Words by: Jeremy Malcolm
Photos by: TED7
Imagine you’re at a GT race in 1963. The pits are lined with the best track competitors in the world, all of which were built by preeminent experts with no expense spared. Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Mercedes-Benz have brought out their best, all engineered to perfection. But at the very front, starting first on the grid, is a completely different kind of car. Clearly a bit rough around the edges, it has noticeable panel gaps, uneven paint, and a grille fabricated from chicken wire. And like the car, the man at the wheel also has an unexpected presence. His name is Max Balchowsky and he is not only the car’s driver, but also its mechanic, engineer, designer, and builder. He owns the garage in Hollywood where he fixes cars to fund his on-track exploits. And as it turns out, he’s the fastest one there!
Max Balchowsky was a blue-collar guy, a simple man who enjoyed simple things, like racing at 150 miles per hour within an inch of death. He was known for his hot-rodding ingenuity, a talent he transferred from the road to the track in the 50s and 60s. Balchowsky built several cars known as “Ol’ Yaller,” a name derived from the junkyard dog in the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller. Each of the cars had their own personality and enjoyed varying levels of success, but they all punched well above their weight class when it came to performance for their cost. Max famously bragged about spending only $1456.72 on Ol’ Yaller II, a car in which he was able to outrace some of the best Ferraris.
Ol’ Yaller Mark IX was built in 1963. It has a custom chassis and custom body work, all designed and fabricated by Max and his wife, Ina. It was fitted with a 401 Buick V-8 “Nailhead” engine producing 310 horsepower, which enable the car to reach 0-60 in under four seconds thanks to its low weight. Balchowsky built the car from scratch after drawing up the plans on the floor of his garage. With Ina at his side, he campaigned the car throughout the southwest United States. It was also used in the filming of several movies, most notably, driven briefly by Elvis Presley in the film Viva Las Vegas. Another Hollywood appearance included The Love Bug (1968), where it suffered an unfortunate shunt during a shoot. The car was restored, and under the ownership of Peter and Lynda Shea was raced extensively in historics competitions, including at the Monterey Historics.
The car came to the Petersen Automotive Museum as a gift of Peter and Lynda Shea after years of successful vintage racing, including a first-place finish at Petrini’s Wine Country Classic. It currently resides in the vault, clothed its requisite yellow livery, where it catches the eyes of thousands of visitors a year. Just nine Ol’ Yaller variants were built by Balchowsky, one in the Mark IX specification, so don’t miss your chance to check the car out in person! If you’re lucky, you just might see it sharing company with its older brother, Max Balchowski’s 1959 Ol’ Yaller Mark III, an earlier interpretation of Balchowski’s genius clearly infused with the same homespun ingenuity.