Tuesday 15th January 1924
Born on this day, Max Balchowsky, American designer and builder of the Old Yeller road race specials.
During WWII he was a belly gunner in a B-24 bomber. He was injured afer bailing out over friendly territory and was re-assigned to the Orient where he participated in the Burma Campaign.
Following WWII, Max headed west and worked with his brother with Casper where they became a well know street racing duo. Driving past a local High School in a Roadster, Max noticed a beautiful young girl named Ina Wilson. Ina’s father had an auto repair shop nearby. In 1949, after Ina left High School, they married and opened Hollywood Motors at 4905 Hollywood Blvd. Hollywood. As his business became more and more successful, movie stars such as James Dean could be found hanging out there. Balchowsky also did stunt work in films and had many show business friends. Actor James Coburn had his Ferrari California Spyder V-12 street model looked after by Balchowsky.
Starting in 1951, Ina and Max became active in Sports Car racing with Bill Harrah”s Jaguar XK 120 at the Road Races in Reno. His first “modified” road racer was the Summer’s 32″ channeled Ford named the Bu-Ford Special which raced in California Sports Car races including the Pebble Beach Road Races.
Max was known as the “master” of engine “transplants”, which were very popular with Hot Rodders. Max would routinely replace any motor with a Cadillac or Buick motor. One of the original letterheads of Hollywood Motors had the slogan “We can replace anything with anything”. There were several Hot Rod magazines that ran feature stories about Max on the “swapping of motors” as a routine job for Hollywood Motors.
Next came a Swallow Doretti, based on the Triumph TR-2. Max replaced the engine with a Buick motor. He also raced the “Morgensen Special” which Max took over from his friend Dick Morgensen after Margaret Pritchard flipped it at Torrey Pines in 1955 and was killed.
The car featured a chrome-moly space frame and torsion “blade” front springs that allowed quick camber adjustment, assisted by a fellow by the name of Boyd Hough. Dick had replaced the origonal Plymouth six with a Buick V8 before Margaret’s accident.
Max later made numerous improvements (including nose bodywork and different front fenders), but it was essentially the same car that he eventually painted yellow and called Old Yaller.
This was followed by Old Yeller I. He called his homemade yellow race cars a “pile of junk” and fitted them with junkyard parts and reject tires.
Max Balchowsky built various Old Yeller race cars in the 1950s and early 1960s, pitting them against exotic Ferraris, Maseratis and other foreign sports-race cars that cost a fortune and often winning.
Balchowsky had no elaborate tractor-trailer and drove Old Yeller cars to races. He was a mechanical genius who could take old parts and come up with a brilliantly engineered sports-race car. Balchowsky used Goodyear tires that had been recalled because they were too soft for highway use. Accused of being too cheap to buy the Dunlop or Pirelli race tires, he especially liked the fact they were whitewall tires, because you never saw whitewalls on race cars.
With Balchowsky at the wheel, his cars beat Ferraris and other top European machinery during the late 1950s. He built nine Old Yeller race cars before rear engine sports cars began dominating the scene in the 1960s.
One of the most famous was Old Yeller II, made in 1959. Visiting Southern California junkyards, the Balchowskys found such items for the car as steering from a Morris Minor, Jaguar gearbox, Buick brakes, Pontiac suspension, Studebaker rear end and 1951 Lincoln radiator.
Old Yeller II cost one-tenth the price of a glamorous Ferrari Testa Rossa race car. But it racked up so many victories against exotic foreign sports-race cars it became a legend. Road & Track called Old Yeller II “a masterpiece of ingenuity.” Even the top drivers hired by the West Coast moguls ended up at the wheel of Old Yeller race cars and were impressed.
Everyone liked the self-deprecating Balchowsky and his wife. They operated the legendary Hollywood Motors garage, where movie stars such as James Dean hung out. Balchowsky also was a movie stunt driver and knew many show business folks. Actor James Coburn had his fabulous Ferrari California Spyder V-12 street model tuned by Balchowsky.
Balchowsky died in 1998, but his cars are still out there on the track, competing with old Ferraris and Maseratis in classic car races.