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The History of Bell Auto Parts | America's First Speed Shop

3/15/2024
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SoCal’s First Hot Rod Speed Shop

Dean Batchelor, in his book The All-American Hot Rod, says "First there was George Wight, Then Lee Chapel, then Karl Orr and then everyone got into the act." In 1923, an enterprising character named George Wight established an auto-wrecking yard at 3633 East Gage Ave. in Bell near southeast Los Angeles. In the twenties half of all the cars on the road were Model T Fords. There were hundreds of companies making accessories and performance parts for the T Ford. George would scavenge these junkyard hotrods for parts and developed a business refurbishing and reselling early speed parts. It is also important to remember that during this time that stripped down Model Ts were running on dirt tracks all over the Los Angeles area and Legion Ascot Speedway was in its prime, drawing huge crowds, just a few miles north near Alhambra.

OHV Flat Head Ford History

In 1928 George built the original brick building. He would sell parts, offer advice, take your race car on consignment and generally entertain the racing community. He sold new and used Miller and Winfield carburetors, along with overhead valve conversions for the new Model A built by George Riley and Crane Gartz (CRAGAR). Crane had purchased the patterns and tooling for the Cragar head from the Miller-Schofield Co. Late in 1932 the Cragar Corporation, Ltd. failed after making a good name for itself in vintage drag racing. The name might have been lost except for George Wight who made Crane an offer for the patterns and inventory. George was much more than a horse trader. It wasn't long before he had "improved" the Cragar head into a cross flow design for better breathing. Bell Auto Parts was one of the most important hot rod speed shops in the country when the war came, and all racing activity was put on hold. George died in 1943 and his widow kept the doors open throughout the war.

1945-1953 | Roy Ritcher and the Original Parts Catalog

If there is a "Top Ten" for the personalities that had the greatest effect on the development of racing in America Roy Richter would certainly be included. Art Bagnall's book, Roy Richter, Striving for Excellence (out of print) is the definitive work on Roy, his accomplishments, and Bell Auto Parts. This is a must have for your library and if you see a copy used take it home with you. It was the inspiration for this site and this pursuit.

Roy was a winning driver and an accomplished chassis and body builder. He built some of the most beautiful midgets, sprints, and champ cars. He won the National Championship with his "Richter Streamliner" (Rail and Tether Cars) that he manufactured and sold before the war. He already had a strong reputation in racing when he purchased Bell Auto Parts from George's widow in 1945.

Roy had a great sense for business, experience selling through the mail with his tether cars and placed himself in the right place at the right time.

There was a huge burst of racing activity after the war. The HOPUP market (that had really begun before the war) was exploding. There were many racers and craftsmen that had developed speed parts. They made heads, cams, manifolds, flywheels and other items. They would be successful if they could just "go to market." Roy placed Bell Auto parts between these "manufacturers" and the huge demand that was building. He signed up for many of these companies and became a distributor for names like Iskenderian, Edelbrock and Wieand. In 1946 Roy stapled up the first catalog of racing parts and "Racing's General Store" was born.

The second huge effect that this strategic decision had was it made it easy for small shops across the country to deal with one company and add a full line of speed parts to their available inventory. Local racing got a huge boost and a whole industry was born. By 1948, Bell Auto Parts had thousands of independent dealers and was a national catalog business. The customer or reseller could choose from some 10K items to support his racing interest. Roy and Bell Auto Parts never stopped developing products in-house. The famous Bell steering wheel and the "Dural" hand pumps are among the most recognizable. In the early 50's the Cragar name was used on many parts, like transmission adaptors. In 1952 Roy started a foreign car dealership for British cars. He sold MG, Austin Healy, and Jaguar.

1954-1987 | Bell Auto Racing Helmets and Cragar Mags

It was really a success that changed the outlook for Bell Auto Parts. This came in two waves. The first was the huge growth of the speed equipment and aftermarket business, that Bell Auto Parts was instrumental in developing. It became so big that more traditional ways of marketing and distribution were needed. The multiple roles of Bell Auto Parts as a retail store, catalog store, warehouse distributor and manufacturer were confusing for customers and employees. In 1955, Roy Richter incorporated the Cragar Equipment Company, reviving the old racing name George Wight had bought from Crane Gartz in 1933. The Cragar name was used on most new parts that were developed. The second wave of success was the explosive growth of two products, the Bell Auto racing helmet and the Cragar SS wheel. In 1954 Roy began to manufacture the Bell Helmet. Bell Auto Parts was already selling many Andersons and Cromwell (British) helmets through its distribution network. Roy knew the potential for this business. This is quite a story, and again, I will refer you to Art Bagnall's book Roy Richter, Striving for Excellence to learn more. The Cragar SS wheel was not a copy but a new innovative way to manufacture custom wheels. Roy's team created a strong and attractive wheel suitable for racing. By 1964 the Bell Auto racing helmet operation had moved to Long Beach and the Cragar wheel business moved to South Gate, and it would soon move again to Compton. In 1965 the demands of these manufacturing businesses were causing cash flow problems for Bell Auto Parts. Then in 1967 Roy legally separated the businesses and created a holding company called Roy Richter Enterprises. The businesses were later sold off. In 1971 the Wynn Oil Company purchased control of Cragar Industries and Bell Helmets. Later in 1978 the remaining companies were sold to long-time employees. Desert Dynamics was sold to John Glew and Jot Horne. The Bell Safety Distributorship was purchased by Kenny Parks. He then started Bell Motorsports. Bell Auto Parts and the remaining inventory was sold to Chuck Strader who ran the business from a location in Huntington Beach for another 10 years. Through this, Roy was dedicated to taking care of his team. He passed away much too soon in July of 1983.

Bell Auto Racing Helmets Today

Today, Speedway Motors proudly continues the racing legacy of Bell Auto Parts, offering a range of Bell Auto racing helmets and safety equipment. As a brand deeply rooted in racing, particularly in dirt and oval track disciplines, Speedway Motors understands the importance of innovation while adhering to evolving safety standards. Alongside these cutting-edge helmets, Speedway Motors also pays homage to old-school racing nostalgia with vintage speed shop t-shirts and vintage hot rod signs.

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