E.J. Potter – Michigan Madman

EJ Potter on the Widow Maker

We've mentioned EJ Potter before, known as the Michigan Madman and probably best known as the fellow who made exhibition runs during the '60s at dragstrips all over the U.S. and overseas, on his homebuilt "Widow Maker" Chevy V8 powered motorcycles. We just finished reading his book, "EJ Potter, Michigan Madman," and found those motorcycles were only one part of his unique career.

E.J., like a lot of us, started tinkering with engines pretty early in life. The difference is, he went a lot farther with a much more direct method of doing things. The idea of attaching a lawn mower engine to a bicycle made sense to the 10 year old Potter who also thought it was pretty cool when his mother clocked him at about 60mph by pacing him with the family Buick. He enjoyed the experience so much he developed a lifelong fascination with motorcycles, engines and speed and after retiring from the fastlane he decided to put his experiences down on paper.

The reader will notice right away the book is written in a "stream of consciousness" style. Things often appear without introduction or explanation and it's hard to nail down exactly what happened first, you'll find yourself running backwards and forward in time as EJ grabs whatever detail he needs to illustrate his current point. It fills out the story but every now and then you'll find yourself scratching your head trying to fit the pieces together. If you stick with it, you'll find an interesting and often humorous story of an amazingly capable mechanical problem solver but you'll wonder how he ever survived.

E.J. Potter was from the "eyeball engineering" school of builders. You take metal, a welder, a selection of parts at hand and start building. If you have an engine first, you build something around it. His Chevy V8 motorcycles were a constantly evolving project. His first bike used an old Harley Davidson frame but he quickly progressed into custom frames built just for the purpose. There was an amazing amount of ingenuity involved in the building which was a constant, "find the problem, fix the problem" process. His homebuilt centrifugal clutch didn't work so well which led to a direct drive system and his well known starting procedure where the engine was started while the motorcycle was on the rear stand and at the right tire speed, the stand was kicked out and off he went in a cloud of smoke.

It should surprise no one to know E.J. had some rather nasty accidents and when you read the details, the fact he's around to tell the story means he had more than his share of good luck.

E.J.'s fascination with engines wasn't confined to Chevy V8s. He built a trike powered by a Fairchild J-44 jet engine which was not the most successful of his projects. Beyond a near disaster while building it, the trike put E.J. in the hospital for a little while. But he did survive, ... amazing.

There are a few really hilarious moments in the book, my particular favorite has to do with a pulse jet engine test in the box of a dump truck. It's the uninformed roadside observers who make the story.

EJ Potter Michigan MadmanHe also had a great love for the Allison V12, powerplant of choice for many WWII fighter planes. Obviously, this is no motorcycle engine, but cars? Why not? With E.J.'s help, it was stuffed, crammed, carefully installed into everything from a 57 Plymouth 4 door sedan to a Dodge Dart station wagon. It's amazing what you can do with determination and a welder.

E.J. eventually put the V12s into tractors for the new sport, at the time, of tractor pulling. He didn't go for flashy paint and chrome which really upset his competitors every time he put their good looking rigs on the trailer with his "ugly tractors." He even built a tractor (called "double ugly") with a rare experimental Allison W24, which was essentially two V12s joined together, the thing was massive, but, with something on the order of 4000 horsepower, it did the job.

There's a lot more to the story of E.J. Potter, but you might want to pick up his book and see for yourself. There are lots of old black and white photos of various machines plus some really early photos of E.J. It shows you don't need a fancy garage, the best equipment and CAD software to build some pretty amazing machines, just an imagination and lots of effort.

UPDATE: E.J Potter R.I.P.

You can order the second edition of E.J. Potter, Michigan Madman, by calling 1-877-A-MAD-MAN (1-877-262-3626)
EJ also has a VHS tape available that shows many of his machines. EJ said you probably need to read the book to make much sense of the tape. The book is $24.00 plus $4.00 shipping. The tape is the same price.

You can also order the book and tape by sending a check made out to E.J. Potter to the address below:

E.J.Potter
PO Box 215
Ithaca, Michigan 48847

see also - The Kneeslider: E.J. Potter, The Michigan Madman

EJ Potter on the Jet Trike

Comments

  1. LEON TERRIAN says

    I wasm introduced to EJ in the middle of a corn

    field, where he usually ended up trying to stop

    the Widow Maker many times at the drag strip. I

    still reguard him as one of the greatest guys I

    ever met . I still to this day (told the story

    tonigt 12/28/2006 ) tell young go-fast biker

    guys how I met him in that corn field. One old

    racer to another. LEON

    P.S. THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

  2. steve i says

    his story is a classic. any body the least bit interested shoud buy his book. if you really want to be blown away by his tape. 2 hours of the neatest motor head stuff you will ever see!!

  3. ted wise says

    saw the widowmaker run at dragway 42 in west salem ohio in the 70’s WOW it was one of those those things you will never forget!!! what a show!!!

  4. ERICH SCHIMMEL says

    I GREW UP ACROSS THE STREET FROM E.J. POTTER IN MICHIGAN FOR 4 YRS. THE GUYS A GENIUS!! MY BROTHER HELPED HIM OUT IN HIS GARAGE MOUNTING NEW ENGINES ON HIS TRACTORS. HE HAD A HOME MADE PULL SPOT IN FRONT OF HIS CORN FIELD WITH A HOMEMADE PULL SLED AND HE WOULD TRY DIFFERENT JET AND HELICOPTER ENGINES ON THOSE TRACTORS SO I WOULD SPEND HOURS OVER THERE WATCHING HIM PULL THEN SWAP ENGINES!!! VERY COOL AS AN 8 YR. OLD THE GUY IS VERY QUIET BUT VERY COOL!!! ERICH SCHIMMEL

  5. WAYNE HAYES says

    GLAD TO SEE YOU’RE STILL AROUND E.J. SOME HOW I KNEW YOU WOULD BE! I SAW YOU RUN YOUR BIKE OUTSIDE MARINE CITY MICH. SO LONG AGO,60’S BUT YOU’RE STILL IN MY THOUGHTS WHICH IS WHY I DECIDED TO LOOK YOU UP ON THE NET,AND THERE YOU ARE STILL LARGER THAN LIFE.SOME THINGS AND PEOPLE YOU NEVER FORGET, YOU AND THE WIDOW MAKER ARE TWO OF THEM!
    THANKS E.J.
    WAYNE

  6. Dawn says

    I remember going to tractor pulls with my Dad when I was a kid in Michigan…one tractor I still remember after 30 years is E.J. Potter’s Mean Ol’ Alice. It was always fun watching her!

    Thanks for the memories, E.J.!

  7. David Stuckey says

    I grew up drag racing anything I could ride or steer, I was at Blaney Drag Strip in Elgin South Carolina when a man called EJ Potter rolled in with a chevy V8 motorcycle.He stunned the crowd with a full quarter mile burn out.I am 59 years young and can still smell the rubber that night. He put the B in Boss Hoss.
    Thank you Mr.EJ Potter

  8. Bruce says

    I’m sorry, I was remembering that it was a bike. Now I think it was a car…..I think he called it a Volts Wagon. I read about it in Hot Rod magazine so many years ago that I’m not sure I’d admit it.

  9. kneeslider says

    Bruce,
    It was called the Super Slot Car. He had a generator cart with an Allison engine powered generator. 2 reels of cable were unwound on the track and the car had 2 pickups that picked up power from the cables sort of like a trolley car or really big slot car. It went about 120mph in the 1/4 mile. Pretty neat!

  10. Steve says

    Dawn (Comment #7), Mean Ole Allis was an Allis-Chalmers Super Stock tractor owned by Max Simpson of Charlotte, Michigan. EJ ran Allison powered modifieds, a single engine tractor known as Ugly, and a twin engine known as Double Ugly.

  11. Jerry says

    Steve (comment #11) You are correct on Mean Ole Allis except for it was owned by a farmer from williamston named Keith Haynes and Max was a driver and the main mechanic.

  12. Tom says

    Wow! I’m a truck driver and I just heard some other guys talking on the CB about the Michigan Madman after we passed some wild looking machine on a flatbed going the other way. That brought up OLD memories of drag racing in the 60’s. I grew up in Chicago and I remember seeing EJ Potter do guest runs at the US 30 dragstrip. Then I saw him at a tractor pull in San Fran in the early 80’s. I couldn’t believe he was still around. Someone said there’s a video? I gotta have it!!!!

  13. says

    I can’t figger out what kind of an engine he has mounted on the frame on the first picture.
    It looks like a ccp350 but i’m not sure.
    Beautiful manifold!

  14. Douglass Foglesong says

    I saw E.J. At US 30 when we were racing out there and see the pictures sure brings back the memories.

  15. Mike says

    Hey E.J.!! I’m glad to hear you are still around. I’ll give you a hint as to I am, and see if you remember me. It’s been 30 years or more but I bet you remember when we (“we” meaning all of us in PWP) built the paper machete globe for the parade in Alma, Michigan. You and I were the only two men in PWP at that time. I remember it took several beers for us to figure out how to do it. But we got it done. I moved to Arizona shortly after that and that’s where I still live. Hope to hear from you soon. Mike.

  16. Ron B says

    Lucky Keiser is alive and well and so is his bike ,but in a different shape. The V twin powered bike was really successful,so he decided to build the worlds fasted bike by designing a streamliner to run on Australias’ Salt lake. Lake Gairdner.
    I knew lucky reasonbly well in those days(mid 90’s) and helped when he showed up the lake . The engine was made by Lucky when he was an apprentice by cutting two cylinders off the end of a Rolls Royce merlin aero engine (!!) . Not contect with the huge torque,he supercharged it with a blower from a Commer TS3 truck engine.
    The streamliner wouldn’t fire at the lake so we towed it and with a volenteer driving it IDLED at just over 100mph.
    The engine kept playing up so for the next season lucky swapped in a small block Ford V8 …into a two wheel streamliner. Note; he wouldn’t drive it though,even after running Nox on the open bike ….ha ha .
    Pictures can be found on the D.L.R.A website.

  17. says

    EJ Potter, freekin. I remember your exploits Sir, at the Castlereigh Drag Strip outside Penrith, Sydney in the sixtees (eek). On one still evening I recall you performed a burn out/qtr mile run, resulting in a narrow wall of rubber fumes just sitting there for the entire length of the strip. It was still there after you did the usual perfect u-turn (somehow) and came back up the shoot!!

    Sir, the absolute best to you and thank you sincerely for the memories.

    Regards,
    Deejay51 (Gold Coast, Oz)

  18. Bill Kovacs says

    Dear mr. Potter ,
    If you are the same “Mad Potter” that I saw in the late 60’s at Santa Pod , England , that bumpy old track , you terrified me just watching you , still remember it to this day , thank you for the memories , that’s what life is about .

    Kind regards
    Bill Kovacs
    England

  19. Larry Ratterree says

    Show you run at Cummings, GA in mid ’60’s and what a thrill to see a bike burn rubber for 1/4 mile. After the smoke clears we saw that the black mark on the track was all over the place. Was standing at the line and held your bubble face shield because you said it would fog up if you breathed on it, so after you were pulled off by a truck to get started and then warmed up, I snapped it on your helmet and then you revved it to about 6,500 and kicked it off stand!!!!! Stills blows my mind to think about it!!! If there is a video I must have it. Thanks for the Memories!!!

  20. Bob says

    I saw EJ run a few times around Chicago and everytime he was the best part of
    the show. His book is fantastic reading and very funny as well.
    Thanks for the memories EJ!!!

  21. Bill L says

    Hello everyone. If my memory serves me correct (I was a young school kid when I was in awe of EJ and the Widow Maker) — but I think Firestone were providing a warranty with their car tyres and EJ was responsible for Firestone withdrawing the warranty — HA — not sure if a single car tyre lasted a meeting on the back of the Widow Maker — but it was a lot shorter than the Firestone warranty and EJ would supposedly claim new tyres under warranty. Does anybody know if that was “close to the truth” ? I can also remember a photo of a track official with a shovel and he was scooping blobs of smoldering rubber from the track — HA — the smoldering blobs were left after a run by EJ on the Widow Maker — no doubt which was due a new Firestone tyre under warranty replacement. I am not sure where it was — but I think EJ toured here in Australia many years ago with the Widow Maker.

  22. Glenn says

    I had the privaledge of seeing him in the late ’50’s at Piedmont Drag Strip outside Greensboro, NC. People look at me like I am nuts when I tell them the story about a guy who had a motorcycle with a V8 engine bolted to its frame and how he had the center kick stand mounted to the rear of the bike and how all a sudden after it was wound up another guy came to the back and literally pushed the bike off the stand at which time the bike spun the tires almost all the way down the track. Now, after showing them this article, they will have to admit that I was in fact not crazy and making this story up. That day made a lasting impression on my life.

  23. Mike says

    I used to date EJ’s daughter Alison (she was and probably still is an amazing woman). Years later I found out that he and my mom went out for coffee a few times (yeah, that was strange).

  24. Don says

    I remember seeing E.J. run his tractors at the old Tampa Stadium in the 70’s. You are right they were ugly but they ran. That was the first time I ever saw a “pony motor” used to start a large tractor engine!

    Thanks for the memories E.J.!

    Don

  25. Joe Graham says

    A lot of years ago in the sixties, I used to run at Atco dragway in NJ. We would go all the way in the back of the pits to tune the car and have a few. One afternoon this guy pulls in towing a trailer with a motorcycle on it. It was EJ & his girlfriend (or wife). we helped him get the bike off and by then we had already noticed the Hillborn injection on the “sideways” Chevy engine. He said that he had gone through the traps at 100mph. I told him that I didn’t think that was so hot figuring a Chevy engine on a bike! He said “no, you misunderstand, I went through the traps at 100.” After watching the show I believed him. It had to be a few years later, and as hard as it may be to believe, here comes this raggedly looking trailer with that 1957 four door Plymouth Belvedere on it. It was him again. He gets that thing started on the line, takes off, and I don’t know if the supercharger on that engine burped or what, but as he goes through the traps he keeps going. As I remember, Atco had about a half mile shutdown area. EJ went beyond the end and into the woods. All we saw was a cloud of dust. Nothing but silence, the ambulance took off, and the mumbling in the stands started. About ten minutes later the ambulance with its lights on came slowly back down the center of the strip. There he was laying on the stretcher in the back of the ambulance giving all of us the thumbs up. Forever the showman. I have told that same story a few times, and I never thought to check that guy out on the internet till today while we were talking story about the old days on the East Coast. You’re right Don, Thanks for the memories. Joe Graham, Honolulu.

  26. J delnooz says

    YES I do remember remember E.J. potter. Mchigan madman at Santa Pod u.k. in the sixty’s never likly to forget this brave man.s antics two thirds up the strip a speed wobble with V8 lump between your legs ~~~~~ shut down straighten it up and wind it on flat again without losing much speed still turned in a top time compared with the british bikes of the time, they think the word awsome is new but they did’nt see E.J. all those years ago, thanks for the memory they can’t take that away.

  27. Carlos Harley Duaso says

    Mr Potter i have been a fan of you Sir since i saw a magazine article of you doing a burnout/ take off on one of your first V8 bikes,and i have a few photos of you hanging up in my shed,
    I guess now that ive found you on the internet ill have to buy your book and video
    regards and all the best for the future.
    Carlos Harley Duaso South Australia!

  28. says

    Mr. Potter, Jeff Dane with the King Kong Monster Trucks, EJ, is the best machinist I have ever known. Back in the early 1980’s, EJ helped build many parts to make it possible to put a V12 Allison Airplane motor in the bed of a 1984 Monster Truck Ford Pickup named “Awesome Kong”.

    Jeff Dane

  29. Dave Yaeger says

    I was there at Dragway 42 in Ohio (refer to Ted Wise post from 4-6-07 above) Must have been 1974 or 75. Real neat part was, to build MORE excitement – as EJ warmed her up on the stand at the starting line, his crew slid a steel pan under the rear tire, poured some gas in it and “lit the sucker”! After a good minute, they pulled the pan away, EJ cranked on the throttle, the crew pushed the bike forward off the stand – and he smoked that rear tire ALL THE WAY to the finish line!!! Miss those days – ALOT