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A Conversation With The Grump
Super Chevy Interviews the One and Only Bill Jenkins
Super Chevy, April, 2012
William Tyler "Grumpy" Jenkins is as much a Chevrolet icon as Gaston, Louis, and Arthur Chevrolet, and he has won a lot more races than they ever did. He has been building small-block Chevrolet V-8 engines since 1955, the year they came out. He has been building big-block Chevrolet engines since they year they came out, 1958. He has built and raced OS/S cars, A/FX cars, Super Stock cars, match-race cars, Junior Stock cars, and Pro Stock cars, both big-block and small-block. His small-block Pro Stock Vega turned the traditionally big-block class upside down in 1972. He's built V-8 and V-6 Chevrolet and GM engines for NASCAR competition, and when NHRA created Pro Stock Truck, he practically owned it with his customer 358 engines. He has been inducted into every motorsports and racing hall of fame there is in these United States.
Jenkins has been building racing engines for about 60 years now, and continues to do just that every day at age 81 in his modest but efficient shop in Malvern, Pennsylvania. We sent Jim McCraw, a writer who has known Jenkins since 1963, to sit down with him in his Malvern office and talk about his formative years in racing. His report:
"I regard Bill Jenkins as the man who helped me get my career in automotive journalism started, and I have known him since I was a crewmember on the only Pontiac-powered Pontiac he ever built, the Lumley & Shaw 1963 Catalina hardtop 389 that was the national record holder and E/SA class winner at the NHRA Nationals in 1963. He's irascible, testy, intolerant, taciturn, monosyllabic, and all of those other things, but he is also impish and funny and delightful and the smartest engine man I have ever known. He's had a number of medical challenges in recent years, but he always comes back to the shop, because there is always more power and torque to be found.
"We sat down with him in his crazy, cramped office full of trophies and photos and memorabilia and asked him to go back with us and reminisce about his earliest days and his formative years leading up to his first big-time, sponsored racecar, the 1961 Chevrolet Biscayne 409 coupe. His memory for automotive arcana and minutiae continues to amaze us."
Super Chevy: You've always lived near the Main Line area outside Philadelphia. Were you a city kid, a suburban kid, or a farm kid?
Bill Jenkins: I've always lived within 20 miles of where we're sitting, but when I was a kid, I lived on an unused farm, my grandfather's farm that had been a dairy farm, and then an orchard. I started thinking about engines in the middle of World War II, when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I figured that, pretty soon, I could get something I could drive around the farm with.
SC: People would be surprised, given your lifetime association with Chevrolet, that you started out as a Ford guy. Wasn't your first car a Model A Ford?
BJ: Yeah. The Model A had the fuel and spark controls inside the car, so it would teach you how it worked and what to do, what to feel for. I had been working on farms to earn money, and when I was 14, I gave a guy a hundred dollars for a Model A that wasn't in very good shape.
SC: So, like many boys in your generation, you were working early in life?
BJ: Yeah. After the war, in the summer of 1945, I got a job at a Farmall dealership in West Chester, working on tractors and putting tractor implements together from kits. In 1949, my freshman year at Cornell, I went to a Pontiac-Cadillac dealership in Coatesville as a grunt, doing whatever they wanted me to do.
SC: You were enrolled at Cornell University as a mechanical engineering student?
BJ: Yeah. That went on through 1951, until my father got killed. He was bludgeoned to death by a hitchhiker he picked up. He had been an architect, doing interiors for department stores and restaurants, and he'd been through the double whammy of the Depression and then the war, and was starting to do better when he got killed.
I struggled through another year, and then I was really hurtin', so I didn't go back after three years. In the meantime, I'd gotten interested in metal, and I switched to metallurgical engineering from straight mechanical. One of my customers ran Lukens Steel in Coatesville, the biggest steel plate mill in the world. I went back again in the spring of '55 and accumulated 105 credits or so. Come finals week, I ended up in the hospital with what they supposed was appendicitis, but it wasn't. So I had to take a bunch of special finals. I passed everything that year, but I never graduated.
The '55 Chevy convertible was there at that point. I was working on Oldsmobiles at Usher's in Downingtown for three or four years, and I had a fairly good clientele at that point, fixing Cadillacs, when I was about 21 or 22 years old, moonlighting on whatever. Moved to Wayne. Lost my clientele. Almost didn't make it during the winter of 1959-'60, doing whatever I could to make money, even plowing snow. From that point on it's been all right.
SC: Drag racing didn't exist at that time, especially in the East, so you were doing your racing on the street?
BJ: Yeah. There was no place anywhere around here. The first dragstrip I ever went to was the one down in Manassas, Virginia, Old Dominion Speedway, that opened in about 1953. I went down there one day and won whatever there was to win and came home with this little trophy.
SC: You won first time out? That's a long drive from the Main Line. What were you driving?
BJ: I had a '51 Chevy four-door Fleetline that I won in a raffle.
SC: So your early expertise was with the old Chevy Stovebolt six?
BJ: Yeah. Those engines started out as 209s in 1929 and ran until 1936. They got the Blue Flame head in 1934, so that it started to look more like the 1937 engines. I never did find out whether Chevrolet had that combustion chamber design before Mercedes-Benz had it. A lot of the Mercedes-Benz single-side engines had exactly the same chamber. The 1937 engine went from three main bearings to four, and the block got shorter, so somebody was thinking about packaging at one point.
SC: What did you do to those early engines?
BJ: We raced the 216 engine in the '51 Chevy for two years. It had a Harman & Collins cam in it, the compression ratio was jacked up, and it had one of Victor Edelbrock's two-carburetor manifolds. It ran all right. It wasn't any worldbeater, but it would handle a lot of 303 two-barrel Oldsmobiles.
SC: We've also heard that in your early drag racing days you actually built and drove a dragster. Correct?
BJ: It ran in what was then called B/Open Gas, what you would now call a B/Dragster, with a Chevrolet six-cylinder engine in it. It got be known as The Roach. At the end of 1957, I got a 392 Chrysler hemi and we put that in the dragster. I got the engine out of a New Jersey State Police car, a Chrysler 300 engine with the lumpy covers and everything. It was probably good for something approaching 400 horsepower. I ran it with Hilborns on it, and I ran it with six Stromberg 48s as an A/Dragster. It ran fairly well. Johnny Good and I both drove it. It ran some 9.50s at 150 miles an hour in 1958 with a two-speed gearbox. [Don] Garlits called me a couple of years ago because he had seen an old picture of the Jenkins & Good dragster in an old Drag News! He said that it ran pretty good for the time. We towed the dragster as far away as the strip in Sanford, Maine.
SC: More surprises! We didn't think you had anything to do with Chrysler products until 1963. Did you run that car on pump gas or aviation gas, or what?
BJ: We ran mostly pump gas. By that time, we were starting to pick out gas.
SC: What do you mean by "pick out gas?"
BJ: Because the gasoline was such-and-such an octane, and they got that octane by several different ways. The lazy man's way to make a high-octane gasoline is to make it thick. So the golden Esso Extra and the Sunoco were both pretty heavy and the summertime grades had a gravity way over 750.
SC: So, you were actually buying a couple of gallons of it and testing it with a hydrometer?
BJ: Oh, yeah! The lightest stuff around here was the Gulf. There was Chevron white-pump, but you could only get that in California. So you'd buy wintertime gas and keep it stored up all summer.
SC: The story goes that you knew about the Chevrolet 265 V-8 engine long before it came out in the 1955 Chevy.
BJ: I ran into a guy that was with Bill Mitchell's [GM Styling] group. He told me "You ain't gonna believe what's gonna happen, so you'd better be ready." He wasn't wrong. In the meantime, I'd taken the old '51 and put a '52 Powerglide motor in it. The 235 Powerglide motors had aluminum pistons in them, and something a little more gutsy than the 235 stickshift engines that still had iron pistons in them. The rating was about 7 or 8 horsepower different. The 235 engine was in it before I ever went to Manassas.
SC: You later raced your '55 Chevy convertible with some success. What happened to that car?
BJ: I sold it to a guy who paid me more than I paid for it, and I bought a new '58 fuel-injection car. I had also raced a '57 injected car that belonged to a customer.
SC: This is about the time you first hooked up with Dave Strickler and the Ammon R. Smith dealership in York?
BJ: Yeah. Strick got out of high school in '59, and he got himself a new 315hp 348 Biscayne two-door. He became a customer of mine. A year later, he got a '60, which belonged to the dealership, and he was still a customer. Coming up on '61, he hit me with a deal. I don't remember any of the details.
SC: Strickler got the '61 Biscayne 409 through the dealership, a car that started out as a 360-horsepower 409, with you tuning it, and the dealership's name on the door. And he married into the Smith family.
BJ: Right. All of the '61 cars you see with the two carburetors on them, that was a dealer-installed option. We ran the thing for quite a while as a 360, and it was some time in late June or early July that we got the 409-horsepower stuff. I was supposed to go up to Warren [Michigan, the GM Tech Center] to meet Vince [Piggins, Chevrolet's high-performance boss] and get the parts. He was aware of the car at that time, and that it was running halfway decent. I had never met him at the time, so I went to the warehouse, picked up the parts, and drove home. You've got to remember, there were only two races at that time, the Nationals and the Winternationals, so he had lieutenants watching at the races.
SC: So, now you've got a dealership sponsor and a factory connection, and you go out to Indy with the 409. You got beat in eliminations by the Ramchargers. Late in the season, you set the NHRA national record for Optional Super Stock, after Indy at 13.09 at over 114 miles an hour at York.
BJ: I never actually built that 409 engine, but I tuned the one we had, within the rules. I think the 409/409 package came with the camshaft that was used in the 1961 380-horsepower NASCAR motors, and that was the biggest mistake in the whole package. That camshaft was all done at about 6,400. The '62 car came with the old camshaft and that engine would run 7,000 like nothin'.
The first one I built was for the '62 car. The speed king, Mickey Thompson, came up with a thing called the power-slot piston in the winter of 1961-'62. He forged some, and got some stuff running. I used some Jahns pistons, and blew it up. I built an engine in California from scratch with 0.060-over TRW pistons. They were too big to fit in the hole, so I belt-sanded them down, and put the barrel back into them after I cut them down. I built a Z-11 427 for the number four car, the '63 Z-11, and it dyno'd out at somewhere around 575 horsepower.
The Z-11 was never accepted as a stocker at the time, so I didn't have to pay attention to the stock configuration of the piston dome, so I didn't. I do fairly well at getting compression ratio without interfering with flame spread. The biggest single thing I ever did in my life that I did not get patented was the volume-enhancer groove between the top compression ring and the second ring land that everybody does now. It's there to decrease the pressure sensitivity in that area by increasing the volume, so that, if you get a spike of fire and ignite something, it doesn't blow the top ring up into the top of the groove. I tried it, and it worked immediately. I didn't patent it, so everybody in the world makes pistons like that now.
SC: You're also credited with putting tiny holes in the piston crown to force gas pressure behind the ring to avoid ring flutter, right?
BJ: Yeah, I did that, too.
SC: The gorgeous headers on the new '61 were some of the last headers built by Jerry Jardine before he died a few months ago, because the original car also had Jardine headers on it, long before your association with Jere Stahl.
BJ: Jerry Jardine was part of Dyno Don Nicholson's group in California when they called themselves Horsepower Engineering, a bunch of Chevrolet guys that were out to beat Les Ritchey's Ford guys. It took an act of God to try to get NHRA's attention, to tell them that "this is where the future lies, kids. Pay attention!" In the middle '60s it did happen. In the early '70s, I was thinking that NHRA should have the fuel dragsters, AHRA should have the Funny Cars, and IHRA should have the Pro Stock cars, so that everybody isn't trying to be everything to everybody.
SC: Tell us a little bit about the setup of the '61 car. It looks like it's set up to ride very high off the tires, presumably for weight transfer to the rear tires at launch.
BJ: That was because I had some misconstrued ideas about how it ought to work, ideas that I have changed my mind about since. I was under the impression that the higher the static ride height would produce more dynamic loading on the rear tires. So we put station wagon springs in it to raise it up and put an Air-Ride airbag in the right rear. But the higher static height would immediately reach full extension of the front suspension and unload the rear tires. That's where the mistake was in my thought process. We were using Atlas Bucron or US Royal Butylride street tires, not slicks. They were sold as soft-riding street tires, but then somebody found out how good they were for racing. We used 14JK wheels from the station wagon to get bigger tires on the rear.
I talked to Jim Largay and the guys at Cure-Ride into building the 90/10 shocks, still thinking this was the answer, to get he front end up in the air and hold it there, but none of this was true. He was the only guy in the country who could talk Delco into building shocks to his specs. I can remember that, at least 60 years ago, he was the guy you went to to tune up your Houdaille shocks.
SC: Aside from the chassis mods, this was the first engine you'd ever encountered with two four-barrel carburetors. Was that a difficult area for you at the time?
BJ: It takes a little bit of idle circuit work in the front carburetor to get it to where it will take simultaneous throttle, if you're going to run simultaneous throttle. On the new '61 car, I changed the throttle return spring situation quite a bit. It's gotta have the rear carburetor closed to push the spring to push the front carburetor closed. Depending on how you energize the accelerator pumps, there may be some force out of the pumps that tends to open the carburetor.
These are just linkage tricks, but to get it all done, you back-load the accelerator pumps and put the compression spring on to close the front throttle, so that when you start open the throttle it gets to a certain point and the load comes off the spring and the carburetor starts to open, with no mechanical feel to it whatsoever. You can't tell when you drive the car with that linkage system that I've got. You can't feel it. The harder you press on the pedal, the faster it goes. You don't feel the second carburetor coming open. I did another system like that for a young kid customer about 10 years ago. It worked like a champ!
SC: It sounds like the 1961 racing season was the busiest and most productive of your career up to that point.
BJ: Yeah. Optional Super Stock became A/FX the following year. We were going to the points races and got busy match racing. It started in '59, racing against Arnie Beswick at York. There was another airport drag strip we went to near Lake Meander in Ohio. We raced against Royal Pontiac. We didn't run Dyno [Don Nicholson] until late late, late that year.
SC: So now you're in a full-vehicle development program on the 409, racing constantly.
BJ: Yeah. I was also working on the slick-shift transmission program at exactly the same time as the Chrysler guys, unbeknownst to each other. But at the end of the year, the '61 car was sold to a guy named Thornton, I think. I wasn't completely aware of that whole situation until recently. For years, I heard stories about that car being someplace, chasing it down, never found it.
SC: The following season, you started off by going to your first NHRA Winternationals at Pomona with your new '62 409 bubbletop car, Old Reliable II.
BJ: Yeah. We flat-towed it to California.
SC: There was another '62 409 after that, right? The so-called red-letter car?
BJ: Right. The Old Reliable III car was one of 50, the last Impala sport coupes built in Baltimore. It had an aluminum front end on it, and they didn't want to screw up the dies with aluminum and slow down production, so they built them last. The only aluminum that didn't behave itself was the aluminum inner fender panel skirts. They were all hammered up and rewelded.
SC: We're told by a reliable source that, when you're not building engines or going to the races or special events, you're a train nut.
BJ: I've been fascinated by trains from the time I was six or seven years old. I had a fairly good collection of Lionel trains at one time. I sold the whole thing about 20 years ago. Before we moved to Downingtown in the winter of 1940-'41, we had put together this fairly good four-level train set with trains going every which way, but O-gauge, not the little stuff. I'd been collecting O-gauge stuff for a few years. But I'd also grown up sitting on top of the Pennsylvania Railroad Chestnut Hill branch, and in the summertime I lived with my maternal grandfather down in Dante, Virginia. The Clinchfield Railroad was built to take the coal out of the mine where he was vice president and chief engineer. I've always been interested in trains since then. I like 'em all, steam, diesel, and electric.
SC: Thanks for your time today, Bill. We'll let you get back to that small-block you were building when we got here.