This story is about Don Blair, his speed shop, and the guys who worked there back in the day. But it was a young Don Blair’s interest in racing at the dry lakes that propelled him into opening a small business selling speed parts. If any business contributed to hot rodding in Southern California, it was Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena when 25-year-old Don opened for business in 1946. (However, Don’s older brother, Bruce, was an equal racing competitor and contributor in the speed shop business before he was killed while riding in a ’34 Ford that hit a tree on Foothill Boulevard in Arcadia. Bruce had an ad in Hot Rod in 1948 for his own product line out of Blair’s Speed Shop that offered dealerships “Lower the front of your car with a (his) dropped axle”.)
All who worked there attributed their stint at Blair’s as their kick-start, by not only learning and mastering a trade, but acquiring a work ethic that carried throughout their lives. Blair’s would be the only place many would work before starting their own successful automotive-related businesses.
Blair’s Speed Shop could have been a trade school, because if you couldn’t weld before you enrolled (hired-on) you were a journeyman welder when you left. If you had a hard time rolling out of bed when you started, you were either drummed out by your peers or got your act together. If you had thin skin, you didn’t need to work there anyway.
You needed to be a quick study to work at Blair’s because it was kick-butt city with Don sipping on warm milk all day at the counter while holding a phone in each ear or on the squawk box to the back, the deafening sound of an uncorked race car screaming on the dyno (dyno time and analysis, less parts, went for $10, valve adjustment for $7), steel being ground and crashing to the floor in the chassis shop, and customers waiting at the counter for Don to say “you’re next”.
L.A. Gophers member Don Blair’s...
L.A. Gophers member Don Blair’s Modified was as aerodynamic as a parachute with way-tall Don behind the wheel, yet his homely homemade hot rod humbled the competition by thrusting Don into the record books and the limelight.
Don didn’t use a cash register; all the money was kept in his wallet. And when he went to the bank, it was kept in his shirt pocket, because the robber would always go for the cash in a person’s wallet. Just a normal day at Foothill and Daisy!
Those of us who went to Blair’s were like kids in a candy store. In fact, the building was a candy factory before Don purchased the property! Thornton and Carlson Makers of Good Candy can be faintly seen on the front of the building above the Blair’s Speed Shop sign. Certainly candy factory applies to Blair’s Speed Shop, because Blair’s wasn’t just a place that sold the candy (speed equipment), they made the candy.
There will never be another place like Blair’s for the guys who worked there, or for us who went there. It is impossible to get every past employee’s take on the place because of the limited space, but here are some behind-the-scenes insights from some of the rodders, including Don, during its heyday. To a man, they all look back with fondness of their association with one another and with Don Blair who has lasted to this day, as you will soon learn.
This is Don’s word-for-word recollection of how it all started: “I was born in Highland Park near Los Angeles in 1921. The first five years of my life I don’t remember, but we moved to South Pasadena where I went to grammar school. I took a college preparedness course at Lincoln High School. I had a couple of semesters of shop classes, like auto shop. I didn’t distinguish myself in them but I enjoyed taking them. I went to Frank Wiggin’s Trade School from which I graduated with a B average and thought I’d go onto college. I went to Pasadena City College for about three months and that was the end of it … I couldn’t take it.