Car Spotlight>> 1959 Balchowsky Old Yeller Mkii


There was one rather garish odd-one-out in the line of pristine late-50s sportscars drawn up in the paddock of the Goodwood Revival. A big, very yellow odd-one-out: the 1959 Balchowsky-Buick: a true backyard special, hand-made with American pride to take on the period European sportscar onslaught.


A self-confessed mongrel this might be, but its ample bark and enthusiastic presentation made it a popular and welcome draw on the Sussex Trophy race card that included sleek Jaguars, Aston Martins and Maseratis.


Current owner Ernie Nagamatsu had raced Old Yeller at the Goodwood Revival several times already, and had also been invited to the prestigious sister event to the Revival, the Festival Of Speed. In fact in 2000, Old Yeller was given pride of place at the Festival, being one of only nine cars lined up as part of the opening ceremony.


Max Balchowsky started racing in 1951 with a rather more sedate Jaguar XK120, before switching to homebrew cars for the next couple of years. 1959’s Old Yeller MkII was preceded by another crude racer based on a Morgenson Special – but a crude racer with 330bhp and a 0-60mph time of less than four seconds.


The 880kg MkII was a bespoke ladder-type chassis with double-wishbone front suspension and a solid rear axle, and a body held together by rough army-surplus fasteners and some tape.


But what was really important was under the bonnet: a heavily-modified 6571cc V8 Nailhead Buick 401 engine pushing out 305bhp. That made for an extremely fast car that could take the fight to the opposition – though reliability problems set the car back at first.


Balchowsky initially drove Old Yeller himself, but over the car’s life a list of impressive drivers has also shared the wheel.


A panel on the interior lists the drivers of 1960, which includes F1 and sportscar specialist Bob Bondurant, Cobra-creator Carroll Shelby and American racing legend Dan Gurney.


Gurney first drove Old Yeller at Riverside (qualifying third and setting a lap record), and then again at Laguna Seca after Balchowsky had helped try and repair his Lotus XIX in time for the race. The Lotus didn’t make it, so Gurney took up the offer of a drive in Old Yeller. The car continued to be raced right up until 1974, when it finally retired after a last outing in its home state of California.


After languishing in a backyard in Fresno for a couple of years the car was recovered and restored back to a drivable state – Ernie then subsequently bought Old Yeller in the early ’90s and completed the car’s restoration, taking it back to its original 1959 configuration.


This included the famous whitewall tyres – they were originally from a Chrysler station wagon that Balchowsky found had the perfect softness for his new creation. The Mobil decal was applied in period in return for free fuel from the gas company.


Dentist Ernie (“No Tooth Left Behind”!) is rightfully proud of his ‘Junkyard Dog’  – he knew Max in period, and is more than pleased to be continuing the legend. It’s the best possible tribute to Max Balchowsky, who passed away in the late ’90s. I will wear the Old Yeller badge he gave me with pride!


Conditions in the Goodwood paddock are spartan – but Ernie still found space in his cases for some colourful reminders of the car’s past. It’s a crime that Dan Gurney isn’t President…


As with most old cars, the cockpit is basic: the rev counter and oil pressure being the only things to really concern you. There is a small jump-seat installed next to the big leather driving seat – that must be quite some passenger ride!


Around Goodwood’s fast sweeps, and against cars that have likely seen some development in their 50 years, Old Yeller looked like quite a handful.


But was winning really the point? No, for a gentleman and his Junkyard Dog, the pleasure of the car and the approval of the crowd is more than enough.

Jonathan Moore

Goodwood Revival stories on Speedhunters

Old Yeller II homepage

Goodwood Revival



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I'd love to have something like this sitting in my garage. The pleasure that man gets from owning and driving such a machine must be enormous.


I happen to know ernie personally and have had the pleasure of talking with him about this and other cars he has. He is such a polite guy and will talk for days about this car. I passed on this article to him and he was ecstatic to have it featured! Thanks for the coverage.


It looks like banana with wheels :) Interesting post. More unique car like this SH!


I disagree about the car being crude... It may look that way, but I saw a special on T.V. once, and the car was ahead of its time, having details like holes drilled in suspension pieces not for lightweight, but so they would crush inward in the case of a crash. A lot of thinking has gone into this car, and it wouldn't be so successful otherwise.


it's cool to see a yet another little known legend such as Old Yeller being featured on SpeedHunters. 
as a kid back in the 80s i remember reading and seeing pics of this car in many racing related books. at the time i thought it was a ugly piece of sh#t and had no reverence or respect for it. as i got older i read a few feature articles on the car in Hot rod magazine and such, and began to really appreciate what Max accomplished with the car as well as the fact that it was a fairly successful machine. i wish i could see and experience it in person. 
hopefully with it's exposure here, other young car guys won't be as dismissive as i was in my youth and appreciate it for what it is - an ingenious home made race car that was campaigned buy a early SpeedHunter.


I recall reading at the time that Max welded up the frame to match an outline he had chalked on the shop floor.  Carbon fiber that, kids!


I enjoyed watching Max and Ken Miles, Ken in his MG, Flying Shingle, race when I was a youngster in Southern CA.
Those were the good old days before 100 and 200 man " teams"!!!