I did an article in the fourth issue of The Rodder’s Journal titled The Grand Shop Tour, in which I looked up addresses of the original, pioneering hot rod parts manufacturers in ads in ’48-’50 issues of Hot Rod magazine (all in the greater L.A. area), and then drove to each and took photos of what was there then (1995). I coined the term “hot rod archeology” to describe it. Some readers thought it was weird.
Maybe it is. But a lot of readers also related to it, either in the sense of capturing a bit of hot rod history, or perhaps something akin to visiting the family homestead. As I said in that first article, I’ve always loved touring L.A. to find its points of interest, be they historical, architectural, biographical, even geological. I even made it part of my job when I worked for Sunset magazine.
If you live in the L.A. area you drive a lot. It’s a necessity. But it’s also one part of our fascination with automobiles and a root of hot rodding. There are several historical hot rod sites that I drive by frequently, including a couple here. But, especially since I’ve retired, there are many I haven’t visited in years. That’s what led to this.
I hadn’t been to Keith Black’s Racing Engines since I was a newbie at Hot Rod Magazine and devised a 2-part “Blower Shootout,” the second half of which (for big blowers) we staged on KB’s well-known and respected engine dyno in April ’84. Criminy. That’s almost 40 years ago! But Black’s “compound” was on a block-long, hard-to-get-to street (11120 Scott Ave.) in South Gate, next to the cement L.A. River. Not a place I would drive by.
Keith was really a cool guy and I’m very glad to say I knew him, if briefly. He was totally generous in letting us use his dyno for a whole week, along with his highly-respected dyno operator and engine analyzer John Garrison, seen here watching through the window at his well-instrumented all-manual control panel.
Even though Mike Kuhl’s 6-71 made 4hp more, we gave Don Hampton extra points for showmanship when he drove his wife’s full-fendered T from his shop in Downey to Black’s, removed his unique 2-lobe 6-71 and dual quads from it, bolted it all on the dyno motor, made 490hp at 6000 rpm (limited to 12.5 pounds boost), then put it back on the T and drove home. The whole test was a great success, but Hampton was the capper.
Another memory: KB had recently installed a huge new milling machine that sat just outside the dyno room in his spacious warehouse/factory. When I first got there he said, “Come here, you’ve got to see this.” On one side was a stack of steel “logs,” like cord wood, being fed into the machine. And on the other side, out popped complete, finish-machined steel-billet crankshafts for 426 Chrysler Hemis. Black was almost giggling like a kid with a new toy, and I’ll never forget watching it in operation. Sadly, Keith died too soon at age 65 in 1991. I tried in vain to find the great Hot Rod feature Gray Baskerville did on the orange, injected KB-powered ’32 roadster Keith built for himself, so I could show it here. In 2010, I contacted Keith’s widow and son, Ken, who were running the company, to see if I could include it in my first Lost Hot Rods book. Ken said it was sitting in his garage at home, but he was too busy to roll it out for pictures. It was obvious Ken was struggling to run his dad’s company.
I have no idea what motivated me to decide one day about a year ago to drive down to see what was at the KB site. Curiosity and some nostalgia. I hadn’t heard much about the company, or even the brand. But I have to admit I was still stunned at what I found.
This is the back of the large main building. The offices up front were locked, but the open doors were where the dyno room was. The big tank was for engine coolant water. When I parked and walked in the doors, this is what I found. You can see the imprint of the dyno frame on the floor and the control window at the back. It looked like the dyno itself had just recently been removed. That’s a vacuum at right someone was using to clean it. When I walked through the small door at the back, I was amazed to see the whole cavernous building was completely empty, other than a forklift. It looked like it had just been cleaned out, and no one was around. Kind of spooky.
Behind the main building I found this row of individual garages that are steeped in drag racing history, though it’s never been told–and of which I have no photos because I was unaware of it until we did the blower test there. Keith rented them out to drag racers (customers) starting in the ’60s to use permanently or while they were on their annual western tours. Roland Leong and his Hawaiian dragsters and Funny Cars were one of the first tenants. Jim Dunn was a later one. I found out because Gary Dyer based his Grand Spaulding Dodge Funny Cars there, and it was “old home week” when he came out from Chicago for our test. Wish I knew more of the name racers who used them. But when I walked into the open door you see across from the water tank, I got another surprise. That’s a new Pro Mod Camaro on the left and a blown, injected, Hemi front-engine dragster on the right. The owner suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and I won’t mention his name. But he told me his wife had just bought the complex to use the former KB building as a shipping point for a mail-order succulent plant business, so I assume it’s now full of all sorts of little cacti. He told me the other garages were still empty, and he found Jim Head’s name written on the wall of one. He wasn’t sure what they were going to do with them. And I’ll just leave it at that.
Our next stop is hard to imagine now being historic, but it truly is, especially in terms of street rodding. This one I drive by fairly often, and never considered stopping to take photos until now.
You probably don’t even recognize it as the original home of Pete & Jake’s at 8827 E. Las Tunas Dr. in Temple City, CA (just S.E. of Pasadena), because we never showed the front office. But you see the wide driveway on the left, which leads back to the shop building behind. This is where Pete Chapouris and Jim Jacobs started their Hot Rod Repair company not long after their classic barnyard coupes cover on the Nov. ’73 Rod & Custom. That’s 49 years ago!! This is where Jake devised and fabricated his innovative (and immediately copied) 4-bar front-ends, along with several other creative and much-needed street rod chassis components. A very young Pete Eastwood was one of the first employees, and machinist Eric Vaughn’s shop was in the right front corner of this building where he repaired (and later made) mag wheels, punched louvers, and did any machining needed on P&J parts. Notice the gray building behind this one? The doors have been changed, but this was a row of garages (much like those behind KB’s, but smaller), where P-wood had his own garage which later became his first shop. And at one end were (I think more than two) apartments much shabbier than these now are. Eric Vaughn recently told me this was where he lived at the time, and he told Pete and Jake that the building in front might be a good place for their new business. That’s how they ended up there.
Pete & Jake’s was one of the first companies actually making street rod parts to advertise in Street Rodder magazine, beginning with a half-column for the 4-bar in Sept ’75 and increasing to the inside front cover full page by Nov. ’76. So Steve Coonan and I both took many photos of projects in the shop (they used Steve’s ’34 coupe frame to mock up parts for that year), but those pictures evaporated long before Street Rodder did. The only photos I could find of the shop in action were those in The Rodder’s Journal No. 17, when a group of well-known locals pitched in to “deconstruct” Pete Eastwood’s well-used Deuce 3-window. In the above photo, that’s Eric Vaughn’s ’55 Chevy wagon, Bill Vinther’s nice red coupe, and Robert Williams’ ’34 sedan (who bought P-Wood’s chassis for his well-known ’32 roadster). The lime-gold roadster was (still is) the Tom Pollard car long owned by Richard Lowe. And that’s a pile of beer cans next to the bare chassis by the time they got to that point. At right is the same parking lot today.
This was the site of Pete & Jake’s from its founding until they decided to sell the company (along with their very famous coupes) to Jerry Slover, who moved it to his peculiarly named home town of Peculiar, MO, where it operates (with son Jason, plus Super Bell Axle Co.) very successfully today.
My last example is by far the oldest, but also the longest-lasting. In fact I was surprised to find it closed and padlocked when I visited and took these photos maybe six months ago. As you can see by the sign, it’s set back from the sidewalk on Seaman Ave. in So. El Monte, CA, in an otherwise residential neighborhood. Besides racing his purple-flamed belly tank, Earl “Pappy” Evans founded his cylinder head and intake manifold company in 1946, moving to this site in about 1951 (or ’52 or ’53 depending who you ask), living in a small house at the back of the deep lot. This is where he cast and machined his own aluminum parts, as well as for other companies such as Cook’s Machine (Cyclone parts). Evans also passed before his time in 1962, when machinist and well-known lakes racer Gene Ohly acquired the company and ran it primarily as an engine machine shop for many years.
When I first visited this place, maybe 20 years ago, I was surprised to see the large front yard filled with derelict engines, heads, cranks, and other greasy junk. The only refuse there now is one large turret-head horizontal mill rusting over in the far corner. When I was there around ’07, a younger guy named Jaime was doing engine and crank machining in the old, dimly-lit shop, and I told myself, “I’ve got to come back and photograph this place for some sort of story. It’s an amazing time warp.” Gene Ohly, obviously aging, was sitting on a bench near the front, and he seemed quite intrigued with my new digital Nikon camera, asking several questions about it. But on this latest visit I couldn’t get in the shop (as I had hoped), so what you see is just stuff piled up between that fence and the shop’s front door. You’ll have to imagine what’s inside.
At this point I wasn’t sure what had become of Ohly (or his longtime, well-known Mardon-Ohly lakes roadster) or who owned or was in charge of this property. So I gave a call to my friend (and land speed legend) Al Teague, who learned the machinist’s trade starting as an apprentice in this shop back in 1962. He worked there until 1978. His first bit of unfortunate news was that Gene Ohly had died just a few months ago (Jan. ’22, age 86). He said that someone had taken the roadster up north to restore, and he thought a daughter might now be in charge of the property. But he wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to pry further. The point of these “hunts” in the first place was to see what was there now. And this is what I could see there now. By the way, those are Ford Cleveland heads leaning against the file cabinets filled with who-knows-what.
The part that I couldn’t see–and really wish I could–was the reason I went there back in ’07. I was doing a 2-part story on the Ayala Brothers for the Rodder’s Journal (No.s 39 and 40), and you might know that the Ayalas and Earl Evans were very tight. Earl not only built the engines for Gil’s various race cars (his track roadster was the “Evans Special”), but also for other projects such as the track-nose Eddie Dye roadster. Gil also painted the purple flames on Evans’ belly tank.
Yes, those are crankshafts, and cams, of all V8 kinds, stacked in that bin at right.
Anyway, the reason I went to Evans’ back then was to see what I was told was Al Ayala’s personal ’53 Ford F-100 pickup, which Gene Ohly told me they borrowed from Al to move everything into this new shop back in ’53. Understand, this was a brand new truck at the time. But Al had already sectioned the cab and the hood about two inches. Sneaky. Nice work. But what no one has ever been able to tell me is why it was still there. But it was in ’07:
I showed the above photo in TRJ No. 40, and this is what I wrote: “I called Gene Ohly at Evans Speed to ask about Gil’s association with Earl Evans. In conversation, he mentioned that he had Al Ayala’s sectioned ’53 Ford F-100 pickup out back, ‘Sitting right where I parked it after I used it to move to the new shop’ …in ’53! Apparently this is the only custom Al did for himself. It’s sectioned only about one and one half inches (the rear of the frame is C’ed for lowering) and it’s still in primer. The flathead has been removed. Otherwise it’s intact–chrome grill, bumper, spotlights and all.” As you can see, it’s not all that rusty, looks pretty complete and in good shape. Of course the huge question is: is it still there now? I went down the back alley, but for some reason I couldn’t get to that back fence to see over. Al Teague told me he saw it last time he was there, maybe a year ago. So, again, I’ll leave this one at that.
Can I do just one more? Quickly?
This, folks, is Blair’s Speed Shop, still at 2771 E. Foothill Bl. in Pasadena, right where it’s been since the early ’50s. Don Blair founded the business in 1945 on nearby Arroyo Parkway, with engine builder Tim Timmerman, and in 1948 this is where R.E. Petersen saw Tom Medley’s small cartoons on a pegboard and hired him for his new Hot Rod magazine. While someone else claims to have the oldest continually operating speed shop in the country, gentle readers, this is indisputably the one. Not only did countless lakes, circle track, and drag cars come out of this shop, but so did numerous hot rod craftsmen (such as Pete Chapouris). Longtime current proprietor Phil Lukens still drives his excellent black “Rodnee” ’29 roadster pickup and races his venerable, wicked blown Hemi Fiat drag coupe, as well as building engines in the back room and selling any sort of aftermarket speed parts he can get for you these days (not easy). It’s only 15 minutes from my house, and I drive by often, stopping in all too frequently to buy stuff I need, ranging from good motor oil and spark plug wires, to a clutch or cam kit. I’ve bought methanol for my drag cars there for decades. So I hardly considered this place a hot rod archeological find. But it is. No question.
OK. That’s enough. Some might think this is weird. But I hope most of you dig it the way I do.