SEMA Pioneer: Ed Iskenderian

Dec 19, 2016

Ed Iskenderian is a genuine piece of hot rod history and a man who attended the first SEMA Show with his Iskenderian Racing Cams company. There was good reason for him to be at that event, since Iskenderian had served as the first president of the Speed Equipment Manufacturing Association in 1963 and 1964. The first SEMA Show was held in 1967 in Dodger Stadium and the 50th Anniversary SEMA Show was held this year at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The Iskenderians were Armenians who fled Turkey and came to America around 1910. They settled in Northern California’s wine country, where Ed Iskenderians was born in 1921. When frost destroyed the vineyards, the family moved to Los Angeles. His father ran a shoe store in the downtown area.

“I didn’t know about hot rods yet,” Iskenderian once said. “Around 1933, when I was about 12, I would see older guys driving stripped down Model Ts or Whippets. We called them ‘Gug Jobs’ or ‘Get Up and Go’s,” or ‘Hot Iron.’ They did say ‘rods,’ too.”

Iskenderian said that he found out where a fellow lived who owned one of the cars. That hot rodder told him that if he really wanted to see a lot of them, he should come up to California’s dry lakes. He hitched a ride and found hundreds of hot rods. They came from different parts of California and everyone who owned one of them had their own ideas. At the dry lakes, Iskenderian and his friends watched the cars run time trials, with some of them hitting speeds of 140 mph. Despite the long drive to the lakes, Isky, as he was known, got involved in the sport.

Iskenderian attended Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, where his pet project was building a Model T roadster. He learned the basics of auto mechanics while working on Model T Fords. He became familiar with early speed equipment, which was largely centered on racing cylinder heads with overhead valve Frontenac and Riley conversions.

“If you really wanted to know about engines in those days you found your way to Ed Winfield,” Iskenderian said at the 2012 Hot Rod & Restoration show. “Ed was probably one of the foremost authorities on racing cams in 1933-1934. He raced right at Indianapolis. Well, he brought his cams and carburetors to the racing cars here. He would come here on testing days before the big race. If a car wasn’t going fast enough and he could fit in the car, he could get it around the track faster than anyone else.”

Iskenderian said that Winfield raced on dirt tracks, too, and did quite a bit of winning.

“He was an expert on flathead engines, too,” he added.

Iskenderian stressed that there were no car magazines or websites then.

“We had to learn from older fellows,” he said. “When people went to buy a cam or carburetor from Ed Winfield, they came back with a little more knowledge, too. I bought my first cam from him and he showed me the machine he had built. I was fascinated by it, because you had to build your own stuff in those days.”

Iskenderian ran into crankshaft failures with the Model Ts he built and he experimented with the Ford Model A and Model B engines, too. Those he found only a little sturdier than the T power plant, so he then began tinkering with a 1932 flathead Ford V8. He added a special Maxi “F” overhead valve head and Winfield helped him iron-fill and re-contour the combustion chambers.

Iskenderian said that his Isky nickname evolved in this era.

“In high school, if your name is long, they shorten it for you,” he said. “Later, someone said a long name wasn’t good to use on a business, so it became Isky again.”

After graduating from school, Ed worked as an apprentice tool and die maker.

He purchased the first components for his Model T from a friend named John Athan in 1939. He replaced the Model T frame rails with a beefier Essex frame that could hold the souped-up V8 with Navarro-and later Edelbrock-intake manifolds. By 1942, he ran the car to 120 mph at the dry lake in El Mirage.

A set of Jahn’s pistons took the compression ratio up to 13:1 and a Vertex magneto heated up the spark. Triple Stromberg 97s fed fuel in and the original cam was a Winfield design (later replaced with an Isky, of course). Other elements blended into the car included an Auburn dash panel, a 1939 Ford gearbox and a Ford rear end. After being quoted long delivery times for a replacement Clay Smith cam, Iskenderian experimented with his own grind.

“All of a sudden, the war came along,” Iskenderian explained. “Most of us went into the service and there we learned a lot about mechanics. All the dry lakes racers came back with a lot more knowledge about stuff like aircraft superchargers and so on.”

Racers were able to apply their new skills to their passion, Iskenderian said.

“And then Hot Rod magazine came out,” he added. “After that, we had a way to share all the things we’d learned.”

Iskenderian’s Model T, which is well known to hot rod history buffs, was on the cover of Hot Rod in June of 1948, the year that Ed started marketing camshafts.

“I shared a booth at the first hot rod show at the Los Angeles Armory with Ansen and Pete Petersen was the promoter,” Iskenderian said. “Pete got the idea to start Hot Rod and told us, ‘Boys, we have to have a magazine.'”

The cam maker didn’t know when the magazine was coming out and missed putting an advertisement in the first issue.

“I got into the second issue and, by golly, I started getting letters,” Iskenderian said. “The quarter-page ad was two column inches and cost me $5 an inch. Pete Petersen came up the steps to my apartment and walked through the kitchen to collect his $10.”

Iskenderian answered letters personally. He figured the ads in the magazine worked because he was selling five cams a week and making $20 on them. He sold many through speed shops. He had two employees, but later would employee as many as 60 people as business took off and kept growing.

“One day I got a call from a man in North Carolina who was racing in a new thing called NASCAR. He asked me how much experience I had,” Iskenderian said. “I was scared I was going to have to tell him I was a hot rodder who had been in business for three months, but he didn’t ask me.” The stock car guy had seen the ad promoting Isky cams for flathead V8s.

“I did a lot of experimenting because you could get away with a lot in a flathead,” he said. “You could hear an engine with one of my cams coming from a half block away and they must have liked that, because we kept getting repeat orders from North Carolina and that’s when I was starting to get traction.”

Iskenderian said that, at the beginning, he was always afraid that some engineer would shoot his cam designs down and make fun of him. “Then, pretty soon, I realized that the engineers might be experts, but even though I wasn’t (an expert), in a way I had quite a bit of experience in making cams for different engines.”

Soon, Isky’s little ads began passing on tips about installing camshafts.

Iskenderian said that he always learned a lot from the engine builders who were his customers. “Heck, when we were kids we would go to the gas station to watch mechanics,” he said. “Once they were working on a greasy old ’29 Chevy and they put helper springs on the pushrods to hold the tappets against the cam. Years later, I thought about putting springs on my roller tappet cams, but never got around to it. Then, one of my customers asked why I didn’t add springs and I said, ‘Holly Moses, I better hurry up before someone beats me to it.'”

It sounded like he had given Iskenderian a new idea, but it was really something from the old days.

Iskenderian found different ways to grow his business.

“When we were making a lot of cams for the ’49 Olds, we found that ’49 Caddy flathead springs worked very well. These cost 55-cents net for the first engine, but when the second guy called, I started asking around and found out I could buy the springs from the spring manufacturer who made them for Cadillac for 40-cents each. So, we put together a complete cam kit and we called it an engineering kit and that worked good. It’s almost ironic. I worried so much about criticism from trained engineers, but later became successful selling a product called an engineering kit.”

Iskenderian’s Isky 404 cam was a hot product.

“It really worked,” he said.

Drag racer Don Garlits had purchased a 404 for his car, which was powered by a 331-cid Chrysler Firepower Hemi V-8. When Garlits put the cam in a larger 392-cid Hemi, it did not work well and he called Isky Cams. Ed Iskenderian picked up the phone in his Ingelwood, California, shop and after listening to the problem, he said, “You need a different type of cam.”

He sent one to Garlits and the racer used it to set a speed record. Since the timing equipment used in those days wasn’t high tech, Isky heard the results before Garlits and called him again. “Congratulations Don, you have set a new world’s record of 176.4 mph,” he said.

According to hot rod historian Tony Thacker, Iskenderian was an excellent promoter and ran full-page ads touting Garlits record that benefited the careers of both men.

“Isky is a great character,” Thacker said. “He knows the value of PR”

In 1973, when Hot Rod magazine celebrated its Silver Anniversary, a special issue with a silver foil cover carried a story about Iskenderian’s Model T roadster being “discovered” in the back of his shop. The tires were aired up, the engine was made to run and little else was done to this genuine “old school” hot rod. Some think that the attention lavished on the unrestored car by a national magazine actually got the traditional hot rod hobby started.

The car was displayed at the 2012 Hot Rod & Restoration Show in Lucas Oil Stadium. It was the first time in its history that the Isky Roadster had ever been seen east of the Mississippi River.

The car survives in almost the same state it was in 45 years ago. It has a cut down body and retains the one-of-a-kind grille Isky fabricated from a pair of mid-1930s Pontiac shells. The car has black lacquer paint, a cracked leather interior, very old gangster whitewall tires on Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels and long, straight bright metal headers.

The Isky Roadster, known as La Cucaracha, is now a part of the National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum at the Pomona Fairplex in Pomona, California. As for Isky Racing Cams, the company now operates inside four buildings in Gardena, California, where approximately 100 people work on modern high-performance cams.