(Words: Jon Bunger) Before sweeping LeMans with the GT40 or building the first Cobra, Carrol Shelby drove this car. You won’t find it in any museum, because it’s still being raced today.
More than sixty years ago Jaguars and Aston Martins dominated the Grand Prix racing circuits. A mad scientist by the name of Max Balchowsky decided to do something about it and constructed the glorious machine before you: Old Yeller. Balchowsky didn’t have a fancy shop, a team of engineers, or a lot of money, so Old Yeller is a mixture of parts from junkyards and parts stores in his own back yard. A true hot rodder, Balchowsky was the first to the salvage yard when a wrecked car came in. The front suspension is a mashup of Morris Minor, Jaguar, and Pontiac parts. Power is supplied to the rear wheels by a screaming Buick Nailhead. During a time that a tube chassis for all this was unheard of, Balchowsky hand bent and welded one of his own design.
Balchowsky raced the car himself on old white wall tires from the family Studebaker for a while, because that’s what he had. Not long after, a young driver by the name Dan Gurney ran the car. And it dominated.
Hot Rodders and backyard builders lined the stands to cheer on Old Yeller because it represented something. It was proof an American could best the Ferraris and Astons on the Grand Prix circuit with his ingenuity, hard work, and a blistering American V8. Gurney managed to get Carroll Shelby behind the wheel of Old Yeller, and it was unlike any car he had ever driven. The sheer torque of Balchowsky’s V8 flier coupled with the crazy weight distribution made it a weapon on the tarmac, and Shelby was in love. It wasn’t long after that Shelby was knocking down doors at Ford to source a V8 for his Cobra. Nothing else would do.
Old Yeller’s story doesn’t end with inspiring the most iconic American drivers, either. Anywhere it can be raced Old Yeller has been taken and thrashed like it owes the mob money, because that’s what it was built to do. For more than 3 decades Dr. Ernest Nagamatsu has owned and driven the car on every track he can in America, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. As he puts it, he has designated responsibility to take the car out and race it like it was built to be more than 60 years ago. After suffering a crash in late 2019, Old Yeller came off track with damage to the hand built suspension Balchowsky pieced together back in 1959. California builder Jimmy Shine was tasked with putting the car back on track, and blessed one more time by Balchowsky’s driving spirit. Balchowsky had built spares of his custom designed suspension and given them to his longtime friend, Dr. Nagamatsu, to guarantee the car would race on.
If you’re lucky enough and keep an ear to the ground, you just might catch the famed car screaming around the bend of a local track. As long as fans come to see it, Old Yeller will be tearing up the pavement and reminding us all just what the American spirit is capable of.
This story originally ran on RoadkillCustoms.com