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A Visit with Henry Mikasa Torres, Sr.

A Visit with Henry Mikasa Torres, Sr.

Story & photographs courtesy of Henry Mikasa Torres, Sr.

Henry’s brother George is 99 and lives in Lemon Grove, CA.


Henry Mikasa Torres, Sr, was born in El Centro, California, January 23, 1920 to Petra Torres and George Mikasa who met in Los Angeles, California.  He grew up in El Centro, Indio, Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, and Huntington Park.  "My father, who was Japanese American, died in 1930 after a long Illness; it was a struggle to make ends meet, and my mother worked hard to raise my ten siblings (ages two to sixteen), but she made all of us finish high school," Henry said.  His father was born in Portugal of a Japanese father and a Portuguese mother, and spoke Spanish and English.  His mother was born in New Mexico and her parents were from Spain.  "My mother came with her father, who brought his family to California, including my mother Petra Torres, her brothers, Andrew, Rejino, Ruperto, Paul, and her sisters Ethel, Mary, and Lugarda.  They were all raised with their families in California, from El Centro to San Jose near San Francisco.  My father never mentioned his relatives.  My mother's father eventually moved to a ranch south of the border in Mexicali and lived to be over 104 years of age.  We have Cousins all over California, including many nephews and nieces," Henry added.

He went to Maywood Elementary, transferred to junior high in 1932 and graduated from Bell High School in 1938.   "My favorite classes in high school were all the regular ones, music, mechanics, math, English typing, horticulture and other subjectsI took high school in stride, getting very good grades, and played the violin in the school orchestra.  I tried out for sports, but was too small, until I got into gymnastics, and that was my game.  I even put a horizontal bar up in our yard.  I had friends who owned motorcycles, so we rode to TT races, and even went to San Bernardino to a Rally.  I borrowed a bike to use.  Our group went to big band dances, ice skating, fishing, and even hunting in the desert for small game.  We did all the activities youngsters do," Henry told me.  His shop teacher was Mr. Triola and his friends in school were Bob Self, Tom Nunn, Willie Yeomans, Norman Crow, Bob Kamp, Eugenia Malone, Francis Malone and Lois Haloran.   While he was in high school Henry had many jobs to earn a little money.  This was during the Great Depression and jobs were hard to find and gave young people a sense of value.  Henry worked in his neighbor's yard and garden.  He also gathered garbage from restaurants for a hog farmer who used it for pig food.  Another job was for a welding shop where he delivered their products all over Los Angeles County to the shop's customers. 

"We went to all of the dance halls that featured the Big Bands of the time; The Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and others.  We danced all the dances of the 1930's Era.  When a Big Band came into any of the most popular halls, people who liked to jitterbug filled the halls, and we went to as many dances as we could.  Gene Cole was a really good dancer and we tried to do many of his routines.  It was a really exciting time for people of all ages.  We hung out at Drive-in restaurants, diners and at the Long Beach Pier.  We body surfed the big rollers all along the Southern California coast," Henry said.  When Henry or his friends needed parts for their cars they went over to Bell Auto Parts, Pep Boys and the auto wreckers on Alameda Blvd.  

This is Henry’s ’31 Ford Coupe before he installed his reworked V8 engine into it.

Many of his friends in high school joined with Henry to create the Gear Grinders car club.  Previous to that time Henry and his friends would go out to the dry lakes of Southern California to watch or to race their cars.  He went to the Dry Lakes as early as 1937, then again in 1938 and 1940.  Some of the early members of the Gear Grinders included; Lyle Knudsen, Bud Wright, Norman Crow and Bob Snook.  "We met in someone's garage for our club meetings; I think it was Lyle Knudsen or the Voight brothers, who were older than most of the others, who were still in high school like me," Henry added.  In 1940 Henry went 104.44 MPH in his coupe at Muroc Dry Lake.  Two of Henry's friends in the SCTA were the Voight Brothers.  Fritz Voight went into real estate and made his fortune there.  “I hand-built a 1931 Ford Victoria coupe with a hopped up 1935 Ford V-8 engine, cut the cab two and a half inches, removed three fenders, and ran through the timers at 104.44 for fastest coupe that year.  I believe it was the first time a V-8 engine had been installed into a Model A Ford.  I lowered the car by softening the springs, then added hydraulic shock absorbers, and hydraulic brakes, syncromesh transmission, and I had a really nice street automobile.  I built a dual carburetor manifold, and converted a 16 cylinder distributor from a Lincoln to an eight cylinder dual coil distributor.  It was a very quick street vehicle,” Henry said.  He also knew Nelson "Nellie" Taylor, who was a Gopher car club member.  "My brother George was my role model and the only relative that went to the Dry Lakes with me and Lyle.  The SCTA supplied us with an aluminum Plaque about two by four inches cast in aluminum with the owners name and speed attained. That was secured to the dash of my coupe.  Lyle Knudsen ran his '32 modified Ford roadster at 110 MPH,” Henry added.

Jim Miller, president of the Society of Land Speed Racing Historians did some research and said, "I checked all of 1940 and couldn't find anyone listed with the surname Torres.  I went through the Gear Grinders list of runners in 1940 and found- Ray Cummings, Vie Laraux, Pugh Brothers, Harold Anderson, Walter Voigt, Joe Palma and Manuel Ortez (or Ortiz).  In 1941 I found a Henry T. Misak (or Misaka) who ran a modified with a stock V8 on June 15, 1941 as a Gear Grinders.  His car #63 ran 80.71 mph.  That name doesn't appear in '39, or '40.  I don't have the Gear Grinders as a car club member of the SCTA in '39.  One also has to factor in the PCTA (Pacific Coast Timing Association) because they also put on meets for everybody at a buck a run.  There is no documentation known to exist on their racing meets.  I also checked what little I have on the Western Timing Association (WTA) and came up blank with any information.

"George hopped up a model T Ford Roadster with a high compression Frontenac cylinder head, Bufflow wire wheels, Ruxtal rear axle and a few other speed improvements.  He also modified a 1941 Ford three window coupe and kept it for years; improving it until he finally sold it to buy a Prius which he still drives todayGeorge was a very smart mechanic and eventually added a GM front suspension and a high powered V8 engine to his 1941 Ford three window coupe.   George went to work for North American Aircraft and then when they were bought out by a larger aircraft company he went with them. He was a first class machinist and toolmaker and later worked for Rockwell International and worked on experimental projects for NASA and the space program while he was there.  George retired and is living in Lemon Grove, California and is now 99 years of age," Henry said.  

The following information comes from a personal phone call to George Torres; "I was born in 1914.  My father was born in Portugal and was well educated.  My parents had a farm in Maywood and I went to school and worked on the farm.  I was quite mechanical as a boy and used to work on bicycles and race them.  When I was nine years old I took my savings of $5 and bought a used Model T Ford roadster and a friend help me tow the car home.  I worked on it for a month and got it running.  I didn't have a license to drive, but I did anyway for the police never bothered farm boys.  I was shy and never attended many school functions.  I only had work clothes and overalls and working on the farm took up most of my time. 
"I would tear down cars for guys in my shed on the farm and rebuild the engines, file down the clearances by hand and reassemble the engines and give it a tune-up, all for just $5, which was a lot of money in those days.  My father died in 1927 but they wouldn't let me drop out of school to take care of the farm until I turned 15 and a half, in 1929.  We kept the farm going after that for another two, or three years.  Then I remember going into the CCC program during the Great Depression where I earned $36 a month and that was a lot of money in those days.  At a later date I had a 1924 Model T roadster and added a Frontenac high compression cylinder head, with a Ruxtal two-speed rear axle and a 3-1 high gear.  I added racing wire wheels with a quick dismount. One of the guys that I remember that ran the dry lakes was Lyle Knudsen, who was six feet, nine inches tall and I think played basketball.  It was something to see Lyle, who was so tall, walk with me down the street.

"I used to get parts at Bell Auto Parts run by George Wight, who had something to do with racing at the dry lakes in the 1930's.  I ran my car at Muroc around 1940 and ran 103 MPH, but I didn't belong to any racing club at the time.  My brother Henry was in the Gear Grinders car club and I used to do a lot of work on their cars.  I enjoyed going to Muroc to watch the cars run and to help on the crews.  I don't remember paying a fee to run my car at Muroc so they might have just let me make a run out of courtesy.  A friend of mine, Marvin Butler, was kind of an instigator and he knew that my car was fast so he challenged two other guys to bring their cars and race me.  About 300 people showed up and we staged the race down Florence Avenue, from Atlantic to the River, in Bell, California, where there wasn't much traffic.  They had better cars than mine, but they were trying to figure out how to use three carburetors and when Marvin gave the signal I hauled out of there and beat both of them," George told me.

World War II broke out on December 7, 1941, and shortly thereafter in 1942 the family changed their name from Mikasa to their mother’s maiden name of Torres to avoid any prejudice towards Americans of Japanese ancestry.  Six months later in May of 1942 Henry enlisted in the Navy.  His knowledge as a toolmaker helped him achieve the rank of Firemen 1st Class.  He trained at Naval facilities in Norman, Oklahoma; Jacksonville, Florida and Fort Lauderdale, Florida from 1943 through 1945. Henry was a turret gunner during the war, but was not assigned to war duty.  "After my training was over and I was waiting to be shipped to the fleet, I was asked to set up a shop at the Gunnery range on South Pompano Beach.  Lieutenant Virgil Blakemoor, was a two time National Skeet Champion, and he got permission for me to select the machinery for the repair shop.  I made replacement firing Pins for the 50 Caliber Turret Machine guns that we used to train the Air crew.   I also made numerous other things, even replacement Cuts Compensators for Skeet guns, used to Train novices on leading a target in FREE gunnery.  I received a Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy.  The need for Navy pilots was great at that time so the Navy sent many of us that had a High School education to Murray State College for crash college courses, for about six months so we could qualify for pilot training.  As I wasn't going to be shipped out real soon, Margaret and I decided to marry and she went with me to Murray, Kentucky and then to Athens, Georgia for flight training.  I was almost ready to fly, when the war ended, and was given the option of getting my wings and staying in the service for two more years or get a discharge from the military.  I had signed up for the duration and now that the war was over Margaret and I made the decision to leave the service," Henry added.

Henry and wife Margaret in 2007. Margaret passed away in 8/28/2010 shortly after their 65th Anniversary.

He met and married his wife, Margaret Virginia Jarvis, in Florida.  Margaret's father was a carpenter and moved around wherever there was work.  During the Depression years this was quite common for families to move.  Margaret contracted Polio at the age of two, which was a very dangerous and sometimes fatal disease.  Families were terrified that their children would get Polio, which mostly affected the young.  She survived the disease and got well.  I met her when she was seventeen years old and very wise and it was love at first sight for the both of us.  Our first child was Diane, followed by Marty and our youngest was Merle and they were all born in our home town of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Diane has a son and three grandchildren.  Marty joined the Air Force and served in Viet Nam.  He has three boys and a girl, but his oldest son passed away in an accident.  Marty's daughter has two girls and they live in Ormand Beach, Florida.

After the war he opened up his own business, the Power Center, it began as sales and service for Lawn and Garden equipment and was ran by Henry for over 40 years, tripling in size.  He started out as an auto tuner and then went into the Industrial and Home equipment business.  One of his customers was Harvey Crane of Crane Cams.  One of Henry's friends was Bobby Allison, who came from Hollywood, Florida and became a successful stock car racer in NASCAR.   "My first job in 1946 was with a Cadillac dealership, as an all around Mechanic, and I worked on a commission salary.  In the summers there just were not enough work to make the job worthwhile, so I got a job with an Auto/Marine Battery and Electric shop.  A friend and I started with a dream and 150 dollars apiece.   So my partner, Sphar Gibson, an older man about 15 years my senior, and I created this business.  He was a fair mechanic, and he and I started an auto tune up, and Marine carburetor repair.  We ended our partnership as I couldn't put my full trust in him.  The business developed into a small engine and lawn mower repair, and then I borrowed some money and became a dealer for Reo Lawn Mowers.  As the business grew larger I took on some other lines.  I bought out my partner four years after we started our business and Margaret worked as the bookkeeper, and as my children grew up, they joined our work force," Henry told us.

The young Henry and wife Margaret Torres in 1970.

In 1948 a tornado struck the new home that Henry and Margaret were building and following the tornado was a hurricane that landed in South Pompano, Florida and completely demolished the home that the young couple was building.  Henry still has relatives living in California.  George Torres is 99 and lives in Lemon Grove, California.  Ralph Torres is 86 and lives in Anza, California.  Joe Merrill is a nephew who is 65 and lives in Lancaster, California.

Gone Racin' is at [email protected].