Like Indian motorcycles, post-war hot rods and Gee Bee airplanes, “belly tank” race cars are the quintessence of American technical ingenuity in the middle of the last century. Also called “Lakesters”, belly tank racers took advantage of surplus military materiel after WWII, namely fuel tanks. The tanks were the teardrop-shaped types fitted to fighter planes, their aerodynamic profiles, dimensions and structural integrity making them the perfect basis for a scratch-built racer.
While they have a plump profile, the name has nothing to do with girth around the midriff: born in the 1940s, the “belly” refers to the emergency drop tanks being fitted to the bellies of fighter planes. They were used to extend the range of aircraft, and were detached and discarded when emptied, hence “drop tanks.”
Along with canteens, uniforms and other clothing, watches, belts, messenger bags and anything else that could be re-sold after the war, the tear-drop-shaped fuel tanks became army surplus like other leftovers. I recall many hours in my Uncle Bob’s and Cousin Hudi’s Surplus Store in Portland, Maine, marvelling at unused, as-new and lightly-worn paraphernalia – much favoured by hippies in the 1960s.
So did the car fanatics on the other side of the USA. In the late 1940s, hot-rodding legend Bill Burke of the So-Cal Speed Shop built what is generally regarded as the first “Lakester” from a surplus aircraft drop tank, in recognition of racing on perfectly flat, dry lakes. According to the lore, the idea of using a fuel tank as an car body came to Burke when he saw some at Guadalcanal. Noting the beautiful streamlining, he measured one and did the maths: knowing the dimensions of a Ford engine block and rear end, he worked out the concept of a streamlined body with four exposed wheels. The aerodynamics had already been addressed.
Burke’s first Lakester was created from a 168-gallon tank used on the P-51 Mustang, of which there were ample supplies of surplus belly tanks from assorted aircraft selling for under $50 each. Eventually, the design evolved to use the larger 315-gallon tank used on the P-38 Lightning, the builders preferring to use just two bottom halves, as the upper halves of the tanks had openings for the fuel and hardware for fixing to the aircraft.
Belly racers survive to this day, the speeds have gone from just over 100mph to today’s top contenders exceeding 360mph. They have their own class in Southern California Timing Association competition, and their devotees will probably snap up Bell& Ross’ gorgeous horological tribute.
One of the best-looking chronographs I’ve think ever seen, the BR V2-94 Bellytanker contains the automatic calibre BR-CAL.301. Its functions beyond hours, minutes and small seconds at 3 o’clock includes the date in a small round aperture at 4:30; a cool touch is the seconds sub-dial only has the number “60” and four quadrant lines. The chronograph features a 30-minute timer at 9 o’clock, with central chronograph sweep seconds.
But, oh! that dial! Bell & Ross describes it as “gilt,” a warm coppery-gold that could also pass for light tan. It’s adorned with metal appliqué indices and a large “6” and “12” in the best Bell & Ross manner. The steel hour and minute hands are skeletonised and filled with white Superluminova® while the seconds hands and those on the counters are stark white. An ultra-curved sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating protects it.
Now, the bad news: there will only be 500 examples of this limited edition. Once the belly racers learn of it, they’ll probably disappear as quickly as the cars after which they’re named.
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