pioneer and innovator Chester “Chet” Herbert died on April 23, 2009. Herbert, born on March 4, 1928, overcame huge personal challenges and went on to develop some of auto racing’s most significant speed components.
Growing up in Southern California’s early hot rod scene, the teenaged Herbert had a reputation for building and racing fast cars and motorcycles. When he was 20 years old, though, he was stricken with polio and lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down.
“My grandmother told me he was so wild about racing, that if he didn’t have polio to slow him down, he probably would have died,” said son Doug Herbert, 41, who followed his father into professional drag racing. “When my dad was 12, my grandma bought him a trumpet and hoped he’d learn to play. But he traded the trumpet for a Cushman motorscooter and it was life in the fast lane ever since.”
Lying in a hospital iron-lung for six months in 1948, Herbert developed ideas for manufacturing racing parts in his head. When he was released, he developed the first roller camshafts for race cars and was among the first to try nitromethene fuel in a dragster after reading how the German army had used it to power torpedoes during World War II.
Although he never personally raced again, Herbert fielded scores of dragsters, drag motorcycles and land speed-record streamliners for other drivers. His racing Harley-Davidson, nicknamed “The Beast,” was the fastest quarter-mile dragster in its day, having achieved a then record-shattering 129 mph, faster than any car in 1950.
Herbert also developed the zoomie-type exhaust header, which blew the smoke away from a dragster’s rear tires in order to achieve better traction, helping them break the 200 mph record.
Herbert was one of the first to establish a successful speed shop and parts mail- order business. According to hot rod historian Greg Sharp of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, Herbert was probably the first racing parts retailer to utilize advertising in national magazines to reach consumers. His chopped 1932 Ford sedan was a rolling billboard for his business. He built it with a Hydromatic transmission so he could drive it using hand controls. It was featured in the March, 1952, issue of Hot Rod Magazine and in 2007, was voted one of the most significant 1932 Ford hot rods in history. Herbert was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.
Herbert is survived by his wife, Leanne; three children: Doug; daughter Heather Herbert-Binetti and daughter Tracey Drage; and his sister Doris, who as editor of Drag News, was also inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993. Herbert was preceded in death by his sister, Fay Trout, and by grandsons, Jon and James Herbert.
To overcome the sorrow of his grandsons’ death in 2008, Herbert and son Doug were in the process of building a Bonneville streamliner with which they hoped to achieve 500 MPH, breaking the world speed record for piston-powered, wheel-driven cars. Son Doug is still determined to accomplish that dream.
A memorial celebration of Herbert’s life will be held at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, May 2, at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1855 Orange Olive Road, Orange, CA 92865. A private, graveside family service will be held that afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Fair Haven Memorial Park in Santa Ana.
Doug Herbert’s statement: “My dad was my hero. He taught me so much about how to be a strong and determined person. Despite the fact that he had polio and was in a wheelchair for much of his life, he never let that stop him from doing anything. He proved to everyone that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to; which taught me that, no matter how tough something may seem, if you fight hard enough, you can overcome it. I always looked up to him. I’m glad I had the opportunity to follow in his footsteps and be involved in a sport that he helped to invent. Some of my best memories with my dad were made over the past year. We had grown much closer since my boys, Jon and James, died in a car accident in early 2008. I will miss my dad very much. I am lucky to have many wonderful memories of him that I will always cherish.”
From Las Vegas Review-Journal, Inc
Chet Herbert's 1932 Ford 1932 Ford 4-door built by Bill Walker of Los Angeles, California for Bonneville-famedChet Herbert. It was fitted with a 270 Cui GMC straight six mill coupled to a 1950 Buick Dynaflow transmission with the help of a custom machined adaptor plate The GMC truck engine was bored 3 31/32" and stroked 4", providing 296 Cui. Compression ratio with the stock Horning head was 12 to 1. Chet had it dyno-tested, and the test indicated 198 hp at 400rpm. A small tank located alongside the fuel tank supplied alcohol for a special injection system, which could be cut in at any time. The alcohol could gain 30 hp. It was fit with a Spalding two-coil ignition, homemade headers with by-pass opening for lake running, and a 2" Smitty muffler. Chet had set up two batteries producing 12 V for quick starting. The dash was fit with Stewart-Warner instruments, and it was upholstered in withe pleated plastic with red trim. The body was channeled six inches over the frame. A set of 1941 Chevrolet taillights were installed and the fenders and running boards were removed. The sedan was chopped 4 inches, along with the channeled body resulted to a desired headroom. Once the bodywork was done, it was painted black lacquer with white pinstriping by Art Summers. The seats were dropped flat on the floor, the rear seat was discarded and made space for the battery and additional fuel tanks, this was naturally covered by a tarp. Access to the car's interior was possible through any of the four doors. The headlights were seal beam units mounted on a set of Bell Auto brackets. The front axle was chromed, and fit with juice brakes from a 1940 Ford. It had split wishbones, and the front crossmember was moved ahead 4". As a victim of polio, Chet was limited to operate the car with only his hands. The car was fit with 15" 1950 Mercury rims with wide whitewalls.
The car subsequently changed hands and engines more often that anyone cares to remember, however it eventually wounded up with Lonnie Gaskin. When Lonnie owned it, it had a Flathead V8 engine which was shoved 14 inches aft to balance the weight properly. The 1940 Ford brakes were replaced by brakes from a 1946 Mercury, which were mounted on a 1946 Ford spindles. A 1936 Ford rear end with a 3.78 to 1 ratio was driven by an early Ford floorshift box fitted with 28-tooth Zephyr unit. The engine was based on a 1934 Ford block with a 3 3/4" stroke and a bore of 3 3/16. The 239 inch powerplant was ported and relieved and fit with dual Stromberg carburetors on a Meyermanifold. A Harmon & Collins magneto and a Winfield R1 cam was installed as well. Special heads boosted the compression ratio to 9.25 to 1. Previously the sedan had blackwall tires, however Lonnie mounted Firestone5.00-16 up front and 7.00-16 in the rear.
From References Hot Rod Magazine March 1952 Rod & Custom June 1955
Photos by Felix Zelenka.