Two-year-old Jerry Kugel would one-day swing into the record books as a manufacturer, race
Moving from Chicago to Montebello, California, in 1946, Jerry Kugel attended catholic school up until his senior year when his family moved to Whittier, California. A chopped '34 Ford coupe whizzed by bike-peddling Jerry and his mind was forever locked into the look. He set his sights on owning one someday-but the mood for more than pedal power just wasn't encouraged in his school, especially not for a kid with hot rod tendencies. Such things as shop classes were unheard of.
Things started happening when Jerry transferred into the public school system. When he attended Whittier High in 1956, Jerry felt he'd gone to heaven. "There were hot rods everywhere and the guys with money had '50 Fords ...customized and all," laughs Jerry.
He got his first set of wheels-a '39 Ford-his senior year. Today a '39 Ford is a choice piece, but back then Jerry's '39 C-Dan was a piece. As much as the novice wrench tried, Jerry couldn't keep up with the repairs.
A street racing stop resulted in the fumed traffic cop writing a two-page "fix it" ticket. Jerry's license was suspended for 30 days (like 30 years in a teenager's life) but Jerry's dad, Joe, took it a tiny step further. The car was history. Mr. Kugel probably suggested Jerry get his shoes resoled, because he'd be walking to class.
El Mirage 1958. Once Jerry latched onto his '40, the small-block Chevy never cooled off. I
Jerry ... Dismantle This Offy
Whittier offered auto shop, which awakened his mechanical mind. Plus, what were the odds that Jerry's shop instructor was Norm Lean, a competitor in the Mexican Road Race, and a Bonneville racer to the core. (Eventually, Lean would become CEO of Toyota in the United States.)
An Offenhauser engine had been donated to the class. Lean challenged his students that whoever got the highest grade could take the Offy apart. Of course no racing engine in the '50s held the mystique like that dual overhead cam four-banger. For Jerry this was the ultimate.
"I got an A-plus in that class," Jerry says. "I didn't know anything about anything. Here I am in Auto Shop 1. Which way do I turn the nut ...right or left? Norm [Lean] was hovering over it with me because he was interested in the Offy too. He was only in his twenties himself."
Hop ups considered themselves lucky to land a job at a local gas station while going to school, but Jerry landed the part-time job while going to a school his buddies would have died for. Working for Frank Arciero's master mechanic, drag racer, and Bonneville competitor, Jerry Eisert. "Dan Gurney was Arciero's driver," he says, "and Dan would come to the shop. I remember Eisert saying Gurney was going to be a famous race driver someday."
Now that Jerry was working, Mr. Kugel gave the nod for his son to buy a car. This time it was a keen '40 Ford coupe (complete with Moon tank) with a small-block Chevy.
To some it's an investment to be kept under lock and key. To street rodders like Jerry, it
Do You Know How to Operate a Broom?
After two years at Fullerton College and six months in the Army Reserve, Jerry set out in the world to begin his automotive career in 1960.
His first stop was a shop that he had passed on the bus to school hundreds of times, the Ak Miller Garage. Sure, Miller's garage had the usual Buicks and Dodges in for repair, but it was the dry lakes and Bonneville race cars that attracted him. Miller had given the schoolboy the brush off years before, but now Jerry had credentials.
You couldn't pick up Hot Rod magazine in the '50s without some mention of Miller's latest project, or racing accomplishments: Bonneville Speed Trails, Mexican Pan American Road Race, Mille Miglia (a road race through the Italian countryside), or Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Miller (one of the founders of the NHRA) hand-built a dizzying array of innovative race cars for each event. He was one heavy-footed hot rodder and Jerry wanted to be part of the excitement.
The critical question posed to the nervous applicant by the legendary driver/hot rodder/race car builder was, "Do you know how to operate a broom?" That was the signal from Miller that Jerry was on the payroll. He started sweeping the shop (remember he had an associate degree) then worked up to line mechanic. The fun part was the racing end of the business. Working for the most prolific fabricator and innovator to breathe dry lake dust, Jerry learned he didn't ask how to make something-he just did it.
If Miller gave you a nickname, you were in the-in-crowd. Miller eventually nicknamed Jerry "Calona" (after the bug-eyed comedian Jerry Calona, who performed in Bob Hope's USO shows) graduating up from "say/hey kid."