High Performance and Bullet Proof Quality? Must Be a Hurst
When you think back to the muscle car years, a lot of great names come to mind. But one name said muscle car more than any other. That name was Hurst. For nearly 40 years, Hurst has meant high performance and bullet proof quality. They earned this reputation by making one of the muscle car era’s favorite products: the Hurst shifter.
But Hurst wasn’t just a shifter manufacturer, Hurst’s contribution to the muscle era was much more far reaching. Hurst was an innovator in creating life saving safety equipment. Their support for drag racing during its early years put this little sport o the map and they’ve partnered with practically every American car marker to build some of the most unique muscle car’s ever created. All these achievements grew from the vision of one man: George Hurst.
Dick Chrysler started with Hurst in 1966 and his duties included washing the cars and sweeping the floors. By 1981 he owned the company. He credits his business success to the time he spent working with George Hurst. Dick Chrysler says: “There will never be another George Hurst. He had a vision that comes along once in a lifetime and you can only thank God that you had the chance to work with him and learn from him.” Adds Jack Watson: “George Hurst made this world a whole lot better place by being here.” Jack Watson was George’s go to guy for special projects but most people know him as Doc Watson, Hurst’s shifty doctor. He remembers how George Hurst gone things done. “He would just work unbelievably hard.”
The one thing that the funny cars and the wheel standers and the other things brought were sponsors. And those sponsors spent money. Cars like the Hurst Olds with its upscale look and feel and power to burn were proof of this little company’s ability to design and build high style muscle cars. On the opposite end of the spectrum, cars like the Hemi Barracuda showed that Hurst could focus on pure straight line performance.
Making cars like the wild wheel standing Hemi cars revealed the most about this diverse company. George Hurst believed in performance but he loved promotion. Recalls Jack Watson: “George Hurst saw it as an absolute platform that was his stage. It was a quarter mile long stage.” Hurst promotions like the Hemi under glass made a day at the drag races special for thousands of fans. But to make sure nobody ever forgot the name Hurst, they also employed one of motor sports most effective spokespeople: Miss Linda Vaughn. “George Hurst ‘was’ drag racing and we did turn Hurst into a household word.” With this blend of engineering, high performance, imagination and public relations, the fun things built by George Hurst and his dedicated team of hot rodders injected a lot of excitement into the muscle car era.
Hurst Shifters – The Cure for the Gear Shift Headache
If you had a hot car in the 50s, you probably had one big headache: that factory gear shift. Factory shifters were the weak link between the engine and the pavement. But George Hurst had a better idea. Hurst started his automotive business in 1954. In 1958, he joined forces with a brilliant engineer named Bill Campbell. In addition to working on cars, their little company called Hurst Campbell made a number of small products like motor mounts and bumper guards for VW buses. But Hurst had been tinkering with another gadget: a floor mounted gear shifter. The Hurst shifter was a jewel, a meticulous construction and innovations like reverse lockout, which prevented throwing the transmission into reverse by mistake made Hurst’s floor shifters instant favorites with hot rodders. In just a few years, the gleaming stick with Hurst stamped onto it was a status symbol among hot rodders all over America. Even then, George Hurst knew the importance of creating a strong brand name.
Dick Chrysler says: “The strongest, one of the best shifters. Racers still use them today. It was a masterful piece of engineering.” A Hurst shifter was a bona fide speed part. Most of the cars at the drags were now banging gears with Hurst shifters and with hundreds of race cars showing the Hurst decal, George Hurst realized how important it was for his equipment to work perfectly every time. So Hurst put together a rolling machine shop, setting up in the pits of major events, dispensing hospitality to the racers and providing free technical assistance.
By 1964, the big three auto makers were starting to build cars aimed directly at young drag racing fans. Detroit’s new muscle car had big inch motors, heavy duty transmissions, and all the hot rod goodies built in. But since Hurst shifters were the standard of the high performance industry, the marketing people realized they could capitalize on Hurst’s good image with muscle car buyers. “You go into a party, if you want to have fun, go with somebody everybody knows,” jokes Jack Watson, “And so the way that Pontiac or Rolls or Buick became involved in this enthusiast market was to get involved with Hurst.” Before long, just about every muscle car had one of George Hurst’s beautiful chrome four speeds shiftings its gears, which further enhance the company’s already strong reputation for making unbreakable equipment.
Hurst’s growing line of high performance equipment also included a high performance shifter for automatic transmissions called the dual gauge. And one of the most outrageous custom wheels ever made known simply as the Hurst wheel. By the mid 60s, Hurst products were the gold standard of performance parts. But as innovative as George Hurst was an engineer he was even more gifted as a promoter. Building the Hurst name was a joint effort. A blend of good products and clever showmanship. Laughs Linda Vaughn: “I don’t sing and I don’t dance but I can sure shift your gears!”
Big Time Motor Sports
In 1966, drag racing was big time motor sports. In less than 20 years it had risen up from its greasy knuckles roots to be a multi million dollar televised sport. One of the prime movers in this transformation was George Hurst. From racer support like at performance clinics to lavish giveaways like cash prizes and free cars, Hurst created hundreds of promotions which poured money into drag racing and kept the company name in front of the fans.
By far, though, the most visible and effective promotion was Miss Hurst Golden shifter: “So George Hurst was like an uncle to me or a dad at times. And the PR director just took me under his wing and I really became a part of the family.” Linda Vaughn began her career with Hurst in 1966. Her image as Hurst’s golden girl is one of the most best known symbols of the muscle car era and was instrumental in making Hurst a household name among car enthusiasts. “I made sure if I see a ’57 Chevrolet pull up or a Hurst Oldsmobile or a Pontiac Oldsmobile, I got their nose in there to see if it has a Hurst shifter in it. 99% of the time it still does.” Linda Vaughn continues today as one of racings most memorable personalities but not all of Hurst promotions were this polite and lovely. Some were just plain rowdy.
The Hemi Under Glass
The Hemi under glass was born in 1965, another creation of the fertile mind of Doc Watson. “Well, the Hemi under glass evolved because we were in the early generation stages of helping Chrysler develop their funny car program. I always looked for names that I could put an H in to stick the Hurst logo. Next thing I do is we’re out at Baltimore sticking Barracudas straight up in the air and I thought, ‘This is neat!’” He laughs. The Hemi under glass immediately became the world’s favorite exhibition dragster. It stripped down the quarter mile on two wheels and brought everyone to their feet. And on days that the car would perform, drag strip owners were guaranteed standing room only crowds.
For sheer outrageousness, though, nothing could top this car: a twin engine four wheel drive ’66 Olds 442. Its name described the car perfectly. The Hairy Oldsmobile. “It was a tough car,” laughs Jack Watson. The Hairy Olds became the most awesome exhibition car to ever roar down the drag strip. Two 425 Oldsmobile engines received the full on racing treatment. To create Hairy’s frame, two Olds front clips were tied together and the engines were installed with one in the normal position and the other behind the driver. Each engine drove two wheels through trans axles.
These engines spun all four M&H slicks through the length of the drag strip, taking driver Gentleman Joe on some of the wildest rides ever seen on the drag strip or anywhere else. Jack Watson says: “Hairy went where Hairy wanted to go. Hairy went in the ditch, he went through three corn fields and almost ended up in a barn. We never knew where Hairy was going!” Hairy joined the Hemi under glass on the touring circuit and no one who ever saw either car perform will forget the experience.
The Hemi Dart and the Hemi Barracuda
But most of the cars Hurst made for the drag strip didn’t make exhibition runs. Although their competition wished they had. In 1968, Chrysler corporation and Hurst came up with a couple cars designed to dominate the super stock classes: the Hemi Dart and the Hemi Barracuda. Says Dick Chrysler: “We built 150 of those cars, 80 Darts and 70 Barracudas. Literally brought them into our facility on a tow truck with no engine, no trans. Pulled the rear end out from underneath them and put in heavy duty rear ends and put fiberglass fenders and hoods on them, acid dipped doors, lightweight windows, of course the Hemi engine and the trans with the Hurst shifter in them. And they were the best and fastest stock vehicle you could buy.”
Without a doubt, the cars that people remember as the Hurst cars are these: the Hurst Oldsmobiles. Starting in 1968, these cars became some of the most desirable muscle cars ever made. And elevated Hurst from being an equipment manufacturer to being a maker of high performance hand built specialty vehicles. The old 442 was a spectacular muscle car. Powerful engine, gorgeous looks, great handling.
It would take some ambitious thinking to make this car any better. But Hurst was known for that kind of thinking. What George Hurst was after was an executive hot rod. A tricked up 442 featuring the bad boy 455 cubic inch engine instead of the usual 400 motor would fill this bill nicely. Hurst immediately sold the possibilities and so did Oldsmobile who gave the go ahead to make 500 cars. But there were a couple of problems. To make it to the dealers before the end of the ’68 model year they had to make all of them in just 30 days.
Says Jack Watson: “By the time I got the program approved, there was no time and I needed to build it!” Ted Lucas, Oldsmobile’s chief engineer at the time remembers how they solved these little issues. “It was a creative thing, believe me. We got the cars out and shipped them over to John Demmer to put the shifter in, put the stripes on it, and the wing on it.” There was one more minor detail. GM had a policy that prevented engines larger than 400 cubic inches in intermediate cares but Doc Watson had a fix for that one too. “For everybody that wants to know, they already had the 455s in ‘em.” The Olds 455 prescribed by the doctor was heated up especially for this application. It featured a 474 lift cam, the big valve heads from the 442, a rejetted Quadrajet carb, and a re-curved distributor. The 442 force-air induction system helped this engine make 390 horsepower and 500 foot pounds of torque. The car was otherwise standard issue Olds 442 but needless to say they all featured a Hurst shifter. Since Olds wasn’t geared up to do Hurst’s signature gold color, the ’68 Hurst Olds came in Peruvian silver with a special black accent stripe and a black rear panel laid on by Demmer. These were highlighted by white pinstripes and every one was hand painted by a fellow named Paul Hatton, who performed this work for the princely sum of $20 per car.
By the end of the fast and furious 30 days, 515 of these cars had been built. But thanks to the power of the Hurst trademark, Olds dealers had placed orders for nearly 3000. Because of this demand and the media attention attracted by this marriage of Olds and Hurst, for 1969 Hurst rolled out 914 copies, including two convertibles. The ’69 car received a more Hurst-like paint scheme with fire frost gold stripes on its white body. Cold air for the 455 now came from outrageous dual hood scoops and a functional rear wing now sat on the deck. Other special touches to the ’69 Hurst Olds included English style racing mirrors, custom head rests, and ’60 series tires on 15 inch Olds rally wheels.
The ’72 Hurst Olds enjoyed the honor of being the first Indianapolis 500 Pace Car to be produced, not by a major auto maker, but by a specialty company. It continued the tradition of the executive hot rod with 499 Coupes and 120 Convertibles getting the treatment this year. Over the next 15 years, seven more versions of the Hurst Olds were created, each one showed the special style that only a team of hot rodders led by a man named Hurst could bring to the project. The Hurst Olds today sits at the top of the must have list for every classic car collector. And each one, from 1968 to 1984 is exactly what George Hurst, Doc Watson, Dick Chrysler, and the rest of their team intended it to be. The muscle car, raised to the next level. “They represented the excitement and the passion that people have for automobiles today.” Says Jack Watson. Hurst had known grown into the muscle car era’s first mega company. And they were just getting limbered up!
Even though they were best known around America’s drag strips, Hurst was a player in every type of American motor sports, from Indy to Bonneville. In 1965, the Summers brothers led an assault on the land speed record with the Goldenrod. Powered by four Chrysler Hemi engines, the Goldenrod posted a new record of over 409 miles per hour with much of the engineering coming from Hurst research and development. But drag racing was still George Hurst’s first love. In 1969, American Motors came in for a shot of that love. What resulted was the AMX SS: a take off on the Hemi Barracudas and Darts from years earlier. ’53 AMXs minus a lot of heavy things like front fender support, front sway bars, etc. were delivered to Hurst performance research. When they rolled out, they were legal super stoppers, with heavy duty 444 rear ends, a scatter shield, and of course, a Hurst shifter. Under the hood, the AMX 390 got the full treatment with special cylinder heads and intake manifolds and two Holley 650s and a high capacity cooling system. Racing like Wally Booth and Shirley “the Dragon Lady” campaigned these AMXs all through the 1969 season. And the excitement generated by this car led to another AMC Hurst creation, but this one was for the street.
American Motors was always known for its economy minded cars. This wasn’t one of them! The little Rambler was outfitted with the AMX’s 315 horsepower 390 cubic inch engine. Behind this came a four speed transmission, shifted by, you guessed it! A Hurst shifter. And a twin grip 344 rear axle. This much torque in this little car, which just barely weighed in at 3000 pounds was a rocket launcher. With its in your face red, white, and blue paint job and a wink towards those who made Rambler jokes, they called this car the Hurst Scrambler. Slated for an initial run of 500 cars, the Scrambler soon became an out of stock item at your local AMC dealer. So Hurst tooled up another 1012 of these little sleds with a more sedate but equally patriotic paint scheme. Hurst’s last collaboration with Chrysler in the 60s was a big one: over 4000 pounds to be exact. The 1969 Chrysler 300 Hurst enjoys the distinction of being the fastest letter car ever built and certainly the most massive Hurst car ever created. A fiberglass power bulge hood and a trick rear deck spoiler, gold 15″ Chrysler road wheels with trim rings, and Hurst ID badges everywhere made this car immediately recognizable as, not just another big Chrysler, but something truly special. With its 375 horse 440 magnum power plant and all of Chrysler’s top of the line imperial options, the 300 Hurst was a great way to pay tribute to a memorable car.
Hurst and Pontiac had been good friends since the early 60s and had enjoyed many successful ventures together so in 1970 the two companies revived this old friendship with a very cool car called the Gran Prix SS J. Starting with a white or black Gran Prix model J optioned according to the buyer’s taste, Hurst applied fire gold paint accents to the hood, roof, and deck, installed a power sun roof, and a vinyl top and completed the assembly according to the customer’s order, with options like Hurst roll control, a digital computer, and even a mobile phone. You could order your SS J with bench seats or a console and buckets. But either way, the turbo hydromatic transmission was shifted with, imagine that! A Hurst shifter! The Gran Prix SS J was one of the more rare cars from Hurst and just about 200 cars were done between 1970 and ’72. As the 70s progressed and the high performance industry succumbed to pressures to tone it down a little, Hurst like all of us, would undergo some changes.
George Hurst left the company he built in 1970 and after changing hands a couple of times, in 1981, Hurst was acquired by Cars and Concepts, a company created by former Hurst employee Dick Chrysler. “I was always in love with the company. I always loved it and always wanted to work there, right from the get go, and I felt that if I had the opportunity to buy the company, I would. It came on the market and it was just a natural fit to find a home for.” For the next six years, under Chrysler’s leadership, the Hurst Olds program was revived, making some of the decade’s best performing and most collectible cars. Doc Watson left Hurst in the late 60s and is an engineering design consultant today, working on everything from alternative fuels to new concept cars. The big joy of his life these days is helping his kids with their careers. Sadly, in ill health for some years, George Hurst passed on in 1986 and with him, passed an era.
George Hurst helped create a time in America when cars were more excitement than plain transportation, drag racing was more fun than big business, and there was room in the world for people who dreamed big dreams. The cars from Hurst are just a few of the gifts left to us by this man of vision. They were his way of sharing the Hurst magic with all of us.