In Search of the Johnny Dark Woodill Wildfire

Hi Gang…

One of the most famous fiberglass sports cars of the 1950s is the lead car from the 1954 movie Johnny Dark.  Much speculation has taken place over the last many years concerning whether the car survives and who might be the lucky owner – if the car exists at all.  

Making it interesting, many people claim to have the car.  Some of these cars are powered by Willys drivetrains, while others are powered by Chrysler, Buick, Ford, and even Jaguar.  These cars differ in many ways such as their frame and cockpit/dashboard layout too.  

It’s an interesting question to answer.  Knowing the significance of the Johnny Dark Wildfire sports car, let’s review what we know about this car based on:

  • Recent research
  • Previously conducted research
  • A thorough review of vintage photography
  • An interview with one of the original builders and drivers of a car in the film: Chuck Tatum

And away we go.

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The Johnny Dark Wildfire “at speed” in 1953 at the Santa Barabara/Goleta Airport. This is where the filming of the first race took place on Labor Day in 1953.


Timing of the Film:

Although the film debuted on June 16th, 1954 (click here for a story on the world premier) filming started in late summer of 1953.  The first race in the film contained footage of an actual event/race that occurred in Santa Barbara, California at the Goleta Airport on Labor Day, 1953.  And…the footage shows the Wildfire at speed on the course, as shown in the 3 minute movie trailer below:

What’s fun about this is “fiberglass fact” is that the Wildfire was actually entered in the race and driven by stunt driver – and race car driver – H. Haile Chace.  Chace was the “Technical Director” for Johnny Dark, and it was in this official race (as seen in the program below) that he squared off against the most famous Glasspar G2 sports car at the same time – a car owned by Bill Tritt and piloted by Bill Pollack.

What I would have given to see both of these cars on the track at the same time!

So the two fiberglass sports car heavyweights went head to head at this airport race in 1953.  You can see both cars registered for this race in the program below.

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Additional confirmation on this timing comes from two sources: 

When Was The Car Built?

The first Woodill Wildfire debuted at the November, 1952 Petersen Motorama and was one of at least three built in late 1952 and early 1953.  This first Woodill Wildfire was of a different design than the later more famous design – a distinction which we delineate as either Series 1 (early design) or Series 2 (later design) Woodill Wildfire.  Click here to review a story on the first or Series 1 Woodill Wildfire.

The first Series 2 Wildfire appeared to the public in the July 17th 1953 issue of Motor World Magazine – as shown below.  Given a reasonable estimate of 4-6 weeks to build this first car (fit, finish, and prototyping could take shorter or longer) we’ll estimate that the first Series 2 body was produced by the end of May, 1953.

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Serial Number:

Based on the work of Woodill Wildfire Historian Emeritus – Frank Cornell – we are lucky to have a four page copy of the serial numbers of both the cars and kits that Woodill sold.  This list was shared directly to Frank by Howard Miller who was the Foreman for Wildfire and the person most responsible for producing/building all Woodill Wildfire sports cars and bodies.

Using this list, we can look up the serial numbers of Woodill sports cars to identify the year that the body was produced.  Less than twenty “Series 2” bodies / cars were built prior to the magazine cover car appearing in July, 1953. 

Point: Assuming the Johnny Dark Wildfire was built before Labor Day (September), 1953, this leaves just over twenty “Series 2” bodies produced.  The Johnny Dark Wildfire would have an ID/VIN from this list of approximately 20 possibilities.

Interviewing Chuck Tatum:

We’ve been fortunate in the past many years to have one of the original drivers and builders of a car that appeared in the movie Johnny Dark.  Chuck Tatum built his own race car and drove it in the race sequences that appeared in the second race of the film. 

Below are salient points made by Chuck over the course of several interviews between 2008 and 2014:

  • Haile Chace was person who hired the cars. Most people just rented them their car.  Chuck Tatum was only person who drove his own car – to his knowledge.  The movie producer wanted to use race cars – not sports cars.  
  • The Director wanted his car (the Tatum Special), but Chuck would allow him to do so only if he was driver and they paid for his SAG card too – cost of about $250. After the movie studio balked several times, they finally said “yes”.
  • Two days before shooting (Saturday) there was a race and it was filmed for Johnny Dark. This was a real race, and this is where they met Chuck Tatjm for first time.  Two days later on Monday, they came back and did more filming for background.  Three months later, they finalized their negotiations with Chuck Tatum and they begin filming races in the fall of 1953.
  • No doubles were used for any car in the film.  If they wrecked a supporting car, they just wrote it out of the script.   The only car that would have had a “double” would have been the “Wildfire” and Chuck never saw another car including a double car for the Wildfire. 
  • The Wildfire definitely had a Willys engine – and it wasn’t very strong.   If there was a “Woodill” double, they would have used it when there were problems – no double stepped in. 
  • Chuck says this was a top notch – A – film. First, Tony Curtis, Piper, Don Taylor, Paul Kelly, Ilka Chase, Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Hampton and Scatman Crothers, were A list stars.  Next, the fact it was originally going to be a 3-D film.  Also, George Sherman was director who did over 100 films in Hollywood.  This was not a B film.  Universal promoted it as a top notch film.
  • Chuck says that filming of the racing scenes started after labor day race of 1953, and started 1-2 months later.  Filming of the race scenes started and concluded in fall of 1953 – probably late September to late October/November.
  • One morning the studio asked Chuck Tatum to use his car and they put sound machinery over entire car. Drove up, down, stop, start, over street, and created all sounds they were to use in the studio. 
  • Most race car shooting was done on a heavy duty platform built on front of Lincoln.  May have been on back too.  All drivers admired the guy who drove the Lincoln – very skilled.  The guy that drove the Lincoln car deserved an award says Chuck. 
  • Also, this was one of first times a helicopter was used to shoot race scenes – shooting back against the mountain going down the hills.
  • Woodill Wildfire: This was really 6 cylinder engine out of the Willys according to Chuck Tatum.  The Woodill people who built it were Willys dealers – confirming the heritage.  When filming got to high altitudes, the Wildfire wouldn’t run.  This was 6000 feet, and the car had no power.  Chuck’s partner who was Andy Botto who was co-driver of car in movie.  Studio’s mechanics could not fix it.  Chuck volunteered his partner – Andy Botto.  George Sherman was director, and after this was successfully fixed, George always asked how the “star car” doing (implying all other cars were ordinary).  Woodill never sent anyone with car.  Botto kept car running thru picture, and he got a generous tip at end of picture for his help.

Drivetrain – Further Confirmation:

In 1986, research was conducted to determine the engine / drivetrain of the Johnny Dark Wildfire.  Two letters are presented below. The first letter was from an appraisal and research firm that reviewed available information at the time and did not find confirmation that a Jaguar XK120 chassis/drivetrain was used.

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The second letter was written by Robert Hill again searching for confirmation of the drivetrain and was addressed to one of the lead actors in the film – Don Taylor.  Don wrote his response directly on the letter discussing his memories of nearly 40 years prior that he believed the car was powered by a Willys drivetrain.

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Chassis:

During a scene in the first race, the Woodill Wildfire is turned on its side as shown below:

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If this is the Johnny Dark Wildfire then the chassis is revealed to be either made by Mameco (click here for information on Mameco) or more likely a very early version of the soon to be released Woodill Wildfire frame – variations shown below.

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This chassis in the movie photo above is NOT a Shorty Post chassis which was made for Glasspar G2 sports cars from August, 1952 to March, 1953.  The Shorty Post chassis was also fitted to Series 1 Wildfire sports cars and some early Series 2 Wildfires too. 

Point: Based on available evidence, the Johnny Dark Wildfire would have a frame made by Woodill Wildfire or Mameco.

Dashboard:

Dashboards are like fingerprints on vintage handcrafted fiberglass sports cars. 

Even with a production run of approximately 100 cars, we’ve found few if any dashboards that are exactly the same.  All vintage photos available of the Johnny Dark race car show a four main gauge dashboard as shown in the photos below.  If the car remains unaltered today, it should either have or show evidence of these four main gauges and other features shown on the dashboard.

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Side Mirror:

If found, the Johnny Dark Wildfire should show evidence of a side mirror as shown below.  This can be seen in earlier photos above, too.

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Fred Roth, Chassis And Windshield:

Collector and historian Fred Roth has been studying the history of Woodill Wildfires and other similar marques since the late 1960s.  In the automotive community that recognizes the significance of the history of these cars, Fred is considered the “founder” of research and preservation for American fiberglass specials.  Fred also has the unique distinction of working with Special Interest Autos magazine in 1974 to produce the first historical article on Woodill Wildfire sports cars.

The first comments, below, are from a personal communication with Fred in 2012:


Fred Roth:  I was approached by the owner of the Woodill bodied Jag car many years ago. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t now. There are several scenes in the film that show the car/s used were Willys powered with Willys running gear. (Check the parts lying around in the garage scene)

Second knowing Woody as I did, his main interest in putting his cars in movies was for the publicity. As you said, at that time he was pushing to build these as Willys Sports cars and would have defeated his purpose – especially using foreign running gear.


Second, the comments below are summarized from from a recording with Howard Miller in 1974 made by Fred Roth in documenting the history of Woodill Wildfire sports cars.  Howard Miller was the Production Foreman for Woodill Wildfire:


Howard Miller:  The Johnny Dark car had a Corvette windshield put on it before it was finally sold. It was built using a modified Willys engine/drivetrain.


Shown below are photos of several Woodill Wildfire sports cars.  The first car shown in the photos is believed to be the Johnny Dark Wildfire with the newly installed Corvette windshield.


 

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How Many Cars Appeared in the Movie?

According to Woodill Wildfire brochures such as the photo and caption below, three Wildfires appeared in the film.

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Additional evidence is provided by automotive historian Gregg Griffin whose father is one of the original owner/builders of a Woodill Wildfire.  In personal communication in 2011, Gregg shared the following:


If you look at the three Wildfires from the movie, I’m 99.99% sure these cars are represented on the contents page of the “Manual of Building Plastic Cars”, (circa. 1954)

In this picture, you see the black one (note the grill) to the right, the Idaho Special in the left foreground (note the windshield) and the guys “rehearsing” the body installation from the movie……again, my two cents, but it reinforces the “theory of the three”…


The magazine and specific page are shown below:

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And here are three movie stills from Johnny Dark showing these three cars:

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Summary:

So…what do we “know” about the famous Johnny Dark racecar?  Let’s review:

  • It was an early Series 2 body with an early serial number – a number that can be verified as shown in Howard Miller’s serial number registry
  • All evidence points to the use of a Willys drivetrain – confirmed by the business partner (Chuck Tatum) of the person who drove the car during the movie (Andy Botto)
  • The chassis is either a Mameco or more likely the newly designed Wildfire chassis.  This is best revealed by the car turned on its side during race 1 of the movie.
  • The dashboard configuration is rare – even for a Wildfire.  It shows four main large gauges and some auxiliary functions/dials too.
  • The racing windshield was replaced with a Corvette wrap-around windshield before being sold by Woodill.  However, evidence of the holes/mounting brackets of the original racing windshield should remain on the body for further verification.

So if the car is out there, it should match the criteria established above to allow confidence that that car might be the elusive, often sought after, missing for 60+ years….Johnny Dark Wildfire.

And what’s that I hear???  You want to know about the other two Wildfires in the film?  More about that in a future story here at Forgotten Fiberglass.

Hope you enjoyed the story, and remember gang…

The adventure continues here at Forgotten Fiberglass.

 Geoff

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* Click on the following link to view all stories on:  Johnny Dark Movie

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Comments

In Search of the Johnny Dark Woodill Wildfire — 15 Comments

  1. Great story with pictures I have never seen before.

    Did you see the latest issue of Car Builder where they mentioned the passing of Harold Pace At only age 62 ??

    Mel

  2. @Mel…yes Harold was a very close friend. I’m working on a tribute to him now. He was one of our best…we lost a great friend in many ways. Geoff

  3. Geoff,

    I think I remember the Johnny Dark car restored and racing at Road America in the early 90s. Vaguely, I remember that it was someone from Omaha. I think I saw it a cole of times and then it didn’t return.

    There must be some evidence of entry. Either with VSCDA or SVRA. Joe Alexander

    Ps. Heard from Tom Chandler yesterday.

    • Hi Joe…that’s a great car and one of several that has been touted as the Johnny Dark Wildfire. I thought it would be helpful to outline the research based on what we know about the original car. Then, the folks that have Wildfires can use this article to help validate their own car and if needed we can help identify the true history of any of these cars as well. Thanks for chiming in Joe – and say “hi” to Tom for me…..Geoff
      Geoffrey Hacker recently posted…In Search of the Johnny Dark Woodill WildfireMy Profile

  4. One thing that never seems to get mentioned when talking about this movie and the cars is that Tony Curtis shot some scenes with it at the Packard Proving Grounds north of Detroit, Michigan for the movie. Tony and Janet Leigh were also photographed with a 1953 Packard Caribbean at the PPG.

    I used to see Tony at Spago Hollywood where he dined regularly with a lovely young lass who wore the most interesting outfits and heels. I had a policy to never bother celebrities when I would see them out, but Tony was very gregarious. One night he stopped off at the table and I asked him about the Johnny Dark car. He put his hand up to his mouth and kinda whispered, “It was cute, but not a lotta power like the Packard…” Then he said, “Pardon me, but I’ve gotta go home and polish the silver!” (his girlfriend was wearing a silver lame’ outfit that night). Ahh, Tony. A great talent and interesting fellow! He loved cars, women and art.

  5. Boy does this ever bring back some memories. My brother Greg and I were at the SB road races, having ridden up from Newport with our parents and Ted Mangles in our ’48 Mk IV Jag drophead. It was a long drive in those days before the freeways. The races were great, the G2 being one of the quickest cars on the course and the Wildfire performing like a Willys sedan with a case of the slows. As I recall, the biggest Willys engine available at the time was a 90 HP 6, so racing one seems like a bit of a stretch. I think it must have been a little embarrassing for the Hollywood people, but in that time, nothing seemed too embarrassing for them! The “Canadian border” starting point was actually Lake Tahoe which, being at around 6,500′, explains why the car wouldn’t get out of it’s own way. For a car jetted for sea level, it would have been running way too rich, especially when trying to start it cold. I bet that they changed jets to compensate for the problem. Another Hollywood promo curiosity is that the car being pushed out of the garage with Ms. Laurie at the wheel is a Glasspar bodied series 1 with whitewalls, which miraculoously morphed into a blackwalled second series enroute to the track. And with fake wire wheels, no less! I can’t begin to relate all the groans, chuckles and snorts coming from actual road race veterans when they saw this film; not so much because of the cars they used, but the low speed scenes speeded up to make it appear fast!

    The G2 had the fastest lap time at the SB race and was right in there with the Ferraris, Cad Allards and Fritz Warren’s Chrysler special (and a Porsche Carrera), but there was some kind of mechanical issue that prevented it from finishing in the money. Mechanical trouble was common among many competitors in those days, especially the American made custom crowd. How things have changed.

  6. my glasspar ‘ascot’ has a frame by mameco, according to the i.d. plate. in fact that’s the way the car is identified on its oklahoma title. but no one has ever identified the ‘glass car with stude v8 i entered at laguna seca about a dozen years ago…

    • Hi Toly…thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re right – Mameco produced the frames for the Ascot and I believe assembled the cars too (I’ll have to check my notes.) What a great car you have. Still working on the history of your Stude sports car. Thanks for chiming in and keep your thoughts comin’ Geoff

  7. Thanks Geoff, for the comprehensive article on the Johnny Dark car. Seems like everyone would like to claim a car they own was the very one in a certain movie, was once owned by Carroll Shelby, or passed through Steve McQueen’s hands at some time. That kind of provenance seems to matter to some in the collector car world, and can often mean lots of dollars, if true. Many who make such claims may actually believe it since the story is often passed from owner to owner, though without much reliable proof.

    The extent of your research, which has often included interviews with people who were actually there at the time, original period documentation from multiple sources including photo evidence from actual snapshots, magazine and newspaper articles, library archives and various other sources, is unrivaled. I think from now on, we should refer to you as an AFA, an Automotive Forensic Archeologist. All that’s missing is a positive DNA match!

    • @Rollie – thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you liked the article. It really represents many authors such as Fred Roth, Frank Cornell, Chuck Tatum, Gregg Griffin and others. I hope that’s what I conveyed in the body of the story. Best….. Geoff

  8. One defining characteristic I might add for the Idaho Special is the crack below the driver’s door and what looks like a crease near the rear view mirror, probably caused when they turned it on its side for the crash scene. (Most noticeable in the picture of Tony Curtis sitting in the Idaho Special #11)
    Not only would this be hard to hide and/or repair, but would be a hidden verification point on the body. It also reinforces the idea that there were no Wildfire “body doubles”.

  9. Pingback: Off to Amelia Island…

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