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How Whiskey Cars Worked

Prohibition protesters parade in a car emblazoned with signs and flags calling for the repeal of the 18th Amendment. See more pictures of Prohibition.
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It's a cliché that necessity is the mother of invention, but it's clichéd because it's true. Imagine that you live in a rural Southern town during the Great Depression. Crops have failed and work is scarce. The only thing you have is your car -- and it's a sweet one. It may just be an old Ford, but you've spent plenty of time working on it. You've sweated over the engine in the hot Georgia sun, scraping your knuckles while wrenching parts into place so many times that it seems like the engine is covered in equal parts blood and grease. That car is your world. It's your ticket to a better life.

Not only is the car a well-oiled machine, but you're also a great driver. In loosely organized races through the pastures and back roads of the country, you've beaten all comers -- or at least given them a run for their money. Now your skill has caught the eye of some connected individuals, and they have a job for you.

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Even though prohibition is over, many towns in the South are dry. Selling liquor is illegal. And, even in parts where liquor can be sold, if you sell it without the authorities knowing, you don't have to pay taxes. That's more money in your pocket. So now you've got a job running homemade liquor -- moonshine -- into dry towns. You've got to get the liquor to the buyers and avoid the police. If you can't avoid the police or the federal revenuers, you've got to outrun them. It's just the job you and your car were made for.

Running liquor wasn't uncommon during the 1920s and '30s. But here's where the story takes an interesting twist -- the same men who used their skills as drivers and mechanics to outrun the law used those same skills to found one of the most popular sports in the country: NASCAR. The need to make a living and the love of fast cars combined in the sport with one of the most colorful backgrounds imaginable. Trust us -- football and baseball didn't evolve from a heady combination of the need to outsmart police and the ability to have a great time doing it.

Those original cars raced on weekends in small towns throughout the South and spent the rest of their time as whiskey cars; souped up and filled with illegal liquor, they toured the South making deliveries and avoiding the law. The characters and technology behind the precursors to today's NASCAR race cars are as intoxicating as the liquor they carried.

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Agents capture a vehicle loaded with liquor as it got a flat tire; The truck is piled high and marked as a taxi.
Agents capture a vehicle loaded with liquor as it got a flat tire; The truck is piled high and marked as a taxi.
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It seems strange that a sport would be founded from an illegal activity. But, a number of factors contributed to the growth of moonshine running and other illegal liquor sales in the South from the 1920s until well into the 1970s.

The first factor was prohibition. The nationwide ban on making or selling alcohol opened the market to small producers. While some farmers had been making corn liquor for their own use, they suddenly had the opportunity to sell what they made to a wider audience -- so long as they didn't get caught. Moonshiners would hide the stills they used to make the moonshine deep in the backwoods of the South. If the police found stills, they'd destroy them, wrecking the moonshiners profit and making the production of the next batch nearly impossible.

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After prohibition ended, the opportunities for moonshiners didn't. Many counties and towns in the South were dry, so legitimate liquor sellers were kept from those markets. Moonshiners could not only access customers in dry towns, but they also found that the best was to keep their profits high was to keep sales off the books. That is, they didn't pay federal taxes on the sales they made. Of course, the government doesn't take kindly to people not paying their taxes, so they sent agents to the South, who the moonshiners called revenuers, to collect what the government was owed.

The other factor that led to moonshining and whiskey cars persisting was simply the lack of opportunity in the South. The Great Depression persisted longer in the South than in other areas of the country, since the South didn't have the industrial production base that would have benefitted from the run up to World War II. Small farmers endured crop failures, and the mills that drove the region's economy remained closed. Unemployment was high. And, when a family was facing ruin, choosing to make do or run moonshine (or both) seemed like the right thing to do. It didn't hurt that outrunning and outsmarting the police could be both financially and emotionally rewarding.

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Barrels of illegal moonshine liquor being destroyed by American Revenue agents in Florida.
Barrels of illegal moonshine liquor being destroyed by American Revenue agents in Florida.
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It goes without saying that whiskey cars had to be fast. Big V8 engines were the norm, and drivers would tune them to be even faster, with superchargers and turbochargers, boring and stroking out the engines to get every last horse pulling. Most moonshiners drove Fords with flathead V8s, though a popular modification was stuffing a Ford coupe with a monster Cadillac engine -- the same engine Cadillac used to power ambulances [source: Hot Rod Magazine]. Chevrolet 350 engines were also popular, because they were easier to modify than the Ford engines (that's one of the reasons you see a lot of classic Fords today, particularly hot rod Fords, with Chevy engines).

Unlike in NASCAR racing, where cars are ostensibly kept close to stock, whiskey cars were modified to give them every possible advantage over law enforcement. That includes some modifications that may not give the car more power or speed, but were sure to throw the cops off the trail.

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Some drivers added switches to the dashboard that would cut the brake lights. When they were being chased, the police wouldn't know when they were braking -- so the cops could be lured into taking turns too fast, or running up on the rear of the whiskey car. Suspension modifications were also key. Not only did they help the car drive better, but beefy shocks kept the car from sagging when loaded. Instead of seeing a car obviously carrying a heavy cargo of liquor, police would just see a stock car going down the road.

There were other cargo modifications. Hidden panels in the trunk, seats and doors allowed illegal cargo to ride unseen, even if the car was pulled over and searched. But, law enforcement officers wised to those tricks, so outrunning them became even more important. That's where the skills of the drivers came into play.

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Junior Johnson poses on the beach with his #55 B&L Motors 1955 Oldsmobile before the Beach and Road Course race on Feb. 27, 1955, at the Beach and Road Course in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Junior Johnson poses on the beach with his #55 B&L Motors 1955 Oldsmobile before the Beach and Road Course race on Feb. 27, 1955, at the Beach and Road Course in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Don O'Reilly/Dozier Mobley/Getty Images

Whiskey car drivers tended to be young men. While it's easy to picture a 20-year-old outrunning the cops in a whiskey car, think of someone even younger. Boys as young as 14 would run moonshine. As part of farm families, those boys were already used to operating and working on farm machinery, and using cars and trucks for work.

Running moonshine was often a family business. The best drivers had a mix of street-smarts, nerves and local knowledge that allowed them to outwit law enforcement. Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., better-known as Junior Johnson, said that he'd put a light and sirens on his car. When he was approaching an area where he knew the police had put up a roadblock to catch moonshiners, he'd put the lights and siren on. The police, thinking he was a cop, would take the roadblock down, and Johnson and his illegal cargo would go on their way [source: Hot Rod Magazine].

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Since revenuers were often not from the areas where they worked, and whiskey car drivers were, they often knew the roads better. That allowed them to take back roads and shortcuts, to double back and hideout when they were being pursued. Drivers had their own signature moves, too. One of the most famous is the bootlegger's turn. It's where the moonshiner runner will quickly make a 180-degree turn and head off in the opposite direction before the police can turn around. Familiarity with the roads also let whiskey car drivers, bootleggers and moonshiners drive faster than their pursuers, since they knew just how fast they could take the local curves. Still, many drivers died after pushing their cars just a little too far.

Whiskey car drivers also had intimate knowledge of their cars, having worked on and modified them themselves, for the most part. Law enforcement officers knew their cars well, but didn't have the advantage of designing the cars specifically for the type of driving and the terrain they'd encounter while trying to chase down bootleggers.

While bootlegging, moonshine running and whiskey cars continued into the 1970's in parts of the South, what many people consider the golden age of the activity ended with World War II, when most of the drivers joined the armed forces. But when they came back, they found more legitimate ways to use their considerable talents.

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Cotton Owens races by the crowd in his 64' Pontiac. Cotton Owens won the pole for the 500 but had transmission problems on the 149th lap. Owens would take home $200.
Cotton Owens races by the crowd in his 64' Pontiac. Cotton Owens won the pole for the 500 but had transmission problems on the 149th lap. Owens would take home $200.
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To say that small southern towns in the 1930s, '40s and '50s were hard up for entertainment would be an understatement. In addition to rampant poverty, small towns just didn't have too much to do. Many didn't have a movie theater, and traveling to a larger town that did was time-consuming and expensive. At the same time, there weren't any sports to follow -- professional baseball and football teams didn't arrive in the south until much later.

What small towns in the South did have, however, were empty fields, some very fast cars and some very good drivers. Enterprising farmers would turn empty pastures and fields into racetracks. People could pack the area around a makeshift track and for a small fee, watch local drivers vie for small purses. No driver was getting rich off the small town races, but earning a little bit of money and a lot of bragging rights was enough.

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In 1947, promoters, drivers and car owners from these local races met in Daytona Beach, Fla., and organized the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). NASCAR was based on building up the fan base that had been sown in those small towns. The idea was that the cars would be stock -- the same cars that the fans could buy. That way, fan loyalty would be based around finding a common bond between the fan and the drivers. They'd pretty much drive the same car.

That plan for gaining fans is where whiskey cars and NASCAR splits. Though many of the original organizers, team owners, mechanics and drivers were bootleggers, they now had to follow strict rules on how the cars could be modified. When trying to outrun revenuers, there were no rules. While NASCAR grew in popularity, bootlegging declined. Whiskey car drivers had a legal -- and lucrative -- outlet for their skills, and large-scale, legitimate alcohol sellers began making inroads into those Southern towns they had been banned from. Though whiskey cars evolved into something faster and more mainstream than a hot-rodding country boy running from revenuers, NASCAR fans haven't forgotten the colorful roots of their favorite sport.

For more information about whiskey cars, NASCAR and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Goldstein, Richard. "Raymond Parks, NASCAR Pioneer, Dies at 96." The New York Times. June 21, 2010. (Feb. 21, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/22/sports/autoracing/22parks.html
  • Hot Rod Magazine. "Moonshine Runners, History and Their Cars." October 2005. (Feb. 21, 2011) http://www.hotrod.com/thehistoryof/113_0510_moonshine_runners_cars_history/index.html
  • Thomson, Neal. "Riding with the Devil." New York. Broadway Books. 2007.

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