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Remembering performance guru Bruce Crower, 1930-2019

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Photo from 2006 article courtesy Bruce Crower.

[Editor’s Note: Word came to us this week that aftermarket engine parts maker Bruce Crower has died. Crower is set to be inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame later this month, alongside Bigfoot builder Bob Chandler and public relations professional Marla Moore. Several years ago, Jim Donnelly sat down with Bruce for a Hot Rod Hero article in Hemmings Muscle Machines, which we’re running again here.]

On his newest self-built hot rod, which looks more like an IRL car with two seats instead of one, the license plate reads simply “INMYDNA.” Now, there’s one for the Great Moments in Introspection file, and it’s not a calluses- on-your-hand-from-patting-yourself-on-the-back situation, either. Bruce Crower has spent a good 60 years as one of the performance industry’s greatest natural innovators, developing everything from camshafts to a flowed head so effective it was almost immediately banned, and today, he’s focusing determinedly on a technological solution to the United States’ sad status as a hostage to foreign oil producers. His curiosity, intellect and achievement are rooted in the very core of his being, and always have been.

It began in Phoenix, where Crower was born and his father, Harry, was an auto mechanic in what was then still a frontier town. As he recalled, “Back in 1934, my dad had a Model T with a Rajo head, an overhead-valve conversion for the T, which was normally a flathead. I started to ask him all kinds of questions about it, and explained to me that it wasn’t the stock head that came with the car. My family went to church a lot, so I had a lot of time where I could just sit and think, and what I used to think about most was cars. In my life, I’ve never changed direction. It was always about cars, and going faster, and learning the skills to make that happen. If I didn’t understand something, I went to the library and studied until I learned it.”

That personal journey led Crower to manufacture a few parts for the budding Phoenix rodding community in his father’s shop while he was still in high school. He had just opened his own speed shop when he was drafted into the Air National Guard during the Korean War. It turned out to be a plus, as Crower was assigned to Luke Air Force Base just outside Phoenix, where he was, as he put it, “the only guy in the base machine shop who really knew how to do anything.”

Crower’s grandfather lived in San Diego, and memories of childhood visits there inspired him to move there permanently once his service ended. There, he met the clutch and magneto designer Paul Schiefer, his first contact with the raging California nation of speed. Crower made his rep quickly. In 1954, he consummated an exchange with the Bean Bandits, the famed drag pioneers of San Diego, swapping them a full-race Ford flathead for a Chrysler Hemi V-8 they had in their inventory. At the same time, Crower had several GMC 6-71 superchargers that originally boosted the diesel engines of San Diego transit buses. His car of the moment was a Hudson Hornet coupe. Crower hit upon the idea of installing one of the blowers in the valley between the cylinder heads atop the Hemi, using an intake manifold of his own design, fabricating a pulley drive from melted pistons and using a coffee can as an air scoop. It was the first time a GMC blower was mounted atop a V-8 performance engine. He dropped the blown Hemi in the Hudson and ran the car 157 mph at Bonneville.

His next product put him irrevocably on the American performance map. It was the U-Fab, a do-it-yourself intake manifold, consisting of two runners joined by hoses and clamps, and adaptable to mount either four, six or eight Stromberg carburetors, equally useful whether the buyer was modifying a flathead Ford, a small-block Chevrolet or a GMC straight-six. The U-Fab was a screaming success, which Crower explained, saying, “To me, it was a piece of cake. The overhead-valve engines had come out, and nobody had (intake) castings for them yet. I had the U-Fab long before Weiand or Edelbrock had anything like it.”

Crower then went on to research and invent the Crowerglide, the first centrifugal clutch to be successfully used in drag racing, and the spiritual progenitor of the lock-up clutches that today are standard in the sport’s nitro-fueled classes. His goals were to produce an explosion-resistant clutch that could also hold ever-increasing power better than the production-based single-disc units that were almost universal back then. He got the idea after seeing the dual-disc clutch of an Abarth-modified Fiat that was being road raced around San Diego after Crower replaced its tiny 500cc Fiat engine with a McCulloch industrial engine that he’d modified.

In at least one respect, Crower became the victim of his own brilliance. He has a long association with the Indianapolis 500, having served as chief engine mechanic on the car that Phoenix native Jimmy Bryan drove to second place in 1952, and later, coming out with an 850hp small-block Chevy that displaced just 209 cubic inches. His struggle with the limitations of the small-block’s curved exhaust ports led him to design his own Chevrolet head with the intake ports outside the head, standing upright like an ice-cream cone. As he put it, “With the outside port, with the port off and the intake valve removed, you could look straight down inside at the top of the piston. It was an airflowing son of a gun, but the Sprint car bodies banned it after I’d only made 13 sets of heads.”

It’s doubtful that his next project will face that sort of trouble. Like another mechanical genius, the late Smokey Yunick, Crower, 76, has mused for years on how to limit heat losses and their associated waste of energy during combustion. He’s patented a working prototype of a six-stroke engine, which essentially has two power strokes. At the top of the normal exhaust stroke, as the piston reaches top dead center, a diesel-like injector sprays water into the combustion chamber, which turns to steam. His goal is to run the camshaft at one-third the crankshaft speed, letting the combustion gases and steam recompress on a second power stroke. The goal is about a 40 percent boost in fuel mileage, and elimination of the need for a power-robbing radiator and cooling system.

“It would eliminate the need for an engine to carry a large amount of water, and the exhaust gases wouldn’t just warm the earth,” he said. “We don’t need to be warming the earth any more.”