Getting there. They say that it takes 90 percent of the time to do 10 percent of the work and vice-versa. “They” say a lot, don’t they? All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.
Warhol claimed, “The idea is not to live forever, it is to create something that will.”
French cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard, said this about American popular culture: “Culture is space, speed, cinema, technology. This culture is authentic, if anything can be said to be authentic.”
This car is infused with the DNA of gladiators like Bruno Gianoli and Ted Gotelli, the provenance of track time at holy sites like Half Moon Bay Drag Strip, the underground cultural authenticity of Ray Sharp, the creative alchemy of Tim Conder and a pile of hard-won vintage speed parts with history I can’t even imagine. Like my granddad used to say, “Good-NIGHT, Danny!” Exactly. Hard to imagine my good fortune when I stand back and just drink it all in. You know what I’m talking about…
So, here we are. Before we get to the rest of the car, let’s review:
Two-plus years ago, Dave Tanimura and I were drinking at Shea Shawnson’s bar in San Francisco’s Mission District after a failed trip to find some old cars in a field up in California Goldrush country. While Shea poured drinks that night, he said that his Model A project with “that motor” in it was finally for sale and would I be interested? What an amazing trip we started that night…
The motor as it sat in Shea’s Model A Tudor project. The top end is gone and replaced by a 4×2 intake and four carbs. The Nicson marine timing cover doubles as a motor mount. In Ray Sharp’s flatbottom boat, this motor would’ve been reversed, facing backward. Photo by Shea Shawnson.
I sold the perfectly restored, complete, beautiful, machine-shop-fresh 331 Hemi that Bruno Gianoli built 12 years ago for my Model T coupe – with the rare, mysterious M/T valve covers that came from a table at a flea market here in San Francisco – so that I could take a giant gamble on this 392 Hemi. Typical for me. But not only were those magnesium THOMPSON valve covers calling me like a crack pipe, but that strange girdle with the brass Gotelli Speed Shop tag riveted to it allowed me to sleep at night, knowing that I was doing the right thing. Or, at least, the voice of reason just wasn’t doing a very good job of talking me out of it. Like I said: typical.
The (at the time) mystery motor, yanked from the Model A at Conder Custom in 2016. Nervous excitement: Did I just completely derail this project and watch my running 331 Hemi walk out the door for a giant, iron doorstop?
And now, nearly three years later, here’s the story of this no-longer-mysterious Hemi that we think we’ve finally stitched together:
In 1962, Ted Gotelli, aka “The Goat,” aka “Terrible Ted,” opens up Gotelli Speed Shop on El Camino Real in South San Francisco, California. He and his friends – Bruno Gianoli, Brother Lem, Denny Miliani, Jim McLennan and a few others – make up the Organ Grinders Car Club; a merry band of mechanics, machinists, engineers, race car drivers, promotors and shop owners that also pit-crewed for the Gotelli front-engine dragster during the Golden Age of drag racing.
Ted Gotelli in 1962. I never met the man, but, apparently, he looked like this most of the time. Here, his speed shop in South San Francisco, California, had been open less than a year. But the first few iterations of his front-engine dragster were already some of the fastest in the country. Photo: Drag News.
Engine-builder and machinist, Bruno Gianoli and his engineer buddy, Roger Peters, design a main-bearing journal brace – a girdle – for the Chrysler 392-cu.in. Hemi V-8 that allows the motor to last more than one day at the dragstrip without eating itself alive. They build two prototype girdles in the back shop at Gotelli’s. Roger also designs and fabricates bookend rubber “grommets” for the stock oil pan to accommodate the redesigned bottom end of the engine block the pan now has to bolt to. Until now, The Goat is buying 392 Hemi blocks “by the dozen” for his fueler and other race teams because of their power potential, though they had weak bottom-ends.
A particular 392 Hemi block with one of the two Gianoli-Rogers prototype girdles survives (by design, remember) the punishment that drivers Sammy Hale and Denny Miliani administer in the Gotelli fueler over the course of the 1962-’63 drag-racing season. Gotelli Speed Shop ads in the hot rod magazines of the day display the unique girdle, and Bruno goes into production with the first set of 10.
At the risk of repeating images from past chapters in this story, I think this one is worth it. There’s the brand-new girdle with the brass Gotelli I.D. plate on it, the removable freeze plugs, and Bruno and Chris “The Greek” Karamesines, both of whom are still working (Bruno’s still building motors; Chris is still driving a race car). Amazing. Photo: Bruno Gianoli.
As is customary for the time, the tight network of teams, drivers, and shops that make up the burgeoning drag-racing and hi-performance industry catch wind of the Gotelli girdle by 1963. A guy/team/shop (haven’t verified the names yet, so I’ll hold off on this… for now) sees the girdle on the Gotelli fueler at a track in Southern California that same year, is duly impressed by it, orders one, then promptly copies the design and starts selling them under his/their name. The Gotelli girdle is done.
That little tag sure did send me down a long and winding road. But, in the end, the gamble paid off. We’ll see if we can fire this thing, but, as of this writing, there seems to be no reason we shouldn’t believe we can make it run as a street motor.
The trail of the 392 Hemi with the one-of-two prototype girdle goes cold in 1964. But, knowing the habits of The Goat, the genius of Roger Peters’ design, and the superior machinist talents of Bruno Gianoli, the block, girdle, pan, and lower-end rotating assembly remain intact and mated. The magnesium valve covers, if they miraculously stayed with the same motor, would date it as late as 1964 and the “red and black” livery of the Gotelli fueler.
In 1965, the Gotelli fueler is now the “#19” car – a full-body, chute-tail beauty. The motor essentially looks the same as in prior versions of the team car, but the valve covers are different: Now they’re rare aluminum “M/T” covers with no cast-in blank window (designed for personalized stamping) and the rear bearing carrier with its flat cover on the 6-71 blower is replaced with a finned GT unit. Denny Miliani dies in the car in a horrific crash while making a pass one Sunday morning at Half Moon Bay Drag Strip, just southwest of Gotelli Speed Shop.
Denny’s death was, essentially, the end of the Organ Grinders. But did the motor survive the wreck? (Remember the valve covers I mentioned I had on my 331 that I sold to buy this motor? Not only was it weird to find them at a San Francisco flea market, but one of them also had a big chunk missing from one of its corners. Valve covers rarely see damage like that – unless the motor was in an accident of some kind. See where I’m going with this?) We may never know if this motor was in the #19 car when Denny crashed, but it’s not impossible that it was, that these mag valve covers were on a shelf in the back at Gotelli’s and that Ted replaced the damaged ones with them.
In the late Sixties – possibly 1966-’67 – Ray Sharp buys this very 392 Hemi from The Goat for his flat-bottom V-drive boat. In 2015, Ray recounts that Ted tells him the motor “came out of the racecar.” The girdle is clearanced for the starter on the boat (since fuelers didn’t use starters, there was no provision to locate one on this motor). He, somehow, hurts the motor and takes it back to Gotelli’s for repair in 1968. In the meantime, Ted provides him with another Hemi for the boat so he can go haulin’ across all the freshwater he can till his motor’s done.
One of Ray Sharp’s flatbottom boats in the late Sixties or very early Seventies. Not exactly sure if this shovel-nose was the boat that this motor was in before it got hurt, but it’s indicative of what these motors looked like – and how tall they really were – when Shea first saw my motor on the floor in Ray’s garage. Photo: Bob Sharp.
By the early Seventies, Ray parks his boat on its trailer, with the replacement Hemi still bolted to its rails and this girdle motor – now finished and back from Gotelli’s – sitting on the shop floor beside it. And there it all sits for 30+ years.
In 2006, Ray gets in touch with Dave Tanimura and tells him he needs to come down to his place in Burlingame, California, and buy the whole shootin’ match: the flatbottom boat with the replacement Hemi, its trailer with a full set of vintage magnesium American Racing wheels, and this girdled Hemi sitting on the garage floor beside it. Dave has no interest in – or space for – a boat, cool as it is. I hear about this motor for the very first time when Dave calls me and says its available. I, having no clue as to its history, pass on it. Dave calls Shea, who buys just the “spare” motor on the floor of Ray’s shop for the Model A Tudor hot rod he’s building for his customer.
The story goes out across the SF Bay Area hotrodder wire that Shea’s got a Hemi with some rare and very valuable Mickey Thompson valve covers. And, that it’s got a weird little brass tag that looks “vintage” because of the early Gotelli Speed Shop logo stamped into it. Over Fourth of July weekend in 2009, I see this motor for the very first time in the Model A at Shea’s shop on the wharf here in San Francisco.
Denny Miliani in the #19 car at some point in 1965. You can see the experimental Enderle bugcatcher on top of the motor that’s sportin’ the “M/T” valve covers (like the badly damaged ones I had that were found at a flea market). Could that be my motor? COULD IT BE? Photo: Bruno Gianoli.
The big, unanswered question is whether or not this motor actually was in the #19 car when Denny Miliani crashed it. It’s possible, of course. Terrible Ted was well-known for reusing and selling anything and everything to anyone willing – and sometimes not willing – to buy it. That was “just business.” No matter what, it’s a miracle this motor has survived. We’ve dated the bottom end and block to 1962, the cam and starter mods to the girdle are dated to 1968, and now I’m trying to locate and replace the last few parts that Shea had no need for on his project and sold off to help his customer finance the build. No doubt, the original Enderle bugcatcher mechanical fuel injection had long since been replaced by the time Shea got it: Dave, Shea, his customer, and everyone I’ve talked to who saw the motor on Ray’s shop floor described it as being “HUGE”–that it must’ve been four feet tall, sitting on its pan. That tells me there was probably a tunnel ram, risers, carbs, velocity stacks, etc. on this thing, right?
Now, I gotta figure out how to make this thing streetable without ruining its wicked fuel-motor history…
So much sweat. So much equity. So many questions, still, after all of this. But we know a whole lot more about this motor, and the trip ain’t over just yet.
To catch up on other installments of the Stoner T build, click here.