Filed under: History
Toward the end of 1928, Harry Miller teamed up with George Schofield and a few other cronies to form Schofield Incorporated of America – otherwise known as Miller – Schofield. They planned to produce and market high performance parts for the new model A Ford. They did carbs, camshafts, and pistons, but their signature product was the “Valve-in-Head” – a design by the legendary Leo Goosen.
The company seemed to be doing well until, in 1930, something pissed off the ever volatile Harry Miller and he split to open up yet another racing engine company. The result was the bankruptcy of Miller-Schofield. Schofield tried to continue producing the Valve-in-Head using a local Los Angeles high school shop teacher as a partner, but that collaboration failed as well.
In 1930, a group of investors decided to give the head another shot. Harlan Fengler and Crane Gartz formed a partnership, picked up production of the Valve-in-Head, and called themselves Cragar. Buy the spring of 1931, the Cragar Valve-in-Head was on the market for $112.50 – a bargain even in those times. However, the depression was more than Cragar could stand and they folded in 1932.
This is where it gets interesting. The Valve-in-Head design was still very popular with local Southern California hot rodders. And, at the time, this group of young men was more or less being lead by a guy named George Wright. George owned a quarter-acre salvage yard and was an avid speed part collector based out of Bell, California.
As an ex racer, George had a fascination with speed equipment. He collected it rigorously and soon found himself displaying his favorite parts on shelves in his office – overheads, carbs, high speed cams, etc… Before too long, local hot rodders began to see George as a bit of an expert and often went to him with shoestring budgets looking for speed parts. Soon, George gave in and began to think of his salvage yard more as a speed shop. He called it Bell Auto.
With the change of focus from salvage to speed, Bell Auto quickly became a local hang out for hot rodders. Fellas would come out, buy a part, run it, and then return to report on the effectiveness of the modification. George paid attention and began to catalog the ideas that worked along with those that didn’t. It was an early form of Research & Development.
This idea progressed when in the early 1930′s, George teamed with the young Gilmore Oil to organize a series of dry-lakes events at Muroc. George now had his finger on the pulse of the budding Southern California hot rodding community and knew exactly what they wanted… and figured he could make Bell Auto the place to get it.
So when Cragar failed in 1932, George knew it couldn’t be due to a lack of demand. He called Crane Gartz and made an offer on the remaining Cragar heads, the patterns, and all of the tooling. After six months of healthy negotiating, the Valve-in-Head became a product of Bell Auto. By 1933, George had made the production process so efficient that heads were now selling for south of $100. Business boomed.
In 1935, George then introduced the “Improved Cragar Head” that was developed for all out racing. This head met the market with success as well and soon George found himself as the head of a very successful speed shop. Bell Auto was tops.
Sadly, George died during WWII. Roy Richter, one of the kids that used to frequent the salvage yard, took over the reigns. Under his direction, Bell Auto became one of the first mail order speed shops and its Cragar subsidiary continued to prosper as well – becoming one of the most profitable post war speed brands.
We all know the history from there… Both Bell and Cragar continued to grow to new heights. But, it’s the early acquisition of Cragar that has always made me smile. Leo Goosen’s head had so many chances with so much financial backing. First, Harry Miller and his money men made a go at it. When that failed, Fengler and Gartz gave it a shot with the backing of some very rich Los Angeles banks. That didn’t work either. To bring a good idea to market, it took a guy with a tiny salvage yard and big ears to make it work – not money. Rad.