The First Belly Tank?
It doesn’t matter what subject you’re discussing, history can get pretty murky pretty quickly. From an early age we’re taught to avoid definitive words like “first” and “only” because as soon as they roll off your tongue, an argument will spark. Making these claims aloud is one thing, but when they’re in print, well, that’s a whole different battle. Case in point: today’s belly tanker talk.
The story starts right around Christmas when I was back at my parents’ place in Michigan. At home, especially in the winter months, the going is easy and there’s always room for some sort of hot rod-related conversation. After taking in Tom Senter’s colorful coverage of the 1971 Antique Nationals in Rod & Custom’s “Street Rod Quarterly,” my brother flipped open his laptop and began scrolling through pictures. A moment later, he tilted the computer towards me. “Check this out,” he said.
Right there on his screen, I saw what very well may be the first belly tank ever built. Based on a P-38 165-gallon drop tank, the homemade machine featured a wealth of early hot touches from the steelies wrapped in wide whites to the cycle fenders and laid-back Plexiglas windshield. There’s a rear-mounted antenna, upholstered cockpit and—best of all—that unmistakable shark nose art.
I soon discovered that the image was originally black and white and it was recently colorized by Rui Candeias of Portugal. Rui, a retired marine biologist, runs an impressive page called “In Colore Veritas” that focuses on vintage military photographs. The name translates to “The Truth in Color,” and it’s certainly worth investigating if you have the time.
So where does this little tank show up on the big belly tank timeline? According to Rui, the photo was snapped in Italy or Corsica in 1944 or 1945, placing it either one or two years before Bill Burke unveiled his unpainted, 165-gallon drop tank creation out on the Southern California dry lakes (where it eventually turned 131.96mph). Even though this one wasn’t built for competition, I would wager that it was the first hot rodded belly tank—wouldn’t you?
Photo from USAAF, colorized by Rui Candeias