Smoking the Competition: The 1955 Texas Cigar

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For most of the year, the Great Salt Flats of Western Utah had sat in pristine silence. On the morning of Saturday, September 3, 1955, however, three men pushed an eight by fifteen-foot fiberglass projectile onto the salt. As its engine roared to life, they stepped away. They joined a group of spectators who watched the streamlined motorcycle roll forward, sputter to a halt, come to a stop, and flounder on its side in the salt “along with an irate but otherwise unscathed driver.” At the start line, the Texas Cigar “was always good for a few yaks,” noted Racer Brown in the November 1955 article “Bonneville 1955” in Hot Rod Magazine.

Aero engineer, J.H. “Stormy” Mangham, Pete Dalio, and Jack Wilson, first planned the Texas Cigar, or the “Devil’s Arrow” at Dalio’s Triumph dealership in 1954. Their goal was to design a motorcycle that would beat Wilhelm Herz’s 1951 motorcycle speed record of 180 miles per hour. As Wilson described, “we decided then and there to beat that record ourselves” after a man “named Kohne had come around here [Dalio’s dealership] later, bragging about the Germans and their record.” In early 1954, they began construction of the Cigar. They got Johnny Allen, Texas Short Track Champion, to drive it.

The Cigar’s run at Bonneville was not its maiden voyage, however. Its streamlined shell first took flight on the side of Mangham’s D-6 airliner as a balsa wood model. Presumably, the streamlined shell was less clumsy on the airliner than it was at Bonneville. Mangham accented the Cigar’s aeronautic origins by constructing its chrome-moly tube frame from parts of a light aircraft. Underneath the Cigar’s oblong hull, was a Triumph 650 motorcycle powered by a forty-cubic inch, 650cc engine. Mechanic Rich Richards helped Wilson build the Cigar’s crankshaft. Farm tractor and cultivator parts completed the uncanny contraption.

Both starting and stopping the Cigar were not streamlined processes. Nonetheless, Brown observed, “stopping the thing was even more spectacular” than starting it. To slow the Cigar, Brown described that, like modern drag chutes “a small spring loaded parachute was ejected from the tail of the body.” Because the Cigar lacked wheels for stabilization, and the shell prevented Allen from stabilizing it, two more exasperated runners had to catch and guide the motorcycle to a complete stop at the end of its run.

Though it was finicky and unconventional, the Cigar was not a failure. Indeed, after its first failed first attempt, the crew of the Cigar set up it up for another run. This time it did not sputter. In fact, the Cigar “fairly blistered the salt” at 191.082 miles per hour, “the fastest single run ever recorded by a two-wheeler anywhere.” Mangham, Dalio, and Wilson had achieved their goal. In 1956, the Cigar returned to the salt and shattered the desert silence at 214 miles per hour, a record that was not broken until 1962.

Photography by Bob D'Olivo for Hot Rod Magazine, 1955

By Kristin Feay