The California “Junkyard Dog” That Beat the Exotics

The O.G. Old Yeller parks at the Petersen.

Petersen Museum

In 1959, Max Balchowsky grabbed a piece of chalk and drew the profile of a racecar chassis on the floor of his garage on Hollywood Boulevard. Unlike the murder scene out of a Raymond Chandler novel, Balchowsky’s chalk outline marked a Los Angeles character yet to be born.

With the outline as a guide, Balchowsky welded together steel tubes to form the car’s frame, then slapped hand-hammered aluminum body panels over the structure. He painted it yellow, inserted a 414-cubic-inch Buick nailhead V-8, and Ol’ Yaller MkIII was in business.

Now in the collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, OYIII was the third in a series of ten such cars Balchowsky built for road racing. Rivals called them “junkyard dogs,” a pejorative Balchowsky adopted with pride (he named them after the scrappy mutt in Disney’s 1957 film Old Yeller), but the cars’ victories over more exotic Jaguars, Ferraris, and Maseratis during the 1950s saw to it Balchowsky’s legend would endure.

(Even if you hadn’t heard of him before, you probably know Balchowsky’s work from the Mustang vs. Charger chase through San Francisco streets in the 1968 film “Bullitt.” Balchowsky modified and maintained both cars for the shoot.)

Balchowsky’s was just one story in the California car-culture canon. It hit all the right notes: a street-smart renegade with a particular set of skills and a never-say-die attitude taking on the old guard and winning. It’s a perfect LA car story in a city — and a region — lousy with car stories.

The topography, the discovery of oil, the Hollywood boom, the real estate boom. The vast distances between new cities popping up like gold-rush settlements, and the need for automobiles to bridge them. The infusion of cheap V-8s from Ford in the 1930s. The wide-open desert lakebeds, on which hot rodders could drive as fast as they dared. The draw of engineering talent to the area’s aerospace industry. The flamboyant hucksters who sold California dreams to a growing population drawn West for the weather, for the adventure. For the possibility of casting off the weight of tradition and reinventing their lives.

All of it set the stage for California to become the most important incubator of global car culture, and — at 1.8 million cars and light trucks sold in the state in 2014 — one of the largest car markets in the world.