If circumstances had played out differently, Harry Hibler, of Shadow Hills, California (born in 1935), wouldn’t have been managing San Fernando Drag Strip to turn a blind eye when the Fueler guys showed up during the nitro ban, or at the helm as publisher of Hot Rod magazine, because he’d have been busting some organized crime crook for the Bureau.
Harry was an exceptional student in high school, plus he was willing to get his hands dirty, with dirt, picking beans in the fields of Springfield, Oregon, after school. The FBI was so impressed with his choice of work and top grades that they offered to send him to DC to college and eventually to their academy when he was in the eleventh grade. Harry’s father (his mother died when he was 11) would have none of it, refusing to sign the necessary papers, reasoning Washington was no place for his boy.
Mr. Hibler’s decision did not sit well with Harry at the time, but looking back he would have spent a greater part of his life driving around in “plain brown wrapper” four-doors and wearing a suit, instead of a hot rod and jeans.
As soon as Harry graduated from Springfield High School (at 16 by the way), with the bean picking money he’d saved, he promptly boarded a Greyhound in 1951 and headed for the land of drive-ins, dragstrips, and dry lakes.
After his arrival, Harry needed to find work. He took what he could get: “My first job in California was working for a termite exterminator,” Harry begins. “I was skinny enough to climb under houses. I didn’t mind it because I had a job. I rented a room in Granada Hills.
“A friend got me into the carpentry trade and we bought a Midget with a V8-60 Ford Flathead. We ran the old Ascot; I was the driver. I did it for a couple of years and didn’t get killed, which was a good thing, but then I got interested in drag racing.
“The first car was a built-up ’41 Ford business coupe with a Flathead V-8 but I broke a few motors … none of them lasted very long. I wasn’t a real good engine builder in those days. It was a typical deal; I drove it all week long to work and raced it on the weekends at Paradise Mesa, Pomona, Santa Ana, and Saugus dragstrips. I was quite deep into drag racing by then.
“I sold the ’41 and got a ’52 Olds convertible. I had the record at Pomona at 103 mph in the quarter in 1953. It was heavy because it was a custom besides, but it was bored and stroked with a pretty big cam, magnesium rocker arms, all that stuff.”
San Fernando Drag Strip
“That was the original Kent Fuller-Kay Trapp-Ron Winkel ‘Magicar’ chassis that Kent Fuller
Harry had three career paths going for him during his working years, almost on top of one another: “I became a general building contractor in 1955. I also went to work as a tech inspector at San Fernando Drag Strip (aka the Pond) on weekends.
“Fritz Burns and Bill Hannon owned the strip. They bought a spot of land that was next to the San Fernando Airport and purpose-built the dragstrip. They helped develop Panorama City, doing it more as a community service to keep kids off the streets than to make money.
“I didn’t care if the guys ran nitro … as long as they told me they were going to run nitro. My big thing was whether the car was safe. We weren’t an NHRA-sanctioned ’strip. We didn’t charge the Alterds, the Modifieds, or the dragsters; we never charged them a dime to be there. To me they were putting on the show. They were the guys making it all happen. I wanted to make sure everybody had a great time.”
If a new racer showed up at the track, Harry would take the time to advise the driver as to what to expect before the pressure of competing clouded his judgment. If a seasoned racer was short of cash or needed a few dollars to get home, Harry would slip him some traveling money.
“The day that it cost the ‘Surfers’ Top Fuel team of Tom Jobe, Bob Skinner, and driver Mike Sorokin more than $37.50 per run, average, that was the day they quit coming to San Fernando. The money that I paid was what they had to make to break even. Today that would be $16,000-$17,000 minimum to make each run.”
Top Fuel Racer Himself
Harry spent his driving career behind John Smyser’s Top Fuel engines. Here he gets ready f
While managing San Fernando, Harry had become a Top Fuel drag racer when safety equipment was lagging behind what a nitro-burning Hemi Chrysler combo was capable of cranking out. Certainly Harry saw firsthand just how dangerous it was running the Pond weekends, but he loved driving Fuel Dragsters, even though the one he drove was a grenade at times.
In fact, early on, Harry had picked up the “Hand Grenade” Harry nickname: “I was in my twenties working in construction when they started calling me that because I had a short fuse. If someone didn’t do what I asked them to do or didn’t get the car right, my temper was short enough that I got into their face. Later they really hung the name Hand Grenade on me after I drove the Fueler for John Smyser for so long. We blew motors almost every round.”
Harry drove for Smyser for seven years. Seven is a lucky number because Harry survived those seven years breathing in hot oil and the aroma of melted metal. “John knew I was managing the dragstrip during weekends so we would compete at the night drags. That is one of the reasons I stayed with Smyser all those years (until the track closed in 1969). There was so much opposition from the neighbors on the noise that the track was forced to close. (Sound familiar?) At that same time I closed my construction.”
Harry’s reputation running the Pond was known throughout drag racing as number one. He could have knocked on Wally Parks’ door at NHRA because he would have certainly gone to work for the association. But he didn’t. Another opportunity was about to enter Harry’s life.
Harry had worked at Petersen Publishing Vice President Dick Day’s home as a contractor. Dick’s wife, Joanie, insisted that Harry, because he knew all the racers and all of the manufacturers during the course of managing the dragstrip, could sell advertising for Petersen. “I had no clue what selling ads meant,” Harry laughs, “but I ended up doing it and loving every minute of it.” (San Fernando closed two months after Harry joined Petersen.)
First Harry worked at Car Craft selling advertising, working his way up the ranks to become its publisher, then moved onto Hot Rod. “I became publisher of Hot Rod when Robert Petersen was running the magazines. The publishers were like the head of a small corporation. The bottom line was you had to make a profit for your division or you were in trouble.
“Dick Day taught me to be honest with my advertisers and readers. Always spend your time with your manufacturers and make sure they know what your readers wanted to see. Help them develop their products so the readers knew what the manufacturers were building. The other thing he taught me was Hot Rod magazine was in a position to start trends.” At this point Harry had no interest in turning pro. Drag racing was already headed there, his new job at Petersen was turning into a career, the hot oil treatment hadn’t harmed his complexion, plus Harry was still in one piece. It was time to hang up his fire suit and trade it for a jacket and tie and move up the publishing ladder.
This is how it all started with a hot rod. There were SCTA car clubs that raced the dry la
“That’s Bill Hannon with a trophy girl. Bill owned the dragstrip. Once every month he’d gi
Before restraints, blowers often blew sky high. In Harry’s case, the supercharger’s paddle
You might say Harry was the safety crew! He put out a lot of fires managing the Pond, even
Hot Rod’s coverage was devoted to racers with features like “Exotic Racing Carbs”, “New Concepts for Fuelers”, and “DOHC Small-Block Chevys”. Harry couldn’t diminish the above features but keeping the racers and non-racers coming back for more was a fine line.
According to Harry, before Hot Rod began featuring custom vans, vans were used by businesses like the phone company as utility vehicles. The “Denimachine” was a custom-built Ford van loaded with speed equipment that Hot Rod built to promote Coca-Cola and Levi jeans. “The idea was to get advertising out of Coke and Levi by giving them editorial coverage building 10 custom vans to be given away and promoting a sweepstakes through the magazine. They had more people sign up to enter the sweepstakes than had ever been done by Coca-Cola up to that time when we built the Denimachines.”
The vans, valued at $18,000, serious money in the ’70s, toured the country. They were displayed at malls and fairs promoting Coke/Levi/Ford where people could enter the sweepstakes. The side of the van read: Custom Designed by Hot Rod Magazine. That’s what “starting a trend” was all about. Harry recalled that a total of 270-280 vans built looking like the Denimachine were sold after the contest.
Knowing what a stock ’48 Cad fastback looks like and expecting the usual custom Cad treatm
It was happenchance how a ’48 custom Caddy, to end all custom Cads, came into being. The four players were Jack Chisenhall, owner of Vintage Air; Larry Erickson, automotive designer; Billy Gibbons of the rock band ZZ Top, from Dallas; and Harry Hibler.
“Billy was dating my wife’s best friend,” Jack begins. “Billy was wondering what could possibly follow the ‘Eliminator’. I remembered talking to Tom Medley, then publisher of Rod & Custom, about Bonneville one time and Tom said a ’32 Ford roadster was more aerodynamic going backward than forward. That’s where that teardrop idea came to me. I kept thinking of the car with a teardrop shape.”
“I met Jack at the Street Rod Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, in 1987,” Larry Erickson begins. “I took sketches of how to hot-rod a ’32 Chevy roadster, most of which required you to make it look like a hot-rodded ’32 Ford. Jack stopped by the booth I was at. We were standing next to a ’40 Ford and commenting on the trim piece on the hood.”
“I purchased some of Larry’s artwork,” Jack says, “which I still have in my office. Later when Billy and I started talking about building a custom I called Larry. I told him what I had in mind. What car would he start with? He said, ‘It would have to be a ’48-49 Cadillac fastback.’ I said let’s make it a ’48 so it could get into the National Street Rod Association events. Larry said, ‘Let me see what I can come up with.’”
“I was working at Cadillac at that time;” Larry says, “in the design group. (Larry was the exterior designer of the ’92 Cadillac Seville, STS, and Eldorado project.) I created a look that reflected Gibbons’ personality and what he was interested in. I knew his music, I knew the blues. I couldn’t have created that car for anybody but Billy. I did that first sketch and sent the original artwork to Jack.”
“Out of the blue,” Jack continues, “Larry sends his artwork of the Cad back to me. Billy was at my office, and I pulled the artwork out and showed him. Billy was blown away by it and wanted to build the car. I found a ’48 Cad in Phoenix and bought it.”
Jack would later learn that the hot rodder who took some of his drawings to Columbus and who would become the chief designer of the ’05 Mustang at Ford’s Strategic Design Group, graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which is the same school our illustrious former Publisher Tom “Stroker McGurk” Medley went to.
“We started talking,” Larry says, “… well, who would build it? Jack knew everyone on the East Coast and West Coast because of Vintage Air and had been to all the shops. He did a report as to which shops could do the car. Jack’s plan was for the three of us to meet in L.A. and go to some of the shops.
“Jack, Billy, and I went to Harry’s office at Hot Rod because we wanted to get Harry’s endorsement and see if he would get Hot Rod behind it,” Larry says. “Harry could see immediately what he was going to do with it, he could see what it meant to people; he was the guy running the magazine. When we talked about what shops could do it, Harry said, ‘There’s only one guy who could do it, you gotta go to Boyd Coddington’s.’
“There was so much of that car that had to be handmade at Boyd’s; it was an incredible project,” Larry adds. “I never invoiced Billy for all of my time on the artwork; I just thought that was the most fun I could have as a human being. Billy sent me a check one time and I have it hanging on my office wall.”
“I got on the phone and called Boyd,” Harry says. “Boyd would have exactly six months to build the Cad completely from scratch. He finished painting it shortly before we did the cover shoot for the July ’89 issue. There was no Bondo in that car; it was all hammer-welded. (Craig Neff did all the metalwork … the fins, quarter-panels, and trunk.)
“Larry’s fullsized drawing was stuck on the wall of Boyd’s shop so that every measurement that Boyd needed they could take off the drawing. If there was a doubt they could fax Larry, who would measure it, and fax them back the specs.”
That Cad was not a trailer queen because two Hot Rod staff guys who probably pinched themselves all the way to Canfield, Ohio—Rob Kinnan and Steve Anderson—drove the ’48 to the Hot Rod Super Nationals in 1990. Harry adds, “Believe me, I did sweat bullets until it got there.”
CadZZilla, Godzilla? Too close for comfort?
“That’s when we made the grand debut of ‘CadZZilla’ in New York City, right off of Madison
Billy, being in show business, didn’t want any legal issues because of the similarities of the names so he located Mr. Ishiro Honda, the director of the 1954 film Godzilla. Wrote Bob Merlis of M.F.H. Publicity in Los Angeles: “After several hours of recollection of the making the famous film, Mr. Honda viewed the rendering of CadZZilla and immediately found admiration with the car’s image and agreed it was truly going to be a monster of a custom car. The officiating paperwork was arranged granting clear and proper title to the name CadZZilla.”
The deadline was met due to the remarkable effort by Boyd, his crew, Chisenhall, and Erickson. According to Harry, that issue of Hot Rod sold over a million copies.
Added Merlis: “Mr. Gibbons followed Harry’s suggestion of inserting the twin capital ZZs inside the name to complete the tag.”
Harry’s influence not only made the difference in a custom Cad’s success, it had the “Motor City” calling him many times. In 1991, GM wanted Harry’s input on the design of the Camaro and Firebird: “GM wanted to know what they needed to do to catch the next group of Hot Rod readers. I spoke to a room of engineers and marketing guys on how to specifically differentiate the Camaro from the Firebird down to what engines and transmissions.”
After Petersen Publishing
After Mr. Petersen sold his company, Harry made the decision to leave in 1996. Since then he’s involved himself with a number of successful business ventures. He’s also restoring his Offy-powered Kurtis Midget plus a ’74 Ford Ranchero that he’s owned since new.
Harry has worked with a number of organizations, serving three terms on the SEMA Board of Directors. He was inducted in the SEMA Hall of Fame in 2002. Harry’s contributions to drag racing were showcased when he became the Honoree at the 20th California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield in 2011.
You might ask with all that Harry has done in (and for) the sport, plus his many accomplishments in the publishing industry, why hasn’t he been inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, established by Don Garlits? For years Harry was on the Hall of Fame Selection Board and it would have, in Harry’s mind, been a conflict of interest. That responsibility behind him, Harry will be inducted in March 2013 in Gainesville, Florida.
Well done Harry. You’re one of the reasons we go with an old Hot Rod rolled up in our back pockets to the March Meet and Hot Reunion in Bakersfield. We’re looking for guys like you who’ve been there, done that, to sign it.
The Fuel Altereds were as aerodynamic as an outhouse and it took a form of lunacy to drive them. “Wild Willy” Borsch, who drove the “Winged Express”, told Harry, “Just keep it between the guardrails, regardless in which direction it’s pointed.” Altereds carried names like “The Mob”, “Old Raunchy”, “Panic”, “Pure Hell”. Then there was Ron Boswell and Don Green’s mean and nasty AA/FA ’32 Bantam roadster called “Rat Trap”. Normally the driver was George “Stone Age” Hutcheson or “Dangerous Dan” Collins, but this time it was “Hand Grenade” Harry after he shut down the 392 Chrysler Hemi after his run. “It was the second time I drove the Rat Trap. I was just getting out after getting close to the record of 217/218 mph at San Fernando. George Hutchinson was the driver and he wasn’t there so Don Green said, ‘You drive it.’”
Harry Hibler was Hot Rod magazine. Fresh from managing a dragstrip, Harry knew the dangers and personally saw to it that racers and fans were as safe as that period would allow. Being a Top Fuel racer himself, while at the magazine he knew personally just how much his and others lives were on the line every time they left it. The readers knew that the guy at the helm was one of them. His leadership reflected the influence the magazine had on the automotive industry. Harry never forgot that in his 29 years with Petersen Publishing.