Like the air around us, the spectacle of a GMC 71-series supercharger on a V-8 engine is so familiar that we don't even bother to question its origins. It's just one of those things that always existed, as if on the seventh day, after making water and earth and so on, God used his day off to bolt a Jimmy diesel blower to a bent eight. "And then there was torque!"
But the thing that inspired so many generations to bolt a Roots-type GMC blower on an engine does in fact have-no pun intended-roots. And to be honest, those roots aren't really that long. To the best of our knowledge they go back 63 years, when a slight man with very big ideas bolted one of those massive blowers to a diminutive engine-a Flathead of all things.
In fact, those roots may well end at this very car. Legally it's Scott Perrott's nowadays, but he's the first to admit it is, and will forever be, Barney Navarro's. Navarro, if you don't know, was the hot rod's Renaissance man. When he died in 2007, he left a legacy so purposeful that it even made his death seem calculated (he shut off his internal milling machine on August 20, his 88th birthday).
For starters, when most aftermarket cylinder heads were little more than milled versions of stock ones, he developed his based on shapes that promoted gas flow and flame propagation. He applied that same independent thought to manifold design by optimizing their runners based on firing sequence and flow dynamics-a big deal when the typical hop-up manifold was nothing more than a stock item with a few extra holes poked in it.
But it was his unheralded achievements that really marked Navarro a true thinker. Among other things, he dabbled in oxygen injection and milled a manifold plate that used the engine's inrush of air to condense fuel. Adhering to a methodical system, he affirmed, debunked, and discovered ideas. "He was one of those guys who would say, 'The scientific principle of this is...' and he'd come up with this long dissertation that would lose you three sentences in," Scott noted. So Barney Navarro was a scientist. This was his laboratory.
By all accounts, it ('27 T) shouldn't be here. For that matter, it looked as if it shouldn't have existed in the first place. Though it eventually evolved to the way it appears now, "There's a picture of the car and it looks just terrible," Scott noted. "On the back it says 'Built in four days; refinements came later.'" The photo, which was taken in 1948, shows Navarro leaving the line at Muroc Dry Lake. The car's finish shows an absolute lack of regard and the lettering isn't much better. It appears that he cut the hole for the pitman arm with a can opener. There's another hole in the hood, only this one has four carburetors poking way out of it.
The car's appearance wasn't calculated, but it spoke volumes: Navarro could give a rat's ass how things looked; he cared only about going fast, which he did ... most of the time at least. In fact you could make the case that Navarro really didn't care about going fast on a consistent basis as much as he wanted to go really fast to prove a point.
It all goes back to the idea that Navarro's car was a testbed. And to illustrate that, refer to that photo of the hastily built car leaving the line. Though it looks the part of a lakes racer, Navarro actually built it for more than that. Take the pitman arm: it's on the right. "The reason is if you break a tie rod you can still steer the car," Scott explained, noting that the right-front wheel is the one that actually directs the car when it's pitched sideways and going left. The belly pan shape suggests that the car saw track duty, but those high-mounted carburetors left everybody scratching their heads.
Lakes racers did dabble with superchargers, but they usually stuck to the early centrifugal Frenzel or McCullochs. If they used Roots-type blowers, they stuck to the small-displacement Italian S.Co.T. superchargers with few exceptions, like the prewar Benz blower that Don Blair once used. The thing common to all of those was they weren't big enough to push enough air into the engine, let alone push the carburetors through the hood in such dramatic fashion. And about the only superchargers familiar to roundy-round racers at the time were on Offys and Novis, and both of those were way out of a dirt-slinger's league anyway.
"The car was originally built to run CRA," Scott explained. While the association did in fact permit superchargers, it made them seem too bothersome to run, which explains track racers' indifference to them. "They had a rule that if it was a blown motor it could be only 181 inches," Scott concluded. And that's where this odd duck gets even stranger: Navarro used an 85hp Flathead, an engine that even in its smallest displacement was 40 cubes too large for blown CRA racing.
By the end of the war, the 85hp Flathead was the small-block Chevrolet in just about every form of racing. They were everywhere, and as a result of their abundance racers had no qualms about blowing them up in the quest to go faster. So you could say their faults were pretty well known. Because of Midget racing, so too were the faults of the V-8/60 known-only that engine was nearly 50 cubes shy of spec and leagues behind its 85-horse brethren as far as duty cycle went.
In simple terms, Navarro de-stroked it. Now stroking or de-stroking an engine to alter its displacement is as common as air ... or a Jimmy-blown V-8 for that matter. But the extent to which Navarro went wasn't ... or at least wasn't at the time. To reduce the engine's displacement to that degree, he machined a 3-inch-stroke crankshaft ... from a big block of steel. And here you thought billet was high-tech modern.
Though Navarro campaigned the car in both dry lakes and dirt track venues, and though the car went well and set a few records, consistent success eluded him. For starters, "[Navarro] was a terrible driver," Scott lamented. He did have the humility to hire drivers, including Walt James, who's the only one still alive who drove the car. According to Scott, "[James] said, 'Man, it had more horsepower than you could believe'.
"[James] actually put it in the (trophy) dash, and that's probably the only time it ever made it," he explained. "What [Navarro] bitched about was that these guys that he got as drivers wouldn't push the engine. He said it would turn 8,000 rpm. I didn't believe that-I didn't believe it for years," he admitted, citing the three main bearings that usually limit the engine's potential.
"But see, he de-stroked it and used a 180-degree crank, so it was really stiff and it would turn those rpms, especially with that blower," he continued. "[James] said the thing would absolutely scream and it would just scare you to death. The engine's turning too fast, you've got the blower noise, and you've got the rearend making noise behind you. Most of these guys were used to 5,000 rpm tops and wouldn't stick their foot in it."
The results were equally mixed at the lakes. At the '50 Bonneville Speed Trials, Navarro's car set the fastest time in B/Roadster by running 146.81 mph, however, engine damage the car sustained during that run prevented Navarro from backing it up, which would've let him set the record. "So he's out," Scott said.
There's a story that arises from that one that underscores Navarro's willingness to try different things. "Well a 180-degree crank turns a V-8 into two four-cylinder engines," Scott explained. "Wally Parks comes to him and says, 'Hey, look, let's see if you can't run this car on four cylinders.'" Park's idea, of course, was for Navarro to set a record in at least one class, "And O/Streamliner didn't have one yet," Scott explained. Ultimately Navarro gutted the engine of half its pistons, used four cut-down rods to take up the space on the journals, dolled up the body with cardboard "fairings", and with generous push starts got the car to nearly 80 mph two times, thereby setting the record at 78.67 mph.
To Scott Perrott's knowledge, the car's history, at least in Navarro's control, was short. "The car only lasted 'til 1953," he surmised. Modifications made to the car after Navarro sold it and prior to when Scott found it indicated that it continued to evolve (it had evidence of a Cadillac engine), but it's a history that's pretty much lost to the ages. In fact, the car came fairly close to ceasing to exist as a historical race car.
"I get Hemmings air-mailed to me and there's this car," Scott explained. "I was going to build a street roadster out of it and I was looking for a track roadster body. It was complete less the nose and the hood and the running gear." Though Scott said the prior owner did know what the car was by way of Don Montgomery's books, history didn't necessarily have the cache in the pre-eBay '90s as it does now. "I bought it for $1,500," Scott admitted, or bragged, depending on your perspective.
"When I got the car home I was able to wet sand part of the body to come up with the [Navarro] decal just like in the photographs," he continued. "I knew him through the speed equipment but I didn't really know what he'd done." As he learned the car and its former owner's history, however, he said he knew exactly what he needed to do.
Scott, with the extensive labor and creative skill of Eric Sanders in Eugene, Oregon, began to restore the car as it appeared during its days with Navarro. "All the aluminum was nice. The belly pan and side panels, for example, we hardly even straightened them," he said.
Anything made of steel, however, didn't fare so well. "The body itself had about 2 inches of rust all the way around," he said. "I've got a picture of the way it looked when we first got it. They always look solid when you buy 'em, but once you start tearing stuff apart you realize how thin things are. They used conduit for the body structure, and that was paper thin. So we had to replace a couple of chunks of that too."
Things got even more perilous the deeper he got into the project. "The guy who I bought it from had actually contacted him, but [Navarro] didn't want to buy it," Scott said. "When I talked to [Navarro], he asked, 'What are you going to do with it?' He was real skeptical. I said I was going to just put it back to the way it was. He said, 'Ya know, this is a very complicated car.' Well I didn't believe it. I mean how complicated can a Flathead car be?"
Nature has a knack of answering such rhetorical questions. Besides the blower, one of the centerpieces of the car is the manifold that adapts the carburetors to it. It's about 1 1/4-inch thick and Navarro milled a series of galleys in it and used it as a fuel log. The design takes advantage of the temperature drop incurred by the air as it undergoes pressure differential inside the carburetor venturi: as that air whooshes through that manifold it absorbs the heat from the fuel inside it, which results in a denser fuel charge for the carburetors and theoretically more power. The worst part about the adapter, though, is that he didn't have it.
"The adapter is a really complicated thing," Scott admitted. "The hard thing was fitting all those carburetors over the opening in the blower. The holes don't go straight down; they go at an angle. There's also a slot cut in it so you can get to the bolts to tighten everything down. I mean it was just a lot of work for a very simple thing that turned out not to be." But by the benevolence of Scott's friend, Bob Coutts, it and the other difficult-to-make parts found new life. "He's just one of these guys who's been racing his whole life and working out of a little one-man machine shop. He and I are longtime friends and he can make anything I want. And he makes me do all the things that he doesn't want to do."
The engine is a story unto itself. Scott said the fella who owns the 176-inch engine that was in the car won't part with it, so he's committed to build another from scratch. "Moldex built me the crank, Cunningham built me rods, Arias built me pistons. I don't even have that stuff in the car yet," he lamented. "I have the intention and all the pieces to build the engine but I haven't gotten around to it."
Scott had the critical pieces to the car but lacked two that identified it as Navarro's testbed: the nose and hood. Making matters more difficult, the ones for the car were built by one of the masters of his time: Art Ingels.
Known more widely as the father of the go-kart, Ingels was the panel beater at Kurtis Kraft. In the 20 or so years it existed, it's said that Kurtis Kraft built more than 1,000 Midgets, half of them turnkey. It also built 120 Indianapolis racers, including five that won the big show. Suffice to say, considering his capacity, his noses are legendary. And considering how few he made for roadsters, they're rare. And considering how many of those got stuffed into walls and the backs of other cars, it's a wonder any survived.
"I get a phone call from this guy who says there's some off-the-wall hot rod magazine that says there's a swap meet in Denver, with one of these Ingels noses in it," Scott said. "Of course this was like six months prior, but luckily it had this guy's name in the article." Through a series of connections that went through Neal East and the club who hosted the swap meet, Scott found the last piece to his very complicated puzzle. "I paid more for that nose than I paid for the rest of the car!" he said incredulously but laughing just the same.
It was a worthwhile endeavor, Scott mused. Since finishing the car he took it to one of the Muroc reunions. "I knew Navarro was there but I didn't know where he was," Scott said. "We just pulled the tailgate and rolled the car out. All of a sudden I hear this guy yell, 'There's my car!' He had a deep voice, and you could hear him clear across the other cars," Scott reflected. "We fired it up and he says, 'Look at that! That still works just the way it's supposed to!'" referring to the carburetor adapter/fuel condenser. "Man that was the hardest thing I had to machine in my whole life! You're trying to fit all these carburetors on the blower and all we had were pictures to go from. The blower drive was the same way. We were just doing what the pictures said. That's the fun of this!"
In hindsight, Barney Navarro had a somewhat complicated relationship with going fast. For the most part, going fast consistently enough to win points championships seems secondary to Navarro. It's pretty obvious by the information he presented as technical editor for various magazines like HOP-UP and Popular Hot Rodding (he was the first tech editor at both titles) and by his contributions to uncountable others that he was more than qualified and detail oriented enough to make a car go reliably fast enough. And by his clockwork-reliable appearances at both the lakes and the tracks-oftentimes in the same weekend-he was clearly able to commit himself to something.
What seems imperative to Navarro was innovation. He was a facilitator of sorts; rather than go marginally faster than everybody else by using variations on the same parts and ideas, he often used entirely different ones and went way faster ... at least enough times to get everybody's attention. "I mean they went fast, but because they were constantly pushing the envelope they always blew up," Scott noted. "So their ability to get lots of points just went out the window.
"But you really have to understand that he always wanted to try something different, and that was partially his downfall. He was constantly experimenting to make something work better, and it didn't always work." So in that sense one could say that Navarro opened the door to new ideas, and once racers caught on there was Navarro with a new manifold, head, piston, or blower kit in hand ready to make a deal.
And if anyone dared question his products, he need only to crack the hood of his Maroon roadster. And can't you just imagine him pointing under it and saying something like, "The scientific principle of this is..." and following it with a long dissertation?
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1927 Ford "Navarro" Roadster
Barney and Tom Beatty built the car on a Willys Overland frame, cut up sufficiently and fortified with tubular crossmembers. The chassis loops over the driver by way of a four-point rollbar and the steering box mounts in a similar loop inside the cowl. Eric Sanders restored the chassis.
It appears that Navarro and Beatty used a '33-34 front axle, spring, Houdaille dampers, and a split wishbone. The spring fastens behind the axle to the bottom of the wishbone. A Franklin steering box mounts to the loop in the cowl. Navarro's car still has '46 Ford spindles.
Like the front, the rear axle is '33-34 vintage, only it sports a Halibrand quick-change centersection, a 4.11:1 ring-and-pinion, and a Model A or T spring. They had to shorten the radius rods to make their pivot points align with the driveshaft pivot.
Scott said he has all the parts to de-stroke an engine to 176 cubes, including the Moldex 180-degree, 3-inch-stroke billet crankshaft, Cunningham connecting rods, Jahns Racing pistons, and a billet camshaft ground to Winfield SU1A specs, however, for the time being the engine in the car has close-to-stock displacement. The present engine wears Navarro Marine finned aluminum heads, a Navarro blower manifold with a GMC 3-71 supercharger, a Navarro V-belt blower drive, and a Harman-Collins magneto. Bob Coutts replicated the 4x2 intake manifold. It wears Holley 94s.
Though it's non-synchromesh, the '37 Ford gearbox Navarro used has the same improved case as the '39 passenger car's.
Wheels & Tires
According to Scott, Navarro preferred 6.00-16 tires. "He said he could buy 'em all day for $5 apiece." The current ones are Goodyear street treads and JC Penny-brand block-tread and they mount to '40-48 Ford 16x4.5 wheels. They in turn bolt to '46 Ford drums and their attendant hydraulic-actuated backing plates.
Body & Paint
Typical for most circle-track cars, this body's cowl has been trimmed back all the way to the dash lip. Navarro welded the doors shut and enlarged the turtle deck opening for greater access. He replaced the cockpit lip with rigid conduit and extended the opening into the tulip panel to accommodate the single seat (Navarro was tall and the engine setback is significant). Art Ingels crafted the aluminum turtle-deck lid, belly pan, hood, and nose. Naturally the hood extends rearward to cover the removed cowl section. Eric Sanders, from Eugene, Oregon, replaced the lower-most 2 inches of the car's body and a fair bit of its conduit interior structure. Portland's Dale Withers sprayed the car a single-stage, acrylic-enamel version of '40-48 Ford Monsoon Maroon.
The centerpiece to the car's interior is the real B-17 bomber seat. Mounted to the Franklin steering box ahead of it is a reproduction Bell Auto Parts steering wheel made by Antique Auto Parts in Rosemead. The big aluminum firewall is a by-product of the engine setback. It mounts a 3 3/8-inch Stewart-Warner 8,000-rpm tachometer, an aircraft manifold-pressure gauge, and Industrial-series 2 5/8-inch water temperature and oil-pressure gauges. The hand pump to pressurize the fuel tank features its own Stewart-Warner Industrial-series low-pressure gauge.
A '39 Tudor, The Way It "Would'a ... Should'a" Looked
Long forgotten are many of the vehicles "behind" the various race cars that became famous in the early days out on the dry lakes, the asphalt/cement quarter-miles, and of course, the salt. The push cars, without which, many of the well-known wouldn't be as, well, known. While the act of push starting doesn't necessarily require what it takes for a competitive vehicle to set records, that act is but just a part of what is required from them-more often than not, they also towed the race car to and fro, not to mention all the around-town miles racked up chasing parts before, after, and occasionally during the races. Suffice it to say, the venerable pusher was a viable member of most any race team.
That's exactly what Mike Herman wanted to achieve with his '39 Ford Tudor-except that this particular standard sedan never was such a vehicle to begin with. Not a problem, really, as Herman is not only an engine builder by trade, but a re-builder of "vintage" mills at that-the very same ones that could'a been and would'a been found in the very same race cars that his '39 might've pushed to glory. Flathead Ford V-8s, obviously, but more precisely, Navarro-equipped Flatheads, no less-as if the preceding piece on Barney Navarro's T-lakester wasn't already an indication of where this was headed.
Mike is indeed part of the Herman family lineage that has been a vital component in keeping the "roots" of early landspeed racing alive and well for the last three-plus decades. Along with Jeff Twitchell's Hot Rod Service Company (Campbell, California), H&H Flatheads not only breathed new life into this once dilapidated Tudor, as with the Navarro T, they did so with blower-type force ... of course the kind only a S.Co.T. centrifugal supercharger could generate.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
LA Crescenta, California
1939 Ford Standard Tudor
Hot Rod Service Company in Campbell, California, updated the '39 with juice brakes (including '39 Lincoln backing plates), split front wishbone locating a 4-inch dropped axle with a Posies spring, and a 9-inch rearend with a parallel leaf conversion. Stock X-member has been modified to accept a Borg-Warner T-5.
H&H's specialty is, of course, hi-po Flatheads, which is just what the engine builder's personal car received. The mill in the '39 is circa 1948, but the current displacement of 284 ci is not of stock specs-neither are the Navarro heads and cam, S.Co.T. blower (with a pair of Demon 98s atop), nor the MSD R-T-R electronic ignition. As mentioned, transmission of choice is of the T-5 variety; rearend is a narrowed Ford 9 inch.
Wheels & Tires
Replacing the previous 16-inch rolling stock are Coker radial whitewall-clad 15-inch Gennie steel wheels and caps from Wheel Vintiques.
Body & Paint
The body was left "as-was". And with the exception of a wood-plank pusher replacing the stock front bumper, cut-out hood sides, and custom exhaust tip protrusions, the exterior is all stock as well.
On the inside, all sheetmetal panels were updated with new paint, gauges converted to electronic by Classic Instruments, and San Jose's Finish Line redid the upholstery in stock form using Taupe-colored mohair. The '39 was rewired by Hot Rod Service Company using an E-Z Wiring harness.