METALSMITH ON NITRO

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AL BER­GLER

Drag Racer - - Contents - Text and Photos by Bob McClurg

The Life and Times of

Al Ber­gler

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.

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