This Henry J was built to evoke drag racing mem­o­ries.


If you were born be­fore 1955, you might well re­mem­ber build­ing the fa­mous Rev­ell Henry J kit. Like most mod­els of that era, it was highly de­tailed with many small, frag­ile parts. It may have taken two or three tries be­fore you successful­ly built, painted, and ap­plied de­cals to an ex­am­ple that you would be proud to add to your dis­play case. At least that’s the way it was for me more than five decades ago, long be­fore I knew I would make a ca­reer out of pho­tograph­ing and writ­ing about cars, es­pe­cially full­size edi­tions of cars I built as 1:25 scale mod­els as a kid.

Fast-for­ward more than five decades. On a foggy spring morn­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, I’m hang­ing out the pas­sen­ger-side win­dow of my buddy’s 1967 AMC Ram­bler Rogue con­vert­ible, try­ing to prop­erly frame a full­size ver­sion of one of those mod­els.

The or­ange 1952 Kaiser Henry J is a trib­ute to the straight-axle gassers, the pre­cur­sors of the Funny Cars that would dom­i­nate pro­fes­sional drag racing decades later.

Deluxe read­ers know more about the ap­peal of the Henry J for the drag rac­ers of the late 1950s and into the 1960s than most folks. The for­mula was al­ways sim­ple: a big engine in­stalled in the light­est pos­si­ble body. But some might not know that the Henry J was the brain­child of in­dus­tri­al­ist and ship­builder Henry J. Kaiser (who pi­o­neered em­ployer-pro­vided health in­surance that still to­day bears his name). He was one half of the team that launched the Kaiser-frazer Cor­po­ra­tion out of the au­to­mo­tive as­sets of Gra­ham-paige. Kaiser-frazer was one of the first com­pa­nies to try to meet the huge de­mand for new au­to­mo­biles fol­low­ing the ra­tioning of the Sec­ond World War.

Be­cause of the buy­ers’ mar­ket and short­age of new cars fol­low­ing the end of the war, Kaiser-frazer en­joyed a de­gree of suc­cess. But by 1950, when the Big Three en­gaged in a take-no-pris­on­ers war for sales (in­ter­rupted by the out­break of the Ko­rean War), all the in­de­pen­dents, Kaiser-frazer in­cluded, clawed for mar­ket share. Packard, Stude­baker, Nash, and Hud­son all suf­fered.

In or­der to ex­pand its lineup, Kaiser cham­pi­oned the de­sign,

en­gi­neer­ing, and in­tro­duc­tion of an in­ex­pen­sive smaller car, one that would be easy to build, made from fewer parts (no glove­box, sparse in­te­rior trim, no open­ing deck­lid), and pow­ered by an eco­nom­i­cal four-cylin­der engine sourced from Willys-over­land. There was only one prob­lem with this plan. The Henry J was only about $200 cheaper ($2,000 to­day ad­justed for in­fla­tion) than an en­try-level, full­size Chevro­let. And yes, Sears sold a badge-en­gi­neered ver­sion of the car un­der the All­state brand.

Its en­gi­neer­ing sim­plic­ity ul­ti­mately made the Henry J ideal to use as a drag car. When it was dis­con­tin­ued af­ter the 1953 model year (a few were re-se­ri­al­ized as 1954 mod­els) and its au­to­mo­tive tool­ing was shipped off to Ar­gentina, there was a sur­plus of Henry J cars for drag rac­ers to work their magic upon.

For Randy and Jodell Zeal of Lake Havasu City, Ari­zona, all of this his­tory mat­ters lit­tle. Now re­tired and with the full sup­port of his wife, Randy has built this stun­ning 1952 Kaiser Henry J gasser. “We drive it ev­ery­where,” he says. “At the shows we at­tend, most of the show cars are brought in on trail­ers and see very lit­tle street time.”

“We met while street racing in high school in 1965,” says Jodell. “He raced my sis­ter that night. He was sit­ting on the hood of his ’57 Olds at Os­car’s drive-in restau­rant in Gar­den Grove. My sis­ter and I drove by in her ’64 Im­pala, a few words were ex­changed, and we’ve been to­gether ever since. We were mar­ried when Randy re­turned from Viet­nam.”

Randy grew up in Hunt­ing­ton Beach and drag raced at Li­ons, Or­ange County In­ter­na­tional Race­way, and Carls­bad Race­way, among oth­ers. He made a ca­reer own­ing and op­er­at­ing a ra­di­a­tor re­pair shop in La­guna Hills, a call­ing that led them to Fall­brook, then to Mur­ri­eta, be­fore re­tir­ing in Ari­zona.

Randy jok­ingly said the big­gest chal­lenge in build­ing the car was get­ting Jodell to write the checks.

“I re­tired at age 58,” he says. “Go­ing back to my drag racing days in the 1960s at Li­ons Drag Strip, I al­ways liked the Henry J gassers. Li­ons for me be­gan in 1964. Ran the strip al­most weekly with my ’57 Olds. It was a real sleeper since most peo­ple thought it was too heavy to be a good drag car. But lit­tle did they know that I stripped out as much weight as pos­si­ble and won many times in the Street Elim­i­na­tor class. In 1967 I built a ’23 T road­ster with a 425 Olds

and raced at Carls­bad and Or­ange County In­ter­na­tional Race­way un­til I was drafted.”

Years later Randy de­cided to build his own gasser. “At first, when I ac­quired the Henry J, I was go­ing to do a stock restora­tion. But with a top speed of about 40 mph, that was a non­starter. Then I de­ter­mined that it was the right car to do a gasser like I re­mem­bered the cars from al­most 50 years ago. Orig­i­nally we bud­geted $30,000 for the build. At last count, it has reached more than three times that amount.”

Randy char­ac­ter­izes his car as old-school fun. Re­mem­ber­ing the dura­bil­ity of the ’57 Olds rearend, that’s where the project started. “I’m an Oldsmo­bile man and never gave a sec­ond thought that the rearend would be any­thing but a ’57 Olds. I found one in a bone­yard in Phoenix. The car fea­tures a straight axle up front with lad­der trac­tion bars in the rear. It took time to fig­ure out the right gears, start­ing with a 4.56 spool rearend, but we could not keep the front end on the ground. Af­ter break­ing three sets of wheelie bars we now run a 4.30 posi­trac­tion dif­fer­en­tial and only pop wheel­ies when we want to. We wore out the wheels on the wheelie bars just hav­ing fun.”

A lot of thought went into the engine be­fore a se­lec­tion was made. “GM makes a great engine, and ini­tially the plan was for

a big-block Chevy, but I de­cided that it would be too heavy for a street ma­chine. Ul­ti­mately I ended up with a 383 stro­ker. I knew it was go­ing to give me the power I was look­ing for. The bad news is that I con­tracted with an engine builder in Te­mec­ula, Cal­i­for­nia, and al­most lost it all. They were shut­ting down, and if not for a phone call, my engine and money would have been locked up and lost when they shut down.”

The build in­cluded a Moroso oil pan, Scat re­cip­ro­cat­ing parts— rods, pis­ton, crank—and Dart heads. Ruben Racing Cams of Ana­heim sup­plied the roller cam that spec’d at 0.535/0.535 lift, 299/312 du­ra­tion. “I also in­stalled a dual-pass ra­di­a­tor and cus­tom head­ers

with ce­ramic coat­ing,” Randy says. “The trans is a 700R4 con­verted to a floor shifter us­ing a B&M torque con­verter with a 3,500-rpm stall speed. Gives me a lit­tle more hot rod ac­tion. The in­te­rior fea­tures clas­sic Ste­wart-warner gauges, a com­plete rollcage, and a five-point racing har­ness. The ra­diused wheel­wells and the drag parachute by Simp­son were added for old-school looks.”

Af­ter the de­ba­cle with the first builder and in­ter­view­ing sev­eral other po­ten­tial builders, Randy found “a great guy that was be­tween jobs. His name is James Delich. I hired him full­time and ul­ti­mately we have be­come great friends. James was a friend of Don­nie Ho. Don­nie is a great fab­ri­ca­tor and helped a great deal on the build. James and Don­nie have been friends since high school. I have been friends with Don­nie for over 10 years. Both are very knowl­edge­able, and with our com­bined ex­pe­ri­ence we built a fine ma­chine.”

Randy notes that the bril­liant or­ange paint and ex­cep­tional body­work was done by Gil’s Auto Body in Hemet, Cal­i­for­nia. The paint cost was a gift of the Zeal’s good friends Stan and Cather­ine Sorensen. The House of Kolor Chameleon shows gold and green in di­rect sun­light but in shade is flat or­ange. Jodell says, “We were deep into just get­ting the car on the road and planned to wait an­other year be­fore paint­ing. Stan wanted to see it fin­ished, as at the time he was in fail­ing health. So he of­fered to pay for the paint, and we were glad he did. He got to see and en­joy the car many times be­fore pass­ing.”

Other con­trib­u­tors to the build in­cluded Up­hol­stery by Mac in Home­land, Cal­i­for­nia, and USA Metal Polishing in Lake Elsi­nore, Cal­i­for­nia.

“There’s one ex­pe­ri­ence I’d like to share,” says Randy. “As I said, James and I be­came good friends. Com­ing back from the Rat Fink Re­union in Utah, my Chevy 454 SS tow ve­hi­cle blew a wa­ter pump just west of Las Ve­gas. It was mid­day in the heat of sum­mer, but James came to the res­cue. He drove all the way out to pick us up. We put the truck on our trailer, and James towed it home. Jodell and I drove the Henry J across the desert. It was so hot that Jodell had to put iced tow­els from our cooler on my feet so I could keep press­ing on the gas. What a day! The looks we got out on the high­way were fan­tas­tic.”

Dur­ing the first year Randy and Jodell showed the Henry J, Randy says that “peo­ple just did not get the idea of the car.

Once they did, we ei­ther got First Place or noth­ing. By the sec­ond year we were very well re­ceived and got many First Place and Peo­ple’s Choice awards. The an­nual gassers show at the Au­to­mo­bile Driv­ing Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les was a great thrill to win the tri­fecta: Best Gasser, Best of Show, and Peo­ple’s Choice.”

“We al­ways in­vite chil­dren of all ages to sit in the car and have a photo,” says Jodell. “Fam­i­lies are sur­prised that we do this, but we be­lieve we need to in­clude kids to keep the ideas alive. The kids are thrilled, and we give them a post­card of the car with a lit­tle his­tory on the back.”

The Zeals rec­og­nize that ap­peal­ing to the next gen­er­a­tion is the fu­ture of our hobby. That’s why it is so im­por­tant that drag racing’s rich her­itage be pre­served for fu­ture en­thu­si­asts to en­joy. We couldn’t agree with them more.

> Randy and Jodell Zeal es­ti­mate they put about 500 miles a month on their Henry J gasser, which equates to about 6,000 miles a year. That’s a lot of en­joy­able time be­hind the wheel for the cou­ple, who have been to­gether for more than 50 years.

> The engine is a 383 Chevy stro­ker. There was no room for a blower with­out cut­ting into the lit­tle Henry J’s fire­wall, so Randy elected to go af­ter a lit­tle ram-air ef­fect thanks to the scoop feed­ing the twin Hol­leys and the tall tun­nel-ram in­take be­low them.

> Randy raced a ’57 Olds and later an Olds-pow­ered T road­ster at Li­ons and other South­ern Cal­i­for­nia strips in the 1960s. The de­cals evoke that ear­lier era and bring back fond mem­o­ries.

> The cus­tom head­ers were ce­ramic-coated to help keep heat out of the car. Be­fore Randy had this done, the floor would heat up to 135 de­grees. Talk about a hot foot!

> Up front, 15x5 Rocket wheels pro­vide the spin­dle-mount look and carry skinny Mickey Thomp­son Sports­man tires. In back, 15x12 old-school steel wheels with trim rings and Baby Moon caps are wrapped with fat Mickey Thomp­son Sports­man S/RS.

> Randy built the Henry J’s straight-axle front sus­pen­sion us­ing com­po­nents he sourced from Speed­way Mo­tors.

> The Simp­son parachute is there to look cool, but the wheelie bars are func­tional. In fact, when Randy was sort­ing out his rearend gears, he broke three sets of wheelie bars be­cause the Henry J spent so much time with its front wheels in the air.

> The Henry J car­toon on the quar­ter-panel was hand painted by Ron Wil­liams of Winch­ester, Cal­i­for­nia, a very tal­ented artist.

> The whole car was built around this ro­bust ’57 Olds rearend, Randy says, a throw­back to his racing days. “I re­al­ize that a new builder would go for the de­fault choice, a Ford 9-inch rear, but be­ing old school my­self, I knew the Olds would be stronger.”

> The tra­di­tional Moon tank car­ries just enough fuel to make a cou­ple of quar­ter-mile passes.

> Even if you were too young to see a real Henry J hus­tle down the quar­ter-mile, you may have built one of the pop­u­lar 1:25-scale kits. The “Souped-up Coupe” was Rev­ell’s Model of the Month for July 1969.> At Hot Au­gust Nights in Reno last sum­mer, one of the judges told Randy and Jodell that “if there was a tro­phy for ‘Wow’ we would have got­ten it,” Randy says. “It just doesn’t get any bet­ter than that.”

> Randy’s goal was to keep an orig­i­nal look to the dash­board, though he did add up­dated Ste­wartWarner gauges to mon­i­tor the stro­ker Chevy. The more com­fort­able seats were a con­ces­sion to all the road miles he and Jodell put on the car.

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