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.