This is the Balchowsky Ol’ Yaller Mk VII, it’s the seventh of just nine Balchowsky Ol’ Yallers that were built and it raced in-period at the 1964 Road America 500 where it battled alongside cars like the Shelby Cobra, Ferrari 250 GT, Maserati 250S , and the Porsche 718 RS.
Max Balchowsky is a man who should have had a Hollywood movie made about his life long ago, he served in World War II as a B-24 belly turret gunner in Europe and was injured while bailing out. He then went and served in the Burma Campaign. When he got back to the USA be became famous for modifying cars and building his own – the Balchowsky Ol’ Yallers.
The Balchowsky Ol’ Yaller Mk VII
- This car is the Balchowsky Ol’ Yaller Mk VII, it’s the seventh of nine Balchowsky Ol’ Yallers that were made by Max Balchowsky in his workshop at Hollywood Motors on Hollywood Blvd. This car is now the only surviving Chevrolet-powered Ol’ Yaller that was built for racing, and it was fully restored by Palhegyi Design of El Cajon, California in 2009.
- Max Balchowsky got his start working in watch repair and bicycle shops at a teenager. When WWII broke out he signed up and ended up in one of the most dangerous roles in the military – a B-24 belly turret gunner in the skies over Europe. He would later be injured while bailing out, and would then serve in the Burma Campaign.
- Once back in the United States, Balchowsky worked in his brother Caspar’s garage. He showed a natural aptitude for building high-performance cars and in 1949 he founded Hollywood Motors in Hollywood, California with his wife Ina. He quickly became a respected expert at swapping American V8s into exotic European sports cars.
- Today Balchowsky is best remembered for his series of Ol’ Yaller sports cars. As the story goes, he sketched the chassis out on the concrete garage floor with chalk, welded up the design with steel tubing, and built some of the most fearsome sports racing cars of the time that were driven by the likes of Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby.
In his teens, Max Balchowsky showed an early aptitude for all things mechanical, he worked in a watch repair shop and later in a bicycle shop. Despite the vast differences between watch and bicycle repair Balchowsky became skilled at both and could have made a career from either, however the United States was just about to join WWII, and Max’s life would be forever changed by the conflict.
During the war Balchowsky would serve in one of the most dangerous roles imaginable, he was a B-24 belly turret gunner in the skies over Europe. During one bombing run he needed to bail out, he was injured but fortunately he landed in a friendly nation and was able to make his way safely back to base.
Due to his injury he was no longer able to work as a gunner, and was shipped off to Asia where he would serve in the Burma Campaign. After the war Balchowsky returned to the United States and quickly to work in his brother Caspar’s garage.
It was around this time that he met a young woman named Ina Wilson. She had grown up in and around her father’s auto repair shop and as a result she knew cars inside out and was more than capable of rebuilding engines solo. Unsurprisingly she got on well with Max, and the two were soon married.
The late 1940s would be a formative time in Max’s life, he became an expert at swapping out engines and building performance cars, demand for his work was such that he started up his own shop with Ina in 1949 – they named it Hollywood Motors as it was located at 4905 Hollywood Blvd in Hollywood, California.
Above Film: This vintage documentary includes some wonderful footage and some appearances by Max Balchowsky himself, along with the likes of Carroll Shelby, Brock Yates, Bill Krause, Haskell Wexler, and many others telling the story of Max and Ina, and their remarkable series of self-built racing cars named Ol’ Yeller Mark I through to Ol’ Yaller Mark IX.
It would be around this time that Max became friends with a young up-and-coming actor named James Dean. Dean was also a car guy, and he could often be found at Hollywood Motors with one of his cars discussing it with Max and Ina.
Actor James Coburn had his Ferrari California maintained by Max, over the years his Hollywood connections would see him become a respected stunt driver and movie car builder – he was the man who prepared the Mustangs and Dodges used in the film Bullitt starring Steve McQueen.
Max would work as a stunt driver in many films including Viva Las Vegas, Bullitt, Herbie The Love Bug, Vanishing Point, The Deer Hunter, and many more. His stunt driving career spanned from the late 1950s well into the 1990s.
The Balchowsky Ol’ Yallers
By far and away it’s the Ol’ Yaller series of race cars developed and built by Max Balchowsky that he’s best remembered for today. The cars were often made up with many parts sourced from all over, including junkyards, but they became famous for punching above their weight and defeating vastly more expensive Ferraris and Jaguars on the race tracks of North America.
Above Film: This episode of Jay Leno’s Garage is focused on the Old Yeller II, in it Jay discusses the history of the car and talks about the significance of Max Balchowsky’s creations.
As a result of this David vs Goliath theme the Ol’ Yallers became firm crowd favorites, and Balchowsky named them such after the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller which tells the story of an unwanted dog that becomes a hero.
Balchowsky famous designed the chassis for each of his Ol’ Yallers on the garage floor in chalk before welding up the tubular steel and building the car around it. The designs were simple but highly effective, and all were powered by American V8s sourced from either Buick or Chevrolet.
Perhaps the key to the success of the Ol’ Yaller formula was the low curb weight coupled to a hefty V8 under the hood. This gave the car’s an enviable power-to-weight ratio and their mechanical simplicity made them tougher and more reliable than their exotic European rivals. As a result, Ol’ Yallers used to regularly trounce the competition.
In total, Max would built nine Ol’ Yallers between 1955 and 1963. Today the surviving examples are highly sought after by collectors due to their rarity and historic significance.
The 1961 Balchowsky Ol’ Yaller Mk VII
The car you see in this article is Balchowsky Ol’ Yaller Mk VII, as the name suggests it’s the 7th car built and it was sold new in 1961 to Don Kirby of Rochester, New York.
Kirby had ordered the car with no engine, a Devin fiberglass body, and the ability to accept a 327 Chevrolet V8. He sourced a competition-prepared 327 cubic inch, fuel-injected Chevy V8 four the car and fitted it, it was mated up to a Borg Warner aluminum T10 4-speed gearbox with power sent to the rear wheels.
Once completed the car was raced extensively in period, among its successes was a 5th overall at the SCCA Virginia International Raceway in October 1963, and a 4th in class (15th overall) in September 1964 at the Road America 500.
Later in its life the car took part in the 1991 Colorado Grand, among other vintage races and rallies, and then the 2005 Monterey Historics.
In 2009 Palhegyi Design of El Cajon, California, was commissioned to perform a full frame-up restoration which included an engine rebuild by Watkins Engine Development, a new fiberglass body, and updates to the safety, cooling, and brake systems, as well as a new set of classic Borrani wire wheels.
The car is now due to roll across the auction block with RM Sotheby’s on the 19th of August with a price guide of $175,000 – $225,000 USD. If you’d like to read more about it or register to bid you can visit the listing here.
Images: Robin Adams ©2023 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
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