Everybody loves a successful underdog, and the American hot-rodder Max Balchowsky tapped into that with Old Yeller II.
Based in Hollywood, there was an appropriate and inspired touch of showmanship about the way this self-taught engineer went racing.
The entertaining array of half-truths and myths about his crude-looking, home-built sports-racer were fuelled by a strong following at Californian race meets in the late 1950s and early ’60s, before the era of the rear-engined prototype and the professional driver came along.
Balchowsky built nine Old Yellers, but it was the second one that secured his reputation as the Ferrari/Maserati-beater.
Beneath its quirky, hand-beaten, lemon-yellow body was a cleverly engineered machine, combining all of the instinctive know-how of its creator who, when flying bombers during WW2, was known in the squadron as ‘the man who can fix anything’.
From the tatty Idaho Famous Potatoes registration plates to the patchwork rear body made from old Coca-Cola and Pepsi signs, this 6-litre Buick-powered mongrel stood out among the millionaire teams of Ferrari Testa Rossas and Maserati Birdcages.
In contrast to the big transporters of rival equipes such as those run by John Edgar and Lance Reventlow, Balchowsky prided himself on driving to and from events.
There’s a wealth of tales about Balchowsky’s antics. Story has it, he’d use old engine oil, rummage around the bins of wealthy teams to scavenge used spark plugs and, when a tyre blew, he once combed the car park to borrow a spare. After jacking up a spectator’s Buick station wagon and removing the wheel, he simply left a note saying, ‘Return after races.’
True or not, Balchowsky and his wife Ina were hugely popular, both with rival teams and spectators. And the organisers made the most of Old Yeller’s appearances to sell tickets.
But underneath that ill-fitting roadster body was a very sorted chassis and a finely tuned Buick ‘Nailhead’ motor. Balchowsky was greatly respected by his peers, and Buick top brass soon noted his success, which began with a 1932 Ford Roadster that started a competitive ripple among European sports-car owners when the hot rod first appeared at Torrey Pines in December ’52.
When Old Yeller II’s current owner Ernie Nagamatsu started organising Balchowsky’s effects, he discovered invoices from Buick listed as ‘Industrial use only’. Its constructor milked Old Yeller’s image as a scrapyard-based racer, but the car’s competitive pace and consistent reliability in the heat of battle proved that Balchowsky took his racing very seriously.
Old Yeller was initially a challenge to drive, however, with Balchowsky suffering several dramatic spins at the first five races of 1957 in California and Arizona. But after he lowered the rear and fitted an anti-roll bar from a pick-up truck, its fortunes soon changed – particularly when a handsome 26-year-old crew-cut Californian accepted a drive in the Examiner Grand Prix at Riverside.
Just back from Europe, Dan Gurney greatly impressed as he chased the latest Maserati Birdcage of Bob Drake and hot-shot Billy Krause in a Corvette-powered Jaguar D-type. Sadly, Gurney retired with engine problems when running a strong third.
“This is as good as the finest car I’ve driven, and as comfortable as a baby buggy,” he enthused after the race. Balchowsky was a competent driver but he fully appreciated the impact when Old Yeller was driven by a real ace. He then hired Bob Drake, who had lost his drive when entrant Joe Lubin pulled the plug on his insanely fast Birdcage after accusations that he’d been running doped fuel. First time out at Santa Maria, Drake whipped all-comers.
Next to try Old Yeller was Carroll Shelby, who encouraged Balchowsky to race at Road America. On the car’s first trip east of the Rockies, Shelby led until the final laps when the Buick motor cried enough, but the Texan was greatly impressed.
“That old sonofabitch would absolutely fly,” he recalled. “Every good car in the US was there at Elkhart Lake that year , and we ran away from ’em. I’ve driven all kinds of cars, but the torque from the Balchowsky special had them all beat. I don’t know what the gearbox was there for. You could have started in high and stayed in that gear all day.”
Old Yeller II’s finest hour came at 1960’s season finale, the Times Grand Prix at Riverside. With Drake at the wheel – he was Balchowsky’s favourite – it was the talk of the race after a dramatic dice with Billy Krause’s Birdcage and Augie Pabst in the beautiful, no-expense-spared Scarab.
Drake chased leader Krause hard, with Pabst joining the pair for an epic three-way battle in the final laps. The trio was nose-to-tail at the chequer, with Old Yeller and Drake finishing second. The Maserati was smoking at the flag, and the Scarab was loaded on to a custom-built transporter; Balchowsky and Old Yeller simply headed back to LA on the freeway.
There are more rumours about the fate of Old Yeller II, including the story that wealthy Ferrari entrant Jon von Neumann offered Balchowsky $2500 to drive his racer over a cliff and destroy it, while some local enthusiasts reported seeing Ina using it for shopping trips.
Closer to the truth was its sale to an amateur racer in the early ’60s. At Cotati, near Sacramento, he lost control of Old Yeller on the slowing-down lap and smashed into a tree. For decades, the car was thought lost until, one evening in 1977 in a Fresno bar, David Gibb and his son Blake heard a story about the remains languishing in a local backyard.
The Oklahoma-based enthusiasts delayed their trip home and, the next day, went searching for Old Yeller II. Thankfully, they found the sad, stripped remains and bought the challenging project for $250.
An intense rebuild began, and with the guidance of Balchowsky – who even found spares at the back of his workshop – Old Yeller eventually returned to the track with Gibb Jnr driving.
Again, the faded yellow racer started upsetting Ferrari Testa Rossa owners with its pace. The highlight of my first visit to the Monterey Historic Races was seeing Old Yeller run and meeting the Gibb family, who loved bringing the legendary car to the West Coast. “Every minute of that 1000-mile haul is worth it for a new Old Yeller story,” enthused Gibb Snr.
The car was eventually sold to Ernie Nagamatsu, another passionate enthusiast, who continued the process of restoring Old Yeller to authentic specification. He also befriended Balchowsky and took him to races before his death in 1998.
Nagamatsu occasionally invited former drivers to race it, including Billy Krause, and in recent years he shipped the car to Britain to race at Goodwood, where in 2012 it featured in the Dan Gurney tribute; last year, it took part in the Festival of Speed. As well as preserving and campaigning Old Yeller II, Nagamatsu has extensively researched Balchowsky’s life, and also owns his last unfinished project – the mid-engined, chassis-only Old Yeller X.
Balchowsky was very much a ‘back of a matchbox’ sort of engineer, and it’s rumoured that Old Yeller’s chassis was drawn up on the floor one night at Hollywood Motors. The ladder-type frame was formed from 1¾in chrome-moly tubes and, according to British specialist Sean McClurg: “The chassis welding is actually very good.”
McClurg has recently improved the handling for Nagamatsu. The front suspension is double wishbones – drilled Jaguar XK at the top and Pontiac lower arm – matched to a shortened ’58 Pontiac anti-roll bar. The rear is a simple Studebaker live axle with leaf springs. There’s no Panhard rod and the location is down to the solid bushes.
“It puts the power down well,” says McClurg. “The weight balance is pretty good. The Buick is a big lump but it’s set well back in the chassis, and the back axle is also very heavy.
“When you look closely at the car, you soon realise that the body and driveline are all over the place. Nothing is straight, including the engine in the chassis. The whole cockpit is offset, and refitting the panels is a nightmare because nothing lines up. I think Max made it up as he went along but, because this was a one-off, it didn’t really matter.”
The rack-and-pinion steering was borrowed from a junked Morris Minor, while the drum brakes are from a 1957/’58 Buick and, reports McClurg, are “a bugger to adjust”.
At the heart of Old Yeller is a 6.6-litre Buick engine with Winfield camshaft and six downdraught Stromberg 97 carburettors sitting on an Edelbrock log-type manifold. The layout runs on the front and rear carbs all the time, but from the middle of the rev range the other two come in.
“You can really feel the kick at about 3500rpm,” says McClurg, “but it’s a sweet engine and very progressive now that the throttle has been sorted.” Peak power is 350bhp at 5400rpm, while the maximum torque of 360lb ft arrives at 3500rpm.
McClurg has transformed Old Yeller’s drivability: “Even in a straight line the chassis was moving about because the bushes were virtually oval. Fixing that, combined with the work on the throttle, has really improved the car. It was a treat to work on because I’ve always been a fan of engineer-racers such as Ken Miles and Mark Donohue. Max was in that mould.”
A hot-rodder at heart, Balchowsky couldn’t resist timing Old Yeller at a drag-racing meet, where it clocked an 11.9 secs standing-start ¼-mile with an exit speed of 124mph. It blasted from 0-100mph in just 8.6 secs, so there was little surprise that it made such good starts.
Having eagerly read about Balchowsky’s specials and seen the car in 1985, it was a long-held ambition to get behind the wheel of this fabled Ferrari-beater. And it didn’t disappoint. Step over the door, settle into the snug leather-trimmed bucket seat, and the view ahead over the bonnet, with those six trumpets penetrating the battered panel, evokes a wealth of images.
Even before that rude rumble of the Buick engine erupts through the unsilenced side-pipes, you’re imagining Drake chasing Krause’s Birdcage through the desert turns at Riverside with Pabst’s Scarab filling the rear-view mirror. Such rich history is ingrained into this brutish old racer, and you can’t help but feel it.
The well-braced chassis tubing surrounds the cockpit space, while the bare-metal cliff-face dash panel holds a motley selection of gauges and switches, with historic plaques for Pomona, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara tucked under the body to the right.
The rev counter is from an XK while the Morris 100mph speedometer is another Balchowsky joke. The driving position – with high, bent legs, pendulum pedals and a four-spoke sprint-car-style steering wheel – all bring to mind a well-built Ford hot rod.
The gearbox is a Muncie T-10 ‘rock crusher’. It features a chunky action but, with deft double-declutching, provides a slick change. It perfectly matches the grunt of the Buick Nailhead powerplant and, with so much torque on tap, you really only need third and fourth once you’re rolling. Being solid-mounted, that engine vibrates right through the chassis when it’s started up.
The car is a hoot to drive. Despite shaggy appearances, it feels very strong, rigid, together. The performance punch is as potent as in a 289 Cobra but, matched to beautifully weighted steering and impressively balanced handling, it inspires.
After a few fast laps of our test track, I feel really confident, with the drum brakes being the only drawback. As the speeds build, the pedal travel gets ever deeper. It’s easy to see why Nagamatsu has had a few moments at the Goodwood chicane because the mighty performance soon outstrips the stopping power.
McClurg has tested the car at Donington Park, where he used only third and fourth gears, and he too was impressed by its neutral character. The torque from 1000rpm is neck-snapping, and when the secondary Strombergs feed in, there’s an extra push through the mid-range up to the 6000rpm limit.
Like its canine Disney namesake, Old Yeller is friendly old thing, and it had me whooping all around the lap. I’ll wager that Shelby’s guest drives inspired the idea of the Cobra but, despite the body’s ungainly looks, this has a better, more sorted chassis.
Images: Tony Baker, LAT Photographic
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