13 May 2011

Old Yeller. Not A Shaggy Dog Story

The fascinating story of Max and Ina Balchowsky's "Backyard Special" Old Yeller II race car. Built in 1959, Max and Ina Balchowsky had raced cars in Sports Car Races since the early 1950s and with that experience; they decided to build the completely new Old Yeller II.

Max and Ina worked side by side on race cars at Hollywood Motors and they were recognised as the premier hot rod engine transplant specialists of that time. They first started racing with a borrowed Jag XK120 at the 1951 Reno Road Races. They knew they had a much faster car in their highly modified, channelled '32 Ford Roadster, with a Buick motor, named the Bu-Ford Special. It raced at Pebble Beach and other major Sports Car Races, and that was the start of a journey for Max and Ina in Road Racing and competing against the very best including many factory Teams from Europe.
Before we get to Old Yeller itself, let's start with a short history lesson of the car that became old Yeller I.

This is the '54 Morgensen Special, built by Dick Morgensen and Boyd Hough. At first it had a straight 6 Plymouth flathead motor. Not too long after that, Morgensen put a Nailhead Buick V8  in it.

In the pic above with Ken Miles' Shingle it already has the Nailhead, but it still has the cycle wings. It was a very effective low buck machine, built up out of '50s Buick, Chevy, and Ford parts, with some Model T and Harley parts thrown in for good measure.
Then it got the bigger front wings, a more streamlined nose and in Morgensen's blue and white colours.

still in the Morgensen colours at this point, but already with Balchowski's racing number, 70.
When Balchowski bought the car, he changed the colour to Chevrolet Yellow and the car was now called The Balchovsky Special.

The car was modified further and called Old Yeller. I believe the name refers not just to the colour but to the noise!

Balchowski raced the car together with Eric Hauser and when they each went their own ways, Max kept the Nailhead engine. Hauser modified the car again, fitting another nosecone, and fitting triangulated tubing in the chassis. he also fitted a 283ci small-black Chevy and called it the Lioncage Special.
The car was apparently involved in a crash and destroyed.

The next car, a highly modified Doretti-Buick and christened Old Yeller II, was extremely fast. It was fitted with another Nailhead Buick, a 401c.i. engine that was heavily modified to produce 305 bhp, but had durability problems in the first five races. From that point in 1960, Old Yeller II made racing history competing at all of the major International Sports Car Races as well as almost every other important California Sports Car Race in 1960.

In 1960 the car was driven by many legendary drivers such as Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Billy Krause, Bobby Drake, Paul O'Shea, and Balchowsky himself. Just its racing succes makes it significant enough. it could also be called the Granddaddy of the Cobra's in a way, given Shelby racing it at one point. Did it give him inspiration? Anyway, many track records were broken with the car and the "Home Built Backyard Special" competed against the very best and newest Maserati Birdcage, Ferraris, Jaguars, and Porsches along with the road racing specials. It continued racing from 1959 until 1974 with the last SCCA race in California.

It then languished in a backyard in Fresno for several years where David Gibb discovered it in the mid 1970s. Gibb restored Old Yeller II to it's basic original configuration. It started on the Vintage Racing circuit and in the early 1990s, Ernie Nagamatsu bought it from Gibb and proceeded to restore the car to the most period correct configuration of 1959.
It's currently raced by Nagamatsu and guest drivers at historic race car events, as well as being featured at Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Revival Meeting).

From left, Old Yeller IX, Old Yeller VIII, Old Yeller VII, and Old Yeller II

It’s worth reading in full about this car’s history, as constant improvements and changes were made over it’s life, the veritable Trigger’s Broom. There are, I think, NINE different 'Old Yeller specials, including  E-type and Corvette C1 based examples.
Cars like Old Yeller are, for me, the kissing cousins to the Hot Rods that were being built at the time.

More info on Old Yeller II here.

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