You might say Bernie invented...
You might say Bernie invented the long-distance rod run, not to mention inspiring the Beach Boys “I Get Around.” Here, Coos Bay, Oregon, beckoned Bernie and his friend to visit. Elements be damned, that’s what side curtains were made for!
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.
Yes, you’re right, that image...
Yes, you’re right, that image is familiar—the condensed version is one of the more memorable covers of Hot Rod. The Pasadena Reliability Run at the Rose Bowl parking lot with Bernie’s roadster ready to hit the road. “I didn’t make the first run but I made all the others. We went over Angeles Crest Highway to Lancaster, then down through all the back roads in Mint Canyon, on our way back to the Rose Bowl. On that day, we had Otto Crocker (a San Diego watchmaker who was the chief timer for the SCTA using his clocks) timing everybody to see just how fast we were going.”
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.
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.
“I’d go out to the Fullerton...
“I’d go out to the Fullerton Airport and fill that tank with aviation gas. I had two 50-gallon barrels in the backyard of my house that airport gas dealer would fill for me.”
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.”
That’s a ’39 Merc bored and...
That’s a ’39 Merc bored and stroked (1/8x1/8), ported, relieved, and balanced with a Potvin cam and ignition, a set of Evans heads, and for good measure, a Barney Navarro intake manifold. Bernie says, “I achieved my top speed of 134.32 mph in August 1949; afterward the car sat in my garage for 30 years until my children were grown and moved away.”
The big sleep was over when...
The big sleep was over when Bernie rolled his ’32, laden with 30 years of dust, into the sunlight to begin its restoration in 1981. In a way, Bernie was 16 again and his roadster just came off the used car lot to embark on a whole new set of adventures … except a little assembly was required.