Back in June, former All American Racers, Interscope and Parnelli fabricator Mike Lewis called me. Mike and I have shared history and information since Kathy Weida first gave me his contact in 2004, and I value every second he shares on the phone with me. He can recall dimensions of tubing and chassis numbers in a split second, and he is an amazing asset to Eagle restorations- and someone I call a dear friend. Sometimes we talk about details of cars, the character of people, or why a design is what it is. Good humor is shared, and I know I can trust Mike’s expertise if we have questions on our restorations of Eagles.
But this phone call was different.
It wasn't about AAR, nor Eagles. It was whether we'd like to save two cars a bit outside our range that an acquaintance of his had owned. After some thought, we declined, but offered to give a market evaluation of similar cars to help the seller- a widow trying to move what remained of her husband’s final adventures on the track.
In September, Mike called back. The cars had been marketed, but little interest was drummed up. If we weren't interested, one car would be going to the dump, but if we made an offer, the lot would be ours. We don’t care for seeing cars ending up in dumps- especially cars that made history in our own backyard.
Suffice to say, while they are not Eagles, the small H-Modified cars Martin Tanner built were something that Dan, Rem and the rest of the gang at AAR would have surely some appreciation for. (As a side note, and if you’re curious if there are any other AAR connections in the H-Modified world, the late Jerry Whitfill, who was a lead machinist at AAR, built a one-off Crosley-powered H-Modified car called the Jubile Special, along with a Triumph-twin F3 car and a very sleek Saab-powered D Sports Racer.)
All seven of Martin Tanner’s creations built were one-off specials, that were generally regarded as some of the finest quality-built cars on the H-Mod grids. It should be no surprise- along with being a successful advertising man, the Saginaw, Michigan native was a highly regarded artist, sculptor and sportsman. Everything he made or built was done to the highest degree of the time. His art is highly sought after today and bring large sums.
In the mid-1950s, Tanner took to the growing sport of sports car racing, but wanted more freedom than the production class he was running. So he made his own H-Mod, the Crosley-powered T-1. He built nearly everything on the car himself, and crafted an aluminum frame and an all-aluminum body with elegant lines- most of the skills needed he learned on-the-job to get the car done. With it, he won the 1958 SCCA National Championship.
The following year, he debuted another car, the T-2. It mirrored many of the lines of a Lotus XI, but was smaller in size, and was powered by a 750cc Saab 2-stroke engine. After Tanner’s sole year running it, he sold it to Wilmette, Illinois’ Frank Issacson so Tanner could focus on a new build.
Issacson painted over the plum purple bodywork with a fine papaya orange and cream livery and renamed the car the ‘Lyne Special’ in honor of his wife. The first time out under his ownership, he trusted the car in the hands of H-Mod legend Sandy MacArthur at Meadowdale, but the car failed to finish. More races at Wilmot and Road America followed with Isaacson behind the wheel, culminating at the 1965 Badger 200, where Issacson won the H-Mod class. It later was painted green and ran as a DSR, though results are currently being researched.
This was the car destined for the dump if not for a phone call to us.
By 1962, Tanner’s creations were winning H-Mod races all over the Midwest, and his latest build, the T-5, weighed in at just over 750 lbs. and had the lines of a period Italian creation. Again, just smaller. Despite the diminutive Swedish power plant, Tanner was clocked at nearly 120 mph at Road America in 1962, where he captured the H-Mod win at the Badger 200. More wins followed until he sold the car to a friend in 1965.
This was the completed car that rolled into the shop yesterday.
After Tanner built his final car, the rear-engined T-7 in 1967, he found his eyesight was starting to fail, so he took to building and selling home built kayaks. You can guess the build quality- they too were a cut above most kayaks on the market. Tanner passed away in 1969 at the age of 62. The racing class he was crowned champion of in 1958 evolved to become D Sports Racer and is today known as the P2 category.
As years went by, T-5 and T-2 wound up in the hands of Gene Leasure of Prescott, Arizona. We can thank Gene for triumphantly campaigning T-5 for nearly 30 years in the American Southwest before he passed in June, 2021 at the age of 86.
The T-5, in Leasure’s hands, ran at many events over the years, including 1987 Monterey Historics. In one of his final events, at the 2007 Reno Historics, T-5 finished third in the hotly-contested H-Mod event. Not long after, Gene had the two Saab engines for each car rebuilt by Bud Clark and installed one of the fresh motors back into T-5, but he never made it back onto the track. Gene was one of the racers Mike Lewis would often have lunch with on Thursdays, so when the group talked to Mike again this fall and said the cars needed a proper home, Mike called us.
When both cars arrived on December 16th to KMPR’s headquarters, Gene Leasure’s race bag was still in T-5- and the weight of that hit me like a ton of bricks. We don’t just try to restore and preserve cars; we ensure legacy’s carry forward and are remembered.
One Tanner car will soon be buzzing in 2-stroke glory around a track it once dominated. The other will take some time, and lots of work, but will be cutting through the air as Tanner intended.
Like Eagles, they’ll draw a lot of attention, and are absolute works-of-art.