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Gene Schwartz - Meeting an NHRA Legend and His Car


Words: Mike Aguilar    Photos: Enilda Aguilar

During the SEMA Show this past November, I was attracted to the South/Central Hall by the sound of live classic rock being played. I hustled on over to where the music was coming from and was given the pleasure of meeting one of the musicians, Gene Schwartz, who was playing the bass guitar. Right next to the makeshift stage there was a ’52 Chevy DeLuxe gasser on display that belongs to Gene. After his set, I got to sit down and chat with this bit of living NHRA history.


Taking a Look at Gene’s Car

Gene’s dad bought the ’52 DeLuxe for him brand new as a high school graduation present. He and his brother were both musicians, but they also both liked to go fast. Gene tried dragging the car with the stock 235 cid inline six. Right away he knew that anemic engine wasn’t going to cut it on the dragstrip, so he immediately started looking around for a replacement engine.


The Mods Begin

Thanks to gigging with his brother and their band, Gene found and installed a 283 cid V8 after boring and stroking it to a displacement of 315 cubic inches. He then installed a Crane 670 roller cam and lifters, plus a Crane competition distributor with a Jedsel Built drive set. A set of aluminum pop top pistons with a “fire slot” to shroud the spark plug was also used. Aluminum was chosen because it would be more conducive to the high revs the engine would experience on the strip.

Back in the day, gassers relied almost solely on performance upgrades from Harvey Crane, so a set of Crane Super Port-Flow heads was acquired after being heavily ported and polished by Crane himself. These were fitted with all the right parts to work with the Crane roller cam Gene already had, including 2.02 inch intake and 1.60 inch exhaust valves.

Prior to installation, the valves were given a multi-angle grind and the seats were faced and polished. This overall combination gives the engine a compression ratio of 15:1. Fueling the engine is a set of Hilborn injectors with a Hilborn injector pump.


Out Came the Stock “Torque Tube” and Rear

Even with the stock engine, problems came up on the track with the Chevy’s torque-tube, so it was replaced with a driveshaft and rear axle from an Oldsmobile and then layered with multi-leaf rear springs for support. For added traction, a set of ladder bars was then installed.

The Olds rear was a limited slip posi unit with 5.68 gears. This proved unsatisfactory, so a set of locking spider gears from Ansen Equipment were used originally. That has since been replaced by a Moser 6.50 spool with 35 spline axles in a narrowed Ford nine inch rear.

Back in the day, a Borg-Warner T-10 with a close-ratio box with a first gear ratio of 2.20 was in the car. Gene said that died and a new G-Force five speed with clutch-assist is now in the car. Said clutch is a Hays unit. A best pass of 10.19 @ 130 MPH was achieved with this engine/rear combination.


Transmission Mods

The transmission is shifted with a Hurst Competition-Plus shifter and a Hays clutch/clutch-assist system. To enable shifting under load, the transmission was rebuilt and the facing edges of every other brass synchro tooth were ground down. This type of modification came to be known as a “crash box,” and it became so popular that Joe and Tom Hrudka from Cleveland began selling synchro sets pre-modified for their Mr. Gasket line of products. Doug Nash and Liberty’s Gears now build complete racing transmissions with the synchros designed with the every other facing edge smaller than the rest.


Suspending the DeLuxe

As mentioned, a leafspring-equipped Olds rear end originally went into the car when it was first being built and extra leafs were installed to give the rear some stiffness and torque resistance. To give the car that “gasser look,” Gene installed a straight axle out of a ‘40 Willys truck.

Ten inch drums didn’t provide enough “whoa force” for him, so he converted the rear brakes to 11-inch drums. Next, a set of disc brakes was installed up front with Aerospace 11-inch rotors and calipers.

Weld Wheels and Goodyear supplied the wheels and tires that you now see on the car; however, it originally sat on Halibrand Wheels. When Gene first started racing, M&H Racemaster slicks were the tires to use for drag racing. However, the soft Number 148 compound wore down quickly, so he used the system of running the tires until the wear holes were halfway worn down and then the tires were dismounted and flipped around, effectively doubling the amount of life they could deliver. Back then, 200 bucks per tire was expensive.


Classing the Gasser

With all the upgrades completed, it was time to get ready to race it around the area. Because of the engine size and output, he had a couple classes from which to choose. He went with E/Gas because he knew that the psychological impact of this slightly bigger and heavier car leaving off the line so quick could be discouraging to even seasoned drivers, giving Gene the advantage he needed to win.

However, the car still fell short of the minimum weight for the class of 3,212 pounds. That was no problem for Gene, especially since he noticed that he wasn’t getting as much traction as he wanted. That was no problem for Gene. He simply relocated the battery box to the trunk and used a heavy duty battery, and welded a couple steel plates into the trunk.


Gene Did Most of the Work Himself

Gene never had big sponsorships allowing him to put together a big team of players to help him work on the car, though he wants it known that Hatter Performance helped immensely with the restoration of his car. He had some help from machine shops in determining which blocks and heads would stand up to the rigors of racing, but that was pretty much it. He also did most of the engine building and body/frame/chassis modifications himself. He even welded up the front end so the whole front clip would rotate forward to give access to the engine.


Highlights of Gene’s Career

Gene’s got records and titles in NHRA competition dating back to the Sixties. For example, he won his class (E/Gas) in the NHRA Nationals in 1965, even though his car was destroyed in a towing accident. He found another ’52 DeLuxe and transplanted everything in it, gave it a Beatles-inspired paint job and went on to win his class at the Nationals. Schwartz also won the 12th annual National Championship Drag Races (presented by Champion Spark Plugs) for his class.

He was also presented with a certificate of achievement from the drag times East Coast Hall of Fame in honor of a lifetime of achievement in the sport - and as the door decal says, he’s also an NHRA record holder for the years 1964 to 1967.


Gene’s Life Isn’t All Nitromethane and Wheel Stands

The automotive/racing accolades were nice, Gene told me. However, his true love is and always has been music. Gene Schwartz is an extremely accomplished bassist. In fact, he’s been called one of “best white guitar players in the country” by Bluesman Robert Lockwood, Jr. In the Sixties, he played and toured with both Pacific Gas & Electric and The Mamas and The Papas.

His brother Glenn moved out to California in the early Sixties and met a pianist/guitarist by the name of Joe Walsh. Together, they formed a band called “Pacific Gas & Electric.” Gene sat in with them from time to time. Gene met and jammed with Jimi Hendrix at a birthday party, after which Hendrix took both Schwartz brothers on tour with him. Gene also toured with names like the great B.B. King and Ray Charles, as well as Robert Lockwood.