Last March, when Ed “Isky” Iskenderian picked up the Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Hot Rod & Restoration Show in Indianapolis, he talked about the automobile engine business in the early years.
The Iskenderians were Armenians who fled Turkey and came to America around 1910, settling in Northern California’s wine country. When frost destroyed the vineyards, the family moved to L.A. and sold shoes. Around 1933, Ed got interested in the stripped down Model Ts or Whippets called ‘Gug Jobs’ (Get Up and Go cars) or ‘Hot Iron.’ He went to California’s dry lakes to see them race.
Iskenderian attended Polytechnic High School in L.A. and his pet project was a Model T Ford roadster. He became familiar with early speed equipment, including overhead valve conversions like the Frontenac (Fronty) design and the “multi-flathead” setup engineered by George Riley.
“If you really wanted to know about engines in those days you found your way to Ed Winfield,” Iskenderian said. “He was one of the foremost authorities on racing cams in 1933-1934. He raced right here in Indy. He brought his cams and carburetors there on test days before the big race.”
Iskenderian stressed that there were no car magazines at the time. “We had to learn from the older fellows,” he pointed out. “When people went to buy a cam or carburetor from Ed Winfield, they came back with a little more knowledge, too. I bought my first cam from him and he showed me the machine he had built. I was fascinated by it, because you had to build your own stuff in those days.”
Iskenderian built a Model T hot rod that he still has in 1939. He replaced the Model T frame with a beefier Essex unit that could hold a souped-up V8 with Navarro – and later Edelbrock – intake manifolds. By 1942, he ran the car to 120 mph at the dry lake in El Mirage. A set of Jahn’s pistons took the compression ratio up to 13:1 and a Vertex magneto heated up the spark.
Triple Stromberg 97s fed the fuel in and the original cam was a Winfield (later replaced with an Isky, of course). Other elements blended into the car included an Auburn dash panel, a 1939 Ford gearbox and a Ford rear end. After being quoted long delivery times for a replacement Clay Smith cam, Iskenderian experimented with his own grind.
Iskenderian knew his ads in Hot Rod magazine worked, because he was selling five cams a week and making $20 on them. After he opened his business, the camshaft wizard answered customer letters personally. He sold a lot of cams through speed shops. In the beginning, he had two employees, but later he would employee as many as 60 people as the business took off and grew.
“By golly, one day I got a call from a man in North Carolina who was racing in a new thing called NASCAR. He asked how much experience I had,” Iskenderian recalled. “I was scared I was going to have to tell him I was a hot rodder who had been in business for three months, but luckily he didn’t ask me.” The man had seen ads for Isky’s flathead Ford V8 cam and bought one.
“You could hear an engine with one of my cams coming from a half block away,” Isky explained. “They must have liked that, because we kept getting repeat orders from North Carolina and I started to get traction.” Isky’s little ads were written to pass on tips about installing camshafts and hot rodders liked that.
Isky was always afraid that some engineer would shoot his cam designs down. “Then, I realized that the engineers might have more expertise than me, but I had quite a bit of experience in making cams for different engines.”
Ed found different ways to grow his business. “We were making lots of cams for the ’49 Olds. ’49 Caddy flathead springs worked with them and cost 55-cents net. I asked around and found I could buy from Cadillac’s spring manufacturer for 40-cents each. So, we made a complete cam kit and called it an engineering kit and it sold well. It’s almost ironic I worried about criticism from engineers, but later got successful selling a product called an engineering kit.”
Isky’s 404 cam was a hot product. Drag racer Don Garlits purchased one for his Chrysler 331 Hemi-powered dragster. When Garlits put it in a larger 392- Hemi, it didn’t work well and he called Isky who said, “You need a different type of cam.” He sent one to Garlits. The racer used it to set a speed record and Isky advertised Garlits’ results and sold a record number of the same cam.
Now, history like this is fun to read, but can it help modern rebuilders of vintage engines in their own businesses today? You bet it can! Isky started off on the road to success by developing a passion for racing roadsters. He built one and learned from doing it. He went to school to learn more. He met the experts, listened to them and learned their tricks.
He “bundled” parts into kits that helped his customers, while bringing in more dollars and more profit. He advertised in a smart way, targeting his ad purchases to markets where he reached specific customers and creating ad copy that told them how to use his products and how his cam kits had helped famous racing drivers set competition records.
The vintage engine market of 2013 is a niche segment that very much resembles the budding hot rod industry of 60-65 years ago. Ed Iskenderian understood that hot rod market and knew that being successful in it depended largely on expertise, good communication and a reputation for dealing squarely with enthusiasts. If you can bring those same qualities to the vintage engine niche today, the chances are you’ll find plenty of good business waiting there.