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."
The aerodynamics of shape, inclination, and flow conditions determined the drag coefficien
I Still Get Goose Bumps
"I kept hearing: Bonneville this and Bonneville that. I said, what is Bonneville? Where is Bonneville? A friend of mine from school and I went to see what it was all about. We packed up my '40 Ford coupe like we were going to the Gobi Desert. We had everything in that thing-spare tire, spare transmission ... I blew transmissions [LaSalle] regularly. That was the first time I had seen Mickey Thompson and his four-engine streamliner [Challenger 1]. I thought, 'Oh my God, look at that thing.' I'd read about it in magazines. They were pushing it to the start line, so my friend and I decided to hurry down to the 3-mile marker. We were waiting and waiting, pretty soon I hear this sound about three miles away. Here it comes ... I'm looking, I'm looking ... I couldn't see a thing. Pretty soon I see this dot. The next thing I know it was right in front of us. Mickey [Thompson ] just shifted that thing into high gear right in front of us. Full power, then maybe three seconds of silence as Mickey ... remember he had to shift four Cadillac transmissions. He was eatin' up a lot of real estate before he threw it into high gear. Then full power again. Man the sound was incredible. Look, I still get goose bumps right now talking about it," Jerry says, pointing to his arms. "The hook was in and boy I thought, I got to do this. I was there the whole week and I remember nothing else except that car."
This ex five-window ranks up there for the most miles on the Salt. Jerry and the late Red
"I lived in Whittier, and driving to and from work at Miller's, I passed this vacant lot (just a few miles from Miller) on Whittier Boulevard that'd had a "For Sale" sign on it for years. One day I got out of my truck and walked it off because it always looked narrow.
"When I quit Miller's I rented a little place to start my business repairing cars. I bought the property for $17, 500. That was in 1970. I had it paid off in a couple of years. Then I went to the bank and borrowed $20,000 to build Jerry's Garage. By the time the bank handed me the key, I had $37,500 in the place. That would just about buy you a pickup today.
"It was an automotive repair garage ... tune-ups, brake work, that sort of thing. I kept a little section off to the side for the hobby stuff and, at the time, that is all it was-a hobby. I didn't figure hot rods would make me a living. It was fill-in work."
A sales pitch that would've made Dale Carnegie proud, Jerry convinced his wife, Judy, this
Jerry's Garage was unique for the time period. No greasy floors, dirty parts, or tools scattered everywhere. "I had a red cement floor and kept the place pristine," Jerry says.
He never forgot what an impact his shop classes had on him in high school and college. There was nothing to be ashamed of for wanting to become an auto mechanic. He invited local schools to organize field trips to his shop. He wanted students to see what they could become if they applied themselves. "I showed the auto shop students that one day they could have a shop like mine. I was very proud of it."
No, this is not a sign of things to come, this was Bonneville 1968. "Danny Eames was worki
An Independent Thinker
Dating back to the '30s, the Deuce roadster was the only model worth its salt to most Bonneville and dry lakes competitors. The inexpensive model was being plucked off city streets at an alarming rate by racers like Miller. By the '60s, many who survived were returning to the boulevard. One '32 basket case came along that Jerry couldn't pass up.
In between customer work, he kept eyeing the bundle of parts in the corner of his shop. "What am I going to do with this thing?", he thought. Looking at the axles, he decided that was not the way to go-he wanted something better.
Miller considered the solid Ford axle the "dead axle" and was the first to stuff an independent frontend (Chevy) under a hot rod-his '32 Ford roadster. Miller fabricated an IRS under his radical '27 T rear-engined roadster ("Miller's Missile") from Ford U-joint parts in 1951. That bit of suspension cleverness on Miller's part stuck with Jerry.
"I found a Jag front and rear for a $100 ," Jerry says. "How am I going to do this? Learning from Ak [Miller] ...well, I just did it. I figured a way to do it, built the brackets, and so on. As I went along, I thought, 'This isn't so bad, this is pretty easy. Maybe I'll build a couple of them.' It took me about a year to figure it out. Got the '32 on the road a year after I bought it.
R&C photographer Pat Brollier shot this in June 1972 from Tom "Stroker" Medley's Peugeot (
"I made several kits and then Bud Bryan [former Rod & Custom editor] did an article on it. In those days I had the parts flame-cut, crude by today's standards. To make the parts look pretty, they were ground and filed. I couldn't afford to do that today because of the time factor. We laser-cut the parts today.
"That's how I started in the independent frontend and rearend business (Kugel Komponents was the first in the industry) and got me started doing suspension work."
The one place Jerry allows himself to sleep on the job. "Going to Bonneville is a vacation
Apparently, Ford engineers hadn't gotten the word: Guys liked putting Ford small-block engines in small Ford cars (i.e. hot rods). So why was the water pump so long the driver was practically forced into the rumble seat?
Jerry's '32 firewall looked like it didn't want to be cut into, plus Jerry was no body man. Result: shorten the water pump 2 inches. Harking back to his years at Miller's Garage, if you couldn't buy it, make it. So, Jerry did. "When the word got out, I sold a bunch of them for $50 each. Trouble was, it took about three hours to modify one," laughs Jerry. "That was the first Kugel Komponent."
That shortened water pump was one of many problem-solvers to follow. Jerry saw a need in the marketplace and filled it.
Jerry and ol' Dad (the late Gray Baskerville) had never met before this photo was taken. J
What ... That's His Only Car?
"After it was finished, my '32 roadster was my daily driver. My wife Judy, busy with kids, was pretty much stuck at home. We didn't own another car ...for about seven years that was it. It had side curtains on it so I could drive it in all kinds of weather. We brought my youngest, Jeffery, home from the hospital in that car. The staff thought it was a joke when I drove up in the '32 as they wheeled my wife to the car with Jeff all bundled up."
But can I make a Living?
Jerry had established his general automotive repair business. His trustworthiness and customer satisfaction had a largely older clientele coming back on a regular basis. The decision to walk away was a difficult one. Could such a specialized field as building components for street rods pay the bills?
When Jerry decided to sell the garage business to a fellow who worked for him (Jerry still owns the property), his income was more than cut in half.
"In those days I made a catalog. We put them together at home segregating the pages. All the kids would help to put the catalogs together. I started advertising in the magazines like R&C and STREET RODDER with small ads at first, and as my business grew and the products grew, I increased the size of the ads."
Ak Miller considered the solid Ford I-beam the "dead axle." That bit of Miller philosophy
Jerry's a Keeper
Jerry has been quick to make changes when it comes to improving his products. However, when it comes to his personal life, change is kept at arm's length. Jerry has remained living in Whittier since high school, been married to Judy since day one, lived in the same house for 30 years, and still has his '32 roadster. Jerry drives "Blackie" regularly to work without having to deal with the dreaded fender-bending L.A. freeways. Hey, he'd be nuts to change a thing!
Almost all in the Family
Stu Hilborn never thought his fuel injection system would have any commercial value in 1948. His company is stronger than ever today. Ditto for Ed Iskenderian: "Isky" became frustrated waiting for Clay Smith to grind a cam so Ed took matters in his own hands.
Jerry thought he would build a few suspension kits and maybe sell one or two. Of course, being the first to sell an independent suspension for street rods is no guarantee for longevity. It's keeping that initial enthusiasm that is.
Because of Jerry's passion, Kugel Komponents has grown steadily since moving to La Habra, California, in 1985. Jerry and Judy's children, Jeff, Joe, and Jerilyn have made the company a family business. "I'd love to have my other daughter Jackie work with us," says Jerry, "but she lives in Tracy, California, with her family."
Of course, Bonneville has been a part of Jerry's life since Thompson blew by the young fan over 40 years ago. He'd be proud of Jerry, having gone over 300 mph himself, along with sons Jeff and Joe.
Jerry's cutting-edge street rod projects and racing successes (past and present) have been well documented in R&C over the years. As with any accomplished individual, there are people who contribute to one's success. In Jerry's case, his parents, his shop teacher, and his celebrated boss made a difference in his life.
At the 50-year reunion of Bonneville, Jerry was working on his car in the pits when ex-shop teacher Lean tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I've been keeping track of you."
Married since 1964, Jerry and Judy are more than husband and wife, they're a team, whether
Farewell to a True Legend
Ak Miller, 84, passed away December 15, 2005. Jerry remarked that he emulated everything about his dear friend and mentor.
Those diamond-studded minutes and golden hours are beginning to take their toll on our hot rod heroes. Regrettably, soon they will be gone, as will the link to the beginning of such a unique part of our American history.
Reluctant though they may be, the next generation of rodders to the great generation will soon become our elder statesmen. Will they leave the same enduring legacy? If they come from the same stock as Jerry Kugel, they will.