May 25, 2006
Story by Richard Parks & Photos by Roger Rohrdanz
Author Richard Parks (l) with Ed Iskenderian
Ed Iskenderian, the famous ‘Camfather’ to generations of hot rodders and racers, is known affectionately as just Isky to his friends. Ed is a charming and friendly man who inquisitiveness is well known. From the day he ground his first cam to the present day, Isky has never lost that desire to learn more and to do more. He was born on July 10, 1921, in Cutler, Tulare County, California, to Dick and Armine Iskenderian. His parents were born in Turkey, but left before the Armenian population was rounded up by the Turks and exterminated. After World War I, the defeated Turks retreated in a xenophobic rage and the scapegoats that they blamed were their own Armenian Turkish people. The Armenian Turkish people were forced from their homes, shot at, bayoneted and sent on a forced march that ended in the Syrian desert where over a million and a half innocent people were systematically murdered. Ed’s mother survived when her family sent her to a German Christian convent to protect her from the Turks. His father was a blacksmith in Turkey, but after he immigrated to America, Dick Iskenderian started a grape farm in California’s wide San Joaquin Valley. In 1922 the family moved to Los Angeles, California, near Western and Exposition Avenues.
Ed grew up in a rapidly growing area of Southern California, known for the emergence of the hot rodding culture in the United States. He went to Mount Vernon Junior High School, then graduated up to Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, before transferring to Dorsey High School to complete his education. The SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) was just getting started around that time, and those that had a hot (fast) car, would join and race at the dry lakes, preferably Muroc. Dry lake racing had begun in the 1920’s, developing an organization and standardization with the influence of George Wight and George Riley in the 1930’s. In 1937, Wight and Riley decided to stop promoting the speed trials and the car clubs got together and formed the SCTA to continue racing at Muroc, now known as Edwards Air Force Base near Mojave, California. Ed hung out with the Bungholers car club. In the club were Bud Hines, Bob ‘Baldy’ Baldwin, Eugene Van Arx, Ike Williams, Si Perkins, Stringfield and Leaman. Each neighborhood had their own club, strictly male and typically devoted to the car culture. Usually the leader was the one whose father had a garage they could work in. Girls weren’t allowed to join in this inner sanctum of the male car culture during the height of the Great Depression.
Their hangout was Hugo’s Hot Dog Stand on Pico Boulevard. It was their world, removed from the horrors of an oncoming war, and the desperation of a world faced with a vicious depression. Ed was only 14 when he first went to Muroc to see his first race. He went to the dry lakes from 1935 until war broke out in 1941, and the dry lakes land speed racing was to have a lasting impact on the man who helped to make cam grinding an exact science. He took every shop course he could and did very well in the auto and electric shop courses. So well did he master what he was taught, that he was allowed to work on the wiring for the school buses. Ed graduated in 1940 and apprenticed at a tool and die shop for 50 cents an hour, a huge sum of money in those days. One hours pay at that rate could buy nearly 4 gallons of gasoline, or a meal of a hamburger, fries and malt for two people, back in the days when a hamburger was huge and a malt the size of a quart. Ed was learning how to be an electric welder in a shipyard on the day that the Japanese attack force struck Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941. That day changed his life as it changed the entire country. No longer isolated from the world’s problems and wars, America was now at the forefront of World War II and the fight against the Great Depression. He remembers how our soldiers lined up the Japanese Americans, before sending them to camps to wait out the war, on the suspicion that American citizens of Japanese ancestry might be spies for the Imperial Japanese Army.
Isky was incensed at the sneak attack, and like millions of Americans, men and women, he tried to enlist in the Navy Air Corp, but they turned down his request to be a flyer. Ed joined the Army Air Corp and was assigned to Ground School, at the old Santa Ana Air Base. He was an air cadet at last, but the military reassigned him to be a flight traffic clerk on air transports in and out of the theatres of war. He flew 5 trips between San Francisco and Australia in a B-24 Liberator. Then he was stationed in Australia for runs up to New Guinea and the Philippines. After VJ day, he was reassigned to Japan with flights to Manila. He saw US prisoners of war as they were released from Japanese labor camps, emaciated, in pain, starved and beaten by their captors, and a marked difference from how we treated those enemy combatants that we captured. With the war ending, men were being discharged from the military in vast numbers as fast as the government could send them home. Ed returned to California with a desire to return to dry lakes racing and the car culture that he loved. With a military discharge severance payment of $20 a month for 52 months, Ed decided to go racing. He tried to buy a cam from Clay Smith, who had learned the craft of cam grinding from Pierre Bertrand. Clay was well known for his cams, but so great was the demand from all the returning servicemen for parts for their hot rods, that the best Clay could do was to tell him to wait a month. Ed thought to himself, “I could do this myself,” and turned to another cam grinding genius, Ed Winfield, for advice and help. Winfield was a success at whatever he put his mind to, whether it was oval track racing in the 1920’s, his famous carburetor, or his equally famous cams.
Ed absorbed all he could from Winfield, then bought an old cylindrical grinder at an auction. Machine shops all over the country were closing down after the war as government contracts came to an end. Machines were plentiful, and Ed devised an attachment of his own design to alter the configurations of the grinder to accommodate what he wanted to achieve in grinding cams. As Isky and his son Richard explain it, early cam grinding was more art than science. A steady hand and a good eye were important, but the great cam grinders, like Winfield could visualize the problem and solve it in their minds. One could always copy a cam but custom grinding a cam to a specific engine was an art.
Over time specific designs and engineering formulas would solve many of these problems and throughout the 1950’s there would be great advances in scientifically creating the programs that brought cam grinding to an exactness. Ed states that his first cams were noisy, but they were popular and the kids heard about him and bought his cams. He also sold to speed shops, notably Karl Orr, a legendary racer and a true curmudgeon. Karl’s wife, Veda, was equally his match at land speed racing, but she was famous for sending a newsletter to the hot rod soldiers in the war, keeping them updated on the car scene back home. Isky was there at the 1st Hot Rod Show at the National Armory, in Exposition Park. Bob Barsky had brought Pete Petersen and Bob Lindsay together to publicize the event, with the SCTA providing the cars and manpower. Petersen and Lindsay would form a team and create Hot Rod Magazine, and the young Ed would take advantage of the hurricane of interest in this magazine with his innovative ads for his cams
Ed fell in love and married Alice Garbooshian on May 17, 1947. Ronald Iskenderian was born a year later, in the great Baby Boom following World War II. Richard was born in 1951, followed by Timothy and Amy. Ed had witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Atomic Era, and the start of a cam grinding business that would grow ever more successful. The family was living on West Adams Avenue, in Los Angeles, and Ed was producing cams out of his garage for a living. His business was beginning to grow larger than the garage could handle and he took out a lease on a shop on Culver, behind Mercury Tool and Die, owned by his good friend and high school buddy, John Athan. Ed and Athan are inseparable friends. Athan is an innovator, inventor and master craftsman, who is often called upon to solve mechanical problems. Athan built the roadster that was on display at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, which the actor, Elvis Presley used in his movie ‘Loving Me.’
Ed’s business was booming now as his quality cams and his natural PR and advertising genius was creating a huge demand. He moved to a larger site on Western and Pico Avenues, in Los Angeles, but that was only temporary as the orders began to grow larger and larger. He moved to Jefferson and Harcourt Avenue, in Los Angeles, across from Vic Edelbrock’s shop. The orders grew and the need for even more space forced him to move to a bigger shop on West Slauson in Culver City, then to a building in Inglewood. Finally he spotted a building on Alondra and Broadway in Gardena that covered half a city block and would give him the space to expand as he needed, and Isky Racing Cams found a permanent home there in 1966.
Today Isky Racing Cams is in the top 3 among American Cam manufacturers, with a reputation for quality and performance. Part of the success that Ed had was due to the quality of the finished products; cams, valve lifters and valve springs. But Isky is successful because he has that type of inquisitive mind that is forever learning, growing and adapting. He is a man hungry for knowledge. He never stops in a quest to find markets, products and better ways to produce those goods and services. Finally, he has a charisma, charm and character that attracts attention and a following. His first ad in Hot Rod Magazine was in the second issue. He realized that this magazine would be a huge success with the hot rodders after the war ended. In the late 1940’s, Ed was one of the first to understand the power of marketing, and few did it better. He was selling cams to the racers now, as well as the kids on the street, and to a fledgling racecar circuit called NASCAR, where the big Hudson dominated the stock car circuit. He said he was ashamed at how noisy those early cams of his were, but they had a stronger mid-range power curve that the kids loved. His sales stagnated at the lakes but took off in stock car racing, which opened doors in other areas for him. “Flathead engines were simple in those days,” he said. The early 1950’s saw the rise of a new sport called drag racing and he sold a lot of cams. It was also the heyday of oval track racing and the demand for his products kept him too busy to go dry lakes racing.
“I got real boisterous with those ads,” he would say. Parts makers and specialty equipment makers would battle each other in ads in racing and car magazines, trumpeting their successes and the inability of their competitors to keep pace. Pete Millar, the drag and hot rod cartoonist, drew a cigar chomping Isky, and named him the ‘Camfather,’ portraying Ed as the leader in his field. Exaggeration and hyperbole reached crazy limits. The government, with truth in advertising, would probably not allow it today. But it was Grand Theatre for car buffs back then to see the ads, which were far more entertaining than the articles in the magazines and newspapers. Isky’s skill at ad and marketing drove his business to the top and the racers and car fans loved this genial man and his products. Those were the days when magazines were first starting to tap into the car market, and competition exploded from that first Hot Rod Magazine to dozens more, and ad rates were negotiable. “I got great deals,” said Ed, “and I exploited them to the fullest.” Ed also made cams for the boat racers, sponsoring Ed Olson in the Cream Puff. Olson was a baker, and named the boat after his specialty, but the Cream Puff was no easy boat to beat. With Isky Cams and backing, the Cream Puff was one of the fastest in marine dragboat racing. At that time Ed’s biggest competitor in cams was Harman and Collins, and the fight was fierce.
The 1950’s may have been all expansion and fun, but the 1960’s saw the continued dominance of car racing, especially dragracing and oval track racing. His new competition was with Herbert Cams, which devised the new roller cams. When it became apparent that the new cams would be successful, Iskenderian Racing Cams came out with its own roller cams. Ed has 5 patents for his special hardening of the lobes in his roller cams. Devising, innovating and inventing better cams has kept Isky at the forefront of the cam grinding business. “All the cam grinding companies buy the cam core from a cam core making company. That’s not unusual, but it is the skill of the grinding that determines the end quality of the product,” he said. Some of the cam manufacturers have the cam core makers do the grinding and produce cams in mass produced quantities. The cam core makers then put on the name of the company they are producing the cams for, thus the cam grinding companies never actually have any control over the finished product. If the work is done in India or China, as many cheaper cams are, then the quality suffers and the buyer has little recourse. Isky cams are all done in-house, with American cores, and every step of the process is overseen by men who have been in the business nearly as long as Ed has.
Isky may not have started the Contingency Racing programs, but he was an early adherent and user of the system. The Contingency Racing programs in motorsports racing is where a manufacturer offers a prize, product, or cash payment for any racer using their product while winning the race. The racer has to display the decal of the product he is using so that fans and fellow racers can see what products the winning racer has in his car or boat. Ed used this program to its fullest, sponsoring a wide range of racers, leagues and products. The result was to spur a growth in sales that pushed him past his competitors. His battle with Crane in the 1950’s and ‘60’s was legendary in the battle of the Contingency Wars. In 1949, at the first Bonneville Nationals Salt Flats Time Trials, Doug Harrison and Norm Lean asked Isky for sponsorship money to make the trip from Southern California, to compete. With part of the money that they received from Isky, Harrison and Lean created a design on their T-shirts extolling the car, the team and Iskenderian Racing Cams. There is no one better at seeing a great idea and borrowing it for his own use that Ed. He began making up Isky T-shirts to sell or give away, and business stayed strong all year.
There is another facet of Ed Iskenderian that probably goes back to his days struggling with the Great Depression, or to the fact that so many of his family were brutally murdered and robbed by the Turks in the 1920’s. Ed is fascinated by bargains, whether it is machinery, appliances or some bizarre type of mechanical equipment or part. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s a deal he will buy it and bring it home. In the storage area behind the 50,000 square foot (more than an acre) manufacturing plant is another acre of stored treasures. He owns another 5-acre lot with additional things he has bought and saved. Ed is a recycler and conservationist. He doesn’t waste anything and constantly looks for ways to use ideas and objects that he collects. But he is also a very generous man, with his time and with his money. He sponsors many racers and race teams, and gives generously. He is quick to spot the up-and-coming racedriver, and understands that it benefits both the racing community and his company to spend generously. Stories abound about his habit of acquiring and saving things that many of us would just casually toss away. Isky doesn’t toss anything away, especially his friends.