By on December 24, 2010

I’ve got this intimidating stack-o-car books to review— it’s been five months since the last one— and so I figured I’d skim them all and pick out a few winners. I cracked this one open, got hooked right away, and read the whole thing while ignoring the rest of the pile.

This 1938 shot of Ed Iskendarian and his Model T (note the valve covers— cast in Iskendarian’s high-school shop class— on the Ford’s Maxi F-heads) pretty much sums up the book; it’s a collection of short, well-illustrated biographies of 26 men who created the aftermarket performance industry during the immediate postwar era.

I’m already obsessed with Southern California memoirs and biographies (Richard Nixon, James Ellroy, Sister Aimee, Mickey Cohen, and Art Pepper, to name a handful; this one just dragged my head back to SoCal), so even without the rat-rodders-wish-they-looked-this-cool vintage car porn I’d be digging this book in a big way. With the notable exception of Harvey Crane (Crane Cams), just about every one of the 26 “merchants of speed” set up shop in the Los Angeles area, epicenter of the post-World-War-II racing and hot-rodding boom.

The stories of Hilborn, Edelbrock, Offenhauser, Weiand, and plenty of other familiar names may be found in this book’s pages. We also get the stories of big-in-their-time outfits such as Chevy six-cylinder kings Wayne Manufacturing. The ups, the downs, the ripoffs (according to Lou Senter of Ansen Automotive, the design of the Ansen Posi-Shift Floor Shifter was lifted by a person “who became quite a famous floorshift manufacturer” due to a legal gray area in a patent description), and the “where are they now” answers will allow the reader to geek out on engineering and hot-rod-golden-age tales to his or her heart’s content.

Speaking of Lou Senter, check out this blown Packard V8-powered monster! Yes, the first car to break 150 MPH in the quarter-mile on gasoline was Packard powered!

I’m giving “>Merchants of Speed a four-rod rating (out of a possible Mercedes-Benz-OM615-inspired five). Murilee says check it out!


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4 Comments on “Merchants of Speed: The Men Who Built America’s Performance Industry, by Paul D. Smith...”

  • avatar

    If you like this book, you’ll find the following to be a great companion: The Business of Speed: The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915–1990 (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) by David N. Lucsko.  Lucksko is an academic historian, so the style is more dry, but he paints a fascinating picture of the overall hot rod industry.   I found his outline of the roots of hot rodding in the basic inefficiency of the intake system of the Model T Ford’s engine and the various ways folks went about solving that problem particularly interesting.

    Lucsko also has some very interesting observations on why early emissions control systems were so poor – to crudely simplify, it was at heart a chemical engineering problem, but automotive engineers were mechanical engineers for the most part and tried to use mechanical engineering methods rather than chemical engineering ones to solve it. 

    The weakest part of the book is the last chapter on contemporary hot rod culture, which fails to do a good job with things like “Ricer” culture and the links between video games and car modification.  Lucsko also focuses only on American developments throughout his book – no sense of how international tends influenced hot rodding.  Aside from that, however, it’s a great book, with some solid insights into the way American car culture developed.

  • avatar

    Gotta love a Full-Dress Flathead.
    Merry Christmas to all the Best and Brightest!

  • avatar

    Check out the dairy truck behind Isky’s t-bucket!

  • avatar
    M 1

    Contemporary hot rodding is actually a lot like the old days, it’s just harder to find parts. Just this year alone I can count friends who have started three 50’s cars, two late 20’s cars, and similar projects. And these aren’t “pay somebody to do it” jobs that they’ll later claim to have built. These are “built in the garage from shit we carefully gather from the junkyard” hot rods. They are also not “rat rods,” but that’s almost not worth mentioning since nobody uses the term correctly anyway (protip: it’s usually a pejorative unless you’re somebody who probably actually belongs in the ricer set anyway). Nobody gives a shit about looking cool — that’s the car’s job.

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