Don's mind was on racing, rodding, and roadsters instead of reading, writing, and 'rithmet
Noise and air pollution have always been excessive in the L.A. Basin, but in the '40s and '50s it was particularly prevalent in Glendale (just west of L.A.), where the sound of uncorked racing engines and the smell of methanol permeated the air. Imagine being a kid growing up in the town next door (Eagle Rock) where that pollution got into your system and you weren't able to get it out. Don Zabel was that kid.
The most legendary of hot rodders, racers, race car builders, and speed equipment manufacturers hung their shop coats in Glendale. Their diversity ran the breadth of motorsports like Ed Winfield, whose high-performance Ford Flathead heads, intake manifolds, and cams were the ones that set records.
Winfield was on the same street as famed land speed racer and subsequent tech writer, Barney Navarro, who machined his heads and intake manifolds for Flathead engines as well. Close by, Frank Kurtis, race car designer/manufacturer (Kurtis Kraft), cranked out over 550 turnkey Midget racers and Indy-winning Champ Cars from of his facility. Not far was A.J. Watson who built winning Champ Cars (seven 500 victories) out of his small garage-he built the last roadster to win the 500 in 1964 driven by A.J Foyt. The Justice Brothers Race Car Repair & Fabrication (Ed and Zeke) plus Bob's Big Boy Drive-In, all got their start in Glendale. "We hung out at Bob's. That's when they had the carhops you know," Don reminisces. "Everyone went there." Get the picture?
Going from Eagle Rock to the tulies of Palm Springs in 1945 was a bit of a putt (Palm Spri
How It All Began
A neighbor took his two boys and 6-year-old Don to the races at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles just after it opened in 1934. "He was a racer and did some promoting of races. He turned into a race fan and ended up taking me. Watching guys in the old-time Midgets got me hooked," Don says.
When Don was 12, he came home with his first car, a '14 Model T roadster. "The guy down the street had it," he says, "and had nothing but trouble with it. He finally gave up on it, had it half apart, and wanted to get rid of it. I gave him $5.
"My dad came home that night and found it in the driveway and had a fit. But I found out later he said that I, being a dumb kid, would never get it running and he'd never have to worry about me driving it. But I did get it running. At first I drove it up and down the driveway, then around the block, and ..." Don quickly states with a twinkle in his eye, "I never did nothing illegal you understand," he laughs.
Don's first hot rod was a three-window Deuce coupe. Naturally, the in-thing (then and now) was a roadster: "There was an older guy a couple of blocks away who had a roadster. He was getting tired of the open car. He used to drive by our house all the time; I was still living at home with my folks, and I kind of wanted to trade him cars. He didn't want to trade his whole car because mine was half hopped up messing around, so we decided to unbolt the bodies and trade them."
Don's Deuce was an all-around driver. Go to the lakes ... strip it down. Go on a date ...
Don went to Eagle Rock High School where he took wood shop, metal shop, and drafting class, "but they didn't have auto shop." While in school, Don was interested in running his '32 at the lakes. He graduated in 1945.
"After the military closed Muroc, we experimented with a bunch of other dry lakes. During the war we went to El Mirage, even though we weren't supposed to be racing. Of course there were Harper and Rosamond. We even went to a place called Bicycle Lake (35 miles northeast of Barstow), but El Mirage was the best of the bunch and they're still using it." (The last sanctioned meet took place at Harper Dry Lake July 19, 1942. All racing was stopped in the United States during World War II.)
Trompers Of Eagle Rock
John (Gundy) Gunderson formed the Trompers of Eagle Rock in September 1945 after returning from the Navy. Don is one of the six founding members. "I was one of the guys who started the Eagle Rock Trompers," Don begins. "We were a bunch of hooligan kids fooling around."
Fifteen-year-old Don in front of his three-window in 1943 with still a hint of that new ca
Derby hats and Navy peacoats became the Trompers' trademark, or club jacket if you will, signaling to the drive-in crowd the Trompers were the guys to beat on the midnight streets of Eagle Rock and Glendale.
"Guys we knew from junior high and high school met at Gunderson's folks' house in Eagle Rock to form the club. Several guys came out of the Navy with peacoats and started wearing them. I didn't even have one ... I borrowed one a time or two. I still have a couple of derby hats," Don laughs.
Don's Deuce was larger than his fellow Trompers' A-bones (Don had the only '32 in the club) leading to his handle. "That's where my nickname 'The Admiral' came from because my '32 was bigger than the Model As in the club so they called my roadster 'The Boat'. So I became the Admiral of the Boat," Don laughs. Consequently, Don was stuck with The Admiral handle.
Don joined the SCTA member club the L.A. Gophers in 1945 ... "because I wanted to run El Mirage" (the Trompers didn't become SCTA members until May 1946). "That's where I got tied up with Jack McGrath, Manuel Ayulo, and Connie Weidell."
Those aren't store-bought whitewalls on Don's roadster, they're painted on babies. Just th
Don's mother discarded his timing tag, however, thanks to fellow hot rod historian Leslie Long, of Anaheim, California, who researched Don's results, Don ran his '32 in Class "C" Roadster as No. 39 at the November SCTA El Mirage meet.
Rather than be drafted, Don joined the Army Air Corps at the tail end of the war. "I always wanted to be a fighter pilot, but because of my eye-I've worn glasses since kindergarten-I became an aircraft mechanic. Officially I wasn't a pilot, but I did fly because we test-hopped those things after we rebuilt them. I've had a private ticket (pilot's license) for years."
Don was discharged in 1949. "I got discharged at Turner Field in Albany, Georgia, and drove straight through to Indianapolis. I hooked up with McGrath, Ayulo, Don Freeland, and Bob Sweikert, a bunch of guys who came from the old California Roadster Association (CRA began in 1945 but changed its name in 1957 to the California Racing Association) who were racing Sprints and Midgets by that time in the area."
Don returned to Bonneville in 1952 with his a 290-inch Merc-powered '32 roadster with a sp
Don then made his way to the first Bonneville Nationals in his '47 pickup. "I heard about it and had to see what it was all about." Don had never seen white salt before and remarked he could see the curvature of the earth his first morning there. Don arrived to see what Tom "Stroker McGurk" Medley called "wild." Everyone there knew it was history in the making.
"I stayed at the Wendover Air Field (where the 'Enola Gay' B-29 that carried the atomic bomb was based) ... the military was gone, but we had permission and were told as long as we left the place clean we could stay there. A couple of blankets, or a sleeping bag if you were high class, was all we needed."
That's Don's pickup in front of Gate 5 (from 1909-73, Gate 5 was the main entrance into th
It was an experience that lasted to this day for Don to be at the first event on the salt visiting buddies like future Sprint Car builder Willie Davis and Clem TeBow of C-T Automotive. But it was time to head the pickup to Eagle Rock.
McGrath and Ayulo cut their transmission teeth at El Mirage, but half-mile Carrell Speedway in Gardena and Gilmore Stadium in L.A. were their stepping stones to the big leagues-the Indy 500 big leagues.
Legends Cars and go-karts are the fast-track for aspiring young race drivers today, but 60-plus years ago it was cut-down Model Ts. Track roadsters proved that hot rods were serious race cars just as the purpose-built Kurtis Midgets.
The Ts were the poor man's open-wheel race car because they were cheap to build. They could be raced on the lakes, the circle tracks, and, yes, the street. Make no mistake, Don, Jack, and Manny were hard-core street racers. Street racing was a way of life in the '40s for its sheer convenience. (Dragstrips, on every corner, hadn't come to town yet.) Don jokingly uses the term hooligans, but they were hooligans to Joe Public.
Buellton, CA, 1950: Forget the grandstands-the spectators lining the course in their cars
Hot rodder A.J. Watson, now residing near Indianapolis, had an influence on Don. While he wasn't paid, Don would lend a "third hand when needed." Watson worked at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank at the time and after-hours, starting in 1947 he built track roadsters. Watson welcomed the help. "Besides Carrell Speedway and Gilmore, we ran the Rose Bowl in Pasadena," Watson says.
Watson graduated to front-engine Championship Cars with fellow rodder Dick Rathmann as his driver at Indy in 1950. To this day Watson is still building front-engine Offy-powered roadsters for vintage racers at his 25-acre farm. "I remember Don in my shop helping out," 87-year-old Watson says, "and I remember being at Don's shop when he was building the Sprint Cars."
Open For Business
The legendary hot rod racers were never content to work for someone else. Art Chrisman, Ak Miller, Jerry Kugel-they all had general repair garages by day, but the lights burned till O-dark thirty on their race cars.
Don next to his friend and fellow Trompers member Larry Shinoda's Chopsticks Special. Shin
Don and his racing partner Bruce Robinson opened a general repair garage in Glendale in the mid-'50s: Robinson and Zabel Automotive. During the day they serviced their customers but on nights and weekends, "We began building track roadsters. Most of the Ford T bodies we used were the '24-25s, and some of the guys used the '26-27 roadsters, which were more tapered. Most guys grabbed what they could get at the junkyards. We ran them both. We still used homemade chassis, not tubes yet, but rail frames. We started with the bare rails and went from there. We didn't box the frames in those days, we let them flop around. Then I started building Sprint Cars. We built a new one every winter."
Don at Emmett Malloy's Carroll Speedway showing the way to No. 74. An astonishing 19 winne
Don and Robinson's Sprint Cars were well constructed, winning races all over the West and Midwest with Roger McCluskey as their driver. Bob Milliken of Highland Park, California, was part of the crew. "We wouldn't have made half the races without Milliken," Don emphasizes.
When Robinson left the business in the early '60s, Don moved his shop to La Crescenta, California, and continued solo until the property was sold out from under him in the late '80s.
When the City of Los Angeles was looking for journeymen mechanics, Don became their heavy equipment mechanic for 12 years until he retired. We're sure the bulldozers had a bit more oomph after Don worked on them.
"I've been fooling around going to races, air shows, restoring old cars, and building hot rods since I retired 10 years ago," Don says, now living in Tujunga, just north of Burbank, California. Like so many of our first-generation hot rodders, Don has never lost his fire. This 82 years young hop-up has gone back to his roots, building a gennie '32 roadster. Don is coming up on 60 years of being married to his wife, Barbara. "I've known what I wanted to do ever since I went to Gilmore when I was 6 years old. I haven't changed my mind yet." It looks like that pollution is still in your system; Don don't change a thing.
"We ran that motor in my Deuce roadster and also the track T. It was a 3/8x3/8 with one of
It was not uncommon to pool resources back in the day when funds were limited. Don's '32 b
Don took this photo of his shop, "hanging out of my airplane," Don roars. "Think about it,
Don saved this sorry-looking '34 Ford from the scrap heap to become a roving billboard for
This photo was shot Dec. 15, 1956, of the Robinson and Zabel Automotive '34 Ford truck tou
"That looks like an old dog but it was a brand-new car at the time before it was painted,"
"We towed our track roadsters and Sprint Cars all over with the '34. We went to Oakland an
Don at 6 a.m. on his third cup of coffee at the Trompers Hot Rod swap meet. If you like vi
Don at 6 a.m. on his third cup of coffee at the Trompers Hot Rod swap meet. If you like vi