If you’ve never taken the time to listen to stories of what members of The Greatest Generation did with their free time in the 30s, 40s and 50s, you ought to. Seriously, just call up your parents or grandparents and let ’em talk. Rest assured, there will be rambling incoherence, and the stories may be a little out of order, but you’ll also hear some pretty incredible stuff. Octogenarians have a knack for focusing on odd minutia, then mentioning mind-blowing stuff as an aside.
Merchants of Speed is 232 large, glossy pages of mind-blowing asides.
To set the stage, we need to roll the clock back to before muscle cars, before NASCAR and before the NHRA. Flatheads were king and overhead valve engines were newfangled. This was the dawn of the automotive aftermarket. Each of the 22 chapters in Merchants of Speed focuses on an individual pioneer of the original hot rod era (30s-50s). We’re treated to the stories of familiar eponyms like Edelbrock, Crane and Offenhauser as well as some that you’d have to be a regular at the Jalopy Journal to appreciate (Navarro, Evans, or Ansen Automotive).
The antics of trial-and-error engineering combined with racing (be it circle, drag or dry-lakes flying miles) resulted in the kind of stories you’re not likely hear anymore (with the possible exception of the 24-hours of LeMons).
Stories like Lou Senter’s workaround for a “no leaking engines” rule when racing on the board track at the LA Coliseum: he just placed a thick felt pad on the belly-pan under the engine. It worked great (as it was impossible to keep a Ford V8-60 from leaking) until it ended up soaked in alcohol, which subsequently caught fire. Funny thing about alcohol: it burns clear. Senter didn’t realize the problem until he felt his feet were burning.
…or Chet Herbert’s experiments with sub-1000lb dragsters sporting twin supercharged Olds aluminum V8s, a V16 made from two Chevy 402s or transverse-rear-mounted twin Chevy small blocks. Commenting about the handling on that last one, driver Zane Shubert said “there was nothing you could do to steer that thing…the fastest I ever got out of the car was bout 168 miles per hour…backward through the lights at Bakersfield.”
To just focus on the spectacle would be a disservice to the hard work and ingenuity of those featured in Merchants of Speed. As someone who grew up in a world filled with warning labels, safety shields and sealed black boxes, I was amazed at how much these guys took it upon themselves to build whatever they wanted.
Almost all of the men featured got their starts in high school with a used lathe, grinder or mill in their parents’ garages. They learned from each other, and they learned by doing. Most chapters start with a story of a guy taking an engine apart to understand how it works, and realizing how he could get more power out of it.
Merchants of Speed is the product of countless hours of interviews by author Paul D. Smith with the individuals featured, their families and co-workers. Smith does an incredible job of boiling what must’ve been a mountain of tapes and notes down to something that’s actually readable. A little bit of that “conversations with grandpa” seems to sneak through: the timeline of events in a chapter kind of jumps around, and occasionally there’s a section or story that just feels tacked on. Luckily, there’s no quiz at the end, so you can just skip ahead if the story of the mysterious pulsation 400-degree camshaft isn’t really your thing.
Residents of Los Angeles can take special pride while reading Merchants of Speed, as almost all of the original shops of these hot rod legends are garages that still exist today. I’m considering putting together an old-school hot rod driving tour of LA based on the locations named in the book.
Merchants of Speed is required reading (and great coffee-table material) for its ability to take you back to the origins of it all: the birth of the idea that no matter what the big manufacturers were selling, ingenuity and a willingness to try new things could always improve upon it.
Book was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.