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The Isky Roadster

4/12/2021
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This little black Model T has plenty of stories to tell. That it happens to be one of the greatest hot rods of all time, built by one of the greatest hot rodders of all time, only makes those stories a little more interesting. Those are big words, but it’s hard to argue the fact that Ed Iskenderian, the little T roadster that he built when he was just a kid, and the racing cam company that bears his name are hugely responsible for making our hobby and industry what they are today.

The immortal Isky roadster is remarkable for its longevity and famous creator. But it's also a very neat, well-proportioned hot rod.

The story of this now immortal Model T starts with Ed’s lifelong friend John Athan. After purchasing a pile of Model T parts from a guy named Buzz, he started piecing together a hot rod as a very young man using Essex frame rails and a Rajo head on the Model T engine. Athan soon tired of constantly breaking the hopped-up T and decided to move on to something else. His next car, a black, flathead V8 powered Model A roadster was not only the first A on Deuce rails known to exist, but also appeared in the 1957 Elvis film Loving You.

In the 1930’s, hot rodding was far from the international phenomenon that it would become after the war. Instead, it was just a spark that was starting to burn in garages and back-alley shops across the country. Isky and Athan grew up in the same neighborhood in Los Angeles. They saw hot rods and race cars going together in a few local garages and started collecting parts to build their own. Ed has said numerous times that the term “hot rod” didn’t even exist at that point. Cars like the cut down early Fords that he and his friends were building were called “gow jobs.” They didn’t have magazines to tell them how to do it. Instead, these founding fathers of hot rodding relied on ingenuity and their generation’s legendary work ethic to figure it out on their own.

This is an amazing shot. The car is tipped on its side so Ed and friends can pour lead into the stock exhaust passages in preparation for the Maxi heads. Ed reports that to be his brother Luther and friend Herman Lamb fooling around in the staged shot.

Once Ed acquired Athan’s Model T around 1937, he pulled the broken four-cylinder in favor of a then only five-year-old flathead V8 from a ’32 Ford. The flathead was soon fitted with what would become one of the car’s trademarks, a very rare set of Maxi overhead valve heads. These heads were developed for Ford trucks to solve the flathead’s famous cooling woes. The intake valves remained in the block, but the exhaust valves were moved overhead. Maxi heads were delivered with two short valve covers per side, but Ed had the cool one-piece covers that bear his name cast by a friend. After some experimentation with different intake manifolds, carburetors, and ignition systems, Ed would settle on the Edelbrock triple manifold and Vertex mag that are still on the car.

Ed liked the Maxi heads because they looked like racing overheads. Not only does the 239 flatty look incredible, it also ran hard on the street and the dry lakes.

The engine was no slouch. In the pre-war era when 100 mph in a street driven hot rod was impressive, Ed managed 120 at a Western Timing Association meet at El Mirage on May 8th, 1942. How do we know such detailed information? Well, the timing tag is still screwed to the dash, where it’s been for almost 80 years.

The air in these tires is probably older than your hot rod. They just don't make them like they used to.

The Essex chassis was fitted with a ’32 Ford front axle using ’37 wishbones to mount the spring in front of the axle to lower the car. The front brakes are not the Ford juice brakes that you might be expecting. Remarkably, the Ford factory was just switching from mechanical brakes to hydraulics as Isky was building his hot rod. Since those brand-new brakes were likely all but impossible to find in the junkyard, Ed used Plymouth hydraulics on the front. In the rear, the spring was mounted ahead of the Ford banjo axle to lengthen the wheelbase. Both ends use Houdaille shocks, fitted after a particularly rough road trip to Mexico in the T. Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels mount tires that date from sometime around WWII and miraculously still hold air.

Never mind the wear and tear, this is a cool looking hot rod interior.

The interior features a ’37 Ford banjo steering wheel and a gauge panel from an 8-cylinder Auburn. Now a rare and coveted hot rod accessory, it was just a neat part on a car in the junkyard when Ed picked it up in the late 30’s. The tach is mounted in a cool column drop that was built by young Ed. The leather upholstery is secured to the cut down T body using a trim strip that Ed created from half-round stock and had plated.

The Auburn gauge panel was favored by early hot rodders for the array of gauges and handsome shape. Also note the WTA timing tag and Iskenderian Racing Cams plaque on the passenger side.

A quick search of the internet will tell you that the unique grille is made up of two ’33 Pontiac grill shell top halves welded together. You will also find that the unbelievably cool flying skull hood ornament was cast by Ed himself in his high school shop class. But, unknown to most and visible only when you have the privilege to be close to the car, is the engraved medallion inside the winged emblem from the long-forgotten Pontiac that gave up its grill shell. The medallion is engraved “Iskenderian” and there's a little racing roadster engraved below the name. This is just one of the many examples throughout the car that show the care and attention to detail that went into it. Ed and John were not just kids throwing a hot rod together. This is a carefully planned and well-executed car, and even by today’s standards the results are exceptional.

There's a lot of cool going on in this shot. The hood ornament was cast by a young Isky in shop class, and even the Pontiac winged emblem has been customized.

This car has received plenty of press over the years, including a cover story in the sixth Hot Rod Magazine from June of ’48. But what we’ve never seen mentioned is a description of just how it feels to stand in the presence of this amazing little roadster. For lack of a better word, the car has a glow about it. Sitting static, it almost vibrates with the energy of a life well lived. Articles about the car from the past 20 years or so always describe it with adjectives like “scruffy”, “tarnished,” and “faded.” (Ed was famously once refused entry into the L.A. Roadsters' show because his car didn’t meet their standards.) It may be showing some wear, but all the scuffs, tears, and weathered chrome only add to its charm. Its soul isn’t buried under an over-restored candy shell. It’s an open book, and it’s earned those scars from over 8o years as a hot rod.

This car really does look great from any angle. If you put all the legends and provenance aside, it's still a cool hot rod.
Visible in this shot of the museum's other Maxi engine is the rocker arm configuration on the overhead exhaust valves.

So, what is this roadster doing in Nebraska, far away from its California birthplace? For one thing, it fits right in with the other legendary cars, engines, and speed parts in the Museum of American Speed. It also doesn’t hurt that the only other pair of Maxi heads known to exist are bolted to an engine only a few feet away. But maybe the biggest emotional connection comes from the rugged old cam grinder that’s displayed next to it. That was Ed Winfield’s cam grinder, and Isky’s lifetime of impact on racing and hot rodding may just have started at the controls of that very machine. Winfield worked with Harry Miller and was a legend in the early days of racing. He was among the first to really figure out the concept of regrinding a cam to improve an engine’s performance. When an eager young Ed Iskenderian approached Winfield about having a cam ground for his hot rod, Winfield took a liking to the curious, mechanically inclined kid and showed him the basics on this machine. The two remained friends until Winfield’s passing in 1982, at which point Isky purchased the trusty old cam grinder that started it all, later donating it to the Museum.

This cam grinder is legendary even without the Isky connection. Ed Winfield was a pioneer in early racing and his contribution to the sport is immeasurable.

The Museum of American Speed exists to tell the stories of the people who have built the industry that we love into what it is today. Few people exemplify this principle more than Ed Iskenderian. Ed turns 100 this year. We’re beyond thrilled to call Ed our friend and feel privileged to work with him as we share his car and stories with our visitors. It seems appropriate that the cam grinder that started it all for a young Ed sits within feet of the car that will always be known as the Isky Roadster.

The Isky display in the Museum of American Speed is still under construction. We hope it will be a fitting tribute that shows the tremendous respect we have for Ed Iskenderian and his hot rod.

Vintage photograph courtesy Ed Iskenderian. Contemporary photographs by Jason Lubken.

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