Old Yeller II Brings Hollywood Glamour to Hill Climb

Wednesday 15 June 2016

A 1959 race car that starred in the Elvis Presley classic Viva Las Vegas is travelling all the way from California to compete at the Chateau Impney Hill Climb next month.

The Old Yeller II Balchowsky Buick Special was built by legendary car fettler Max Balchowsky, and was driven by famed car designer and racer Carroll Shelby in the 1960s. Now in the hands of Ernie Nagamatsu, Old Yeller II will make the journey across the Atlantic to face off against a series of highly competitive 1950s and 1960s sports cars at the prestigious Droitwich motorsport event this July.

Old Yeller II was first conceived in Hollywood Motors, the workshop owned by Max Balchowsky and his wife, Ina, which specialised in conversions. Well known for his custom modifications throughout the Californian hot-rod scene, Max frequently worked on cars that would feature on the silver screen in films as diverse as Bullitt and The Love Bug, and often saw interesting vehicles come through his workshop.

In 1956, a Morgensen Special had been passed along to the workshop for sale, but Max saw great potential in the car and claimed it for himself, replacing its Plymouth engine with a Buick V8. It was repainted yellow, and Max, an avid racer, entered it into several events. The car became known as Old Yeller, and although Max enjoyed some success in the Morgensen, he started thinking about building a car for himself from scratch that could easily rival the Ferraris and Maseratis of the era.

Max and Ina started to develop Old Yeller II in late 1959, but had just seven weeks to do it in as they wanted to enter it into to the Riverside International Grand Prix. The garage’s philosophy was to keep everything as cheap as possible, so Old Yeller II was constructed from all manner of second-hand ‘junkyard’ parts, including a Jaguar gearbox, the rear-end of a Studebaker Champion, Jaguar/Buick suspension and a steering rack from a Morris Minor. Max also fitted the car with a 401c Buick V8 engine, which he tuned to perfection.

Although the car wasn’t ready for the Grand Prix, it was finished in time for a race at the San Diego Hourglass Field, where Max was able to test its capabilities. Although he didn’t finish the race, or win any of the other races he entered that year, Max proved that Old Yeller II could stand up to the more traditional cars on the circuit. The car soon attracted the attention of well-known drivers like Dan Gurney, the first driver to win races in the Sports Car Series, Formula One, NASCAR and Indie Car series and Carroll Shelby, the famed car designer. In particular, Shelby, who is most well-known for his involvement in developing the AC Cobra and Ford Mustang, would go on to compete in the car in the 1960 season and improve its fortunes on the track.

Max was once quoted as saying the overall cost of the Old Yeller II was just $1,452.76, whereas a Maserati Birdcage, the kind of car Old Yeller II often competed against, cost almost $11,000 at the time. Nevertheless, the ‘junkyard dog’ stood up to the test, and in 1960, Shelby took Old Yeller II to top speeds of 140mph.

Max sold the car in 1961 to fellow racer Chuck Baldwin, who raced it for several years. It then appeared in Viva Las Vegas in 1963, and has continued to race throughout the decades, with numerous modifications being made. Max proceeded to create more Old Yeller cars – ten in total – but none have achieved the same fame and recognition as his original creation.

Nowadays, Old Yeller II is owned and driven by Californian dentist Ernie Nagamatsu, a long-time friend of Max, who has taken the car to races all over the world and will be making the long journey across the Atlantic to compete in the Chateau Impney Hill Climb. Ernie has restored the car to its original specification and in recent years it has become well-known throughout the global historic racing community, having been invited to prestigious events such as Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing.

Ernie will also compete in the 1964 Shelby Cobra that faced off against Herbie in The Love Bug at this year’s Chateau Impney Hill Climb. He first encountered the Cobra on a visit to Max’s garage 32 years ago, and chose the car to begin his journey in historic racing with.

We can’t wait to see Ernie and his amazing American classics take on the European marques at this year’s event – luckily for us, there’s less than a month to go!

  • Old Yeller II at Chateau Impney Hill Climb, Droitwich
  • Old Yeller II at Chateau Impney Hill Climb, Droitwich
  • Old Yeller II at Chateau Impney Hill Climb, Droitwich
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