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Richard Parks

Gone Raciní

richardwila

Gone RaciníÖTo the Conze Machine Shop

California is one of those strange geographical areas of the world where time, people and opportunity come together to form the events that change our lives and destinies forever. Beautiful weather, a large population, the availability of racing tracks and talented racers, mechanics and owners has made the Golden State a mecca for all forms of motorized racing. In rural and industrial centers, hidden away in alleys and side streets of every city throughout the state are machine shops and garages that form the core of our racing heritage. It is from these centers that the local mechanics turn out the cars, boats and motorcycles that vie for trophies, prizes and championships on local and national tracks. Perhaps youíve heard of Keith Black, Ed Pink, Jim Deist, Iskenderian Cams, Vic Edelbrock, Arias Engineering, Blair Speed Shop, Bell Auto Parts, Ak Miller, Taylor and Ryan, Tony Capanna, Carrillo Rods, Dave Zeuschel, the Chrisman Brothers, Holly Hedrich, Casale Engineering, the Winfield Brothers, Andy Granatelli, Hilborn Fuel Injection, Justice Brothers, Jerry Kugel, Frank and Arlen Kurtis, Earl Mansell, the Meyer Family, Barney Navarro, Earl Evans, Danny Oakes, Joe Reath, the Pierson Brothers, Rich Hallett, Rudy Ramos, Louie Senter, Jim Travis, Al Teague, Mickey Thompson, Fritz Voigt, Alex Xydias and many more. These people and many more made great contributions to the racing scene here on the West Coast and throughout the nation. They built cars, boats and motorcycles, parts and products that were vital to the racing world. Some sponsored drivers and events and even did a little racing as well.

One machine shop that has had a great impact on the automotive scene in California was the Conze Machine Shop, formed just after World War II by Andy, Elaine and Vince Conze, and their close friend, C.B. Philips.

Andy was born in San Francisco in 1911 and Vince followed two years later. Their father immigrated from Germany and their mother from Luxembourg. The family settled among the German community of craftsmen in the South Los Angeles area on 127th street, and Mr. Conze was a master wood cabinetmaker, imparting his skills, work ethic, pacifism and garage to his sons. Elaine was born in Morris, Illinois, in 1911, and her parents were immigrants from Norway. She came to California in 1934 and married Andy in 1937. Invited to a party to celebrate the completion of a boat for a race at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, California, in 1937, she saw Andy working under the boat and said hello. Andy called the next day to ask Elaine to accompany him to the race to watch, as Andy was the riding mechanic on the race boat. Andy loved to draw and took drafting and architectural classes in school, earning commissions, doing odd jobs, as well as being a mechanic through the dark days of the depression in the 1930ís. With equipment at his dadís shop, Andy earned some military contracts for designing and making parts for the war effort during World War II, but would never discuss with anyone what kind of parts they were. Andy raced at the dry lakes (Muroc) in the 1930ís, driving a í32 Ford four-banger and had a top speed of 86 mph, a very good speed for that time, and won an award from the McMillan Oil Company.

Vince Conze took a slightly different path than his brother. He preferred to build and tune cars rather than drive them. Trading a piano for a car body and adapting a Clyde Adams car, Vince built and rebuilt a sprint car into a race car that campaigned on local and eastern race tracks during the 1930ís. Known as the #26 car, the body was purple and was powered by a Cragar overhead Twin Cam. Driven by George Robson at Oakland, Winston-Salem and other tracks throughout the country. Robson gained some notoriety in this car, and left soon after to race in the Indy 500, under another car and owner. Frank McGurk replaced Robson in the #26 car and raced at Carrell Speedway, El Centro, Legion Ascot, and on the eastern circuit at Winchester, Williams Grove (PA), Thompson (CT), and many other tracks around the country. Some of the other racers who drove this car were: Joie Chitwood, Ted Horn, Chuck Stevenson, Sam Hanks and Pierre Bertrand. Bertrand was also famous for grinding cams and for training Clay Smith. Vince Conze and his boyhood friend, C.B. Philips, attended Los Angeles Polytechnic High School and took night classes in machining during the Great Depression. They worked at various garages and machine shops in the 1930ís, as good machinists and mechanics were highly valued, but work was never steady in those uncertain times. C.B. and Vince finally found permanent employment at Douglas Aircraft as the nation teetered toward war in the late 1930ís. Vince was quick to point out that his skills were honed to a fine point by the experience he gained working with metals, alloys and the critical clearances demanded by the aviation industry.

Andy was working for the Harvell Corporation, which made zinc diecasting parts and alloys. After the war ended in 1945 and the government cancelled or failed to renew war contracts, the Conze Brothers and C.B. Phillips took a gamble and formed Conze Machine Shop, pooling their savings and buying up lathes and other machinery at war surplus bargains as many machining companies downsized or left the business. Work continued to come in, as a nation at now at peace, demanded a return to the motorsports racing that they loved. No matter how busy they were, there was still time to go racing, although the rule in the shop required one of the brothers to stay home, so they alternated, allowing Andy and Elaine, or Vince to go to the races, especially the Indy 500. Conze quick change rear ends and other parts were popular at the tracks and their attention to detail and to design specifications put them in demand. The demands of the business required them to attend the races and especially the Indy 500 and to represent their products. They were often asked to look at parts designs and to make recommendations or changes. Vince was a crewmember on the Novi car and built the front wheel drive, spindles and other components, and did the machining on the engine. He also built parts for other sprint cars and quarter midgets. 

Elaine tells the story of the time they were at the Phoenix 100 and she noticed the crew struggling to shift their bodies to remove the wheel lock wing nuts (knock off nuts) and sometimes loosening the lock when they meant to tighten it as they replaced worn tires. She mentioned this to Andy and he designed a three pronged, angled wing lock nut on a cocktail napkin at a restaurant later that evening. Elaine took the napkin to Jorgensen Steel and had a casting made. The new design improved the efficiency and the time it took to change tires during a race. It also ended mistakes, for if the crew hammered in the wrong direction, the Plomb hammer would slip off causing no harm. According to Elaine, they never patented this design change and freely shared this new discovery with others. According to Rod Larmer, a former employee of the Conze Machine Shop, the Conzeís were very generous with their ideas and resources and the one thing that irritated them the most was a greedy nature in people.

After the war, Vince continued to modify the #26 car and changed nearly every part except the grill. He replaced the Cragar with a Miller, and the color scheme to white and it became known as the #5 car. This car was raced throughout the 1940ís and 1950ís, and according to Larmer, was painted by McGurk, as Vince was unconcerned about the exterior appearance of the car, preferring to concentrate on the engine. The #5 car ran at the Pikeís Peak Hill Climb and on local tracks on the West Coast circuit. Drivers who raced this car included AJ Foyt, Johnny Poueleson, Allen Heath, Rex Mays, Walt Faulkner and Frank McGurk. It was later donated to the Pikeís Peak Hill Climb Museum in parts and used to restore other cars. Vince designed the Down Tube car, which he adapted from designs on off road racing cars and had Eddie Kuzma build at Kuzmaís shop in Gardena. Al Unser Sr won the Pikeís Peak Hill Climb with the Down Tube car in 1964, but no one could figure out how to make it run well on oval tracks. Slim Roberts also raced this car at Pikeís Peak and it was later donated to the museum there. Vince owned a Watson roadster, which was driven by George Benson at Hanford. This car was donated to the Indy 500 Museum and used to restore other roadsters. Vince did the machining for the Novi and continued to provide parts for it as late as 1951, but won only once at Indy, when he was awarded a ring for being on the crew of JC Agajanianís 98 Special, driven by Parnelli Jones in the 1963 race.

Vince never married, and Andy and Elaine never had any children of their own, though they always made their employees feel like family. Andy and Elaine created some memorable trips together. They loved primitive camping. They explored Mexican jungles to see the ancient ruins and stayed with the native Indians in their villages. They visited the Pribaloff Islands to live with Aleut Eskimos and watch the seals, walruses and exotic birdlife. They have hiked, backpacked and camped in every state in the USA and all of the Provinces of Canada, except one. Conze Machine Shop closed in 1993. Elaine kept a sign-in book of all the customers that visited their shop since it first opened in 1946, and hopefully this log will find its way to one of our automotive museums. A fitting tribute to one of the finest and most innovative of the many machine shops that existed during the golden age of California auto racing. Many thanks go to Rod Larmer, C.B. Phillips, Andy and Elaine Conze, Bud Meyer, Ed Iskenderian and Robert Schilling for their help in preparing this article. 

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