Interview: Gentleman Jim Reed

Legendary Aussie drag racer Gentleman Jim Reed passed away yesterday at the age of 86. Here's an interview with the great man from 2013

Photographers: Peter Bateman, David Cook

Legendary Australian drag racer Jim Reed passed away on the 22 August 2023 at the age of 86. Jim’s career dates back to the earliest days of organised drag racing in Queensland. Jim pioneered blown alcohol racing in this country, with much success and respect fom his peers and fans. Racing was a family affair for Jim and his wife Nelma, who passed in 2015. They established a family drag racing dynasty that continues to thrive today.

To commemerate Jim’s amazing career, we’ve reproduced an interview with him from the June 2013 issue of Street Machine below:

In the long story of Australian drag racing, no-one has been held in such high esteem or been around as long as the man we know as Gentleman Jim.

Fifty-eight years after his first race — now aged 76 — Jim Reed is still a regular face on the start lines and pits of major events all around Australia. And that nickname, probably first applied by an announcer at Surfers Paradise in the 1960s, is as true as ever. His tuning and engine-building talents are called upon by a steady clientele who want to send their cars down the track, and he has major input into the Top Alcohol funny car that he runs with his son Steven, as well as into the cars raced by his grandchildren.

You might think so much work would be a burden but Jim says that’s what keeps him alive: “If I didn’t have the interest in the cars, I’d have probably been dead years ago. You need to keep busy. I say it’s drag racing that’s kept me going.”

He tried racing his uncle’s speedboat, was partner in a mate’s MG circuit car for a while and even had a shot at karts, but after attending the first of several drag races at the Lowood circuit in 1965 he knew where his future lay.

He tried racing his uncle’s speedboat, was partner in a mate’s MG circuit car for a while and even had a shot at karts, but after attending the first of several drag races at the Lowood circuit in 1965 he knew where his future lay.

In the five or six weeks between the first Lowood race and the second, Jim and some mates built a dragster — the first in the state — with a 272ci Ford Y-block for power.

“We did everything ourselves,” he recalls. “You could buy an old engine reasonably cheaply then. I put an old sidevalve diff in it — my uncle had an engineering shop and he narrowed it for us for free. We did it on the cheap.

“We copied pictures from the American Hot Rod magazine. In those days they used to put in a lot of pictures. It was handy when you were starting out.”

When the Surfers Paradise track was built, Jim was there with the dragster for the opening meeting. That was April 1966; between then and the track’s closure in 1988 he only missed racing at two open events — once when he was on holiday in Fiji and once when he was in the US – and Steve drove their race car on that occasion.

Before moving to the altered, Jim campaigned this Y-block-powered Anglia in 1967 and ’68, here taking on the Bill Fuller version at Surfers Paradise
Before moving to the altered, Jim campaigned this Y-block-powered Anglia in 1967 and ’68, here taking on the Bill Fuller version at Surfers Paradise

At the second Surfers meeting, Jim also fronted an Anglia with Y-block power, but that only lasted six meetings before it was sold off. Then the dragster was cut down to make an altered, as Jim cast around for something to satisfy his soul.

“I never liked the dragster very much — it was ugly. Not that the first altered wasn’t uglier still but I just preferred it with a T-bucket body.”

That altered was to change his life. It was rough but it gave him a sense of fun he hadn’t found before. With 332ci Ford power it went as quick as 12.17sec before Jim acquired a Holman Moody 427 Ford. The old square-tube altered frame was replaced with a modern round-tube chassis in 1968, but the ’glass T-bucket body remained (incidentally, it was the first one sold in Brisbane, bought from a speed shop at Annerley in 1966) and is still on the car today.

That car’s low 10s were quick then, but by 1971 the advent of blown fuel-burning Hemis threatened to put the Reeds in the shade so in went a blown methanol 392 Hemi, and the picture was complete.

Over the next 11 years the familiar orange (later yellow) altered won just about everything going — Nationals, Grand Finals, Winternationals, Australian Championships — and set records across the board.

Despite the evil reputation blown altereds have, Jim dismisses any notion that his car was anything other than docile.

“We ran it as a high-gear-only car until about 1975 when we bought one of the first Lencos to come to Australia. It never gave me much of a fright, mainly because it was a basically high-gear car on methanol. It was a little different when we put the Lenco in — it became a little bit harder to drive, but not much.”

By 1978, Steve was eager to drive and Jim was keen to give him a shot, so the pair shared the driver’s seat — sometimes one qualifying and the other racing — until 1983. Then, at the age of 46, Jim decided it was time to step away from driving.

“It was my eyes that forced me to stop,” he says. “My eyes started to go and at night I couldn’t see the lights properly. It was glary and reflecting and glasses wouldn’t fit under the helmet properly. If Steven wasn’t so keen to drive, I would’ve kept it up for longer but since I enjoyed tuning the car and building the engines as much as the driving, I thought I might as well let Steven do it.”

Far from reducing Jim’s involvement, he and Steve have run a string of alcohol funny cars, and later added daughter-in-law Debbie’s alcohol dragsters, then granddaughter Sally’s junior dragster, grandson Daniel’s supercharged outlaws altered, and his wife Fiona’s blown big-block rail!

“The funny car is a big challenge,” Jim says. “Steve and I are always thinking of how we can improve it for the next meeting, how to change the tune-up, what we can do to the clutch — we change it every pass; I do that.”

On top of that there’s his blower-rebuilding service, and the fuel systems for a range of mostly South Queensland racers.

Understandably, it’s hard to pick the high points from such a long and successful career. Jim looks back on periods rather than single moments, such as his string of success at the wheel of the altered in 1979, or when he and Steven campaigned the first Roots-blown alcohol funny cars into the fives and went on to win the Australian Top Alcohol Championship in 1993-94.

The lows are, just as understandably, easy to pinpoint. The worst have been Steve and Debbie’s crashes, some of which were severe — Debbie can never race again because of the risk of potentially fatal brain damage. Jim’s own worst moments as a driver were nearly going over the fence at Castlereagh in the 1980s and a few excursions off the end of the Surfers Paradise braking area, into the ‘cow paddock’.

Despite the more on-the-edge racing today, Jim’s heart is still behind the wheel of that blown Hemi altered, and he was overwhelmed when Steve recently tracked the car down in Sydney, bought it back and had it restored for Jim’s birthday.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman but in this case she’s beside him. Nelma and Jim married in 1957 and have been almost inseparable at races around Australia since 1965.

The seat in the altered was once very familiar, and from 1966 to 1973 she was frequently the quickest woman in Australia at the wheel. Looking around that GMC blower was never easy, but her best was a 10.01@152mph.

These days she doesn’t get to the track so often. “Her eyes are so bad she can’t even see the cars on the start line any more,” Jim explains, “so she says that going to the races isn’t as much fun as it used to be.”

Where once she sat alongside Jim on long interstate drives, packed parachutes, cleaned parts, ran the pit operations, drove the push car, now she waits at home for news of racing success. And one thing’s certain — Jim and the rest of the clan continue to deliver plenty of good news.