SPEED FREAK – NORM LONGFIELD / JOCKO JOHNSON STREAMLINER

“The only reason I’m an electrician was because my dad wouldn’t allow me to be a mechanic,” tells Norm Longfield, an Australian hot rodding icon and avid nostalgia drag racer. In retrospect, his father Stan probably did him a favour, Norm running a successful electrical company and learning plenty about cars the old fashioned way – hands on.

Norm’s first car, an FJ Holden found its way into the family driveway even before he was 17. “My first two cars were FJ’s,” Norm confesses. “Both were defected and taken off the road, so I decided to build a hot rod instead. The cops didn’t know too much about hot rods back then. I built my first rod to use up all of the parts which caused my Holdens to be defected.” That hot rod would be the T bucket which he debuted at the 1970 National Hot Rod, Dragster and Custom Show in Sydney, winning Top Show Car and People’s Choice. Over 20 major awards and numerous magazine features would follow over the next four years, but we’re not here to talk about that now.

Drag racing in America during the 1950s was a magical time. It was the era best remembered for experimentation and imagination when it came to getting a car down 1320 feet of runway as fast as possible, and looking good while doing it. Twin engines, exotic fuels, lightweight parts, multiple carburettors and of course supercharging were all tried with mixed results. Little attention had been paid to streamlining, most likely because the added weight of the bodywork would more than likely cancel out any aerodynamic advantage.

Robert ‘Jocko’ Johnson was a guy that grew up from an early age with hot rodding in Southern California. At 17 he scored a job at Barris Customs, working after school and on weekends. It was Barris who gave him the name ‘Jocko’. His knowledge of engines began in 1953 at Experimental Automotive where he started porting cylinder heads by hand before CNC machines were invented. It wasn’t long before he opened his own porting business, Jocko’s Porting Service in Long Beach, California. He was only 19 when he dreamed up the streamlined drag car, the idea to shape the body to create down force and increase traction.

A handful of racers had made attempts at streamlining throughout the 1950s, including the ever-innovative Mickey Thompson, but it was Jocko’s stunning streamliner which used a full body canopy and was easily the most attractive. Driver Jim ”Jazzy” Nelson built the blown, eight carb’d stroked 392 Hemi that powered him and the car to a surprising 8.35, 178.21-mph pass at Southern California’s Riverside Raceway on May 31, 1959, the fifth-quickest official time for the year. The ‘Jockoliner’ also appeared on the cover of November 1959 issue of Car Craft magazine, the article titled ‘Streamlined for Draggin’. Sadly, the stardom of Jocko’s streamliner was short lived when at a race meeting in Vacaville, CA, a rough track caused the front tyres to wear through the body and the air pressure tore the shell from the car. 

Jocko never replaced the body on his streamliner, and this is not Jocko’s original car, but it is one of a handful which Jocko built for other racers who were eager to invest in the revolutionary design. By Norm’s understanding there were six or seven cars, including Jocko’s first car, however just four are known to remain. After disintegrating the first body, Jocko designed an aluminium-bodied version formed by California Metal Shaping and Doug Kruse. It was fitted with a 3,000hp Allison V12 engine and run by Jocko as an exhibition car dubbed “Thunder Car”. Later it was bought by Dean Moon, painted red and used in television promos for Budweiser in the US. Ultimately it was restored in yellow as the Moonliner.

In the early 1970s Don Garlits commissioned Jocko to build a streamliner which would be raced as the Wynn’s Liner. Garlits complained that the car was unstable, but against Jocko’s advice the body was shaped differently at the rear in attempt to create even more down force on the back wheels. This caused the front wheels to lift at speed, hence the handling problems, so the Wynns Liner was parked, inadvertently preserving it. Garlits also has another Jockoliner, body only, which was made for the museum as a mock up but was never a complete car. Knowledge of any remaining cars, including Norms, is sparse.

Norm found this car in Michigan in the mid 1980s, or more accurately the car found him. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve found in an American magazine for sale,” said a friend. Norm was intrigued, a keen rodder and racer he knew that he was looking at something very special. A plane trip was out of the question. “I would have liked to have seen it first, but we were so busy at work, he did send me out a whole pack of photographs,” said Norm, “I realised that I would never get another chance to own a car like this.” Needless to say, he bought the car.

One could say that timing was on Norm’s side. With the nostalgia drag racing scene in the USA at epidemic proportions today, a historic race car such as this would be snapped up in seconds, or stimulate eBay bidding beyond the reach of the working man. But in the 1980s, it was merely an old race car. Still Norm didn’t take any chances and seller Dave gladly wrapped the car up, concealing it from prying eyes, loaded it into a container near his home, railed to Los Angeles and ultimately shipped down under.

When the streamliner arrived, Norm was generally pleased with what he got, but it was far from racing condition. There was no driveline, the chassis design was well below modern standards and the body was old and tired. “It was like a well used surfboard,” added Greg Sadler (aka Ziggy) of Ziggy’s Hot Rods who first prepped and painted the car. A complete rebuild began immediately along with an ANDRA spec roll cage, an aluminium block Chrysler hemi and fresh body and paint paying tribute to Jocko’s original car. Norm raced the streamliner at the old Eastern Creek drag facility clocking seven second quarter mile times at over 170mph on alcohol.

Driving the streamliner was a unique experience. Norm was not daunted by being fully enclosed in the potentially claustrophobic cockpit, but what he could see facing forward was something he hadn’t experienced. “It’s a bitch of a thing to drive, when you sit in it, the front nose cone drops away so that you can’t see it. All that you see is asphalt, nothing in front of you to give you a bearing on what direction you’re going. You could be a few degrees off line and still think you are going straight down the strip.”

An experienced hand though, Norm managed to keep the streamliner off the guard rails for a couple of years before parking the car and focusing on a front engine dragster which he had in the build. That was until around 1998 when Norm was invited to race the streamliner against a vintage war bird aircraft at a Cowra airstrip. “The car was doing nothing, it sounded like a good idea to me,” said Norm, adding later with a laugh that he’d done smarter things.

Norm was actually winning the race when at around 170mph the streamliner lifted into the air, flipped four times, hit the ground four times, all over about 200 metres. For lack of a better word, it was destroyed. Norm emerged from the wreck in fine form, transferred to the Cowra base hospital for a check up and released with little more then an erratic heart rate. “There was no doctor on duty at the time,” recalls Norm, “the nurse had to call him in, he had been mowing his lawn and had grass clippings all over him!”

I asked Norm what he was thinking, upside down as the accident took place and he laughed. “I was watching the pontoons over the front wheels grind themselves away on the bitumen and thinking, gee, Greg is going to be pissed that he has to repaint them!” Some reports say the air turbulence from the plane and a dip in the runway contributed to the crash but the reality is that the aerodynamics of the streamliner were great in theory but imperfect in practice. The forward most tip of the body is 10.5” off the ground, still allowing a considerable amount of air to flow beneath the body. At the rate at which Norm was travelling, it’s reasonable to accept that the massive cushion of air under the body caused the car to lift.

Frustrated and angry, Norm lost interest in the streamliner and parked it, but even on the day he crashed he declared that the streamliner would live again. “There is no way in the world I am not going to restore this car,” he told his wife Rhonda. “I wouldn’t call myself a car enthusiast if I smashed one of only four in the world and didn’t fix it.” But considering his dragster project was ¾ finished, at the time it made sense to focus on finishing it instead. He also developed a new interest – war birds like the one he had just raced. He ultimately bought his own WW2 fighter, confessing that something good did actually come out of that day.

Something else came from the accident too, a letter from Bob ‘Jocko’ Johnson himself. It seems that the recreation of the streamliner and the crash had made news in an American magazine prompting Jocko to track Norm down. Letters were exchanged and they spoke on the phone a few times too. When discussions turned to the accident, Jocko quipped, “Well I’m not an aeronautical engineer, am I!”

Jocko was seen by many as an artist more so than a race car builder. His drag racing exploits paid the bills but his eccentric ways saw him spend his later years in Twenty Nine Palms, a remote town about 200kms east of LA in the California desert. Norm recalls an article in Autoweek magazine in 1997. “He worked out of two caravans, his lathe, mill, grinders and metal working equipment all set up in these trailers, plus a third which he lived in.” Seeing the primitive conditions explained many of the streamliner’s idiosyncrasies, like the not quite square, slightly unlevel, nowhere near flat framework and the lack of symmetry of the body, not really evident until it came time to repair it.

Norm did eventually turn his attentions back to the streamliner, doing a bit of chassis work, then leaving it for three months, then a bit more, then leaving it again, as you do. Meanwhile the worldwide interest in historic drag cars gained momentum and the Cacklefests taking place at nostalgia race meets in the USA became increasingly popular. The Rocket Open Day and other local events honouring our own racing legends gladly introduced Cacklefests as part of the program and because of this Norm found inspiration to complete the car. “I was never going to race it again, but fixing it up would at least complete one of my lifetime goals.”

The second rebuild was made slightly easier thanks to the chassis strengthening completed in the first build, the frame checking out reasonably good on the jig. The body went to Ziggys once again who had the unenviable job of returning it to glory. “It was a combination of repairing both the accident damage and also the ravages of time,” said Ziggy. “In the first build we preserved the original gel coat as much as we could by just surfacing it. Our approach this time was that we are the caretakers of the car and the work we do should last another 50 years.”

The NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield, CA in October has become somewhat of a holy grail for nostalgia enthusiasts, the three day marathon of modern day nostalgia drag racing and a celebration of days gone by. Norm made the trip this year for the first time, showing photos of the streamliner to NHRA officials who were excited at the prospect of having it at a future event. Norm is serious about taking it over there, adding that it would be a good finale for the car.

In closing, it’s hard not to be impressed that such a unique and iconic piece of American drag history resides here within Australia. The bad news for America is that Norm doesn’t sell anything (almost) so they won’t be getting it back any time soon. The good news is that it is in good hands and will be well preserved for all to admire in the future.

BY GAVIN KELSO, PHOTOS DALE HABERFIELD, FULL FEATURE CRUZIN #148.

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