Crash course: Behind the stunt scene

Handicapped stunt driver Ken Butler proved the show must go on
Publish date:

Whether it was a precision motorcycle stunt or automobile maneuver, Ken Butler provided thrills on two wheels. Here he guides a 1964 Pontiac GTO convertible off a ramp and onto its tires’ sidewalls. Note that Butler is not wearing a crash helmet nor is the GTO equipped with a roll bar.

Image placeholder title

Story by Ron Kowalke;
photos courtesy of Ken Butler Crash Drivers event

Spectators definitely got their money’s worth at a Ken Butler Crash Drivers thrill show. Those in attendance were treated to stunts with dramatic names such as “20-Foot Tunnel of Fire,” “Human Battering Ram,” “Mid-Air House Crash” and “Glamour Girl Hell Driving” among the 17 acts of derring-do that comprised each show.

By 1964, when the publicity photographs that accompany this story were taken, auto thrill shows were a staple of county fairs and added attractions at auto racing facilities across the country. There were many different troupes of auto daredevils — commonly referred to as hell drivers — living a nomadic lifestyle, criss-crossing the country in the warmer months to thrill grandstands full of wide-eyed kids and awed adults.

It was a profession full of danger. A number of hell drivers lost their lives while performing stunts, while others were seriously injured and retired to a less-demanding career. Ken Butler’s approach to this wild profession took a totally different path.

A pioneer of the motorcycle thrill show circuit, Butler not only epitomized the dangerous life of a stuntman, he used his bravado to inspire others who were less fortunate. According to his biography printed in the souvenir program available at Ken Butler Crash Drivers thrill shows, Butler, originally from Peshtigo, Wis., had a leg amputated as the result of a 1928 motorcycle crash. This devastating injury didn’t stop him from performing both automobile and motorcycle stunts “to prove to the world that man can rise and overcome his handicaps.” Butler also didn’t allow advancing age to slow him down. He was in his 50s when he earned recognition for performing his 1,000th automobile roll-over stunt.

Always a crowd-pleaser in the crash stunt portion of the show was the “T-Bone
Crash.” In this instance, what appears to be a late-1940s Chrysler sedan was
driven off the ramp and slammed into the roof of a car parked sideways. This
stunt often resulted in both cars flipping over.

Image placeholder title

Different approach

Butler was a young man when he lost his leg in the motorcycle mishap. According to his bio, he was a pilot at the time, and had to find a new way to make a living. He decided to give motorcycles another go, but this time as a racer.

Within three years of losing his leg, Butler earned a victory in the Sportsmens Hill Climbing and Racing Championship. After dabbling in the stunt business in Hollywood for a few years, Butler formed the “13 Thrill Show,” which was an all-motorcycle stunt event.

Image placeholder title

The all-motorcycle thrill shows were not as successful as Butler anticipated due to, as described in his bio, “... the general public not knowing enough about motorcycle riding to appreciate a show of this kind...” Butler, studying the competition at the time, realized the automobile thrill shows held by hell driver legends Lucky Teter and Jimmy Lynch were attracting crowds at every stop. Out of that assessment was born Butler’s next event, a combined automobile and motorcycle thrill show given the heady title “Suicide Legion of Daredevils.”

Ernie K, one of the lead crash stunt drivers in Ken Butler’s thrill show, performed
the “Mid-Air House Crash” using a vintage Chevy sedan to ram through a makeshift
burning building.

Image placeholder title

Show stopper

One of the more famous stunt images that made the pages of popular lifestyle magazines of the time showed Butler, helmeted head pointed down, crashing his motorcycle through a stack of flaming barrels. The photo was taken Oct. 11, 1941, while Butler’s “Suicide Legion of Daredevils” performed at Tri City Stadium in Union, N.J.

Not long after that event, Butler was forced to shutter his thrill show to help with the war effort. His contribution, according to his bio, was using his previous aviation experience to help build Catalina PBY bomber aircraft. These flying boats of the 1930s and ’40s served with every branch of the U.S. military and in the air forces and navies of many other nations. During World War II, PBYs were used in anti-submarine warfare, patrol bombing, convoy escorts, search-and-rescue missions and cargo transport.

After the war, Butler became a successful businessman. He operated manufacturing plants in both Georgia and Oklahoma that produced outdoor furniture. But his passion to perform stunts remained a constant pull, even as he approached age 50.

Needing no more convincing than a bet with a friend who claimed, according to the bio, “... that it was impossible [because at 50], reflexes are slower [and] timing is dulled...,” Butler relaunched his thrill show. This time billed as the “Ken Butler Crash Drivers,” the show again featured a mix of automobile and motorcycle stunts.

One of the other lead stunt drivers in the Ken Butler Crash Drivers troupe of
daredevils was Elaine, posing here behind the wheel of one of the precision stunt
’64 GTO convertibles. Elaine was once a contestant on the television show “To
Tell The Truth,” where she stumped three of the four panelists who were given
clues as to what she did for a living. She was also the lead act in the “Glamour
Girl Hell Driving” portion of the thrill show.

Image placeholder title

Wager won

The Ken Butler Crash Drivers show was still going strong in the mid-1960s.

But that’s where this story ends. Attempts to research how long Butler continued his crashing ways proved unsuccessful. It’s known that during this same time he operated the Ken Butler Cycle Shop in Cranford, N.J., and is believed to have been the promoter of a New Jersey auto racing facility later in life.

Regardless of when he eventually retired from performing in thrill shows, Butler proved that neither the loss of a leg nor advancing age could keep him from doing the dangerous stunts he loved. Whether or not his friend who said it was impossible ever paid up for losing the bet is also unknown.

Promoted as the “One Legged American Champion
Movie Stunt Daredevil,” Ken Butler and his troupe
of crash drivers thrilled audiences across the East
Coast. Butler retired from the auto thrill show
circuit during World War II, only to come out
of retirement on a bet with a friend in the mid-
1950s when he was nearing 50 years of age.

Image placeholder title

More Resources for Car Collectors:

Where to Bid

Car Auciton

Check out the Old Cars Auction Calendar

The Old Cars Auction Calendar has the when and where you are looking for when it comes to classic car auctions.