Ever since this car darkened the shop doorway at Conder Custom, Tim had always taken every opportunity to tell me “…this thing needs a blown 392 in it….”
And, while I agreed with him—I mean, who wouldn’t, right?—I just never thought I’d get the chance to actually own one, much less for this T coupe project. And then, everything that happened in Part 5 of this story landed me not only a Chrysler 392 Hemi, but possibly a legendary Hemi. And that’s when the archaeological dig commenced.
Pete Jensen, a walking encyclopedia of all things Northern California drag racing, had worked for Ted “The Goat” Gotelli and knew how he not only bought 392 Hemis by the bushel during the heyday of Sixties drag racing, but that the man never threw anything away. Which meant that he was also able to corroborate Ray Sharp’s recollection of buying this particular motor directly from Ted in the late Sixties and being told that “it came out of one of the race cars.” Which is also the kind of bombshell that left Conder and me in that giddy speechless hold-your-breath state when you really want to believe something, but you know you’d better do some more research.
Now, like I said in earlier chapters, Gotelli Speed Shop is still in business in its original location. Not only that, but the guy who built most of the Gotelli fueler motors—Bruno Gianoli—is still alive. And to add to all that, Bruno is now in his late 80s and still building motors in the machine shop at Gotelli’s. One of the golden rules of writing history is finding first-tier sources: accounts from people who experienced an event from a first-person point of view. Guys who were there when it happened. Or actually did the thing. When it comes to this mystery motor with the brass Gotelli tag on this main journal girdle, Bruno is that guy.
I wanted to call Bruno and bring the motor to him, have him look it over, and unlock all its mysteries for me. At the same time, I didn’t: Jensen thought the motor might be a 354-cid Hemi, which would mean that it couldn’t have been run in the early Gotelli fueler. And when he said that, I could’ve easily pulled my phone out of my pocket and run the serial numbers, but I didn’t. I just didn’t have stones to find out whether or not I just blew it all and did a whole bunch of horsetrading only to find out that I was a sucker. But this motor was giving up too much evidence, and Sharp and Jensen were offering up too many clues not to go right to the source…
I called Bruno. He told me to bring it over and he’d look at it. But then I called his son, John, too. John learned how to build motors at the feet of his dad and is an accomplished engine guy in his own right. I knew John would prime his dad’s memory in ways only he could and would probably be an invaluable tier-2 research source: He’s one Kevin Baconian degree away from this motor and is not only mechanically fluent enough to help his dad dig through it, but he also knows how to recognize his dad’s trademarks when he comes across them in a built motor. John also told me to stop screwin’ around, bring it over, and he and Bruno would get to the bottom of everything. I was about to find out exactly what I had. Or didn’t have.
Bruno Gianoli is a living national treasure. He built the motors that, in no small part, developed the drag-racing industry. He and his friends in the Organ Grinders club owned speed shops, race tracks, and drag teams, and were instrumental in the advancement of racing-safety inventions like the fire suit and the parachute. And they all did this in their Twenties, man. What’d you do in your Twenties? Yeah, me neither. So, when Conder and I showed up at the shop door at Gotelli’s with this motor one fine Sunday morning, it was not lost on us that we were about to find out how much luck or self-loathing was about to be foisted upon us.
John and Bruno got to work pulling the motor apart. As they extricated the cam, crank, and pistons, Bruno explained how he and his buddy, Roger Peters, had actually designed and built exactly two prototype girdles for the 392 Hemi in 1962. Terrible Ted was windowing so many of these blocks every weekend at the track, that it was worth the time to figure out how they might last a consecutive Saturday and Sunday, much less an entire season. The girdle worked. And it worked so well, that The Goat decided to go into the girdle business. But that only really lasted for the ’62 and ’63 seasons, till a speed shop in Southern California ordered one, copied it, then mass-produced an identical version on a scale he couldn’t compete with.
Now, unlike most of his contemporaries in the early Sixties, Bruno had the presence of mind to record this vital history they were busy creating in those years with a still camera and an 8mm film camera. And because of that, he was able to hand me a photo of MY MOTOR on his fabrication table in 1962. Wait…WHAT? “Here’s your motor,” Bruno casually offered. “We built two prototypes of that girdle. Two. And Roger made the rubber oil pan gasket so it would fit…”
John pointed to the two bookending, giant rubber pieces that were incorporated into the oil pan of my motor on each end. I’d never even noticed them, since they were painted in black wrinkle-finish like the rest of the motor—and I sure didn’t realize these things were 55-year-old, custom-made rubber grommets.
Bruno looked closely at the main bearing cap supports and explained how he and Roger, designed them as prototypes that would be re-engineered for some sort of mass(er) production. But, again—these were the prototypes he was pointing to.
John looked at the cylinders and instantly recognized the hone pattern as the type his dad did: very unique and much like a fingerprint, these pre-automation days allowed engine builders to put their own signature on an engine block in this way. Bruno demonstrated how he would just kinda eyeball the cylinder and start in with a hand-held boring tool. Because…SIXTIES.
The removable freeze plugs are the exact same style in the photo that Bruno had handed me. There it is, on a table, with Bruno and none other than drag legend, Chris Karamesines, sorta posing for the photo. And there are those freeze plugs and the brass Gotelli Speed Shop tag on the girdle that started this journey more than ten years ago.
John then turned to the heads: “Dad, you o-ringed these heads. I’d recognize your work anywhere!” Bruno and Roger, again, designed and made a tool that allowed them to find the center of the combustion chamber and do the work to the head, accordingly.
John also noticed how the chambers in the heads were modified and ported: “Only two guys were doing this kind of work in the early Sixties—(Joe) Mondello and (Charlie) Slover. This is their work—maybe even when Slover was working for Mondello…which dates them to the early Sixties.” BOOM.
Indulge me for a minute while I paint a picture: It’s 1962 in San Francisco. A band of young gear heads—the kids of Irish, Italian, and Armenian blue-collar immigrants—are building hot rods and race cars from scratch. Not only that, but they’re creating the most beautiful era of drag racing, purely out of form-follows-function necessity. Ted “The Goat” Gotelli, Bruno Gianoli, Jim McLennan, Denny Miliani, Pete Ogden, Andy Brizio, and others are all starting businesses around the lifestyle of drag racing and hotrodding that they all just, well, LIVE. A few of them form the Organ Grinders car club—the support crew for the Gotelli fueler and the Jim McLennan’s Champion Speed Shop car, and they’re known by the matching red shirts that all have “Sam” stitched on the front, white pants, and white golf caps they all wear…not to mention the cigarette-munching donkey they bring to the drag-strip pits every weekend (which also wears a hat and is also named Sam). Molloy’s Tavern in South San Francisco becomes their unofficial clubhouse and on any weekend, Old Mission Road out front becomes a who’s-who exhibit of drag racing: Connie Kalitta’s rig is parked on the street behind Don Garlits’, “The Snake” Prudhomme’s, “The Mongoose” McEwan’s, and countless others while the drivers are all inside up to varying degrees of debauchery. They live like gladiators and they’re inventing the performance industry we know today without even realizing it. These guys invent the safety equipment that every dragster is required to feature today. Perfect the alchemy of nitromethane-breathing motors. Develop tire technology. And become LEGENDS. I’ve got stories I can’t even tell you here…
And this motor…this 392 Hemi with the raw DNA of these creative minds suspended among its molecules like ancient bees in petrified amber…is a capsule of all of that epicness: the cylinders are bored .030-inch over, the crazy crankshaft, cast aluminum Mickey Thompson connecting rods, primitive pistons and rings, block rock in the bottom of the block are all early fueler clues, the magnesium “block letter” Mickey Thompson valve covers are beautiful miracles in that they’re even still bolted to this motor, and that one-of-two girdle mated to the block with the one-of-one oil pan is its wrinkle-finished crown.
And there’s photographic evidence of all of it. John said that those few hours that Sunday gave him a whole new respect for what his dad did back then. “I mean, I knew what he did—but I never heard some of these stories and got to see exactly what his work looked like, till this motor. We went home that day and he talked more and more about everything they did back then—your motor really jogged his memory and it was just a really cool deal….”
This motor is a rosetta stone for those of us who love dearly that crucial period of automotive performance development. These motors rarely survived. Sure, Terrible Ted was famous for buying new 392 Hemi blocks in bulk because they’d go through so many of them in a drag-racing season, but so was every Top Fuel drag-racing team owner back then. And that’s why the fact that this one did survive and is a guide for us nearly 60 years later is so important—Bruno confirmed that this was, in fact, the “shop floor motor” that sat in the back shop at Gotelli’s from the day Denny Miliani died in the #19 car till Ted sold it to Ray Sharp to use in his drag boat in the very late Sixties. One of two 392 Hemis that Bruno and Roger installed their prototype girdle on. And who knows where the other one might’ve ended up. Drag racing, in its infancy, was a cultural movement as much as it was anything and the stories that come along with the trove of technical history Bruno Gianoli can bear witness to is invaluable. I’m still reeling from that Sunday morning in the back shop of Gotelli’s—the very room my motor was built in.
So, now we think we have the story of this mystery motor stitched together. But, at the end of the day, it’s still an engine with really loose tolerances that was designed to last, but only eight seconds at a time. Should it be restored and put on a pedestal with some museum lights shining down on it in perpetuity? Could it be rebuilt just enough to make it survive in a street car? The real question became, “Could I get water running through this motor and replace just enough of the rotating assembly to run it in my T coupe?”