NO. 31: BARNEY NAVARRO’S RENAISSANCE ROADSTER, THEN & NOW
A profile of the speed parts pioneer and his rolling R&D lab.
Barney Navarro’s legend has been passed around for generations now. It’s the classic tale of a panoramic vision, bulldog determination, and goal-oriented discipline. His interests and accomplishments ranged far beyond the realm of hot rodding, yet were largely the result of lessons learned on the sanctified dry lakebeds of southern California.
Young Navarro was already an esteemed high-performance engineer and machinist when he first rolled onto the sacred silt. That’s where this chapter of his odyssey began, on November 16, 1941. Early that morning, Navarro pulled the rowdy flathead V8 from his daily driven ’39 Ford sedan (equipped with shaved heads and the first ever Weiand dual-carb high-rise intake manifold) and swapped it into Bud Swanson’s T roadster. That afternoon, Navarro turned 107 mph at the last Muroc dry lakes meet before World War II put the kibosh on racing activities there. But his theories and hard parts were now officially documented entities. From that day, the legend was validated.
During his stint in the Army Air Corps (1945-1947), Navarro carefully considered all angles of manufacturing an aftermarket intake manifold of his own design for the Ford V8. Upon returning to his civilian home base of Eagle Rock, California, he implemented those plans, hastening the birth of Navarro Racing Equipment. He was in business, which meant his company would need an appropriate vehicle to showcase its products. This mobile public relations representative would also double as a research-and-development tool.
So it came to be that, for a few enchanted years (approximately 1947-1953), Navarro’s tool of choice was a humble ’27 Ford Model T roadster, thrashed together in a four-day frenzy with best friend (and fellow Glendale Stokers car club member) Tom Beatty. The resultant racer would ultimately prove itself to be an invaluable utensil that expedited the evolution of postwar high performance.
Inside No. 31
Navarro and Beatty had been wrenching together since before joining the Glendale Stokers in 1940, so when they swaggered into Navarro’s roadster project (all four days of it) in October of 1947, they did so with confident abandon. They laid the foundation with a pair of Essex framerails connected via tubular crossmembers. A token roll bar was later added for more chassis rigidity. Suspension consisted of basically stock Ford components: Model 40 front axle with ’46 spindles, Houdaille shocks, spring-behind-axle split-bone
arrangement, ’34 rearend with 4.11 Halibrand quick-change hung on shortened radius rods, and so on. A 6-gallon war surplus fuel tank fed the monster. The most exotic item was a Franklin steering box. The engine was located as far aft as was feasible, leaving scant elbow room for the lanky Navarro.
Of course, the engine was the focal point, and it didn’t disappoint. After prepping the standard-bore 59A block, Navarro turned to Charlie Braden at Norden Machine Works to assist with construction of a 180-degree manganese-molybdenum crank, ground down from the stock stroke to a svelte 3 inches, netting 176 inches of high-winding displacement (perfect for the SCTA’S A/modified class). The 180-degree theory was an attempt to counteract the flathead’s inherent exhaust flow roadblocks, and hopefully cool the inferno in the siamesed exhaust ports.
Navarro then approached his best friend and mentor, Ed Winfield, for a custom-ground steel billet cam, featuring lobes configured to coincide with the 180-degree crank’s altered firing order (1-8-3-6-4-5-2-7). Skeptical of roller lifters, Navarro opted to machine his own mushroom tappets, declaring, “A flat or mushroom lifter gives a quicker lift with less spring tension and no side thrust.”
Navarro designed and cast an intake manifold to accommodate a GMC 3-71 blower, fed by four Stromberg 48 carbs riding a very trick adapter manifold (featuring hidden internal airways to cool the fuel charge). Four V-belts spun the blower, while a fifth drove the water pump. Regardless, belt slippage still prohibited the blower from reaching its potential, so Navarro drilled the faces and V-sections of the aluminum pulleys to promote some cool airflow, which improved belt traction somewhat. Deck surfaces were crowned with a pair of Navarro cylinder heads.
The 176-inch screamer produced 270 hp at 6,500 rpm on the dyno, but in competition it routinely sang soprano at 8,000 revs, generating even more horsepower and spooking a litany of wary drivers (of which Walt James was most successful). At those rpm’s, the pistons and rods swinging from the 180-degree crank essentially balanced themselves. (A later version of this engine, built with Don Yates, produced 413 hp on nitro, thanks to the far superior Gilmer belt drive assembly).
The 176er was backed with a ’39 Ford trans, directing torque to the Halibrand quickie. This assemblage was covered with some ’27 T roadster body panels that Navarro had discovered in a gully near his Eagle Rock home. Metal shaper extraordinaire Art Ingles (an employee at Kurtis Kraft) ironed out the biggest wrinkles and fabbed the hood top and side panels, nosepiece, bellypan, and even cast the aluminum grill. Navarro eventually coated the carcass with ’47 Ford maroon lacquer in a dirt floor shed behind the shop, and declared the project to be done.
Originally intended to run the California Racing Association’s dirt ovals (which it did), the roadster proved versatile enough to pound any course it was aimed at. At the 1948 season opener at El Mirage, the Navarro roadster set a 136.77-mph record. By season’s end it was netting 146s. At the inaugural Bonneville National Speed Trials in 1949, it went 147. And when a bearing seizure pretzeled a bank of connecting rods during an oxygen injection test at the 1950 Fall Finals meet at Bonneville, Navarro hacksawed the twisted rods down to their main caps, reinstalled the battered cylinder head, added some cardboard aero via old Stabil oil cartons, and stunned the troops with a 78.76-mph O/streamliner record blast in his now 88ci flathead V4 streamliner. (A spirited Wally Parks is rumored to be the instigator of these shenanigans.)
It should be noted that Navarro was an absolute pragmatist. He put no value on his record runs, other than the data gleaned and free promotion of his products. He was there to test theories and solve problems, period.
As its creator earned his stripes, so did the roadster ultimately receive a race entry number on its doors. In the No. 31 roadster, superhero Navarro had custom-crafted his own trusty sidekick, in essence a mechanically animated version of himself: able and equipped for the task at hand. Indeed, both car and owner earned icon status throughout the hot rod microcosm, as Navarro’s T was subjected to more mad-scientist experimentation than doctors Frankenstein, Moreau, and Jekyll combined could have dished out. No. 31 not only survived the torture, but excelled. It pitched dirt clods at the inaugural CRA race (Labor Day, 1946) at the Gardena Bowl (later renamed Carrell Speedway), and even established a commanding presence at the first ever Santa Ana Drags despite grenading a rearend. All of that and plenty more, while chugging down countless alky cocktails and suffering brutal doses of blower boost.
The early 1950s found Navarro Racing Equipment jammed in high gear. The roadster was still running the lakes and salt, but the shop was almost too busy. Manifolds and cylinder heads were selling well, custom machining orders were common, and the sales and shipping chores were constant. Car magazines were commissioning Navarro to write monthly tech features (which he considered a pragmatic alternative to buying advertising space). He was also in high demand as a test driver and parts development consultant to manufacturers around the globe. And he was now involved in big-league powerboat racing, and even had an Indy car endeavor on the horizon. Heady stuff, but exhausting.
Something had to give, and the No. 31 roadster ultimately drew the short straw. Navarro was already looking past hot rodding, to the medical, electronic, and construction fields (among others). At some point in 1953, the roadster was unceremoniously traded to “a guy from Fresno” for a more practical stock sedan. Wife Donna confirms, “He was done with rodding, and he just moved on.” And just like that, the Navarro roadster evaporated from the highvelocity domain it had categorically ruled.
A Wondrous Perpetuation
In the spring of 1991, construction contractor Scott Perrott was inspired to build a street-legal track roadster in his Portland, Oregon, garage. While shopping for project parts, Perrott happened across an ad in the April 1992 issue of Hemmings Motor News for a stack of Model T body panels styled akin to Barney Navarro’s old No. 31. The package also included an Essex frame. The body
parts were painted blue, but the telltale edges of a Navarro Racing Equipment decal under the paint was a promising omen. Comparisons with vintage photos confirmed a match with No. 31, right down to identical holes in the framerails.
The seller had purchased the tin at California’s perennial Turlock Swap Meet and offered it to the Navarros, who waved it off as old news. So Perrott hightailed it to Carson City, Nevada, and laid down $1,750 to collect the goods. Upon returning home with the tin, Perrott sent photos to Navarro, who confirmed the car’s pedigree and agreed to support the project with feedback, advice, and a personal challenge to Perrott. Perrott recounts, “Barney said the car was too complicated for anyone to comprehend. And I’ll confess, there were times during the restoration that I agreed with him.”
Perrott had now swerved from hot rod builder to race car restorer. Thanks to some photos in a Don Montgomery book, “I knew what it was supposed to look like,” he recalls. And from there, a life-changing two-year restoration odyssey unfolded.
The body (minus hood and nosepiece) bolted to the frame with ease, further confirming it as Navarro’s. The Art Ingles–crafted belly pan and turtle-deck lid also slipped into place organically. The missing Ingles trademark nosepiece (one of 10 that he crafted) was eventually sniffed out and purchased by Perrott.
Once the motor plate location was absolutely verified, chassis construction commenced. The gifted Eric Sanders oversaw most of that action in his Eugene, Oregon, shop. The correct 6.00-16 tires on 16x4.5 ’48 Ford wheels were bolted to ’46 Ford juice brakes and spindles. Then the dots were connected. Eventually.
Navarro had sold his signature 176-inch engine to a Montana gentleman at some point in the 1960s, sans blower (which went to racer and Navarro employee Don Yates). So Perrott and company were resigned to re-creating the warrior flathead from scratch. The new engine would be relatively mild internally (to accommodate street use), but absolutely correct visually. Despite rigorous research, some insidious engineering aspects of the engine build presented conundrums. For example, recreating Navarro’s unique carb adapter and blower drive began with a “How did he do that?” from Perrott, prompting the drafting of machinist Bob Coutts into the project. Once Coutts and Perrott reverse-imagineered the convoluted intake system, the rest of the drivetrain build seemed relatively straightforward.
The body, drivetrain, and chassis projects seemed to coincide in sync: Two years after hatching his plan, Perrott was driving No. 31. From the first nervous test drive around the block to the flat-out runs on courses around the planet, Barney Navarro’s spirit has ridden shotgun with Perrott. Chauffeuring that phantom passenger around is a responsibility that Scott Perrott considers a humbling honor. It’s certainly precious cargo. Legendary, even.
Barney Navarro died on his 88th birthday, in 2007. His greatest natural gift may have been that of farsightedness. Navarro possessed a wide-angle perspective that allowed him to prudently assess all factors well before approaching any challenge. His bottom line was simplicity. He told author Paul D. Smith, “You don’t violate the laws of nature. You can’t; they’re inviolate. If you understand the basic physics, you have the problem beat. Now it’s a matter of ingenuity and figuring out the limitations of what the rulebooks allow you, working within those parameters.”
Navarro credits his science teacher at Glendale High School, Mr. Debra, for an even more basic tenet that stuck: “There’s nothing more fun than learning.”
Donna Navarro’s take on Barney’s approach to problem solving: “Even in high school they called him the Professor. Barney could be impatient at times. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. As soon as he solved one problem, he was on to greater challenges. He was very advanced in his thinking. His intellect was just astonishing!”
Navarro assessed his own legacy in a 2007 Ken Gross interview. He said, “I hadn’t planned all these things. There were serendipitous coincidences that provided me with opportunities, and I availed myself of them.”
Scott Perrott summarizes: “Barney was like a sophisticated Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. You could talk about anything with him, he was so knowledgeable.”
> A typical early 1950s lakes scene for Barney Navarro and his No. 31 roadster, except for the atypically static Navarro, sidelined with some torched pistons. That’s Tom Beatty and wife Frankie in the background with Beatty’s infamous “Rust Bucket” T.
> Shop employee Bob Trammel’s T roadster sits oblivious to an approaching tornado: This car was the first to test Navarro’s supercharger package. Navarro installed his 3-71 GMC blower on Trammel’s 268-inch flatty and copped a 143-mph timing tag at El Mirage. Then the car was driven to Montana, where you could pretty much name your price for a California roadster with a 143mph SCTA timing tag attached.
> Barney Navarro’s first timed run at the dry lakes was at Muroc in 1941. An enormous field of entrants limited him to this single pass on that day, but his homebuilt flathead V8 powered Bud Swanson’s T roadster to a respectable 107 mph. In a 2006 interview with Henry Astor, Navarro recalled his excitement: “When I took off with that thing, I couldn’t hold the clutch down. My leg was jumping up and down! The car wasn’t very stable. It didn’t have enough caster in the front, and the back end wanted to come around and meet the front. I couldn’t find enough wedges to wedge the front axle, so I stuck some end wrenches between the spring and axle.”
> Bernard Julian Navarro put the hot rodding community on notice, circa 1925: He will race smarter than you. Mom Olga cheered him on, as sister Delores provided ballast.
> Navarro bought this 3-71 GMC unit from Kong Jackson for $60 and tricked it up before he even had a car to put it on. The housing required only miniscule internal machining to allow free-spinning rotors to produce 16 pounds of boost in 1948. Carbs rode sidesaddle to accommodate packaging. Navarro told Henry Astor, “I don’t know where [Jackson] got it. It was after the war, and I was working at the [Hedreich Bros.] die shop. So I took the blower down there and made all the pieces for it there.”
> This artwork for a 1953 Hop Up magazine ad portrays Navarro’s disdain for snake oil salesman types and their shortsighted “get rich quick” approach to doing business. Navarro Speed Equipment even went so far as to advertise Moly Caps Engine Vitamins as a poke in the eye to such hucksters. Aimed directly at the Spiegel family’s Newhouse Automotive ads, Navarro’s faux distributor was dubbed “Old Home Automotive Laboratories” (a play on Newhouse). Ironically, the molybdenum sulfide powder Moly Caps (oil additives, priced at a dollar for a box of three capsules) sold like hotcakes worldwide. Go figure.
> When his first crankshaft expired after a single season of racing, Navarro collaborated with Norden Machine Works in 1948 to produce this 180-degree masterpiece, employing a 3-inch stroke. The single-plane crank buzzed the flatty to 8,000 rpm effortlessly, as the rigidly mounted engine relayed bad vibes through the chassis and straight up Navarro’s spine, prompting this observation of its first lakes run: “I watched the tachometer needle break off at the indicating end, and then the tail broke off due to the vibration coming out of the engine.” Regardless, Navarro also quipped, “But you could run it that way all day long.”
> Navarro’s T leads the pack into a turn at Carrell Speedway. Deuce radiator shell and hood blister delete denoted No. 31’s dirt track package. The outboard exhaust was only used on dirt ovals, to avoid creating blinding dust storms (pipes exited framerails and tucked up under the chassis at the lakes). Supercharging was considered quite exotic at this time, but was legal if engine size was kept under 181 ci. Don Blair ran a Mercedes blower, and Navarro promptly followed with his 3-71 GMC. Navarro’s huffed workhorse dominated the field. Walt James was Navarro’s designated speedway driver, but it’s hard telling who was piloting the car in this shot. Perhaps one of our knowledgeable readers can set us straight.
> This uncredited spy photo depicts emblematic lakes lore. Someone must have procured a military surplus generator somewhere along the line to power that welder. Note the oxygen injection setup hovering over carbs. Tubing from stacks connected to in-car oxygen tanks.
> World premiere of the Navarro Racing Equipment four-day wonder at El Mirage in October 1948. With Navarro’s back against the turtle-deck and steering wheel in his chest, entry and egress must have been challenging, never mind the shifting and steering chores. But those inconveniences were discounted in lieu of achieving the best possible weight distribution. The homely roadster wouldn’t look like this for long.
> By June 10, 1951, paint was sprayed and dried, and was being weathered off at El Mirage. This blast earned Third Place honors in the A/modified Roadster class, with a 113.636-mph speed.
> Inside the shop, Barney Navarro revels in his element. This example from 1948 offers a peek at Navarro’s concrete cutting saw under development. It opened new possibilities in the construction industry.
> The unassuming Navarro Racing Equipment storefront at 5142 San Fernando Road in Glendale features a mocked-up flathead for window bait. Thieves made off with the partial engine anyway. Kong Jackson, Ed Winfield, Frank Kurtis, Doane Spencer, and other luminaries populated the same cozy neighborhood.
> Key components of Navarro’s oxygen-injection system. Testing showed a 29.9 percent increase in oxygen to be as powerful as a 90 percent nitro mix. A 30 percent oxygen boost proved fatal to pistons. His standard oxy/alky combo bumped Barney’s speed from 102 to 136 mph at one lakes meet. But Navarro was actually a stalwart opponent of liquid or gaseous power adders, because the fuel and gas cars were all lumped in together at early lakes meets. Indeed, he perceived nitromethane to be “an unfair advantage. It wasn’t demonstrating mechanical skill, or utilizing the laws of physics. It was chemistry.”
> Cooling after a 106-mph run. Note the roadster finally has number, roll bar, and hood bubble. The ’32 radiator shell was replaced with this Art Ingles nosepiece in 1949. The roadster’s race number denotes a 31st place in SCTA’S season points tally (Navarro strongly preferred his previous No. 9 signage). Dry lakes pit parking was casual: wherever you coasted to a stop.
> Barney and wife Donna processed orders via telephone from rodders around the world. Donna also ran the mills and lathes when needed. That’s Navarro’s six-cylinder Rambler Indy engine providing office décor at his last shop (on Chevy Chase Drive) in 1993. This property was sold in 2008.
> Barney Navarro was reunited with No. 31 at Muroc dry lake in 1996, thanks to Scott Perrott and friends. As Perrott rolled the roadster onto the lakebed, he heard Navarro’s distinctive baritone proclaim, “Hey, that’s my car!” Mission accomplished.
> Back at The Panel Beater’s tin spa, the body is recovering nicely. This angle offers a rare peek at the aluminum Art Ingles belly pan.
> Time and nature had taken a toll. The Panel Beater (in Eugene, Oregon) was the tin masseuse. Among other chores, he re-created the lower 4 inches of dissolved matter and managed an even better fit to the Essex framerails. Dale Withers in Portland later squirted the ’46 Ford maroon enamel. And Portland hot rod hero Roger Simonatti wired and detailed the car.
> The principles (left to right): Barney Navarro, Scott Perrott, and Donna Navarro at the Navarro Racing Equipment shop on Chevy Chase Drive in 1996, following test runs at the Muroc Reunion. The car was brought inside so Navarro could fine-tune the carbs.
> An iconic race car restoration is celebrated with a cushy parking spot at a museum, right? Wrong. Race cars are meant to be raced. While it has done some brief museum time, No. 31 prefers to kick up its heels. Perrott ran the course at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2000 (where it was reunited with Tom Beatty’s belly tank), tossed sand at the Race of Gentlemen at Pismo Beach in 2016, and closed 2018 burning rubber at the Santa Margarita Ranch’s RPM Nationals drags.
> The end. For now.
> Perrott’s 286ci tribute to Navarro’s mighty 176er, mocked up in his garage and almost ready for final assembly. The 3-71 supercharger (built by Portland blower guru Gale Plummer) rides a Navarro manifold, of course. Bob Coutts built the blower’s snout, drive, and carb manifold to Navarro’s specs. Heads are Navarro Hi Dome. Mag is Harman-collins. Perrot has Navarro’s original headers and heavily milled heads, slated for a future re-creation of the fabled 176er. Joining them will be Jahns pistons on Cunningham rods and a billet-steel clone of the Winfield SU1A cam. Navarro’s signature Norden 180-degree 3-inch-stroke manganese-molybdenum crankshaft has been approximated with a billet-steel unit from Moldex. And yes, this build is Navarro Approved.
> On July 14, 2005, many tangibles of the Navarro legacy were scattered to the winds. The auction was a sad but necessary purge. Mike Herman at H&H Flatheads bought the Navarro brand and most of the parts inventory, but Scott Perrott got the Rambler Indy engine, and the general public paid fair prices for historical tools and machinery.