Keppler’s Vault 16: Hell on Wheels

Summer is here, and that means a lot of things to a lot of people.  Outdoor barbecues, swimming, camping, family vacations, and one of my favorites…auto racing!  I love photography, but it is not my only interest.  In my 20s, I used to be an avid gear head, modifying and racing my classic Trans Am at local drag strips.  My fastest run down the 1/4 mile track was 12.44 seconds, which was pretty good considering the car was 100% streetable, had a full interior, working air conditioning, and an aftermarket stereo with a subwoofer and dual amps.  My race weight was just over 4000 lbs, so had I reduced that by a couple hundred, I should have had no problem breaking into the 11s.

This looks to be a 1951 Chrysler Imperial and was used as a AAA Motor Club Official Photographer’s car.

I still have that car, but don’t drive it as much as I used to as my priorities have changed, however I still have an appreciation for car racing, especially classic racing, and if you’re like me, then this week’s Keppler’s Vault is right up your alley!

Like last week, I have two separate articles that cover the same topic.  The first article, “Hell on Wheels” is from the July 1952 issue of Modern Photography and acts as a sort of instructional guide for photographing auto racing.  I love the tips that author Boyd Harnell writes, including never turning your back on the race, wearing bright clothing so you remain visible, and that you should never, ever take a photo of an injured driver.

The article covers some photographic tips too, such as where to position yourself for the right type of shot, how to pan your camera to get motion shots, when to use flash, and what kinds of film to use.  The end of the article suggests there was a huge appetite for good auto racing photos suggesting that companies could pay between $25 and $250 per picture, which when adjusted for inflation is like $240 – $2400 today!

What I found most surprising however, was his choice of gear that he often uses.  I expected the mention of a Busch Pressman press camera, but I did not expect him to mention the Argus C3 or Berning Robot for rapid sequence shots!  I am a huge fan of the Argus C3 and of course the Robot is a very cool spring wound camera, but I would have expected to hear the usual mentions of German rangefinders like Leicas and Contaxes.  Fascinating stuff indeed!

Wilbur Shaw is seen here after winning the 1939 Indy 500 in this Maserati 8CTF.  Image courtesy of

The second article is from the September 1951 issue and covers the actual photographers who cover the annual Indianapolis 500 race.  This article is short, but has some cool pics including a couple featuring 3-time Indy 500 winner and American auto racing legend, Wilbur Shaw showing how he took an active role in allowing photographers to do their job, including instructing the drivers to hold their positions for the camera guys could get their shots, and even helping to install a trunk mounted camera to capture the first lap of a race.

Theres some great technical info and some interesting stories here, but even if you don’t care about any of that, there’s still the pictures themselves.  There are some really cool images of early 1950s midget racers and stock cars, including some terrifying crashes.  I regret only having access to these scans of the printed magazine and not the original exposures as the quality could have been a lot better.

Whether you’re into history, auto racing photography tips, or just like old cars, these two articles should have something for everyone and are a welcome reminder that summer is here!  Gentlemen….start your engines!

All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2018.

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