Did you ever see the cult movie classic, Mad Max? Ah, it’s great. In a post-apocalyptic future, good guys and bad roam the roads in lightning-fast, cobbled-together junkyard contraptions that would make Rube Goldberg swoon with delight. Fantastic science fiction, you say? I thought so too, until I recently test drove what I’m sure was the automotive inspiration for the whole movie.
The car was the handiwork of – oddly enough – a rebel by the name of Max – Max Balchowsky. The racecars that he created in the late ’50s and early ’60s were such a conglomeration of differing bits and pieces that the cars were nicknamed “Ol’ Yeller” after – oddly enough – a movie about a mongrel junkyard dog who in the end makes good.
My relationship, and indeed my understanding, of this curious line of racecars began to unfold a couple of months ago when a VRJ reader asked me to help him locate a front-engine sports racer with interesting history. After some digging, countless phone calls and a little negotiating, a deal was put together to purchase “Ol’ Yeller” #7 – that is to say the seventh of nine “Ol’ Yeller” racecars built by Balchowsky in his Hollywood, California, speed shop. After the car made its way back to California, the owner asked if I’d help him shake the car down and give him some pointers on driving this unique, high-horsepower sports racer. Let’s see, hmmm. Spend a weekend driving a piece of rare and valuable West Coast racing history? I think I can clear some time on my calendar!
For those already familiar with Mad Max Balchowsky’s “Ol’ Yellers”, you’ll probably be aware that they weren’t always the best looking cars in the paddock. White wall tires and sometimes crude bodywork were the hallmarks of Balchowsky’s early creations – Ferrari-wasting speed was another. The early “Ol’ Yellers” were so successful against the infinitely more expensive European machinery that Balchowsky was quickly being asked to build “customer” racecars. Ol’ Yeller #7 was one of those customer cars. It was unique in that it featured a fuel-injected Corvette motor, instead of Balchowsky’s favorite “Nailhead” Buick V-8, and sported a Devin-built fiberglass body rather than one of Mad Max’s home-built creations. The car had its debut race at the 1960 Daytona Continental, where it was involved in an accident that decimated the beautiful Devin body. When the car was rebodied, it was fitted with a custom aluminum and fiberglass one, which gave the car a remarkable resemblance to a Maserati Birdcage. As I stood in the paddock at Buttonwillow Raceway in California’s San Joaquin Valley, I was again struck by how much prettier this car is compared to Max’s earlier creations – with its curvaceous fenders and wraparound windscreen. If there was any doubt that this was an “Ol’ Yeller”, the doubts were soon quelled when I went to open the small flip-up doors – they were secured with garden-gate slide bolts! I suppose once a junkyard dog, always a junkyard dog.
I slip behind the wheel and try to get comfortable. Problem is, you can’t. The driver’s seat is like sitting in a reclined yard chair – ramrod straight, yet canted back at a steep angle. Once strapped in, I turn my attention to the massive four-spoke steering wheel. Mounted at a shallow angle like a bus, the steering wheel adds another surrealistic touch to this unusual racecar.
Flip on the power switch, turn the key and KABOOM! The roar that erupts from the pipes on either side of the car immediately reminds the driver that this is a very serious racecar and not your grandfather’s John Deere. Not certain what to expect, I pull out of the pit lane and onto Buttonwillow’s north course. Knowing that this car has over 450 horsepower being transmitted through 5” wide tires, I am cautious as I accelerate through the gears. The first thing that strikes me is the power – raw, naked, howl-at-the-moon power. I’ve driven cars with more horsepower, but none that exuded the same sense of visceral grunt that this one does.
Now, before I drove this car, I came in with the preconceived notion that this “Ol’ Yeller” was going to be a handful. I mean, how good could the suspension be of a car that is built with garden hardware? I couldn’t have been farther off base. Number 7 is a marvelously well-balanced car. Turn into the apex, smoothly feed in the power and enjoy the fruits of blissfully controlled power slides. I guess Max wasn’t so mad after all.