A Conversation With The Grump

Super Chevy Interviews the One and Only Bill Jenkins

Jim McCraw Mar 15, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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William Tyler "Grumpy" Jenkins is as much a Chevrolet icon as Gaston, Louis, and Arthur Chevrolet, and he has won a lot more races than they ever did. He has been building small-block Chevrolet V-8 engines since 1955, the year they came out. He has been building big-block Chevrolet engines since they year they came out, 1958. He has built and raced OS/S cars, A/FX cars, Super Stock cars, match-race cars, Junior Stock cars, and Pro Stock cars, both big-block and small-block. His small-block Pro Stock Vega turned the traditionally big-block class upside down in 1972. He's built V-8 and V-6 Chevrolet and GM engines for NASCAR competition, and when NHRA created Pro Stock Truck, he practically owned it with his customer 358 engines. He has been inducted into every motorsports and racing hall of fame there is in these United States.

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Jenkins has been building racing engines for about 60 years now, and continues to do just that every day at age 81 in his modest but efficient shop in Malvern, Pennsylvania. We sent Jim McCraw, a writer who has known Jenkins since 1963, to sit down with him in his Malvern office and talk about his formative years in racing. His report:

"I regard Bill Jenkins as the man who helped me get my career in automotive journalism started, and I have known him since I was a crewmember on the only Pontiac-powered Pontiac he ever built, the Lumley & Shaw 1963 Catalina hardtop 389 that was the national record holder and E/SA class winner at the NHRA Nationals in 1963. He's irascible, testy, intolerant, taciturn, monosyllabic, and all of those other things, but he is also impish and funny and delightful and the smartest engine man I have ever known. He's had a number of medical challenges in recent years, but he always comes back to the shop, because there is always more power and torque to be found.

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"We sat down with him in his crazy, cramped office full of trophies and photos and memorabilia and asked him to go back with us and reminisce about his earliest days and his formative years leading up to his first big-time, sponsored racecar, the 1961 Chevrolet Biscayne 409 coupe. His memory for automotive arcana and minutiae continues to amaze us."

Super Chevy: You've always lived near the Main Line area outside Philadelphia. Were you a city kid, a suburban kid, or a farm kid?
Bill Jenkins: I've always lived within 20 miles of where we're sitting, but when I was a kid, I lived on an unused farm, my grandfather's farm that had been a dairy farm, and then an orchard. I started thinking about engines in the middle of World War II, when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I figured that, pretty soon, I could get something I could drive around the farm with.

SC: People would be surprised, given your lifetime association with Chevrolet, that you started out as a Ford guy. Wasn't your first car a Model A Ford?
BJ: Yeah. The Model A had the fuel and spark controls inside the car, so it would teach you how it worked and what to do, what to feel for. I had been working on farms to earn money, and when I was 14, I gave a guy a hundred dollars for a Model A that wasn't in very good shape.

SC: So, like many boys in your generation, you were working early in life?
BJ: Yeah. After the war, in the summer of 1945, I got a job at a Farmall dealership in West Chester, working on tractors and putting tractor implements together from kits. In 1949, my freshman year at Cornell, I went to a Pontiac-Cadillac dealership in Coatesville as a grunt, doing whatever they wanted me to do.

SC: You were enrolled at Cornell University as a mechanical engineering student?
BJ: Yeah. That went on through 1951, until my father got killed. He was bludgeoned to death by a hitchhiker he picked up. He had been an architect, doing interiors for department stores and restaurants, and he'd been through the double whammy of the Depression and then the war, and was starting to do better when he got killed.

I struggled through another year, and then I was really hurtin', so I didn't go back after three years. In the meantime, I'd gotten interested in metal, and I switched to metallurgical engineering from straight mechanical. One of my customers ran Lukens Steel in Coatesville, the biggest steel plate mill in the world. I went back again in the spring of '55 and accumulated 105 credits or so. Come finals week, I ended up in the hospital with what they supposed was appendicitis, but it wasn't. So I had to take a bunch of special finals. I passed everything that year, but I never graduated.

The '55 Chevy convertible was there at that point. I was working on Oldsmobiles at Usher's in Downingtown for three or four years, and I had a fairly good clientele at that point, fixing Cadillacs, when I was about 21 or 22 years old, moonlighting on whatever. Moved to Wayne. Lost my clientele. Almost didn't make it during the winter of 1959-'60, doing whatever I could to make money, even plowing snow. From that point on it's been all right.

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