El Mirage

El Mirage was a major commitment, as you can see, but to do so his ’32 had to shed some weight. The headlights, bumpers, windshield, and fenders had to come off (the fenders were hung on the back of his garage and not tossed like so many did). After all, Bernie was still running a bone-stock Flathead V-8, so every ounce removed meant more miles per hour and, frankly, more miles per gallon getting to the lake. This was really a challenge for Bernie to see just what Henry’s Ford motor was capable of. And capable it was, reaching 108.56-screaming miles per hour in July 1948.

In the interim, Bernie’s ’32 was displayed at the SCTA Hot Rod Exposition, or if you prefer, the first Hot Rod Show at the Los Angeles Armory in Exposition Park in 1948 (where Hot Rod magazine was basically born). After viewing the quality of race cars and hot rods like Bernie’s and meeting the so-called hooligans, Joe Public came away with a more positive mindset because of the show.

As his income increased so did his speed. Bernie replaced the Ford with a ’39 Merc block, with a Potvin cam and ignition, Navarro intake manifold, and Earl Evans heads. Bernie campaigned his roadster at El Mirage from 1946-50, where his fastest speed was 134.32 mph. He came close to the C-Roadster Class record with that speed in September 1950, but on his return run he hit a hole in the lake bed ending his chances that day−for good it turns out. Bernie never returned to run again. Soon, balancing the books became more important than his name in the record books.

Now you know one of the 249 competitors at El Mirage that September weekend in 1948: Bernie Couch. Mr. Couch joins the list of legendary hot rodders who have graced the pages of R&C over the years. And it’s a good bet that he is the only one on that entry list who still has his hot rod. Thank you, sir, for sharing your story and your priceless photographs with us.

Personal Note

I was competing at Bonneville this past summer when Bernie, along with his son, Brian, and grandson, Travis, drove to our pit (I run a Pontiac Fiero with an Olds Quad-4) and introduced himself. Bernie had never stepped foot on the salt before. He wanted to go to the first Bonneville in 1949 but never made it. For 61 years, life, family, and business kept interrupting until the 2011 Speed Weeks when he would be denied no more.

Then ... and Now

On The Couch

Spending so much time and endless days at sea during the war might have influenced Bernie’s decision to hit the road when he was discharged. After working for the Anaheim Gazette for 14 months and getting his union card, Bernie filled up his gas tank and headed east—first at the Billings Gazette in Montana, then the Omaha World Herald, then onto the St. Louis Post Dispatch setting up ads.

“Then I went to work for the Indianapolis Star News just in time for the Indianapolis 500 in 1952. I got in the pits every day and I remember talking to Freddy Agabashian, who was driving the Cummins Diesel. [Agabashian] was standing by the car. You couldn’t get a beer can underneath the Kuris chassis it was so low to the ground. I asked [Agabashian], ‘What are you going to do if you have a flat tire?’ He looked at me and said, ‘We don’t talk about that,’” Bernie laughs. (Agabashian finished 27th due to turbocharger failure.)

Bernie returned from his travels, parked his roadster under a tarp in his garage, and began building a business while raising a family. The Deuce was out of sight, out of mind: “My brother and I opened up a print shop in 1953 called Couch’s Printing in Fullerton.”