A Visit with Don Zig
Mar 20, ‘08
Story by Richard Parks and photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

richardparks roger

Richard & Roger

   Don Zig is not his birth name, but we all know him for his magneto business in Los Angeles.  Don’s parents, Edward and Mary, lived in Ames, Iowa, where their oldest child, Jane was born in 1920.  His father was a banker in Livermore, Iowa and his grandfather, Dennis, sold farm equipment.  Dennis came to California in 1919 and was so enchanted with the area that he wrote and encouraged his son to come west.  He retired and invested in property, including a house at 1734 S. Ardmore, in Los Angeles, California.  Remember the address, because it is part of the story.  Don’s parents and sister moved to California in 1923 and lived for a time on Venice Boulevard, in Los Angeles.  Don was born on December 2, 1932 and grew up near his grandparents.  He attended the 24th Street Elementary School, and then went on to Mount Vernon Junior High School.  He took metal, electrical, drafting and other shop classes in Jr High and then attended Loyola High School.  Don transferred to John H. Francis Polytechnic High School, where he graduated.  He had many friends who were interested in cars, but joined no car clubs.   He worked as a gas station attendant and in 1951 he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and served until his discharge in 1954.  Don got sick just as his unit was being sent to Korea and after he recovered, he was reassigned to Fort Hood, in Texas, and attached to the 3rd Armored Division.  Before he was drafted, Don had worked for a surplus radio store and modified radios for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.  The Army in those days looked for hot rodders who had skills and talents that they could use and he was trained in communications.  He rose to the rank of sergeant at the time of his discharge.

    Upon returning to civilian life, Don worked in garages and also installed air conditioning units in cars.  He created and fabricated brackets to make his own installation kits for foreign cars and trucks for installing A/C units, a growing business before they became standard equipment in cars.  Don Madden was the general manager of Howard Cams back then, and he and Zig were friends, during this time he needed the magneto of the Howard Cams Special worked on and sent Zig to Hunt Magnetos for the work, while there he was interviewed by Joe for a job repairing magnetos; Don worked for Hunt for eight years then left to work for Nick Arias Jr. until 1980.  Zig then opened up his own business in 1980 calling it Don Zig Magnetos at the 1740 S. Ardmore Avenue in Los Angeles address.  Remember where his grandfather lived?  Well, Don bought the house next door and has lived there all his adult life.   He repairs and rebuilds specialty race car magnetos and his business has always been good.  “I’ve got enough work and I don’t need any more.  I try to make everything the same as it came from the factory or better.  I worked on magnetos for Kenny Bernstein when he was racing funny car and have had over 6000 customers, most of who use the magnetos for racing.”  Don was involved in running his funny car, "Hawkeye," in 1980.  He met his wife, Carmen, at a Manufacturers Funny Car meet at Orange County, in November, 1979 and they have been together For 28 years.   Carmen works for APG Media based in Orange County, California.   They have 15 niche specific magazines, including DRIVE and Drag Racer Magazine. 

    Zig grew up around cars and racing and was a crew member on Jarvis’ Earl’s Top Fuel slingshot dragster.  It had a Buick V-8 engine and the car was made by Ray Alley at Quincy’s Speed Shop in Santa Monica.   The dragster raced at Bakersfield, Saugus, Colton, Inyokern and Otay Mesa (Paradise Mesa).  Zig also raced his street car at Saugus and Santa Ana in a “cheater” class, which is similar to a street legal category at drag strips today.   His first experience as an owner/racer was in 1964 when he ran a Willy’s coupe in the G/Gas class.  “I found out that the car was too heavy and went out and bought and Anglia truck and put the straight-eight into this much lighter car.   It turned out to be the fastest Buick inline on the West Coast.”  “I did all the fabrication on the car and ran it in G/Gas until 1969 at Lions and Orange County Raceway”… said Zig.   He and his new partner, Richard Dietz then raced an alcohol Funny Car and they participated at the last race held at Lion’s Drag Strip on December 2, 1972.   They also raced the car at Orange County, Irwindale, Eugene (Oregon), Yakima WA, Columbus, OH, Calgary & Edmonton in Canada, and in Tijuana Mexico where they turned a freeway into a drag strip.  And just about anywhere that a drag race beckoned.    In 1976 they build a newer car, a ’76 Monza and raced that car until 1980.   Zig’s health was an issue then and he left the team while Richard continued to race.  Bob Lillegard was the first driver (he also drove the Anglia) and then Frank Harris was the second, he finished out the tour.  Don concentrated on his new business after his racing days ended in 1980, but still had time to buy and restore his dream car, a ’47 Cadillac.    Don did magnetos for land speed racers like Terry Nish’s car, Al Teague’s car and George Bently’s roadster.  Teague’s car ran over 400 mph and Bentley’s roadster went over 220 mph in the 60’s.  Terry Nish’s car ran 389 with a small block.   In 2007 Zig was honored by the SCTA and inducted into the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame in Buellton, California as the Manufacturer of the Year.

Gone Racin' is at [email protected]. 

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