1959 Balchowsky Buick Special

"Meeting Max"

I met Max Balchowsky, for the first time, when a good friend, Jerry Jann, thought it would be interesting for me to meet Max. Max was a legend in building racing cars and I was a fan of racing cars. Jerry told many stories about how he would always go to all of the races of the Old Yeller I and II (and the other Old Yeller race cars) and would be in the extended family / crew and groupie scene during the many races. I arrived at the legendary Hollywood Motors to meet Max and that first meeting would eventually evolve into a long friendship over the years. The garage was famous and the center of innovative racing designs but never had a sign on the big white garage on Hollywood Blvd. There was an open pit (classic motor pit before hydraulic lifts) and it was covered with long wood boards. Max always wore his “trademark” white coveralls and he had a shop rag in his hand and always kept the floors of his shop spotlessly clean. Max always had exotic Sports Cars in the shop. The cars usually belonged to some of the great Movie Stars of that era. At the time that I met Max, he was busy working on special projects as well as movie assignments as part of the stunt car development.

There was always one car in the shop undergoing the famous “Balchowsky engine transplant” and nothing was too sacred. His ever-constant challenge was to know the exact part number of a gasket or bearing that could be used as a replacement (many a GM part would end up in a foreign exotic sports car and Max knew every number needed for replacement from European to American parts) for some of his projects. There were sections of the Hollywood Motors garage with bins filled with carburetors, rims and tires (Max hated to throw away tires even if they were rock hard), distributors and many sections of rare foreign parts. In the far right corner was a race-car with deflated tires and it was the Old Yeller IX that languished for many years. I had a Gullwing Mercedes as a daily driver. Max would work on my cars through the years and I never once saw a bill, which made it difficult to estimate what would be fair payment back. Max was busy with Movie Stunt car preparation work and. his very good friend was the “God Father of movie automobile stunts- Cary Loftin and Cary made sure Max was included in many of Cary’s movie assignments. Max became good friends with Buddy Hackett as Max did the set ups for the VW – “Herbie” in the movie Love Bug. Max is most legendary in the movie stunt work with the set up of the cars for Bullit with Steve McQueen. Max would later set up the Baja race pickup for Steve McQueen for the Baja Races and he knew Steve well. The last weekend before the end of the shooting of “Bullitt” there was a regional Sports Car Racing event and Max and his friends took the cars of the movie and put numbers on the cars and entered the races near San Francisco. Max had designed some very innovative automobile setups for action shots with cars for many movies. Max worked with Elvis Prestley in several movies and in Viva Las Vegas, Max used two Old Yeller races cars in the movie (one crashed heavily).

Ina was always ‘business and serious looking as she had reason to be with the years of being the “gatekeeper” of Hollywood Motors …as everyone wanted a piece of Max and his incredibly diversified knowledge of the entire automotive field. His legions of fans were from the street racing scene during the late 1940s and hanging out at the drive in restaurant. He was proud of his highly modified Studebaker street racer (he used a Studebaker Champion rear end in Old Yeller II) as he seemed to gravitate to “non main stream” cars and he was seeking any strong reliable part even if the part was manufactured (Auburn clutch) many years ago. Ina did the billing and she would let people know if you were not “invited” back to bring your car to Hollywood Motors. As the years went by after the high energy racing scens, Ina tired to sell real estate and led a quiet life. I would go for dinner time to time and Ina always would shop for special food items. When Ina was stricken with cancer of the upper vertebra- neck area, it was devastating for Max. Ina had complained for several years and it went un-diagnosed until too late for intervention surgery. Ina was known for helping laying out the “chalk” lines for the Old Yeller race cars on the floor of Hollywood Motors and special tune the cars for the races. She would take the brunt of criticism as they drove the Jimmy Summer’s 32’ channeled highly modified named the “Bu-Ford” Special to Pebble Beach Road Races in the early 1950s. Max and Ina with their “extended family/ team” would battle the “Sporty Car” scrutinizers as they were often almost considered ineligible for Road Racing events The Bu-ford Special was at the front of the pack for the first few laps in one race until the giant sized military tachometer fell off the steering column and jammed under the throttle. Ina would call the race track a week ahead if they had not raced to check on length of the track and the number of left and right hand turns to the astonishment of the Race Track manager… when asked, Ina would say abruptly… she is setting up the front suspension for the race car. One event at Riverside International Raceway, Ina was also very well known for keeping perfect timing sheets on the race cars during the races and one race that there was a dispute regarding 3rd and 4th place… they called up Ina to see her lap charts to verify the placement of the cars. It was a touching moment when she had cancer and under treatment, she came out with Max (she did not go to any races or race track after they finished racing in 1963) to Willow Springs Raceway to see me race a Formula Race Car. Ina brought lunch… and she had her old stopwatch to check time. When Ina was struggling against the ravages of cancer at the Arcadia Hospital… Max and I would go almost every night and one night Max slipped me a $50 dollar bill in my hand and told me to give it to one special nurse that was taking care of Ina. The passing of Ina was difficult as well as the closing of Hollywood Motors due to a planned new building on the site. Max hunkered down and would not face the fact of the closing and at the last minute, he had to have all of his friends come and help move years of incredible collecting of rare and not so rare auto parts. Max had a key to my garage and shortly one day I saw my garage filled with automobile parts, a Maserati engine and an old cardboard box of the Road Racing and Drag Racing trophies… the trophies were once on the shelf of his tight small one desk office at the legendary Hollywood Motors. Max mentioned the “flow bench” with reverence and for many years it had a special place in my working garage. Sometimes we would have dinner at Algemac’s Coffee Shop in Glendale and he mentioned that he was a dishwasher at the Coffee Shop long ago while attending night school for classes in watch repair (hangout for “Hot Rodders” in early days). We would spend many a late evening together over coffee as he would spin out story after story of his legendary racing day.