I first spotted “ ‘Ol Yeller II” in Viva Las Vegas. The “Special” stood out among a field of Corvettes, Jags and Cobras because it was something I couldn’t identify. What I didn’t discover until fifty years later, was that the same guy that built the car had choreographed all the racing scenes in the movie. His name was Max Balchowsky.
Balchowsky was born in Fairmont, Virginia in 1924 but migrated west to join his brother in business after WW II. In a garage in southern California he spotted his future wife “Ina” and together they established Hollywood Motors. By the early fifties the hot rod movement was reaching a full boil. Concurrently, the well-heeled were purchasing exotic foreign jobs and knowledgeable technicians were in demand. The Balchowsky’s shop became the veritable “Garage to the Stars” and soon was overflowing with Ferraris and Maserati’s. Road racing too was gaining in popularity and seemed like the next logical step for a serious enthusiast.
When Margaret Pritchard was killed racing a Special at Torrey Pines, the owner became disenchanted and sold his wreck to the Balchowskys. It was an ungainly brute based on a ’32 roadster and powered by a Buick Nailhead mill. The couple hammered out the body panels, gave it a piss-coat of lemon yellow paint and went racing. In comparison to the curvaceous exotics they were competing against, the Special was “a dog”. The Balchowskys couldn’t deny this so they decided to embrace it. Walt Disney Studios had a recent hit with their movie starring a yellow Labrador called “ ‘Ol Yeller” so they adopted that moniker.
“ ‘Ol Yeller I” had never been and never would be a great racecar but with it, the Balchowskys learned to race. Max learned chassis set ups and became a very capable driver. A genuine romance developed between he and the high revving, high torque, 401 cubic inch Buick engine. After several years of flogging around their rebuilt car, the Balchowskys were convinced that they could build something better.
This time they would start from scratch. Utilizing what they’d learned working on other people’s racers, they laid out the chassis using chalk marks on the garage floor. The car would utilize a lightweight tube frame. Parts and pieces came from this and that: a Studebaker rear-end, a Jaguar transmission, the upper A- arms were off an XK120, the lower were Pontiac. Cast off whitewall tires would be used not only for economy but because they were of a softer compound. For power there was never a question- their beloved Nailhead. By now it had been race tested for over five years. Other than some heating issues, it had been rock solid. The entire build took seven weeks and “ ‘Ol Yeller II” was ready for the 1959 season.
From the get-go, the new car was a front runner. Able to run with the best, the Balchowsky’s wondered if a professional pilot could put their creation in victory lane. They solicited the top road racers on the circuit: Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Billy Krause…evidently even Grand Prix ace Stirling Moss took a test drive in the car (on the street) that ended in his arrest! And the combination proved successful- in ’59 and 1960 many wins were achieved. But there was a new beast on the horizon- the mid-engined sports racer and ultimately it would prove superior to the front engine design.
The Balchowskys produced several more “ ‘Ol Yellers” but none exceeded the success of their original build. A longtime friend of the family, Ernie Nagamatsu owns the fully restored racer today and travels around globe showing the car and competing in vintage events. “ ‘Ol Yeller II” even appeared in the Pebble Beach Concours as the photos on the cover of last months’ Roddin’& Racin’ NW attest.