Building the Cragar got a little ugly in Bill’s rented Texas garage while in the Air Force
The ultimate for all American land speed racers was/is Bonneville. For many, their paths lead to the Indianapolis 500. The all-American racers who competed at Indy from its inception to the ’50s would give way to the foreign influence in the ’60s.
John Cooper had radically changed the design of his Formula 1 Grand Prix car from front-engine to rear-engine with Jack Brabham winning the F1 World Championship in a rear-engine Cooper in 1959, forcing every F1 team to follow suit. The rear-engine revolution was coming our way. It was either join them or get left in their methanol fumes. Of course the hot rodders weren’t about to let that happen. With our abundance of resourcefulness we let it be known we weren’t quite finished with Indy. So the Yanks and Brits teamed up (as we’ve been known to do in the past) to speed the demise of the front-engine roadsters. Bill Fowler, one of those all-American racers, from Sylmar, California, was there.
“I went to Roosevelt High School in East L.A.,” began Bill (born in 1930). “I had a Model A roadster in school, pretty much a stocker. I was lucky to have a car because my parents didn’t have a lot of money. I paid for it with my newspaper money. After I graduated in 1948, I went into the Air Force. After I got through basic training, I went back home and I drove my roadster to Amarillo, Texas, … it was a fun trip because I’d never done anything like that before in my bone-stock Model A. It never missed a beat during the trip.
That’s Bill (left) letting his younger brother, Keith, take a lap around the block in thei
“I went into aircraft engine mechanic school, graduating at the top of my class and I became an instructor. I had the Model A all through the service; at one point I had enough money to put a Cragar overhead-valve cylinder head on the engine. I had the roadster for seven years.”
While in high school Bill took the Red Car (trolley) into downtown L.A. and sold newspapers on the corner of 7th and Broadway: “The newsstand is where I saw the first issues of Hot Rod magazine; that’s how I learned about Bonneville and wanted to go and race there one day.”
Bill realized his dream and went to Bonneville in 1954, hauling his Harley behind his ’46 Ford pickup, sleeping in the truck once there. “I didn’t know the kid who went up there with me,” says Bill. “He was riding a Triumph but didn’t have a way to get there and I had room for two bikes in my truck. He was hurt really bad when he lost control of the bike because he was only wearing swim trunks, like Rollie Free, when he crashed. He felt the trunks had the least wind resistance. Back then, you didn’t have to have the fancy boots, leathers, and a helmet like today.” (Free positioned himself flat with his feet sticking straight out the back of his Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle with a shower cap, a bathing suit, and sneakers, resulting in a record and the most famous photo in motorcycling history, in 1948.)
That’s the Cragar after Bill finished it while stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Tex
“I had my Harley all the time I was in the Air Force and rode it home on leave to California, it always handled beautifully but it did not want to go straight down that salt. It was hunting all the way down and I wasn’t real comfortable riding the thing. I went 135 mph on my Knucklehead Harley on gas at Bonneville and it was scary!
“After my discharge, Jerry Eisert and I started a small tune-up and speed shop in Montebello, California, called Automotive Specialty, in 1955. We had customers who had hot rods and customers who had sports cars.”
“When I was in the Air Force in Texas I had a Harley “bobber” based on a ’36 H-D frame and
Don’t you love it? You know those guys at Automotive Specialty knew a bunch about hot rods
“There were no regulations when I started drag racing my bike that said you had to wear a
Those boys should’ve had a sign on the door that read: “Closed, gone racing.” If Eisert an
If you’re a collector and find a Ferrari Mille Miglia with Stromberg 97s instead of Webers bolted to the V-12, don’t pull them off because here’s how that happened: “That’s how I got started with Frank Arciero. He had a little 1.9L Mille Miglia Ferrari. His mechanic didn’t know anything about the Weber carburetors, so he put Stromberg 97s on it. That’s when Arciero brought the Ferrari over to us to see if we could get it to run right.”
You can’t fault the mechanic for throwing the Italian jugs in the trash because the Ferrari won 9 out of 11 races with the 97s after Bill fine-tuned them.
“Arciero came to the United States when he was 18. Arciero and his two brothers started digging ditches that were footings for the slab concrete floors in homes. Eventually he was able to buy his own trenching machine and became a big general contractor.
“That tank belonged to Kay Kimes; he replaced the Ford Flathead with a Nailhead; I drove i
“The more Arciero worked with us the more he wanted Eisert and I to go to the races with him. Eventually, Arciero made me an offer in 1958 to work for him full time.
“Eisert bought me out and when I left he hired Jerry Kugel. Kugel would hang out outside, so Eisert finally told him, ‘If you’re going to hang out here, grab a broom and do something”, and boy did he ever. You know the rest of the story—he later formed Kugel Komponents.
Vette A Hot Rod?
Visualize a two-seat fuelie with a small-block Chevy shoehorned in it, with four on the floor. Could be your roadster, right? This one went straight big-time-fast but could turn left and right and stopped pretty well (with cerametallic brakes). What you had back in 1957-58 was a few Corvettes that GM modified for road racing and used ones were fairly cheap. Hot rodders raced them on the local California road courses in the ’50s and some went on to bigger and better things.
“I raced a Vette that belonged to Willie Kristie that I got down to the lap record, which was two minutes flat on the road course at Willow Springs. The owner of another Corvette, Cal Bailey, was at Willow and asked me if I’d drive his car as he (Bailey) was looking for a driver. After I did, Bailey said, ‘I had a guy in that car last week and he was 3 seconds under the lap record.’ I said, you’d better hire him. That guy was Dan Gurney.” (Stranger than fiction: Bailey later tried to kidnap Firestone company president Leonard Firestone and was killed trying.)
Bill knew his way around the Willow Springs road course in any type of race car, including
Gurney was a Riverside, California, hot rodder with a ’37 Ford two-door headed to Bonneville in 1950. He drove his buddy Skip Hudson’s ’29 Ford roadster with its ’41 Ford 267-inch Flathead V-8 down the salt to 130.43 mph. Gurney later raced a Triumph TR2 at Torrey Pines (near San Diego) in 1955 and won his first race in 1956 at Montgomery Field in San Diego driving a Porsche Speedster.
“The driver who drove Arciero’s 1.9 Ferrari decided he didn’t want to drive Arciero’s newly acquired 4.9 Ferrari [from Tony Parravano], which was a lot faster, so we thought of Gurney.” (Parravano was a wealthy building contractor who had some of the finest drivers in amateur racing at the time, like Bob Drake, Richie Ginther, Phil Hill, and Carroll Shelby, drive for him.)
Great choice because Gurney started racking up wins in the Ferrari on the airport courses of Santa Barbara and Palm Springs, plus Pomona and at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu. Bill kept the Ferrari in top racing trim for the talented young driver.
Rod Riders Racing Team member Jim Travis campaigned the hammered ’34 for 27 years at Bonne
Rod Riders Racing Team member Jim Travis campaigned the hammered ’34 for 27 years at Bonne
You never knew/know about the elements at El Mirage till you’re there. Bill couldn’t remem
Because Bill was a skillful race driver in his own right, his customers trusted him with t
“I’d always wanted to go to Indy. I’d listened to it on the radio as a kid and when I was stationed in Texas I asked for a three-day pass over Memorial Day weekend to go to Indy in 1952 and was denied. I was all keyed-up to go so I went anyway! Watching the race is when I got hooked on Indy. I was teaching mechanic school so I didn’t get in too much trouble and got out soon after. But that’s how much Indy meant for me to go.”
Bill finally went to the Speedway, not as a spectator but as a competitor in 1959, towing the 4.2L Maserati V-8 in Arciero’s Kurtis 500-C: “I towed it behind Arciero’s company truck that had ‘Montebello Sewer’ lettered on the door (you’d be laughed out of town today). I took a sleeping bag and it was so cold I ripped up the bag so I could wear it while driving the pickup. It didn’t have a heater.
“That was my first shot at Indy,” Bill reminisces. “Shorty Templeman was the driver. We didn’t qualify because all the engines were required to run dry sump systems and the scavenger pump on the Mauser V-8 wasn’t keeping up with the oil pressure pump and we were blowing oil out the rear seal.”
“When we put the 4.2L Maserati V-8 in the 500 C Kurtis chassis of Arciero’s to go to Indy,
Before All American Racers
The Formula 1 teams didn’t want their drivers looking on where the cars were being built. “When Enzo Ferrari saw Gurney in the garage area he took him aside and said, ‘When you drive for Ferrari, not to worry … you get in the car, you drive, you win.’ Ferrari didn’t want Gurney asking questions and concerning himself about his race cars.”
Gurney wanted to be more than a driver and made the decision to start his own company. At that point he was already an international Grand Prix star with a huge following in the United States; “Dan Gurney for President” bumper stickers were the rage proclaiming his popularity.
Gurney decided to control his own destiny. Bill and Gurney had formed a bond of respect for one another’s ability during the Arciero days. Gurney chose Bill as his first employee: “Gurney opened a little 40x40-foot shop in Costa Mesa and called it Dan Gurney Racing in 1960 (renamed All American Racers in 1965). That’s when I went to work for him. Carroll Shelby and Gurney teamed up. Shelby knew where to get the money and got us started with Goodyear.
“When we first started, I did the engines … I did everything. I’d pull them down, Magnaflux the crank and rods, lap the valves, and get the cars ready for the next race.
Frank Arciero’s Ferrari became a workhorse, running at Bonneville with Bob Drake driving i
“When the first 409 Chevy came out in 1961, Gurney had this idea of taking the Chevy to England to race it in the saloon (sedan) races. We bought the 409 at Don Steve’s Chevrolet in La Habra. Gurney and I went to Van Nuys to the Chevy plant and watched the car being built, and then I drove it to Montebello, tore it apart, and made a race car out of it.
“I got a call when I was in Vegas on my honeymoon that Gurney needed the Chevy over in England ASAP. Could I take it to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and put it on a ship? We had our honeymoon in that car,” Bill laughs. “I drove it to New York. I put it on a ship, then Carolyn and I flew home.”
A wheel broke while Gurney was leading the 3.8 Jags at Silverstone Circuit, the site of the British Grand Prix. Nevertheless he thrilled the crowd, many of which had never heard the sound of a big-inch American V-8 before. (I was in the crowd, a lowly PFC in the Army and I watched with pride Gurney driving the uncorked booming 409 Chevy with Cal plates. Wow! —Dick Martin)
Where’s The Motor?
Gurney was no stranger to a rear-engine configuration Champ Car at Indy having qualified eighth fastest in Mickey Thompson’s rear-engine Buick V-8 powered Harvey Aluminum Special in 1962. He was in Ninth Place when the gearbox packed up.
This was 1965 at Indy with the heavier and wider DOHC Ford engine. Standing behind the Lot
“I got a lot of input from Gurney,” Bill stresses, listening to Gurney in 1967 describe th
All of the chief mechanics were given a ballot at the beginning of the month of May to det
This is the kind of stuff you do when you retire from racing—you go racing. Bill read abou
Gurney felt the front-engine roadsters were nearing the end of their successful run and invited Lotus boss, Colin Chapman, to Indy in 1962 to the 500. A deal was struck between Ford Motor Company and Chapman to build a total of three cars: a prototype, one for Clark, and one for Gurney. A prototype Lotus was shipped first for testing: “I went to LAX in March 1963 and picked up the Lotus Ford prototype,” Bill says.
“I rented a U-Haul truck, drove it to the airport, and got the Lotus cleared through customs. They loaded it from a pallet to where I could roll it into the back of the truck and tie it down, and then I headed for Kingman, Arizona, to Ford’s Proving Ground facility. The prototype that I picked up was symmetrical; they hadn’t made the offset suspension for turning left yet.
“Jimmy Clark, Colin Chapman, and Gurney were already there when I got to the track. Clark and Chapman had never seen the desert so it was a new experience for them. Gurney and Clark began running laps with it. Nobody had run on the Ford Proving Ground track. The oval had progressive banking so it was possible to run the car around the track without touching the steering wheel at whatever speed you wanted to run, the car would seek its own grove. It wasn’t much good for getting handling sorted out but it was good for putting miles on the car.”
While a front engine Watson/Offy won the 500 with Parnelli Jones in 1963, Clark finished Second, and Gurney finished Seventh, both with rear 255ci pushrod Ford engines. The overhead cam Offys were cranking out 400 horses to the Ford’s 375 hp. Things would never be the same.
During a quiet moment together, Bill Fowler and Dan Gurney can look back on careers that f
“I’d make out a list of things that needed to be done on a given car and go to work on it … brakes, steering, etc. Being the chief mechanic I did whatever needed to be done. It was a 365 days a year job. As soon as a car was ready, I’d be on my way to the next racetrack. I eventually became the team manager when Bobby Unser began driving for Gurney.
“I was always concerned with safety. I was the first one to put a shoulder harness in a sports car. I put it in the Lotus 19. I used aircraft refueling caps instead of the LeMans-type fuel filler cap (the spring-loaded cap flips up by pressing down on a roller latch) where it could open if the car crashed or rolled over. Dan never spent a day in the hospital from driving a car that I prepared.”
Gurney introduced the first Eagle in 1966 and was the first American in the 100-year history of Formula 1 competition to win a race in a car of his own construction at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1967—a record yet to be duplicated.
Jeff Scott wrote in the June ’67 issue of Auto Racing magazine: “Do Americans stand a chance against the better-prepared Europeans? What Gasoline Alley needs is fresh designing blood. The only American who has shown tremendous promise at Indianapolis with cars of his own design is Dan Gurney. Of course Gurney is young and not a traditional Gasoline Alley type. He has much Formula 1 experience both as a driver and builder. One of his cars could do it this year at the 500.” (A.J. Watson may be astounded to learn that Gurney built 106 Indy Eagles.)
Bill, ever the practical joker; his shtick was known as “Fowlerisms” throughout All American Racers (AAR). Kathy Weida, vice president of AAR and Gurney’s personal secretary, started in May 1974 and got a taste of Bill’s skullduggery on her second week on the job as the Girl Friday: “I went to pick up my purse and Bill had attached it with a bunch of fire crackers, so when I pulled my purse away from the desk they all went off. Bill and the guys were hiding in the hallway laughing.
The annual alumni luncheon gathering at AAR included such racing luminaries as Dick Lyndhu
“Bill put a pair of stuffed pants with a pair of shoes in the men’s stall to look like someone was in there. When our vice president at the time, an ex-banker, went in to the men’s room the guy was still in the stall. He went in several times and the person was still in the stall. He kept going into the shop to see who was missing,” Kathy laughs.
From 1,500-Pound Race
Cars To 30-Ton Locomotives
“I went from AAR to O’Conner Engineering in Costa Mesa. We built two vintage full-sized steam locomotives (The Central Pacific Jupiter and the Union Pacific 119) in 1979 for the National Parks Service. We had about six people to start. It took three years to build the replicas, and then I went to the National Park in Promontory Summit, Utah, and stayed on as a locomotive engineer for five years.”
Promontory Summit is the site of the transcontinental railroad where the Union Pacific Railroad joined the Central Pacific in May 1869, completing the coast to coast connection.
It was an exciting time for Americans when one of our own, Dan Gurney of All American Race
Skip Marketti, curator of the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar, California, told us, the reason Bill came to the Nethercutt Collection was his knowledge of the Lotus 19. Bill took the Lotus 19 apart and did the modifications necessary for the race season for Jack Nethercutt (who was a good enough road racer to have turned pro) in the late ’60s. Bill was chief mechanic for Jack Nethercutt and the restoration shop for years.
“Bill and I were touring the pits at the Monterey Historic Races a few years ago when we saw several cars with ‘Bill Fowler’ painted on the side of the cars as chief mechanic. One was a Lotus whose owner knew of Bill Fowler but had never met him. He was thrilled to meet the man he’d heard so much about.”
Bill Fowler is a full-fendered hot rodder who left his mark in the stressful world of Championship Auto Racing that earned him the respect of his peers plus the leading names in racing.
Bill’s retirement consists of enjoying every one of the 300,000 miles he’s put on his ’00 Ranger 4x4 pickup exploring the American Southwest, keeping his home machine shop humming with a few projects, like building miniature running engines that no one else has built, such as 1/8-scale replica of the Wright Brothers engine, besides restoring an old car or two. Speed Week is circled on his calendar and Indy too, what else do you need? Maybe hosing off the salt on the driveway still clinging to his 4X when Bill gets home!
Dan Gurney’s All American Racers