California Motor Kings:
Conversations with Legendary Racers, Rodders, Riders and Wreckers
This oral biographical automotive history is a documentary collage of a range of players who have made hot rodding and motor sports the amazing plethora of dynamic activity that it is. Hot rods and fast cars have been a passion of mine since I was very young and I have long wanted to do something about capturing the exotic beauty and excitement of it all through the eyes of a fan like myself.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when as a youngster I first became infatuated by it all, but I am positively certain that it had everything to do with hearing the sound of hopped up American V8 power for the first time. In the mostly rural area in northern California where I came of age beginning in the early sixties, a pretty serious car culture was in place, and through the eyes of a youngster hungry for something singular and magical to latch onto, fast cars made it happen for me. My fascination with it was anchored in the powerful combination of loud engines, distinctive body colors and designs, the defiant and arrogant look of the young owners, and the unmistakable willingness of these guys to push the limits of what was conventionally permissible. By the time I was in junior high, the undisputed “king” in my area was a cool and tough looking high schooler with a very sharp 1960 red and white trim big block powered Chevy Impala. He would routinely wind it up through the gears as he screamed past the grade school I attended, and like a scene right out of The Wild One, his group would later gather their cars out in front of the local barber shop down the road, virtually taking it over as they hung together inside shooting the breeze while kicking back in the open barber chairs. I often used to wonder about that arrangement, thinking even then that the shop’s owner must have had some kind of an understanding with these guys, although it looked to me like they were probably more of an unwelcome presence than not.
But like so many young kids of that time, I was captivated by the outlaw attitude and energy of the scene, thinking early on that I would continue to be fascinated by it for years to come. It turned out I was right about that, and as I grew beyond my narrow adolescent view, it became the technical expertise of the real pros who designed, built and drove the fastest cars on the tracks and drag strips that captivated my interest as it still does today. And so, this representative collection is my personal tribute to some of the essential best of the California car culture who came into their own following the end of World War II.
Among those being featured include, camshaft manufacturer Ed Iskenderian, piston and head designer and producer Nick Arias, custom design and car builder Gene Winfield, legendary racer and So-Cal Speed Shop entrepreneur Alex Xydias, Indy 500 engine builder and crew chief Joe Boghosian, hot rod aficionado and auto show promotor Blackie Gejeian, Bonneville record holder Marsh Runyan, and long time Fresno auto wrecker Jerry Turner. These men and many others like them blazed a wide range of paths throughout the world of cars, and it is their shared wisdom, experience and unique abilities that are what has made it possible for the rest of us to know cars like we do.
Opening spread of an article by Joe Mathews on Russ Aves' 1941 Buick Roadmaster convertible in the April 2014 issue of the Buick Club of America Monthly journal.
The synthesizing agent for the project however, indeed the inspiration behind my decision to undertake doing it, is a far lesser known figure, my friend and car builder/engineer extraordinaire, Russ Aves. In a way, being born in West Los Angeles in 1939 and buying his first car as a raw 15 year old in 1951 (the fabulous 1932 Ford 3-window coupe he still owns to this day) Russ in his early years typified the interest and initiative of so many young guys that were bitten by the bug. To those who came to know him over the years though, it was his enduring and insatiable thirst for knowledge, combined with his innate talent and understanding of the demands of the craft that elevated him to someone truly special in the field. As important as many others have been to the history of cars and the roles they have played in American life, Russ became not only the beneficiary of what was being learned and accomplished in this arena, but took that knowledge, added his own, and has in turn become a benefactor to countless others over the years, including yours truly. Although this project represents my own passionate interest in cars, a central motivation for seeing it through has been to get something documented that celebrates the truly unique individual that Russ is. I have lived a few miles up the road from him for nearly thirty years, and to this day he continues to serve as a willing oracle of knowledge for anyone seeking guidance on how to proceed with a tricky mechanical or design question. For years now around our house, the starting point when confronted with a like challenge has been to ask, “How would Russ do this?”.
The goal of this book is to provide a bird’s-eye view into the incredible depth of talent and ingenuity that has been at the heart of the amazing car culture we have come to know and truly love. From the high profile names of Iskenderian, Xydias, Winfield and Arias, to the lesser known Gejeian, Boghosian, Runyan, Aves and Turner, the California car culture is a one of a kind and richly deserves the world renowned reputation that it has come to know. I hope you will find that the excerpts included here sufficiently whet your appetite for the rest that will follow with the completed collection.