METALSMITH ON NITRO
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AL BERGLER
The Life and Times of
ICONIC DRAG RACER AND METALSMITH AL BERGLER WAS BORN IN 1936 AND GREW UP IN THE DETROIT AREA. He attended Washington Trade School where he learned autobody and mechanical work. In the mid’60s, the Michigander’s career blossomed twofold: He became one of the most respected metalsmiths in America, and a drag racer who established himself as one of the toughest competitors in NHRA Division 3 racing Comp Coupes, roadsters and Funny Cars. The winner of the 2004 NHRA-Hot Rod Reunion Lifetime Achievement Award, an inductee into the 2010 Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame and 2015 inductee into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, Bergler had plenty to talk about when Drag Racer Magazine sat down with him at his shop in Shelby Township, Michigan.
Drag Racer: Growing up in the Motor City, your automotive interests must have developed fairly early.
BERGLER: I lived just inside 8-Mile Road, which was the border between Detroit and the suburbs. Motor City Speedway was across the street from where I lived, and a lot of famous big name circletrack drivers came from as far away as California to race there. As kids, we’d sneak in and watch the qualifying. Later on, I worked there painting fences, selling programs, popcorn and peanuts just to get in for free and watch the races.
DR: Bet you couldn’t wait to get your driver’s license.
BERGLER: We lived pretty close to Gratiot Avenue, which in those days was the used car capital of the world. A friend of mine got a job on one of the lots cleaning cars. He discovered the car lot next door needed a lot boy. I got the job for 50 cents an hour. The neat part was anytime anything came in that looked like a hot rod that had eyebrows or fender skirts on it, we got to take it all off and keep that stuff. This lot’s where my first car, a 1941 Ford convertible, came from.
DR: What came next?
BERGLER: In the late-’50s, I built a ’34 Ford roadster that started life with a flathead but quickly graduated to a 392 Chrysler Hemi with six Stromberg 97 carbs. There was a place in Detroit called the Ethyl Corporation that dyno-tested engines for the factories, then they’d sell off the motors. A friend of mine knew some of the people there and arranged for me to buy one at a ridiculously cheap price. That’s where that first Hemi came from. I used to race the ’34 out at Motor City Dragway. I made up a roll bar out of square pipe.
DR: Were you in a car club?
BERGLER: Yes, I belonged to the MMAC [Michigan Modified Auto
Club]. At the time, a number of the members, including Ramcharger Don Westerdale, were getting involved with drag racing. When Detroit Dragway opened in 1959, I was running a rear-engine ’51 Crosley with a Chrysler in it called the Exterminator. The car ran in the A/Comp Coupe class, but it didn’t perform all that well. In 1960, I built the original Aggravation, a Bantam-bodied Competition Coupe running a Scotty Fenn chassis.
DR: Was that when you became associated with Gratiot Auto Supply?
BERGLER: Angelo Giampetroni rode his bike to Gratiot Auto Supply when he was maybe
14. He did little things like sweeping up and stocking the pop machine. When he came out of the Army he went to work at Gratiot full-time. At the time, I worked about a mile away at Matt’s Collision body shop, which is how I met Angelo and got hooked up with Gratiot as a sponsor. That would have been in the late-’50s. By then, Gratiot Auto Supply had become one of the biggest speed shops in Michigan, and they had a lot of connections in California. I didn’t get any money from Gratiot as a sponsor, but I got a lot of free stuff through them. They also ordered my first dragster chassis straight from Chassis Research.
DR: Was the original Aggravation your first serious race car?
BERGLER: No, my first serious race car was probably the Logghe-chassis Bantambodied More Aggravation car that won the Ridler Award in 1964. That was a real thrill for me. I think you got a thousand dollars cash and a 427 SOHC Ford motor from Ford Motor Company to win. Angelo was really close to Connie Kalitta, so we sold him the Ford motor and bought one of his ¾-inch Moldex-stroked 392 Hemis and put that in More Aggravation. We ran 184 a couple of times and set a couple of track records.
DR: Then you built the canopy car?
BERGLER: With the completion of the canopy car, I listed More Aggravation for sale. Back then you couldn’t sell these cars; they were just old race cars. Somebody came up with the bright idea of raffling off More Aggravation at the Autorama
at Cobo Hall. I wanted five grand for the car, and there were 70,000 people who went through the doors, so we figured we should be able to sell at least five thousand dollars’ worth of tickets at a buck a piece. Al Pierce was one of the main guys there, and he said, ‘You can’t just have a raffle. You have to donate some money to a church or some type of charity or at least give something in return.’ Well, Angelo comes up with the idea of giving out a Gratiot Auto Supply catalog. Anyone who buys a ticket gets a catalog and a chance to win the car for a dollar.
DR: How did that work out?
BERGLER: [Laughing] Not so good. In the end, we sold about $2,800 worth of tickets. I thought, well, I’ll just have to live with that. I took the motor out and we just gave the car away. Then Angelo tells me that I had to pay for the cost of the catalogs, which were about 30 cents apiece. That kind of tightened my butt up a little.
DR: You had a long and beneficial relationship with Gratiot?
BERGLER: Gratiot sponsored both Aggravation cars and then the roadster with the canopy on it. Then they got involved with the Maynard Rupp-driven Chevoom rearengine Chevelle Funny Car. Looking back, if it hadn’t been for Gratiot Auto Supply being able to contact the manufacturers directly and get the right parts and technical information, it would have been a heck of a lot harder.
DR: You qualified for a trip to the NHRA World Finals a couple of times, didn’t you?
BERGLER: We set a bunch of national records with
More Aggravation. We were runner-up at the NHRA World Finals at Tulsa, first with More Aggravation in 1968, and then with the canopy car in ’69. I also won the NHRA Spring nationals at Bristol in 1966.
DR: We understand you did all the tinwork on Mercury’s flip-top Comet Funny Cars?
BERGLER: Yes, I did all of the aluminum work on the original [1966-67] flip-top Mercury Comets for Logghe Stamping, and things just kind of took off from there. Those bodies were built locally. I had just opened my shop on Gratiot Avenue. Angelo used to come by and we’d go to lunch. At the time, he was building roadster frames, front axles, and eventually got into building complete street roadster kit cars called the Gratiot Ts, so he said, ‘You need to open up your own business.’ I replied, ‘I’m married and have two kids to support. If I was only sure I could make enough money, I’d start my own business.’ He assured me that I could, and I started building all of his frames, wishbones and front axles for the cars he was selling. Up until then I had envisioned myself strictly as a fabricator, body man and painter. When I started building More Aggravation, I went to see Tony Muchas, who wanted $300 to do the nosepiece. I was only making about a 100 dollars a week, so that was three weeks’ pay. I said, man, I should be able to do this. I got some aluminum and started wrapping it around some pipe. Fortunately, there were a lot of magazine articles with guys like Tom Hanna showing how they used pipes to bend the aluminum into shape. At the time, Ron Logghe was having Proto Products do the body on his dragster, so I rode over there with him and they gave me a few pointers about metal shaping. On the way home Ron said, ‘Al, you can do this. I’ll help and teach you anything I might know.’ I started doing most of the dragster bodies in the area, and then graduated up to Funny Car interiors.
DR: Your association with Logghe Stamping Company was well established. Was it a given that when you switched to Funny Cars it would be with a Logghe chassis?
BERGLER: Logghe did the front axle for my Chassis Research car. I really liked running a dragster and Competition Coupes, but all the Funny Car guys used to hang out at my shop. One day, a track promoter from Tri-City Dragway called and said, ‘Is there anybody there that has a Funny Car with four wheels that will start? I’ll pay a 1,000 dollars for them to come up here and make two runs.’ I said, ‘We got dragsters,’ and the guy said, ‘We don’t book dragsters, only Funny Cars.”
Logghe had been running the Prock & Howell Warhorse ’70 Mach-1 Mustang Funny
Car, and they wanted to quit. Tom Prock, Pete Seaton—with whom I shared a shop— and I joined up and built a Logghe Chassis Vega Funny Car and called it Seaton’s Shaker. We took the car to California for the Last Drag Race at Lions. We were just learning how to run the thing. It was cold and rainy and there were so many people you could hardly move. Seaton got angry and said, ‘I want no part of this,’ and went home.
After the race, we took the car over to Kirby’s and stripped off all the paint, had him repaint the car candy red and blue and lettered ‘Bergler & Prock’ on the sides. Back then, you could get all the bookings you wanted. Frank Le Sueur, Ed Rachanski and Ira Litchey from the Gold Agency had us booked in all over the place. Then Prock got hooked up with Fred and Phil Castronovo at Custom Auto Body Enterprises. I repainted the Vega black with flames.
Since the shop was so busy, I hired Butch Maas to drive for that first year. We did fairly well, but Butch was having all the fun, and I was doing all the work. Butch finally decided that he wanted to go back home to California, so I started driving again.
DR: Then you built the Mustang II in 1974?
BERGLER: Well, I didn’t totally build that car myself. The car still had a Logghe frame. After that I built the Motown Shaker Corvette, and my last car was a Pontiac Firebird.
DR: What were some of your career highlights with the later Motown Shaker cars?
BERGLER: I won the IHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway and a number of races on the Coca Cola Funny Car Cavalcade of Stars or Coke Circuit.
DR: Then you quit?
BERGLER: I quit drag racing in 1982 and started working on street rods. Then in 2001, Ed Golden called, telling me that he had bought the Probe AA/FD originally owned by Lou Smith, and wanted me to build a nosepiece for it. He said the back half of the body was still there when I built it originally, but it needed a new nose. Ed was pretty persistent and kept calling me. Finally, I built him the nosepiece, and I started thinking, hey, this is pretty cool doing this again after all these years. He had the car at the first Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and wanted me to come down there and drive. I drove my street rod down to Bowling Green along with a couple of other guys from the Detroit area that had hot rods and participated in the Cacklefest. Event Director Steve Gibbs said we had to do a practice push-start since I hadn’t done one in 30 years. We drove down the track and fired the car up. As I turned the car around, it came over me: I couldn’t believe I had a chance to do this again.
DR: So you were hooked all over again?
BERGLER: Yes, that got me hooked all over again. I said to myself, I’ve got to find the More Aggravation car. I found some of the parts like the back half of the frame here in Michigan. Another guy in Buffalo, New York, had the body. I built a new front end and put that car back together. I took it to the Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green and Steve Gibbs asked me to put the car in the lobby of the host hotel. Gene and Ron Logghe were getting the Lifetime Achievement Award that year, so when they walked into the hotel lobby they were blown away to see the car sitting there.
DR: So, you’re back in the (vintage) race car business again?
BERGLER: Since then, I’ve done 10 dragsters and four Funny Cars or cackle cars. I did the Ramchargers and Color Me Gone Funny Cars for Jim and Julie Matusek. I’ve done a Top Fuel car for John Logghe, Gene’s son; a Special Edition Top Fuel car for Jim Walther; Larry Payne’s Gang Green car and the body on Connie Kalitta’s last 392 Hemi car, which was originally on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine. That car was a real challenge, as I hadn’t built a tail section on a Top Fuel car for a long, long time.
DR: What would you say was the best thing that drag racing has done for you?
BERGLER: It’s everything. It’s been the best years of my life. At 80 years old, it’s almost like I’ve been born again. I’m having a ball, that’s all I can tell you. You know, my parents never went to the races to watch me run. I don’t know whether they liked it or didn’t like it. It was strictly my thing. After my mom passed away, we were cleaning out her condo, and in her dresser I found all the pictures and all the magazine articles that were ever written about me, and that made me really feel good.
Al Bergler and his recently completed injector scoop for Connie Kalitta’s AA/FD restoration
Bergler’s first real hot rod was this ’34 Ford, which was initially flathead powered, but quickly graduated to Hemi power with the help of lifelong friend Angelo Giampetroni.
Bergler’s first real race car was this rear-engine Chrysler-powered Crosley station wagon named the Exterminator, which competed in A/Comp Coupe. Pictured in no apparent order are Al and drag racing luminaries Gene and Ron Logghe and Jim Cavalarro.
ABOVE. This was Bergler’s first Aggravation Bantambodied Comp Coupe. In this photo taken at Detroit Dragway, he races Vern Tratechaud’s Touché gas dragster driven by Bill Habousch.
BELOW. Bergler’s breakout car was the More Aggravation Bantam coupe, which won the Ridler Award, set numerous records and was runner-up in class at the 1968 NHRA World Finals in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In 1972, Bergler, Pete Seaton and Tom Prock built this Logghechassis Vega that initially ran under the Seaton’s Shaker name. When Seaton quit, the name changed to Bergler & Prock. When Prock left to drive for Fred and Phil Castronovo, the Motown Shaker was born. Best speed and ET on this car was 6.12-240.