GEORGE HURST Hemmings Muscle Machines - SEPTEMBER 1, 2006 - BY JIM DONNELLY From garage rat to marketing genius Even today, details of his early years remain murky and difficult to pin down. Yet despite a sad conclusion to his life, it's beyond debate that George Hurst was not only one of the performance industry's great innovators, but he had very few peers when it came to means of ensuring that people knew his products. Twenty years after his untimely death, Hurst's legacy is his uncanny ability to build alliances with people who really counted, to the mutual benefit of everybody involved. We can say with relative certainty that during the 1950s, Hurst was a T-shirted young man who was very active in the drag racing scene that had boomed in eastern Pennsylvania, with little strips sprouting in many locations from the Pocono Mountains to neighboring stretches of southern New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Hurst, who was always conceptualizing greatness in his own mind, had an engineer buddy named Bill Campbell. In the late 1950s, they developed an alliance with a young firm named Anco Industries, founded by pioneering Pennsylvania hot rodder Ed Almquist, who had built a name by designing and marketing more than 100 speed components, ranging from performance heads for the flathead Ford V-8 to a simple water-alcohol vapor injector. Almquist had partnered with Jonas Anchel to form Anco in Glenside, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Almquist, the author of the sprawling history Hot Rod Pioneers published by SAE International, selected Hurst, his former business associate, as one of the topics in his book. He, too, knows little of Hurst's early years, other than he was apparently a Pennsylvania native, born in 1927, who never went beyond the eighth grade and dropped out of school to join the Navy when he was 16. As he put it, "George was like the rest of us, a born enthusiast, with a real passion for (performance cars). He started with nothing." When he made Almquist's acquaintance, Hurst and Campbell were working out of a garage outside Philadelphia in Abington, with engine mounts as their lead product, when two problems occurred. First, a California firm began producing copies of their engine mounts. Next, Hurst became separated from his wife. They found refuge at Anco, where Almquist helped them design an improved engine mount called the Adjusta-Torque. At meetings, Almquist and Hurst debated new products for the company, and focused first on exhaust headers before Hurst persuaded Almquist to build an aftermarket floor shifter. Almquist suggested a design with an adjustable fulcrum he had developed, but Hurst was determined to build a more complicated dual-pattern design. When the first Hurst shifter appeared in 1959, it already had its signature curved, flat chromed lever topped by a knob that resembled a cue ball. Almquist and Anchel balked at providing $90,000 in startup cash, however, leading Hurst and Campbell to leave. An agreement between Almquist and Hurst, in which the two decided to focus on aftermarket retailing and component development, respectively, endured for the rest of Hurst's life. At that point, a new employee of the equally new Hurst Performance Inc., Jack "Doc" Watson, described by Almquist as then a gofer, made a personal connection that would set the company's role in history. Through his mother, Watson made a contact with Pontiac, which ended up selecting a four-speed version of the Hurst shifter as standard equipment for its 1961 Catalina powered by the 421-cu.in. Super Duty engine. Watson and Hurst shared an incredible zeal for promotion, and Hurst would ultimately become the guy who made deals with manufacturers, and Watson the technician who made those deals into tangible products. The Super Duty's instant-legend status propelled Hurst, despite its location in Warminster, Pennsylvania, well outside the generally accepted hot-rod mainstream, to industry leadership. Hurst launched into sponsoring race cars and larding out contingency largesse. With Pontiac, Hurst developed custom wheels for the 1965 GTO. Doc became the traveling face of Hurst, dubbed its "Shifty Doctor," hauling a portable machine shop to major drag races and offering free repairs of Hurst products. Also in 1965, he was named head of the new Hurst Performance Center that opened outside Detroit, with the express intent of broadening Hurst's relationships with manufacturers. That led to Hurst-developed creations including the 1968 factory-lightweight cars that Chrysler commissioned for Super Stock drag racing. Other innovations would include the His & Hers shifters so often associated with automatic-transmission GTOs. Watson would create two of the most memorable exhibition cars in drag history, the Hemi Under Glass wheelstander and the dual-engine Hairy Oldsmobile. Hurst also deserves credit for rescuing the pace car program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, partnering with Oldsmobile for a series of pace cars when manufacturers balked at the program, after a Dodge Challenger driven by a local dealer injured scores when it skidded into a photographers' platform at the start of the 1971 Indy 500. <object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/OTNDPmIO4Lw&hl=en&fs=1"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/OTNDPmIO4Lw&hl=en&fs=1" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object> Hurst's decision to take his company public in 1968 would ultimately be his undoing. In 1970, Sunbeam Corp., known for countertop kitchen appliances, bought Campbell's share of the company. Despite Hurst's development of the Jaws of Life rescue tool, now standard equipment at fire departments worldwide, the company's new owners had forced him out by the mid-1970s. His despondency culminated with his death in 1986. He was only 59. From http://www.hurstjaws.com/ "The Hurst shifter was the industry's fastest-selling aftermarket item of all time, other than wheels," Almquist told HMM. "Bill Campbell told me that George could figure things out in his head that Bill needed a slide rule to do. He called him a walking Barnum and Bailey, a brilliant promoter." This article originally appeared in the SEPTEMBER 1, 2006 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.