No bigee this time. In fact, it’s sort of a diversion. That’s exactly what it was.
But I should have posted this several months ago, because that’s when I did it. Its immediate relevance is no longer immediate, and let’s hope (and act) that it doesn’t come back to haunt and stifle–and kill–us again.
What I’m talking about, of course, is Covid, specifically the period when we were “locked down,” relegated to staying inside our homes, not going anywhere, not mingling with any other people. It was a pretty long time before they came up with a vaccine that could–should–have squelched it, and it got pretty stifling staying at home, remember?
Well, being a hot rodder, I like to improvise, be creative, find alternatives. And being a hot rodder, I had a topless, fenderless Deuce roadster sitting in the garage, in as much need of exercise as I was. The Covid lock-down didn’t specifically say we had to stay inside our houses. We could go outside. We just couldn’t go where other people were. We couldn’t visit or mingle. But Anna could work in her garden, I could work in the garage. And we both could jump in that roadster and take off for impulsive fresh-air cruises, which we did several times, our favorite being up the nearby Angeles Crest Highway into the pine-scented mountains.
But I also love to wander and explore the streets of Los Angeles and broader SoCal, visiting old sites or finding new ones. I think I’ve done this ever since I got a driver’s license. And I love history. So these proclivities coalesced in an article I did in The Rodder’s Journal No. 4 (in 1995!) titled The Grand Shop Tour. In an all-too-brief 10 pages, I looked up addresses of well-known speed shops and parts manufacturers from ads in the earliest Hot Rod magazines, then drove all over the greater L.A. area to see, and photograph, what was there then. Can you believe that was 26 years ago? Actually that article was inspired when we moved to Glendale well before that. I was into Chevy 6’s, and I knew the Wayne Manufacturing Co. (of rare 12-port heads) was in the Glendale area at 3206 Fletcher Dr., so I drove down to see the original buildings, which were still there (including Venolia Pistons). I’d been to Weiand, which was still nearby on San Fernando Rd. But I later learned that several more rod and custom pioneers were located here, starting with Lee Chapel’s “first speed shop,” and including two well-known customizers (Bistagne and Link Paola), three Indy-car builders, Kong Jackson, Stelling gearboxes, plus the first offices (and printer) of Road and Track, Hop Up and Rod & Custom magazines.
But this current diversion is about a roadster run I made one afternoon during the lockdown to revisit Alger St. It’s a single block, maybe an eighth of a mile long, that was home to Barney Navarro (and Tom Beatty) on one end, Kurtis Kraft race cars (including Art Ingles and Quinn Epperly) on the other, and the elusive Ed Winfield in between. All on one block. And all still there, basically unchanged. Fortunately I brought a small camera.
To get there I drove from our small canyon neighborhood down Glenoaks Bl. about a half mile, turned left on Chevy Chase Dr., quickly passed Bistagne’s thriving body shop, continued a mile south, then curved due west (past now-closed Glendale Speed Center) for another mile and a half, crossed San Fernando Rd., crossed the railroad tracks, and there’s Alger with Navarro’s former shop right on the corner. His address was actually 4212 Chevy Chase, and Alger is maybe 20 yards into Los Angeles, skirting the Glendale border. Chevy Chase ends about a quarter mile farther at the L.A. River, with I-5 on the other side, and Griffith Park next to it. Check it out on Google Earth if you’re at all curious.
So here’s the late Barney Navarro displaying one of his well-known finned heads in front of his shop in 1995, at the corner of Alger and Chevy Chase. Inside the door behind him was his office, with a couple desks, file cabinets, and a turbocharged (dual-turboed?) Nash inline six that he built for an Indy car. The medium-sized shop behind held mills, lathes, and a line of drill presses where he finished his heads and manifolds, including some of the first for Roots-blown flatheads. It’s also where he built his own famous ’27 T lakes and track race car. with its Ingles nose and GMC-blown flatheads (V8 and V4!).
At left is the same spot today, looking nearly the same. In the photo above, looking back east, the mainline railroad tracks run between my car and the green hedge that is basically on the Glendale/L.A. border. Barney passed on his 88th birthday in 2007, and this property was sold a year later. H&H Flatheads, in La Crescenta just north of Glendale, bought the Navarro patterns and brand name, continuing to produce these parts. I’ve driven by here several times in the past two decades, and since the last time I visited Barney, I’ve never seen any activity there. It’s always been a semi-tough neighborhood, and soon it was splattered with gang graffiti. But that’s been recently painted out, so maybe there are new owners…but still no activity.
This is the back of the ex-Navarro shop, basically a square paved pad. It used to have a lean-to on the far left, and this is where sometime Navarro employee Tom Beatty first built his ratty–but fast–lakes roadster, and then his well-known, record-setting blown Olds belly tank, plus his totally cool blown Olds ’40 Ford delivery push-truck. I assume his pioneering multi-V-belt GMC blower drives and manifolds were made inside this shop.
Alger Street actually starts right across from Navarro’s front door and runs north. About four doors up is this building, which has never changed since well before I first saw it in the ’70s. And of course I’ve never been inside. Racing camshaft and carburetor pioneer Ed Winfield (called by some the “Father of Hot Rodding”) was notorious for dealing with customers at that front door, and letting very few past it, guarding his speed secrets inside. I’m not sure when Ed closed shop and retired to Arizona (I think in the ’80s) but, though I’ve seen a couple of names on the building such as the one above, I’ve never seen any activity there. Ten or more years ago there was a big For Sale sign on it, and I fantasized how great it would be to buy it (then cheap) for my own shop and garage–if I had spare money like that. Ha!
Two who gained Winfield’s confidence and entry to the inner sanctum were Kong Jackson and Ed Iskenderian. This photo of a very young Winfield in his trophy-winning race car in the ’20s I copied at Kong’s, and it’s inscribed to him by Ed and dated 1981. When he retired, Winfield gave his cam profile “masters” to Kong, who proudly showed them to me, but I don’t think he ever used them. In a couple of interviews, Isky–with a characteristic twinkle in is eye–told me how Winfield befriended him as a budding young machinist, letting him see his “rocker” cam-grinding lathe, thus allowing Isky, an innate machining genius, to design and build his own cam grinders, along with his renowned company, both of which are still operating very well today.
Finally, although this might be apocryphal, I heard fairly recently that the well-known and respected Duntov solid-lifter performance cam for early Corvette 283’s was a direct copy of the still highly regarded Winfield SU-1A flathead cam. Of course a flathead cam profile won’t work directly in an overhead-valve engine with step-up-ratio rocker arms. It would have to be extrapolated. And it’s even questionable whether a good cam for a side-valve engine would be good in a very different overhead chamber. But it’s a good story.
And near the north end of Alger we find two streamline-moderne buildings with curved-wall entrances flanked by glass-block windows, where Frank Kurtis ran his Kurtis Kraft shops. I had to copy this photo from my story in Rodder’s Journal because I couldn’t locate the original. I also couldn’t find any good information on when exactly he moved into these buildings, or who built them, but my guess is that it was soon after WW II. The fully customized car in front is one of a few personal sports cars Kurtis built for himself, this one from a ’41 Buick. It appears to have a Carson top, and I detect the hand of George Du Vall in the V-windshield and the chrome tube bumpers. Kurtis and Du Vall collaborated as early as 1936 to build the famous So. Cal. Plating “delivery truck” with its first Du Vall V-windshield, padded lift-off top, and handmade streamline grille.
I just noticed that the left one may have had a second story added, but the buildings remain very much the same, and seem to have stayed in use continually, by various companies. There were no signs or activity to indicate who’s there now. But in Kurtis’ heyday of the late ’40s/early ’50s this place turned out 550 complete midgets (still considered the best of the era), 600 midget kits, and 120 Indy “roadsters,” including five Indy 500 winners. That’s quite a legacy. All in these two buildings. In the Glendale library’s history room some years ago I found several great B&W photos, apparently taken by a newspaper, showing Kurtis standing next to the famed Novi Indy car on a work table, other shots of lined-up under-construction race cars being worked on, and a bunch of Kurtis midgets side-by-side at a circle track. But the library won’t let me copy or print any of them; they’re just there to look at.
As I mentioned Art Ingles worked here hand-crafting the classic Kurtis noses for midgets (as well as a handful of his own design for roadsters such as Navarro’s and the Spalding Bros.), and Quinn Epperly and at least one of the Justice Brothers–among many others–worked there building chassis and bodies. Plus this is where the Kurtis 500 street and racing sports cars were built, which ultimately became the short-lived Muntz Jet.
However, like so many other race car builders, Kurtis had his ups and downs as a businessman. Spence Murray told me that sometime in the mid-’50s Kurtis moved to a much smaller shop set back on Colorado Blvd. (still there), right across from the first Hop Up and R&C offices (now gone). I assume this is where Art Ingles “invented” the first go-kart, which he said was something fun to buzz around the back alley during lunch break, and which he later marketed as the high-quality Ingles-Borelli kart. This shop, in Glendale, lasted until 1962, when Kurtis quit.
So how about a couple never-seen bonus pics? I didn’t take them on my recent roadster run, but they’re quite pertinent.
I’ve mentioned Kong Jackson a couple of times. He famously made the first much-needed high performance ignitions for flathead V8s. And he placed small ads in early Hot Rods. So of course I went to the address, in Glendale, when I was doing my ’95 shop tour story, and this is what I found on a neighborhood street on the west side of town (not far from Alger). This isn’t the typical ’20s “courtyard apartments,” of which there are still several in Glendale. Rather, it was a row of similar-era, detached “cottages,” eight or ten of them, each with its own address, with a long driveway on one side. Kong’s was the last one. It’s feasible he made the distributors right there. They don’t take much room. But it’s undoubtedly where he lived as a young guy in the latter ’40s, and did his shipping and receiving. This photo didn’t make the TRJ story.
So when I was searching for old shops in ’95, quite coincidentally Barney Navarro told me that Kong had just recently moved into a small new shop, set back a bit on Alger, that actually shared one wall with the former Kurtis building. I didn’t include it then, because it wasn’t an old shop. But I did go back sometime later, just to interview him, at Anna’s urging. And I took a couple photos while I was there. I don’t remember what he was making (you can see products on shelves behind him), and I don’t really remember what he had to say. But I do have it on tape. Yes, tape. You see, once I started doing interviews with a small cassette recorder (instead of a notebook), I kept all the tapes. I have about 100 of them, 90 minutes each, including a whole lot of luminaries of the rod and custom world. That’s another part of my archive. And I continued doing it because Anna kept telling me, “You’ve got to get these guys on tape, before they’re gone, just like Alan Lomax recorded the old bluesmen.” So I did. And now they’re mostly gone.
Further coincidence: you’ll have to squint, but see the photo on the wall in front of Kong? It’s the one of young Ed Winfield in his race car that I show above, and this is when I copied it. It’s on the same roll of film, next to this photo. The way this all ties together is almost eerie. But then, we are telling ghost stories, aren’t we?
More to come, of course. You’ll like the next topic. Tune in.