (Indy 1927-28, first in 27, third in 28).
In 1927, there was a $2,500 purse at the Oil Belt Fair. In time trials, $25 went to the driver with the fastest 2 lap time. The first event was 10 laps for the 8 fastest cars with the top four finishers earning $150, $75, $35, and $15. The second event was 8 laps for the 8 fastest cars excluding first and second place cars in the first event. Payout was $100, $50, $30, and $15. The third event was 8 laps for the eight fastest cars excluding
the first and second place cars in events one and two. Payout was $70, $35, $30, and $10. The fourth event was 8 laps for the fastest eight cars excluding the first and second place cars in the first, second, and third events. The last event was a 20 lap race for the eight cars winning first or second in events one through four. The 1927 racers included Bob Stilwell, Walter Higley, Ray Gardner, George Barringer, Rex Edmonds, Ray Gardner, Chester Cardner, A. E. Edwards, A. E. Wetzler, Eddie Neva, John Krieger, and W. Tinnell. The average top speed was around 60 miles per hour. Eddie Neva was the overall winner.
In Abilene, in 1927, the seventh annual Fourth of July races at the West Texas Fair Speedway featured Bob Stilwell in the McCathren Special as well as Fred Frame in his Miller Special and ***list the other Indy drivers there ***. The card included six events with a $5,000.00 purse.
The West Texas Fair Speedway, at what is now Abilene's Rose Park, saw top racers from California, Indiana, New Mexico, Louisiana and Texas gather in the 1920s to test their skills and nerve on an oval dirt track before packed crowds as part of the Independence Day programs at the West Texas Fair Park. The races began in 1921, and the track also hosted horse racing and polo on the infield. The track
was described in the Abilene Reporter in 1925 as "the fastest dirt speedway in the U.S." and that year featured Californian Eddie Hearne. Hearne, billed as "king of all racing drivers" by the newspaper, was a national racing star. At that time, he was the only two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Other drivers who had experience in some of the most important Indy style races in the United States also competed there. Bob Stilwell was there in a Fronty Ford in 1926 and later in the McCathren Special.
"That was a big, exciting thing for my brother and I," said Marvin Imken in a 1997 interview. Imken grew up 15 miles north of Sweetwater and made the trip to the races with his family on what was then a gravel road called the Bankhead Highway. "Seeing those races was certainly the highlight of our visits." Imken, who attended the races each year from 1924-27, remembered one particular standout driver from Hollywood, California, who drove a Miller Special. "Frank Lockhart was a nationally known racer," Imken said. "I watched him and he was my favorite."
D.H. Jefferies, who served two terms as president of the West Texas Fair (1937-38 and 1947-48), promoted the AAA races and other events. "D.H. Jefferies was the king bee of racing, and he's the one that got the big-name racers here," Imken said.
At one time, a $50 prize was offered to the driver who could break the track's time record for two laps, held by Lockhart. That year, the $5,000 total purse included $800 to the winner of the third event (after the initial time trials), which matched the first, second and third-place finishers from the first two events (10 laps and 14 laps, respectively). "There were thousands watching the races," Imken said. "I personally think racing was a big thing for Abilene. The population here was around 30,000. They advertised the fair extensively. Every building had a paper sign on it."
Imken said that the Great Depression (1929) was probably what put an end to most organized dirt track racing of that day. "I would say when the Depression hit (it ended), because that knocked out the bottom of everything," he said. "Those were some bad times."