To hear some tell it, Max Balchowsky was the king of the engine swaps. "We can replace anything with anything," read the sign that hung over his shop, Hollywood Motors in Los Angeles, which he opened shortly after World War II. Nowadays anyone can stick any engine in any car, but Balchowsky made Buick and Cadillac engine swaps into an art: he dropped a Buick V8 into a 1932 Ford roadster and called it the , which gave Pebble Beach Road Race officials and highfalutin racers heart attacks. He took the obscure, oddly-named sports car from England—which had originally used a Triumph TR2 inline-four—and (or a Cadillac, or a Chevrolet engine) that could rev to . The result was a 2000-lb roadster the size and rigidity of a tin of baked beans that could hit 120 miles per hour.
In 1954, a driver named Dick Morgensen built one of the first fiberglass sports cars, the . It was a rugged, stripped-down machine: hammered from mismatched panels, wearing black steel wheels, bent fenders over scowling headlights. Like a Lotus Seven that got its ass kicked in a bar fight. Morgensen originally installed a Plymouth inline-six but later threw it out for a Buick 215 "Nailhead" V8; Balchowsky bought the car, kept the engine, and gave it a screaming yellow paint job. It still looked like junk. But it had over 300 horsepower, a —and it won races. Balchowsky gave it a fitting name: Old Yeller, the junkyard dog.
Old Yeller's sequel was more refined in appearance, but just as raw and homespun as ever. His wife Ina helped with the machining, set up the chassis, blueprinted the big Buick Nailhead 401 to the tune of 305 horsepower. The whitewall tires, a dowdy rejection of new racing tires, were sourced from a Chrysler wagon. Max bragged that it cost him exactly $1456.72 to build it. We called it "a masterpiece of ingenuity."
Balchowsky raced the only way he knew how. He drove Old Yeller II from race to race up and down the California coast, lined up on the grid against factory teams and privateers in the newest European sports cars: Ferrari, Jaguar, the new Maserati Birdcage, the most advanced race car in the world at its debut. In 1959, the car debuted at Riverside Raceway: "If the race were a popularity contest 35 year old Max would be a good bet to win," said the US Grand Prix's race program, "for everyone it seems has been helping him whip his machine together." Its first year was plagued by reliability failures, but by 1960 it won six out of 15 races.
The Balchowskys built nine cars in total, but his most famous car raced for nearly two decades. For a race car, it is an eternity. A who's who drove it: Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, , Billy Krause. At Road America, Shelby held 31 laps with nearly a minute lead. At Santa Barbara, Balchowsky beat his old friend Morgenson and his Ferrari Testa Rossa. Gurney set a record at Riverside with it; when Riverside closed, a reporter asked Krause, "What is the most potent race car you have been in?" Old Yeller II, he replied.
In 1974 it was put to pasture and sat in a backyard in Fresno, California for years. It was rebuilt and raced for another ten years before Ernie Nagamatsu, a successful dentist in Los Angeles, bought it in 1989. Its seller had been trying to get rid of the junkyard dog for three years. "I was a good friend of Max and that I had all the programs, trophies, dash plaques, and lap charts and so on for the car," said Nagamatsu. "I even had letters, invoices, photos, and more!"
Ten years earlier, he had been introduced to Balchowsky through a friend at Hollywood Motors. The two became fast friends. They would get coffee in Glendale: Balchowsky reminiscent, Nagamatsu rapt. They went to races, drove in Baja and at Riverside, and spent their Thanksgivings with each other. When Ina Balchowsky fell ill, they visited her almost every night. When Hollywood Motors closed and the couple was forced to liquidate everything inside, Nagamatsu opened up his garage and soon found himself with decades of trophies, equipment, and memories. "Max had a knack for keeping people off guard," . "You never really knew if he was joking or not. Krause was once asked if anyone ever really knew who Max was and he said, 'No. No one ever really knew who he was.'"
Nagamatsu spared little expense bringing it back to its 1959 appearance. Whitewalls and everything. Then, the honors poured in. Nagamatsu took it to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the Goodwood Revival, the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance (where it won the People's Choice Award), and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, where it won the event's highest award, the Phil Hill Trophy. "If only Max and Ina could see the Old Yeller II on manicured grass fairways of Pebble Beach," . "If only they were around to see Billy Krause once again after 40 years race the Old Yeller II with fire and passion as he did in 1960…
"It is a blue collar, American motor underdog. It was sort of like a worker's car and we have tried to keep it that way to insure the legacy."