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The Boothill Express

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Ah, the show rod. Modern eyes looking back on these wacky mid-century showpieces may see them as a low point in hot rod history. Instead of stripped-down roadsters built for nothing but speed, these kooky rolling art pieces were designed to draw crowds while sitting still. As indoor car shows spread across the country, thanks in large part to promoters like Bob Larivee, there was a growing need for unique cars to entice the public to buy tickets. Often, they weren’t even based on car bodies, instead relying on kitschy themes like coffins and bathtubs. It got weird.

Yes, this is an over the top relic from the era of the show rod, but it has a hot rod heart.

This one may be the most famous of the genre. Ray Fahrner’s Boothill Express is mentioned in the first sentence whenever show rods are discussed. But there’s something about this crazy “car,” built around an 1850’s horse-drawn funeral coach, that is just so right. So many show rods abandoned any commitment to time-honored hot rod aesthetics and instead relied on chrome, blowers stacked atop more blowers, and silly themes to make an impression. Sure, this thing never ran (fiberglass clones were built that did wheelstands!) and there’s no doubt that it’s outrageous and completely over the top, but look past all that and it still looks like a real hot rod. Check out that raked stance. And those slick-shod Cragars with magnesium spindle mount pizza-cutter fronts. And of course, there’s that injected Hemi “under glass” inside the wagon. This crazy thing actually looks right, making it something rare among its gawky contemporaries.

The Hemi is rumored to be missing some internals necessary to make it run, but it looks like it means business nestled between the coffin rails.

Ray Fahrner’s shop was located in Independence, Missouri. Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of the American West knows that this area was home base for Jesse James and the James Gang. So, when it came time for Fahrner to find a funeral coach as a platform for the wild creation that he was dreaming up, not just any old 1800’s wagon would do. Instead, as the story goes, he found one that had a spooky connection to local history. This is the funeral coach that allegedly carried James Gang member Bob Younger to his final resting place on “Boot Hill.” Fahrner and company took great care to restore the 100-year-old wooden coach, pulling molds from it in case it didn’t survive. (These molds would come in handy for the later, running versions.)

When it hit the scene in 1967, the Boothill Express caused a sensation. To the delight of Fahrner and the promoters who booked him, the Express lined up crowds at every show and dragstrip it visited. It was also immortalized in miniature, with a Monogram model kit that also featured a skeleton in a cowboy hat, armed with a six-shooter.

Don't forget to assemble your cowboy skeleton.

The Boothill Express now resides in the Museum of American Speed. It’s one thing to see this crazy car in photos, but it has a unique and impressive presence in person. Your author is a bit of a hot rod purist, with little patience or interest in angel hair and hot rods that sit still, but even I can’t deny that the Boothill Express is just plain cool. It’s easy to see why crowds flocked to this thing a half century ago.

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