George Hurst was one of the founding kingpins of the modern performance automotive aftermarket. He had a rare mix of business savvy, mechanical skill, and promotional genius. Many people have one or two of those attributes, very few have all three. The gearhead world as we know it is very thankful that George Hurst was the guy that he was.
We can pick up the story of Hurst in 8th grade, when he walked out of school forever, deciding instead to devote his time to working, and ultimately joining the Navy at age 16.
Coming out of the service, Hurst, always a big thinker, hooked up with a friend named Bill Campbell. Campbell was an engineer and also had designs on being a part of the growing hot rod and aftermarket parts business. The pair started a small business, based out of a garage in Abington, Pennsylvania (ironic, as this is being penned in Abington, Massachusetts). The pair were building and selling motor mounts. It was during this period that Hurst met another legend, Ed Almquist. Almquist was an experienced parts manufacturer with over 100 different pieces for sale.
Hurst and Campbell’s mounts were actually decent sellers, but they discovered a large California manufacturer was duplicating their product and had the ability to bury them in a hurry. A call was placed to the grizzled veteran Almquist. He took both Campbell and Hurst into his Anco Manufacturing business and soon the trio were selling Adjusta-Torque motor mounts like they were hotcakes.
Also during this time, Almquist and Hurst would have pitched battles in planning meetings with regard to future products that the company would make and sell. Round one went to Almquist as the next product the company rolled out was a line of exhaust headers.
Finally the time came to develop the shifter that Hurst had been seeing in his head for some time. With Almquist and Hurst working on the mechanical design and construction of the unit, success was basically a guarantee. The design was finished and ready to produce when Almquist balked at the startup costs for production of the unit. Frustrated, Hurst left the company and founded Hurst Performance Inc. His relationship with Almquist did not end there, though, and in fact the two struck a deal that Hurst would work on the marketing and promotion of the products and Almquist would work in the manufacturing capacity.
In 1960, Hurst made the smartest hiring decision of his life, bringing Jack “Doc” Watson, aka “The Shifty Doctor,” on board with the company. Watson would be a fixture at Hurst for decades. Soon after being hired, Watson made contact with Pontiac through a friend of his mothers. Pontiac was getting ready to introduce the infamous 1961 “Swiss Cheese” Catalina model in several months and it just so happened that they were looking for a shifter for the car. After inspecting and testing the Hurst unit, it became factory equipment and the Hurst meteor was launched. The shifters, being factory equipment in the most serious race oriented cars that Detroit had ever churned out, meant instant credibility to the hot rodding public. In short, they couldn’t build the suckers fast enough.
Putting on his promoter hat, Hurst traversed the country and struck deals sponsoring race cars, races, hiring Linda Vaughn, and paying out contingency money to racers running a Hurst stick. The guy from Pennsylvania with an 8th grade education was a daily topic of conversation among hot rodders across the country.
1965 would see another partnership with Pontiac in the development of a special factory option mag wheel sporting the Hurst logo. They are highly prized by collectors and restorers today despite their massive weight. It’s an aesthetic thing.
1968 would see Hurst as the builder of the infamous Hemi Barracuda and Dart racing models. With Watson acting as a liaison with manufacturers and overseeing the operation and preparation of the cars, Hurst was able to further work to relentlessly promote the company and it’s products in front of large audiences at race tracks and other venues. It’s kind of amazing that none of the OEM companies hired him in a “if you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em kind of way.”
There were also the fun projects like the Hurst Hairy Olds, the Hemi Under Glass, the development of the cool “his and hers” shifter for the GTO, and various other work that Hurst was handling for Detroit. The late 1960′s were a very good time to be George Hurst. There was even a Hurst Jeepster.
1970 would mark the beginning of the end for Hurst’s involvement with the company he founded. Back in 1968 Hurst had taken the company public, selling stock and building a reputation as a stable, profitable business. Unfortunately for him, Sunbeam (the maker of toasters and stuff) bought Campbell’s share of the company and Hurst was basically forced out, despite the release of his greatest invention, one that that saved tens of thousands of lives over the years, the Jaws of Life.
Originally developed to free racers who were stuck in roll cages, by the early 1970′s fire departments across the country had been calling and asking questions about it. As it turns out, as good as the tool was for spreading roll bars to extract drivers, it was even better as a chomper of OEM sheetmetal and was used to free accident victims. These things are still standard issue in close to every fire truck in America.
The Hurst name has changed hands a few times since George was essentially snookered out of his old company. One thing that has not lost is the look and feel of a Hurst shifter. Steel construction with a cue ball on it, brilliant!
By all accounts Hurst struggled mightily with not being involved with the company. According to those that knew him, he was never the same guy after getting his pink slip. George Hurst died too early at a measly 59 years old in 1986.
George Hurst is a gearhead guy you should know because his products, zeal for business, and concern for competitors make him a legitimate player in any hall of fame. Can you imagine a world without a Hurst shifter? If you can, I don’t want to live there.