My brother and I, he was younger, were hooked on Major League Baseball and the attendant collateral, mainly hero cards that were wrapped up with a thin slab of bubblegum. We had stacks of them wrapped in rubber bands. I don’t know why that stuff fascinated us so. Maybe because there were more major league teams where we lived than anywhere else in the country.
Before the Dodgers and the Giants defected, moved to the West Coast in the late ’50s, there were three teams, badass or not, you could cheer for: the Brooklyn Dodgers over on Flatbush Avenue, the mighty Yankees up in the Bronx, or the Giants on the eastside of upper Manhattan. My hero was wonderful number 24, outfielder and powerhouse named Willie Mays, “The Say Hey Kid.”
Then I discovered cars. It was a powerful thing. Open exhaust was the siren, flames shooting and an ungodly racket followed by a palpable warm silence. Very clearly it was a call to arms, a state of rebellion. More likely, I saw it as a place where I could be part of it, be a participant, not an observer. I never thought much about watching professional sports again.
Although my father was a Ford fan he was no hot rodder, but he loved mechanical things and couldn’t help but take them down to nothing and rebuild them completely. I was not invited to that sanctum, but then it dawned on me to take matters into my own hands, and so I did. I had a subscription to Hot Rod. There were how-to stories about the new small-block Chevrolet in there, the engine of the future. The other stuff I just muddled through, “learning” by doing, hands-on practice. Whether I was doing it right or wrong I don’t know.
When I was 14, Jenkins was 28 years old. I’d heard of the Monster Mash ’55 but never saw it. The first time I saw him run was against Jere Stahl at Englishtown in 1966. The Pennsylvania neighbors were a popular match in the A/Stock wars, Bill’s economy-sized 327 small-block Chevy II hardtop against Stahl’s mighty 426 Hemi Belvedere space ship.
Bill Jenkins came from a time when people had no compunction about working hard for what they wanted because the work ethic was still a societal norm and firmly in place. He read voraciously and indiscriminately. Given a few seconds he could recall almost everything he had ever read. He had a ridiculously high IQ and was a member of Mensa, the exclusive klatch for people with a ridiculously high IQ.
His inquisitiveness; persistence; and thoughtful, intelligent questions along with his ability of total recall, formed the corners of his foundation. Bill told me that he learned how to work on a car from old man Usher at Usher Oldsmobile. Not long after, he discovered that people who do what others cannot or will not are usually held in some kind of awe. Quite happily, he discovered that others would pay graciously for his laying-on of hands. Though prescient and possessed of keen intuition, he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was very human. There are some things that I remember best about him.
The first time we spoke at length was 1970. I’d called him from Car Craft for advice, not aware that he hated stuff like that. I wanted to know about air pressure for the slicks we had on my responsibility, our Hemicuda project car. I can still hear him: “Ya gotta bleed enough air outta ’em until you feel ’em marble on the launch. You know, when the front of the tire pushes out and climbs up over itself. You can feel that. When that happens, you probably have the tire where it needs to be,” he grunted. That was the highlight. The rest of his lengthy explanations skimmed over my head like kites on fire. But I’d gotten advice from the master. I was overjoyed and greatly relieved.
In 1985, he told me: “In the early years I made a lot of good guesses. Until 1970, I made a lot of educated guesses, although with the big-blocks I felt lost. Though it might have seemed as if I was acting under a plan, I really hadn’t any at all. Things kept going wrong, things I had no excuse or reason for.” Then: “We were responsible for as many as 35 [NHRA Stock and Super Stock] records at one time that year and I went on an ego trip.” He dealt with it by not dealing with it, by ignoring people or by playing filibuster when a simple reply was all they wanted. He freely admitted: “I could never get away from the phone … the calls came at all hours … the situation drove me crazy and I always groused about it, but I was flattered nonetheless.”
Simultaneously, and quite in character, he drowned his customers with kindness, giving away priceless information and almost all of his time with equal zeal. Was this the first recognition that really meant something to the dreamer kid, that he was finally accepted, finally successful? In high school, he joined various clubs, Photography, French, National Honor Society, and Stagecraft—he supposedly had a walk-on part in The Blob, which was partially filmed in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, (but I’ve never been able to substantiate that)—mainly to be elbow-close to nubile young things. Yes, it’s true.
Though Bill could certainly incite a riot at any public gathering where alcohol was served, in truth he was a very private being. It was easy for him to see this quality in others. He saw it in me and would send niggling notes or make comments to some effect—all very personal but at the same time in very good humor—like I was one of his guys.
Considering that, who else had seen his knife-throwing act? Maybe he only did it once, I don’t know. We were awaiting lunch at a Howard Johnson’s in Claremont, California, and to the best of my recollection, there was no alcohol involved. Bill was just in a festive mood. We were ensconced in a dining room by ourselves (four of us, I think). Bill cackled. Bill grabbed knives from the other tables. Bill propped himself against the back of the booth and began winging blades at the opposite wall. He might have stuck one firm but the rest of the steel made a hellacious racket as they caromed off the wall and clattered on the floor. Not a peep from the management. We ate, somebody had a tuna melt I remember, and walked out like nothing had happened.
I can see him now, back to the wall by his desk in the Malvern pit, chair squeaking. “What was your favorite car,” I asked. He plucked a half-smoked Dutch Master from a box of leftovers (he was nothing if not frugal) and fired it up. He rolled the butt around in his mouth and puffed mightily. “The Z11 Impala,” he rasped. “It was awesome.”
About the Author: Ro McGonegal began in this business back in 1968. He’s been editor of Car Craft, Hot Rod, and Chevy High Performance. He’s a wealth of old-school knowledge and his stories from “back in the day” are epic.