By Ken Paulsen
Photos courtesy the Bardwell Collection
Racing has been in Buddy Bardwell’s blood for most of his life. He has run competitively in seven different decades and the last half-century with the same basic car. His is a unique story of the early days of stock car racing and of one man who chose a different path to the winner’s circle.
Bardwell’s first racing experience took place around 1940 when he was sixteen. He and close friend Bill Donovan hopped up a Ford Flathead V8 that they installed in a 1936 Ford Coupe. Rear end gears were changed, carburetors added and the engine was super tuned. It would do 80mph on the highway in second gear and that is where his racing started.
Challenge races would take place with others of his generation most of whom had six cylinder Chevrolets that would top out at 75mph in high gear. Winner was determined when a pass was made and held. Bardwell could not be beat. It created some interesting times for approaching traffic, all of which fortunately would veer out of the way. They knew they were pressing their luck when one of the oncoming cars was a local policeman.
When state police trooper Chester Hartwell was assigned to the district he vowed to put an end to the highway drag races. He was a fair man whose motto was if he couldn’t overhaul a car he was chasing, he would not arrest the driver later. After a year of trying he never did catch Bardwell who would swing off onto dirt back roads where the dust worked in his favor. Years later he stopped at Buddy’s shop. During a friendly talk of the old days Hartwell said, “I gave you both two years, and if you did not kill yourselves, then I was sure you would make it.”
Racing was halted for World War II. Bardwell and Donovan joined the Navy serving a total of 3 ½ years each mostly in the Pacific arena. A return home meant a return to racing but this time with all of the tracks sprouting up it was just the excitement they were looking to have.
Bardwell’s first race was at Brattleboro, VT in 1949 driving a 1934 Ford Coupe for Perley Fielders. The race car actually belonged to Fielder’s wife. After a qualifying heat accident, she did not want Bardwell to drive the car again. A heated discussion between the spouses ended with Bardwell buying the car for $20. A rebuilt junkyard engine put him back in business.
One addition was made which became a distinguishing feature of all future Bardwell cars. Pit crew member, Johnny Elmer, had a set of steer horns on the barn wall at his homestead. Buddy said, “Let’s put them on the car. The kids will like it.” They were bolted onto the roof and have been on ever since.
There was one time though when they did become detached. The roof metal was a little thin where the horns were attached. Weeks of track vibration caused the metal to tear where the horns were bolted. On a trip home from Brattleboro, the horn assembly fell off. Buddy spent two days along the highway between Chesterfield, NH and Brattleboro looking for the horns to no avail. A fellow traveling the same route had already picked the horns up off the highway and put them in the back of his pickup. He was at a local welding shop when a worker spotted them. He knew right away who they belonged to and asked if he could return them. The horns have been firmly attached to each car since then.
One time he was at a track and ordered by the pit steward to take them off. His feeling was that they were a potential hazard to others if they came off. A heated discussion followed. Buddy raced that night with the horns.
Bardwell had always wanted to run a Hudson engine and that opportunity was now. The standard Hornet engine was 308ci. By choosing the smaller Hudson Wasp engine and boring .125 over he was able to keep it just under 290ci. Special pistons had to be made. Although it came with one single barrel carb, Bardwell installed two single barrel carbs. Technical inspectors knew the Ford engines that were so prevalent but were clueless when it came to the Hudson so Buddy could “experiment”. After running a few years with that configuration, he switched to a single four barrel carburetor. The engine only turned 4500 rpm which meant it stayed together longer. He never burned out a bearing.
When he was faced with an engine check, he removed the plug from cylinder one, the “puffing” machine was hooked up and the engine passed inspection. Some tracks had not made the investment in this new device. If a tear down was required, Bardwell unbolted the head and slid it back past cylinder one where the inspector could take his measurements and calculate the total displacement.
Over the years the Hornet engine has been modified as rules became more relaxed with the addition of the overhead valve powerplants coming out in the late 1940’s and then taking over in the 1950’s. Bardwell ordered a special crank from Los Angeles. He has also gone to a larger bore increasing the displacement to 375ci, larger valves, aluminum racing head and electronic ignition.
When the coupe era was phasing out, there were a few years where the opportunity to compete were slim. In 1981, the New England Antique Racers (NEAR) organization formed to promote fielding the old cars once again. Initially their rules allowed full competition racing, but as the inevitable accidents happened they were changed to choosing a designated winner and the exhibition racing conducted by many vintage clubs today. The desire for full racing competition never left Bardwell. He was able to locate other vintage clubs, primarily in New York State, who still promoted the wheel to wheel, petal to the metal racing that he loves.
Bardwell offers that this may be the only Hudson engine still running in oval track competition (not exhibition) in the world. He may be right. If his enthusiasm is any indication, Blazing Buddy Bardwell, the Hornet engine and ’34 Ford are a combination that still have a lot of years left.