The Isky T – A Hot Rod for the Ages
A while back the Gazette featured camshaft guru Ed Iskenderian as a Legend of Hot Rodding. Baron of the bumpstick, we called him. Today, Isky is 99 years old, with the century mark coming up fast. So, it seemed appropriate to feature another Isky contribution to hot rod lore, his iconic 1924 Isky T roadster.
Dubbed La Cucaracha by a Mexican sheriff, the black turtle-decked roadster was pulled together by Isky in 1940. The project began as an unfinished four-banger-powered T that he purchased from pal John Athan in 1938 for the head-slapping price of $4. That’s not a typo – four dollars.
Being enthralled by the emergence of V8 power, Isky soon yanked a ’32 Ford 21-stud V8 from the salvage yard. Before installing the Flathead, he cleverly adapted Essex frame rails under the T. When he finally installed the engine, it was far from a stock – 13:1 compression, a Vertex magneto, Winfield camshaft (Ed had yet to create his own), Edelbrock intake, and a triumvirate of Stromberg 97s. Power was transferred via a ’39 Ford Top Loader with Zephyr innards.
But the most significant addition – and the car’s signature modification – was its Maxi “F” cylinder heads. Designed in the 1930s for commercial truck engines, Maxi heads functioned as a semi-overhead-valve conversion. The design featured overhead exhaust valves that were jacketed by engine coolant – hence cooler operating temps – but the intake valves remained in the block. For a finishing touch, Isky had special valve covers cast and engraved with “Iskenderian.” Unique, to say the least.
Isky applied his uncommon vision to the drivetrain and chassis, as well. Up front, a ’32 Ford front axle moved on ’37 wishbones hung from a front-mounted spring. The front brakes are Plymouth hydraulics. The rear spring was mounted ahead of a Ford banjo axle to stretch the wheelbase. Houdaille shocks dampened all four corners. Sixteen-inch Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels shod with wide-whites rounded out the setup. While not a purpose-built lakes runner, in 1942 the Isky T roadster topped 120mph at El Mirage.
After his discharge from the Army – he served as a bomber tail-gunner in the Pacific theater – Isky returned home and finished up the roadster. Renowned metal man Jimmy Summers finessed the bodywork. A custom grille was crafted from two 1934 Pontiac radiator shells, topped by a winged-skull ornament made by Isky himself. The maroon leather upholstery was stitched by Laddie Jerbec. Interior controls featured a handsome ’37 Ford banjo wheel and an Auburn a gauge panel. The result was a fast and beautiful roadster, well known among the SoCal hot rod cognoscenti – including the editors of a new publication called “Hot Rod,” which put the Isky T roadster on the cover of Vol. 1, No. 6, June 1948.
Once Iskenderian launched his own camshaft business it quickly developed into an aftermarket dynamo, one that earned Isky the moniker “The Camfather.” As Ed focused on building Iskenderian Cams into one of the most influential speed part manufacturers in the history hot rodding, the roadster settled into a corner of the shop.
In the 1970s, though, as “street rodding” gained popularity, Isky would haul out the T for special events. One such appearance, as reported by Dain Gingerelli of Hot Rod magazine, turned into an awkward scene at the L.A. Roadsters Father’s Day event. Seems that Isky’s T – three decades old and still featuring the fit-and-finish of the era – didn’t meet the L.A. Roadsters’ exacting standards. It was denied entry. An uproar ensued, and the club relented, realizing that the fame of the owner and T’s provenance trumped its haughty norms.
And where is the Isky T roadster today? After a long run at the NHRA Museum in Pomona, it now is on display in the Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska, an offshoot of Speedway Motors. There it sits among fellow legendary cars. It also sits next to a legendary machine – Ed Winfield’s original cam grinding machine.
To quote Joe McCollough of the museum, “Isky’s lifetime of impact on racing and hot rodding may just have started at the controls of that very machine. 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.”
While still as rough-around-the-edges as ever, La Cucaracha stands as a testament to an era of hot rodding free of 1-800 numbers, Art Center designers, and plug-and-play crate motors. All one needed was imagination, mechanical moxie, and an unrestrained desire to build car that was uniquely your own. As Ed himself put it, “we didn’t have any magazines to tell us how to build them.”
No matter. Ed Iskenderian’s T roadster proved that he knew what to do all by himself.
Photos courtesy Museum of American Speed