Secret Wrecking Yard Part 1 by Michelle M. Yiatras Timechanic ™ When 96 yr old Jim Kurten came down the steps of his heyday LA County home in sylvan Arcadia, CA, he didn’t greet us hello, rather he proclaimed, “I’m the only one left. All the rest are dead!” It struck my soul as I was acutely aware of this. He caught me at the base of the haughty sycamore in his front yard gazing right up the trunk in awe. “It’s a hundred years old, and so is the avocado in back.” They are as old as him. The trees were firmly planted twenty years before the house was built amongst them in 1930, and were forty by the time Jim joined the homestead and stayed. The avocado tree in the backyard is a mighty fine character (St. Francis stands sentinel at its roots), just like Jim. Jim invented the Kurten ignition. James Paul Kurten, born November 11, 1914, at the beginning of WW1 (which ended on his fourth birthday, Armistice Day aka Veterans and Remembrance Day), in Pasadena to German Catholic and Welsh Episcopalian stock, the first born of two children, is a lifelong So Californian. His father was a Catholic seminarian who took initial vows and then quit the priesthood to marry. His mother was a seamstress tailor of Little Lord Fauntleroy children’s fashion. Jim demonstrated prodigious mechanical talent at the age of six, when he repaired his mother’s Singer pedal sewing machine by taking it apart and successfully putting it back together improved. His formal long term job as a young teen was gas station mechanic in Alhambra, where he also expertly installed and repaired Smith Motor Wheels to the town’s bicycles. “A guy liquidated his business and gave me an upright piano crate full of the parts and I built them for my friends.” He befriended the teenaged Spalding brothers, Bill and Tom from Glendora, in 1930, and the bunch of them started building and speed racing hot rods to overcome despondency from the Depression. “Bill and Tom souped up and drove the tractors on their farm. They were always easy guys to get along with. Tom worked with me at the airport. Their mother, Effie, would make us hamburgers, and oranges from their grove, for lunch so we ate. We started developing ignitions in 1934. Ford V8 stock ignition was no good for turning out fast. When people wanted their V8’s to work better, they looked us up. None of us got patents though.” In high school he got his Model T to go 100 mph, so the impressed gas station owner bought it for $25. At the gas station he caught the eye of the owner of the Monrovia airport by fixing his problematic auto engine, and went to work there in 1931, trading work time for flying time, and by eighteen had his private pilot’s license. While working at the airport and attending trade school, he also accomplished his instructor’s ratings. He learned to fly on a civilian WACO 10 open cockpit biplane with an OX5 Curtiss single engine (also Howard Hughes’ first personal aircraft 1927); in the 1920’s-30’s they had built a surplus. Jim was nineteen, twenty years old when he and the Spaldings first developed their respective ignitions. They sold them at Bell Auto Parts. “Nearly all two coil ignition systems had been tried by the car companies. I made the cam spark with aircraft points, better for speed. I was friends with George Wight who started BAP. He bought ignitions from all of us. George carried everything, and everybody beat their way to Bell Auto Parts. Roy Richter, who worked there and took over later in the 1940’s, really liked my ignitions and sold a lot of them. He was a hot rodder and racer himself.” Jim established Kurten Aero-Motive in Alhambra in 1936-41. Tom and Bill Spalding were his partners at the time. Bill built up the roadsters and streamliners and Tom raced them at the lakes and salts, clocking high very early on before it was official (pre-War). Tom was a pilot in the Navy during the War flying dive bombers on aircraft carriers. He won many medals. He was shot at yet made it out alive, Lieutenant Commander. KAM made ignitions for high performance aircraft engines, sprint and midget racing cars, boat engines, as well as daily driver automobiles. Later Jim also partnered with Harman-Collins from 1940-42. “I didn’t like car clubs, I wasn’t a joiner, except for life Eagle Scouts.” Jim had racked up 1000+ hours flight time as a young man civilian, and onset WW2 was drafted for the duration as engine technician and flight instructor for the US Army Air Corps. A punctured eardrum from a childhood cold kept him mainland. Jim made it to Captain in reserve status. During the War he flew his favorite military trainer two crew open cockpit biplanes, Boeing Stearman Aircraft’s models PT-13 with Lycoming engine, PT-17 with Continental engine, PT-18 with Jacobs engine. “Everyone loved a Stearman because they were beautiful to look at and built strong. Stress tested at 1200 horsepower to fly dependably over 220 hp.” It’s distinctive sound like a full race Ford flathead. In 1942 Jim met his wife, Zereta, while she worked a summer secretarial job at Al’s Speed Shop in Pasadena. Jim would stop in to buy parts and visit the owner. Their business was to hop up cars. Jim was based for five years at Cal-Aero Academy military training airport in Ontario, now the Ontario Airport. Zereta utilized her sociology and musical orchestra degrees to become a social worker and concert piano player. “After the War it was tough going so I went into aviation at Monrovia Airport and Santa Paula Airport, as the machine shop specialist and flight instructor, fixing airplanes and teaching civilians to fly.” They married in 1946. Jim sold one of his six hot rods to buy the engagement ring. “Model A with Model B engine and a Cragar head that was lakes tested at 105 mph. It was a beauty and Bill Spalding bought it because it was a hot four. I never was into the four port Riley, I was all into the OHV. The last of the great fours.” His first hot rod in 1932 was a Model T Ford, “Muroc speed trapped at 101 mph when I got all through with it. Rajo head. Two model 1 ½” M Winfield carbs. Magneto drive with a Bosch model ZR4 two spark mag. Was the best ignition you could get then. Winfield racing cam. It was the first Model T to break 100 at the lakes in 1933. I did the most work on and rarely drove it on the streets, it was a lakes job. I liked to keep it in top shape.” Later gows included, “Model A with two port Riley, only went 95 mph. I didn’t go to all the expense for the carburetion. The two port was Riley’s first and didn’t go as fast as the four port. I drove it regular on the streets. Not as hopped up as the Model T.” Jim accumulated forty-six motorcycles by 1949 from his first new 1929 Indian 101 Scout two-cylinder, to Ace 4’s, Ariel 4’s, Cleveland 4’s, Henderson 4’s, and Indian 4’s. The Ariel Square Four and the Cleveland four-cylinder T-head were his favorite sweeties. “In the army I didn’t fool with military bikes, they were made for chasing around and not racing. I worked on a lot of them though,” and after the army went back to his square 4’s. Zereta asked him to give up racing when the first of two children was born. Jim reflects, “Then we fell in love and the girls got their way and took over.” We compared notes regarding the acoustical merits of late 1920’s-30’s 78 rpm’s (bandleaders Bert Ambrose and Paul Whiteman with Bing Crosby) playback on a diamond stylus pickup vs. the remastered CD’s. The reverie mood of his mint shellac prevailed over my iPod Classic RCA-jacked into my 1933 Philco Junior 80B and pretend. “We went to the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd in LA, in the 1930’s-40’s. Gus Arnheim and Ray Noble played. We dressed coat, tie, and gown. We dined on halibut and bourbon ginger ales, and danced to the orchestras. I drove my ’36, ’38, ’39, ’42 Buicks. Also attended the Biltmore Hotel in MacArthur Park.” Many summer and winter counts have not eroded Jim’s sensibilities. “American manufacturing has been outpriced by the rest of the world. The unions, insurance agencies, and environmentalists jacked up the wages so high that manufacturers can’t pay the labor, and can’t compete with other countries. It’s going to be a big leveling adjustment for the everyday laborer that the labor force works for less money, and for everyone that wants American made conscientiousness sacrifices by paying more for it. It’s a tremendous adjustment; I’ve lived through it myself.” Stop demanding to be wards of your government and company. A balance of standards can be maintained without exhausting the employers.