Yep, that’s a copy of Bernie’s...
Yep, that’s a copy of Bernie’s “pink slip” for his ’32 Ford DeLuxe roadster dated 03-26-42. Looks like his license fee was a whopping $1!
Those lucky enough to have access to Post War SCTA Racing Programs will see an astonishing number of competitors who raced at El Mirage Dry Lake with little or no recognition. The official entry list from September 25-26, 1948, had 249 entries. Of those names listed were the points leaders: Stu Hilborn, Alex Xydias, Phil Remington, and Ak Miller, whose achievements at the lakes and in the automotive industry drew the ink and made them legends.
In far greater numbers were racers who ran with distinction but left the hot rod scene to pursue other careers, like Bernie Couch. Bernie’s ink would come from his and his older brother Morey’s printing business that they had for 43 years—that is until now.
Bernie’s head of hair got...
Bernie’s head of hair got him the nickname “Curley.” It was just days after this photo was taken that he would join the Navy in 1942 and head for the Pacific. His roadster would wait out the war in the garage while Bernie and tens of thousands of young men put their lives on hold to fight for their country.
Bernie Couch was born in 1924 in Yorba Linda, California—a community of orange and lemon groves back when he was growing up. Bernie’s father, Entler, was a farmer in Tennessee before moving to California. If you recall the 1939 John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath, many farmers fled to California during the Great Depression only to find an abundance of cheap labor once they got to the Golden State: “My dad went through the Depression when you couldn’t find a job and worked at anything he could find to do,” Bernie begins. “He ended up working at a citrus grove in 1938, then for the county road department for a time, and then he went to work at a cemetery and dug graves.”
Mr. Couch dug graves for the remainder of his working years while Mrs. Couch worked at a packinghouse for 15 cents an hour, washing lemons before she quality-graded them, for 18 years.
“Just about all I took in high school were shop classes,” Bernie says. “I took wood shop, machine shop, metal shop, drafting; I never did get into the foundry at school but I also took print shop.”
Bernie still had his “sea...
Bernie still had his “sea legs” when this photo was taken as he had just gotten out of the Navy in 1945. As you can see he wasted no time reacquainting himself with his roadster.
If you think the shop classes offered by schools decades ago was a way of dealing with students with low IQs or keeping them entertained and out of trouble−think again. Any one of the shop classes that Bernie or his fellow students took gave them a leg-up on a lifelong career in one of the trades. In Bernie’s case, taking print shop would become the stepping stone to his future livelihood and that’s exactly how he would earn his living for the rest of his working life in the printing business. (All of the legendary hot rodders I’ve interviewed will tell you that taking shop classes in high school was as important to their future careers as the academic side of school. More importantly, every school offered shop.)
Bernie’s older brother, Morey, looked after young Bernie. When Morey began working for a paper company as an outside contractor he hired Bernie to work there as well. In fact, Bernie followed Morey through life you might say, later into the Navy during World War II, and finally in business together.
While the penciled-in speeds...
While the penciled-in speeds on Bernie’s timing slips have faded, his memory of those celebrated days has not. Thanks for preserving such history for us. The late Wally Parks and Ak Miller were presidents of the Southern California Timing Association when Bernie ran and experienced their leadership. Through Parks’ and Miller’s foresight, the two spearheaded the way to the largest event of its kind on its (almost) flat earth−Bonneville.
“When I was 16, I bought a Deuce roadster for $280 that was owned by Dick Hartzler. He belonged to the Tornado Car Club in Santa Ana with my brother, Morey. Morey told me [Hartzler] traded his roadster in on a new ’37 Ford. It ended up sitting on the used car lot at McCoy Mills Ford in Fullerton in 1942. [Hartzler] went to jail for five days for street racing in it. That’s when he decided to sell the car.”
Morey cosigned the credit application for Bernie: “I didn’t have the money to put down on the car until the 15th of the month when I got paid by my brother; they held the car for me. I started making payments of $14.30 a month. I worked all the time while I was in school and I guess you could say my girlfriend in school was my car because I couldn’t afford both. I picked up a paper route at the Fullerton Tribune News to pay off the car—but when I couldn’t buy tires for my roadster that I wore out, I had to quit the paper route.”
The ’32 Ford roadster was...
The ’32 Ford roadster was the epicenter of hot rodding. It was elegant enough to pull up the Brown Derby in Hollywood for an evening on the town. Or with just a few tools it could be converted into a full house race car. Bernie enjoyed his roadster to the fullest both ways. It had multipurpose written all over it. Here it is at El Mirage, all clean and shiny, it was Bernie’s street rod that day. Other times at the lake it became his hot rod.
We hope looking at this photo...
We hope looking at this photo just makes your day with “Izzy’s Stock Outfit” ’cause it sure does ours. First off, there was no such person as Izzy. Those of you old enough to remember “Kilroy Was Here” will relate to Izzy. Kilroy was a fictitious character with a bald head and big nose peering over a fence that was plastered all over Europe during World War II. Izzy’s Deuce was actually Bernie’s. Bernie’s group made it a practice to plaster Izzy’s name all over the place among the racers.
Left middle: You can thank...
Left middle: You can thank Bernie for keeping the cost of real Henry Ford fenders down a tad. This photo was taken in 1946 just after he removed the fenders to go racing. Why are we thanking him? Because he hung his up on the back of his garage instead of throwing them in the trash like so many ended up.
Yes, it’s a photo of Bernie’s...
Yes, it’s a photo of Bernie’s 404 B from 1947. But did you notice there are at least three Deuce roadsters in the photo? You can bet there was a whole bunch more in line. So, if you own one, there’s a good chance it got fast and dirty that day because no one ever thought of them as anything but a race car and treated them accordingly.
Bernie was slinging 200 papers a day on his 50-mile route in his roadster, but because of the war effort, not only couldn’t he buy tires, only four gallons of fuel a week was permitted from 1942-45. That meant any driving Bernie did had to be close to home.
Still going to high school, Bernie landed a job at Douglas Aircraft. “When I was 18, I went to work at midnight, was off at 7:30 a.m., and got to school by 8. At 3:15 I got out of school, went home to sleep, and did the same thing again,” he laughs.
“I went to my prom down at Huntington Beach the Friday night before going to the lakes in 1941. I had a girl by then but my buddy said, ‘You can’t take that girl in your roadster!’ He told me to take her in his new ’40 Chevy. The next day, five of us piled into the Chevy and went to Muroc dry lake. I remember one of the Spalding Brothers was there—he ran an overhead-valve V-8 in his Modified roadster. (The blown OHV was a Riley—the brothers ran 132 mph the day Bernie was there.) I thought the cam was going to come right out of it, it was so loud. Doug Caruthers was there as well.” (Caruthers was another record holder before World War II and later sold his Modified to Le Roy Neumayer and Art Chrisman.)
You can bet the experience of going to Muroc stayed with Bernie. While it would eventually be closed to the public for good, Bernie would return to race at El Mirage after the war.
Bernie’s buddy Chuck Potvin...
Bernie’s buddy Chuck Potvin (of Potvin cam fame) picked up on the Izzy spoof and ran with it too! Potvin had just embarked on his high-performance cam business and ground Bernie his fifth cam free of charge, which is still in his Flathead today. Of course, hundreds of Potvin cams would follow.
Bernie followed Morey into the Navy, and once in, traveled an astonishing 190,000 nautical miles during World War II by the time he was 21. His ship, the USS Anzio Coral Sea CVE-57, was an escort carrier engaged in 10 battles in the Pacific with the Japanese. The first 100 days at sea, the ship was engaged in its first battle near Makin Island when its sister ship positioned next to it was hit, going to the bottom in 23 minutes. Miraculously, 174 seamen survived. Bernie was assigned to the boiler room (one of the most dangerous, noisiest, and hottest places to be onboard ship). “It was 140 degrees where I worked.”
In all, 27 Japanese flags were mounted on the ship’s bridge (the room where the ship is commanded), representing six submarines sunk plus 21 enemy aircraft shot down by the USS Anzio while Bernie was on board.
Bernie bought a house for his folks in Yorba Linda when he was 19 while he was stationed in the Pacific: “I didn’t need money so I sent it to them. Within six months I made 3rd class petty officer, so my pay went up. My folks were renting the house. I had $350 in the bank; they came up with the extra to make the $500 down payment and bought it for $2,500.” Are you ready for the house payments? Just $25 a month!
Sure, you could paint the...
Sure, you could paint the number on your car at the dry lake in El Mirage, but it was more fun to put it on at home and head to The Main Malt Shop in Santa Ana (which Bernie frequented daily) before heading to the lakes.
When Bernie was discharged from the Navy in 1946, he became circulation manager for the Fullerton Tribune News (the very one he started as a paper boy and janitor at), but soon he realized he wasn’t cut out for circulation manager and he went to the pressroom in the printing end of the newspaper business.
While at the paper Bernie was given $50 per month under the GI Bill for going to Fullerton College. Bernie worked at a gas station, in a print shop, “and I did anything I could to make a dime. I worked at night to earn 50 cents worth of gas, which was about 15 cents a gallon. It was enough to go to El Mirage.”
If you think dry lake racing...
If you think dry lake racing didn’t attract a crowd—a big crowd—in the late ’40s, this photo, dated 09-25-49, should put an end to how popular this free-spirited sport was. When it was time to get serious about running at El Mirage, that’s just what Bernie did.
About to cross into Nevada...
About to cross into Nevada (circa 1950-51), Bernie stopped to grab this photo on what is now the heavily traveled 15 freeway. It wouldn’t be until 1955 that Whiskey Petes, a two-pump gas station, would open just up the road. Bernie may have crossed into the gambling state, but couldn’t gamble on the amount of petrol in his tank before he made it to a gas station on that lonely stretch of desert road in those days.
Show ’n’ shine was not on...
Show ’n’ shine was not on Bernie’s to-do list before he took this photo in 1948 when he drove his Deuce up to Snow Valley (near Big Bear Lake), just above San Bernardino, CA.
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.
Bernie’s ’32 Ford is highlighted...
Bernie’s ’32 Ford is highlighted in what was acceptable racing trim for 1947—before the cages and other necessary safety equipment were required. The misguided who purposely create crudely constructed hot rods thinking that’s what Bernie’s generation built or raced would be laughed out of town. In the SCTA’s official program of the Second Annual Hot Rod Show held at the National Guard Armory in 1949 were these words: “A poorly built or carelessly put together roadster would not be allowed to participate in the time trials conducted by the association and it is doubtful that the application of the owner of such a car for membership would be given serious consideration.”
Like a flash the years flew by with a business to run, three children to raise, and—boom—it was time for Bernie and his brother to sell the business. “We were just getting old and Morey wanted to move to Tennessee.” (Morey relocated to McKenzie, Tennessee. Oh, and Morey has had his ’39 Ford since 1940; of course, it went with him. These guys don’t get rid of anything!)
“That’s when I began working on the roadster. Helen (Bernie’s wife) [died] in 1989, and after that it was a long time before I could go into the garage and work on the car.” But Bernie did and had Gil Ayala, the legendary half of custom car builders, the Ayala Brothers out of L.A., work the tin. “My roadster was the last car [Ayala] worked on before he died,” Bernie recalls. He then rejoined the California Roadster Club (he was a member in the ’40s) and set out to enjoy his retirement after years of hard work.