Jason Shafer recently wrote an excellent post on the 1970 Chrysler 300 Hurst and in it he included an early historical account about George Hurst. As I was reading this post, I had started researching information for my Lincoln Continental article. These two articles instantly triggered a memory about George Hurst’s early years. While George Hurst will forever be associated with Oldsmobile and high performance shifters from the muscle car era, how many know that the first car he specialized in was the Lincoln Continental?
One of George Hurst’s early motor mount conversions
Prior to partnering with Bill Campbell, George Hurst specialized in engine swaps. In 1954 George Hurst attended the speed trials in Daytona Florida. Here there were many racers that used old affordable cars, favoured for their typically light bodies with modern powerful OHV V8s swapped into them. He observed that many of these custom swaps were poorly done. The engines often sat too high which cause a shift in the center of gravity making handling unsafe at high speeds, sometimes resulting in crashes. George thought that he could do a better job and began to specialize in making engine mount kits, which were designed to have a low center of gravity.
Along with creating his specialized engine mounts, George was also performing drive line swaps for customers. He built a four car garage on his property in Abington, PA to perform these conversions. Several of his customers were wealthy people of Eastern Pennsylvania, many of whom favoured the 1940-48 Lincoln Continentals. This resulted in him specializing in power train swaps for the Lincoln Continental V12s. By the mid 1950’s the Continentals were already considered to be somewhat collectible. However, it was well know that the Lincoln flathead V12 was not a reliable engine, having issues with overheating and premature engine wear. Furthermore, it was quite weak in comparison to modern OHV high compression V8’s. While many people wanted to own one of these classic Lincolns, they also wanted a reliable and more powerful drive train.
This Continental has a Buick nailhead V8 swapped in place
The history on when George started doing Continental engine swaps is somewhat unclear. It seems he started to do these engine conversions sometime around 1954. He would typically use Cadillac or Buick V8 engines, and he’d also update the transmissions and rear axles. George seemed ever concerned with safety, and so he typically performed brake upgrades to help stop these heavy cars with their new-found power.
This particular car that is the subject of this post is one of the first Lincoln Continental conversions that George performed. This car was purchased as a used vehicle by Walter Smartt MD, who was a Captain in the US Air Force serving as a flight surgeon. Dr. Smartt bought the car in 1953 for a sum of $1850 ($17,291 adjusted). He drove the car for approximately one year in stock form, but the V12 engine was tired and the maintenance costs were high. He complained that the engine had excessive fumes and was generally unpleasant to drive. Dr. Smartt loved the car but was not happy with the car’s performance and decided that he needed to update the engine.
George tore the subject car down significantly to perform his modifications
In June 1954 he brought the car to George Hurst, who was operating out of his four car garage in Abington, PA. He had already earned a reputation of being a proficient engine swapper. Initially Dr. Smartt’s car started off as a simple engine update, but ended up perpetually growing into something much more. Both Dr. Smartt and George Hurst liked the Continental’s lines and wanted the car to remain stock in appearance. Hurst and Dr. Smarrt decided the best course of action was to update the remainder of the car to meet the standards of the contemporary luxury vehicles of the mid 1950’s.
After the extensive rebuild, Dr. Smartt’s Continental ended up with a Cadillac Eldorado 285-hp 365cid dual quad V8 engine. At the request of Dr. Smartt, the valve covers and air cleaner housing where copper plated. George wanted a strong reliable transmission and the ’49-51 Lincoln transmission had the reputation as being one of the strongest. So he collected several used transmissions and rear axles from these Lincolns to obtain the best parts. He built a transmission with an overdrive unit attached, and a rear axle with a 4.27:1 gear ratio.
Ever concerned with safety, George upgrade the brakes on the Continental to more modern brakes from a ’51 Lincoln. They remained non-power assist but were considerably stronger than the stock brakes. Also concerned with vehicle handling, he set the Cadillac engine further back in the chassis, resulting in a claimed near 50:50 weight distribution (2670 lbs front, 2640 lbs rear). George kept the front suspension stock, but he upgraded the rear suspension using Jaguar shock absorbers for better ride control. He installed custom chrome-moly heat treated radius rods along with a titanium track bar.
Other upgrades include a switch to a 12 volt electrical system, a dual coil ignition system, and water injection. George claimed he used parts from over thirty different cars, including a Hudson heater, power windows from a Cadillac, an Oldsmobile radiator and a Buick fan shroud. George even engineered a custom fresh air system where air from the lower grille was carried to the interior through tubes mounted outside the engine compartment so the air would remain cool. The air intake system included a trap to separate rain water from the fresh air intake.
The interior was a completely custom, with hand-finished leather upholstery, which alone cost $2000 ($18,600 adjusted). The convertible top was refinished in white Orlon, lowered 1 ½”, and had a modern electric/hydraulic cylinder mechanism installed. To ensure a quite ride, all rubber seals were replaced, and additional insulation was added. The car was refinished in black lacquer while all the chrome was also refinished.
The car was a very well done quality piece and it really demonstrated George Hurst’s engineering and fabrication skills. It was a car built by a man of true vision and talent. The car was so well received that the Lincoln Continental’s Owner Club awarded it in 1956 with the best Continental engine conversion award. How many classic car clubs have that category today?
Dr. Smartt and George Hurst with the award for best engine conversion from the LCOC
The car was also tested by Motor Trend magazine, who praised the car for its power, ride, braking, roadability and overall top notch craftsmanship. They reported it accelerated with the contemporary cars of the day, while still able to achieve 16 MPG. To quote Motor Trend they stated “It’s difficult to write anything derogatory about the car from a classic stand point because it approaches perfection.”
This plaque is attached to the subject car
This Lincoln remains in existence today and it seems that it’s been for sale for some time, with an asking price considerably higher than a typical Continental. It appears much as it did in the mid-1950s with the only change being the addition of the rather ungainly horns on its fender tops.
I wasn’t able to obtain the history of the car from Dr. Smartt’s ownership until today, but it seems it’s only accumulated about 30,000 miles. It is a marvelous piece of history and hopefully someone will recognize its importance and continue preserve it.