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Snake Charmer

by Digital Mayne Media

Some fifty years after first buying this 1952 Ford Zephyr, Jim Kahler’s turned this classic into a brutal drag weapon of incredible speed.

You could call it a love story. How else can you explain remaining faithful to the same car for over half a century? Jim Kahler and his 1952 Ford Zephyr Six have been together since they were both around 18 years old – Jim born the year before his ‘Black Snake’ Ford rolled off the production line with a 138 cu in (2.3-litre) straight-six under its curvaceous bonnet.

You’ll notice the intervening years have brought some changes. Jim’s Mk1 Zephyr – a model built between 1951 and 1956 – is pictured at Palmyra Dragway in Mackay, Central Queensland, as the drag strip is this veteran’s place of work.

Defying its age, this little Ford has registered a time of 10.08s at 132mph down the ¼-mile. For modern context, that would see it lock horns with an 8.0-litre quad-turbo W16 Bugatti Chiron or twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 McLaren Senna. Quite incredible.

“If you’ve ever been in an ordinary Mk1 Zephyr on the road, trust me, you wouldn’t want to go any faster,” said the 70-year-old from Burnett Heads, near Bundaberg. It truly is a rapid thing to witness in person, making it all the more incredible when peering inside the roll-caged interior to see the Zephyr’s original and giant 1950s steering wheel still in situ. The dash is original too, albeit with an all-important modern tacho and gauges cleverly mounted into the curvaceous instrument cluster.

Heart of the matter is a transplanted Ford 347 Windsor with Dart block, which dials up about 600hp on the dyno. Quite the change from the car’s original ’52 six-cylinder which offered some 68bhp, helping push it to a top speed of about 130km/h and 0-100km/h in over 20 seconds.

You may not think these old Brits – executive cars of the day – would be decent candidates for any sort of racing activity. But a Mk1 Zephyr won the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally, then in 1955 another triumphed in the East African Safari Rally.

When Jim bought his Zephyr in 1968 it was completely standard. “It was a good old car that I just drove around, no racing,” he said. “It had six-inch wide rims on Olympic GT radials, they were the go in the day. It would stick with the EH (Holdens) when they came out.”

Jim had raced at Surfers Paradise in other Zephyrs, but this one was his sensible road car. “I always liked the Zephyrs,” he said. “They’re good fun and pretty simple. If you broke an axle, which they were notorious for doing, you could get another one anywhere. Same as a gearbox.”

He sold the car once, but was only without it for two months. He missed it too much. Later it was parked up in a shed for about a decade, but one of Jim’s sons said he wanted to go racing, so they agreed to put in a V8. “We were always Windsor people and decided we’d take it drag racing,” he said. “I had a dairy farm at the time, so we put it up where they milk the cows and had just enough room to get under it and put four-link in the back.”

The popular drag conversion of using a Mitsubishi L300’s bits for the front end has given decent stability when racing. During the build they first used Toyota HiLux rear differentials which Jim said were pretty good, but they got through a few. They’ve since moved to a good 35-spline 9-inch diff, which has proved far more durable for the high-stress drag launches this Ford performs.

Using the right equipment for drag racing may not be cheap, but Jim reckons it’s worth it in the long run. Especially when it comes to engine parts. “It started off as a 14-second (drag) car as a bit of a clanger, but things became available and we’ve used different parts now,” he said. “It’s a new Dart block and it’s not been rebuilt for ten years now. Since I went to good gear, good crankshafts, good roller cams and good block, you don’t break anything. I wish I’d bought the good stuff in the first place, then you don’t go through half a dozen blocks and spend more money on rubbish than you would have on good stuff in the first place.”

Inside the motor are SCAT cranks and rods and Crane cam, while there’s aluminium AFR heads for this methanol-fuelled Windsor, all built by Allan Farrer in Jimboomba and his mates. The exhaust system’s a straight-through 3-inch, with mufflers and large exits poking out from under its chrome rear bumper.

The paint – done by Ipswich’s West Side Panel and Paint – still holds up after being applied 26 years ago. It bears the scars of many years’ racing – but these are all parts of the car’s history – much like the countless colourful ANDRA inspection stickers found on the roll cage.

Down the side of the black paint you’ll find the standout stickers ‘Black Snake’. There has to be a story there. “In my younger days I was a bit of a snake around the place, and jumped a few fences,” Jim explained. “Bad habits when I was a teenager.” Perhaps not the most respectable of young fellas, but no doubt it was plenty of fun.

Jim typically runs 29 x 12-15 Hoosier slicks on the Zephyr’s Center Line rims, but the Palmyra event demanded radials so 275/60x15s are fitted in the pictures. “It’s the first drag radial I’ve used and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I was worried if they’d hook up as good as they’re a lot narrower than the slicks. But I’ve done the best 60ft (time) in ten years here.”

Inside Jim has a fibre glass seat with steel frame, while the original door mechanisms remain, albeit hidden behind aluminium cladding. The modern engine management system in the passenger footwell and B&M shifter for the Ford C4 auto gearbox are in stark contrast to that giant original steering wheel. “You don’t have to turn it as much as a little one!” Jim said. “They made them big because there was no power steering.”

The driving control Jim shows when racing is impressive, but he said the car’s setup and the radial tyres have helped. “It’s been straight as a die,” he said. “Previously it’s been all over the place on its slicks. The front and back end are set up pretty well, so it runs straight and doesn’t vibrate or shake.”

Jim said he’s only seen a few other Mk1 Zephyrs turned into drag or serious street cars, mainly in England. “They’ve made some good ones, then put a dirty stinking Chev (engine) in it,” he said. “They didn’t make good Fords to put Chevs in them, that’s my pet hate. I can’t blame them, you can get good performance there for about half the price of a Ford, but it doesn’t make it right. With my personality, I do remind people when I get a chance, that there should be a Ford in there,” he said with a big smile under his giant white beard.

The future suggests a continued relationship between Jim and the Zephyr, extending their half-century partnership. It’s raced at Alice Springs, Mackay, Townsville, Sydney, Portland, Warwick, Stanthorpe, Perth and Barcaldine, but it’s not a cheap hobby. It has to be towed across the country, and over a typical weekend he’ll use about 70 litres of methanol.

But what a sight to see at these events. Jim’s huge personality and quite incredible old racing Zephyr turn heads at every event they attend. There’s plenty of life in the old snake yet.

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