Old Yeller II is a famous race car from the ‘50s. It’s a kind of raunchy-looking roadster that was hand-built by Max Balchowsky. There were only a few American sportscars back in those days, so races were pretty handily dominated by gorgeous Ferraris and Maseratis. Then, along comes this pale yellow, backyard-made American mutt that went toe-to-toe with the Italians.
It’s a true American underdog story. And the car was wildly popular in its day. So, people really love seeing it at vintage races. However, any time I saw, or especially heard Old Yeller, I shook my head in disgust. Not because this car dusted the better equipped Italians. Old Yeller and I just got off on the wrong paw is all.
A few years back, I was hob-nobbing with the blue-bloods at some fancy vintage car event at Pebble Beach. We were standing serenly on an impossibly manicured lawn, being schooled in how to appreciate the difference between Johnnie Walker Black Label and Johnny Walker Blue Label. Vivaldi may have been playing off in the distance. It was the height of grace and sophistication.
Then, without warning, someone fired up Old Yeller II right next to me.
Now, if you look at the exhaust on that car, it’s got headers coming out of a big block V8 into a straight pipe—and that’s about it. It was so insanely loud and scared me so badly that I nearly dumped my rear diff oil, if you follow my meaning. I’m proud to say, though, that I didn’t spill a drop of the super-expensive scotch I was drinking. But I’ve carried around Old Yeller-related PTSD ever since.
Then, Leslie Kendall from The Petersen Museum brought Old Yeller III over to my shop. Balchowsky built a bunch of Old Yellers and this one was made custom for the famous cinematographer Haskell Wexler (The Loved One, In The Heat Of The Night, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Matewan). Balchowsky has a history in the movies as well, with uncredited stuntwork in Grand Prix, Speedway, Vanishing Point, and Bullitt. (Balchowsky also did the modification work on the iconic Mustangs and Chargers used in Bullitt.)
At first glance, I wasn’t overwhelmed by Old Yeller III. It just seemed kind of big, old and gruff. And the Buick nailhead V8 struck me as an odd choice, since they’re not known to be the healthiest breathing engines around. Apparently, before he built the Yellers, he got his start in racing by cramming nailheads into Dorettis. So, I guess he picked Buicks because he was familiar with them. He also said he used them simply because they were more affordable than Chevys.
This car has a lot of unrefined accents, to put it kindly. The door latches look like they’re off a war surplus army foot locker. The seats are little more than a couple of pieces of curved sheet metal with some leather wrapped around them. But as I looked past its rough and tumble styling, I noticed a lot of nice little touches, like the drilled out control arms and a torsion bar. It’s got a custom tube frame chassis that Balchowsky supposedly designed with a piece of chalk on the floor of his shop. And the entire body is made out of hand-pounded aluminum. So, there’s not a lot of aesthetics at play here, but there is a high level of craftsmanship.
The Italians were spending a ton of lire to build cars with 12 cylinders and six carbs, yet Balchowsky ultimately beat them with this asthmatic Buick engine. And when it comes to racing, in the end, function wins out over beauty.
So, I was finally won over by an Old Yeller. I have come to appreciate your pragmatism, but I’m still wary of your loud pipes. So, how about a “heads up” or a “fire in the hole” before you start one of these cars up next time. I’ll agree, you’re an example of some impressive backyard engineering, but all of those Grand Prix victories will be meaningless if you ever make me spill one drop of booze.