Speed Shop Memories
Requiem for yesteryear’s speed shops
They had a unique odor that kids today call a “trigger” to an emotional response. For hot-rodders, that smell was like a bell to Pavlov’s dogs—just the thought of walking into a speed shop made us drool in anticipation, and the actual experience could make us act like a 5 year old in a toy store. The memories of those times makes me slobber a little bit even now, years after most of the true high-performance part’s stores have closed their doors.
I could be taken into any one of the numerous Super Shops back in the ’80s, blindfolded, and instantly tell you where I was without removing the eye covering. The smell of BFGoodrich Radial T/As stacked to the ceiling and the scent of all those Erson and Mallory packages were an olfactory experience forever cemented in my senses. Growing up in Denver, Colorado, we also had Bandimere Auto Parts, two smaller, but more hardcore speed shops owned by the same storied family that still owns the drag strip in nearby Morrison. I think they closed in the late-’80s or early ’90s.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, it was nearing the end of the Super Shop’s empire, as mail-order outfits like Performance Automotive Warehouse, Summit, Jeg’s and a few others were beginning to take over. Super Shops took a stab at playing that game with the creation of ASAP, their version of an online parts store, but that eventually went away as Summit and Jeg’s laid waste to all comers.
Here in LA, there were a few Super Shops stores left. The one on Van Nuys Boulevard was the closest to me and walking in the door was like going home. There were a few more hardcore speed shops in town (most notably one in Culver City that I can’t remember the name of). But as the ’90s wore on, most of them went away, replacing the experience of harassing the counter guy with that of clicking your computer keyboard and entering credit-card information.
I hadn’t been in a real speed shop in years until 2005, when my travels took me to Salem, Oregon, to pick up a van I had bought on eBay. I had heard about Salem Speed Shop from Mike Eddy at Edelbrock, who told me that they had more vintage, impossible-to-find Edelbrock parts than they did even at Edelbrock’s place in Torrance. So, I stopped in just to check it out. It was a drizzly Saturday afternoon and the place looked like it was closed, but a light in the shop portion off to the side made me peek into the window. There was Glenn Volz, who still owns the store he opened in 1950. A kind old (and mostly deaf) guy in his 80s, Glenn gladly let me in and showed me around.
It was the first time in a long time that I felt both giddy with the thrill of finding a hidden treasure and simultaneously stress-free, relaxed as if I had just been transported back to 1981 with no recollection of the stresses of 2005. As Glenn showed me around, I noticed the collection of machinery, which you sadly just don’t see anymore, such as a louver press and several distributor and Magneto machines, and even some handmade machines that he was super proud of. Then, there were the engines, including two, count ’em two Ardun motors (flathead Ford V-8s with Zora Duntov-designed overhead-valve Hemi heads that are worth more than most Midwest houses these days), an Allison V-12 aircraft engine meant for a race car that was never built, and more small-block Chevys and flathead Fords than you can count on both hands and feet.
As Glenn led me to the showroom up front, the smell of machine oil hanging in the shop air was replaced with that unique aura of dusty packaging and old papers that you only get when you enter an ancient, un-changed old parts store. The display cases were mostly empty and the windows hadn’t been cleaned since sometime in the ’80s, and it was perfection. He started pointing out vintage speed parts boxes from the ’50s and ’60s and pulling parts from shelves that literally had a quarter-inch of dust on them. Stuff like Pontiac dual-quad intake/carb setups and old Stahl swap headers that would be absolute gold at any automotive swap meet today. Some of them, no doubt required carbon dating to determine how old they truly were, yet it was here in a 100-year-old building in Salem, Oregon, hidden from view and covered with the dust of history, that this treasure lived.
I have visited a few more speed shops since then, including Hawaii Racing (Simi Valley, California) and Heintz Brothers in Concord, North Carolina (near the racetrack), that are time machines to the past, and I have read about a few more. But I feel that the truly old-school houses of worship like Salem Speed Shop may be a thing of the past. At least in Southern California, which is sad since this is arguably where it all started.