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October 11, 2016


(Originally appeared in Elapsed Times)

by Cole Coonce

The Magic Muffler Pop Art Iconography

During the 1960s, there were a dozen “Magic Muffler” stores across Southern California, mostly in Northeast Los Angeles across the basin to the San Fernando Valley.

It was “the friendly purple place,” according to Howard Hudson, its owner, “doing it right” since he founded the company in 1956. An “honest automotive family repair shop,” Magic Muffler epitomized California’s version of the American Dream. Free enterprise, fueled by sweat equity, resourcefulness and a wry sense of humor. Hudson died in 2007. In his wake, there is one store left, out in Simi Valley.

Hudson’s sense of humor came across in his store’s eye-catching signage. The Magic Muffler’s Pop-Art logo featured a wispy but muscular Malaysian Sultan with his herculean arms folded, escaping out of a tailpipe into some Arabian night. The message? The Genie’s out of the muffler. The Genie is here to grant your wish.

The logo is iconic and, by extension, memorable. It had to be. It had to pop. Along any boulevard in Los Angeles, Magic Muffler’s genie fought for space and attention from motorists distracted by huge signs like Western Exterminator’s cartoon of a dapper man hiding a mallet to be used on an imminent assault of an unsuspecting rat, or a twenty-foot Big Donut or Madman Muntz, a larger-than-life huckster hawking his car stereos with a caricature of himself as some twisted-but-towering Napoleon. The skyline was filled with similar creative cartoons. Hudson trademarked his Genie and even the style of lettering.

Times change and free enterprise is malleable. Many of those businesses with the gargantuan kitschy signage died. Somehow, Magic Muffler survived and, even if it is down to one store, the memory of that image with the Smiling Genie will last forever. The logo is eternal.

And one second of one night at Lions Drag Strip in 1965 made the Magic Muffler brand even more unforgettable.

The Kid Stays in the Picture.

Simultaneous SoCal’s commercial Pop Art boom, the “Kustom Kulture” began to blossom as squadrons of loud, sculpted motorcars lit up the local drag strips. In 1958, a deal was struck between Hudson and Glendale-based racer Jim Miles, with Hudson’s business name plainly painted on the side doors of Miles’ high-performance ‘34 Ford. In 1961, the combination of business art and freedom of expression coalesced into one metallic organism in the form of a particular racecar, a ‘48 Fiat Topolino bored-and-stroked 331 Chrysler Hemi, powered by copious globs of nitromethane. This was the “Magic Muffler” AA/Fuel Altered, a rolling, playful purple pipebomb. It was like an Andy Warhol portrait of a soup can morphed into an atomic missile.

“I was 13 years old, looking through this magazine and I saw that picture where it’s exploding the engine,” professional car enthusiast Billy Corbett recalled about his infatuation with the “Magic Muffler” machine. “I remember I was sitting on my knees in my bedroom on the floor going through the magazine and I was like ‘Oh my God.’ It was the wildest car I had ever seen. I was like, ‘I have to have that car.’”

Corbett was talking about THE picture. The image where it all came together one night at Lions Drag Strip in 1965. It’s all there: Art. Commerce. Mutant Engineering. Explosions. It wasn’t a picture of a mere explosion. It was a picture of absolute annihilation. Indeed, that night when it all came together was the same night when it all came apart….

And it happened in less than one second. The photographer clicked the shutter. The driver stomped on the throttle. And KA-BLOOEY. The entire bottom of the engine exited the Fiat’s frame rails. The crankshaft, pistons, connecting rods and oil pan all say sayonara through a cloud of fire.

At that moment of obliteration, the driver raised his right hand like he is letting go of a radioactive burrito. Through the carnage, the Genie beamed beatific, never breaking character.

Contrary to myth, a Genie doesn’t always do one’s bidding. He can be good, evil or indifferent.

In this case, the Genie was a vicious, smiling sadist.

The Awful Awful Crashes.

So how, exactly, did the bottom come out?

“It was because (Gary) Essman didn’t torque the bottom end,” said AA/FA scenester, racer and authority Rod Hynes. “Brain fade had set in after putting in so many hours to get it together.”

And who was Gary Essman? The driver? The lettering above the Topolino’s credits Jim Miles as the driver. And going back to his days of the ‘34 Ford and then a steel-bodied Topolino, Miles was the driver. Who was in the car at Lions? Why wasn’t Jim Miles driving? To get to that fact, one has to peel back the wallpaper of history.

Young, tall, cool Jim Miles began his drag racing career in the 1950s out at the drag strip in Saugus, driving a ‘41 sedan, sporting a carbureted Chrysler on fuel. After that, “I was driving for Jarvis Earl,” Jim said. “I was running a ‘34 3-window Coupe, full-fendered with a blown Chrysler.” Earl introduced Miles to Howard Hudson, who not only lent his company’s name to the race car, but also provided the exhaust system. (“Weed-sweepers,” Miles remembered. “They chromed ‘em, the whole works.”) Before long, the ‘34 was too heavy against the other blown modified coupes and roadsters racing on nitro.

“I got a Scotty Fenn chassis for an altered,” Jim Miles remembered about the development of the first “Magic Muffler” Topolino. “Then I started searching for Fiat body for it. I found one in San Diego and another one in Fresno and I had the garage open one day. This kid came riding by on his bicycle and he stopped and he says, ‘What are you doing there, mister?’ I said I was building a car. ‘What kind of body is it going to have on it?’ I said a Fiat. ‘Oh really. We got one in our backyard. Somebody gave it to my dad and we don’t want the thing.’ Here’s one sitting in (his) backyard.”

JIm Miles and Beaver-Cleaver-on-a-bike cut through an alley and go a block down the street in suburban Burbank.

“His dad was mowing the lawn. He says, ‘Dad, do you want to give this man your body?’ His Dad says, ‘Hey, if you want the thing, just haul it up to your house.’ He and his dad put it on a wagon and some 2x4s and said good luck and thanks for taking it.”

“Jim told me it must have looked pretty funny watching two guys carrying a car down the sidewalk,” Corbett said.

Although notorious on its own, this steel-bodied machine was not the Magic Muffler fuel altered captured in photographs.

“In 1964, Jim rolled his first Fiat at the finish line (going) 171 mph,” Bill Corbett told ET. “He could have been killed.”

“Right about the lights, about an inch above the ground they had a little piece of pipe that they put the (timing) lights in,” Jim confirmed, about the crash at Ramona drag strip in Paradise Mesa, northeast of San Diego. “My car kind of drifted over and I caught one of those with the left front wheel and the rest was history.”

“Jim wadded the car up to where it was barely recognizable,” Rod Hynes said. “He was lucky he got out okay.”

“The car came to rest about fifty feet from some boulders,” Miles recounted. “(AA/Fuel Dragster driver) John Wenderski had crashed a car down there and went into those boulders. They were about fifteen-feet in diameter and five-feet tall. That just tore his whole thing to pieces, including him. It killed him instantly. I was lucky. I stopped about fifty feet from it.” Jim Miles escaped with four stitches in his head.

Thus began construction on the second Fiat, this time with a fiberglass body.

“The engine was still intact,” Miles recollected. “It was 331 Chrysler, with a C & T Automotive ½” stroke crank in it, which puts you up to right about 390 inches. We ran that engine in that car. We built that car in about a six-to-eight week period, from start to finish.”

Initially, Miles was once again the meat in the seat. Until he thought better of it.

“I drove the car probably for about a month, but after that accident down in Paradise Mesa, I didn’t feel comfortable driving any more. I had one lucky time, I don’t know if I’ll have another one as lucky.”

About that infamous night in August of 1965, Miles said: “The driver was a fellow named Gary Essman. He helped me on the car quite a bit.”

Until the deconstruction… which was not as catastrophic as it appeared in the pictures.

“It spit the entire assembly out which was not hurt,” Hynes said. “Jim Miles traded the entire 331 hemi bottom end assembly to Don ‘Bushy’ Wilson for a complete 392 bottom-end assembly. In the long run I’d say Jim ‘won’ that trade.”

There were other winners. All these years later, young Billy Corbett grew up, moved to California and started “Corbett Classics,” a business detailing historic cars. In 2003, he got together with Jim Miles and began recreating that same spectacular Fuel Altered that he marveled at in the pages of drag racing magazines. At the insistence of Miles, one concession is that the recreated Fiat is fed by a round fuel tank instead of the square one in the picture.

According to Miles, any recreation with a square fuel tank would be a “bad omen.” This came to light one day when Corbett asked Miles what happened to his arms.

“In September of 1967, I had a fuel tank on there which we had fabricated,” is how Miles explained to ET his aversion to another square fuel tank. “I had made it out of aluminum and heliarc welded it all together. We needed a bigger tank because we were running more nitro. What had happened was that we fired the car and I noticed one of the fuel lines was leaking. I grabbed it with a rag and held it there, but the fuel ran down and caught on the header. It dripped down by the vent port on the tank and it caught fire. It blew the whole side of the tank out. The fuel went all over my pants and it caught on fire. Normal instinct, you do exactly what you shouldn’t do: Take off running. Willie Borsch was the one who tackled me down and wrapped me up in a big blanket. He pretty much saved my tail.”

Citing negative pressure in the cockpit of the Topolinos, Miles decided to race a Bantam-bodied “Magic Muffler” AA/Fuel Altered. Which, of course, led to another photo opportunity.

“Bill Frontuto mostly drove for Jim in this car but couldn’t make it this one day,” Corbett explained, about the Magic Muffler machine’s role in another day that lived in Awful-Awful Fuel Altered infamy. “Jim let another guy try it out.”

“Paul Cox was driving,” Hynes reported. “It was during his licensing runs phase.”

At the hit, the Magic Muffler launched vertically like a rocket, tethered to terra firma only by tentative contact with the left rear tire. Then it crashed down to Planet Earth with an impact that would knock out any spirit.

“This wheelie destroyed the chassis,” Corbett recounted. “It was the guy’s first run in the car and his last run in the car.”

“He never did get the license,” Hynes said.

A ‘41. ‘A ‘34. Two ‘48 Fiat Topolinos. One ‘32 Bantam. Then the Genie was put back in the bottle: Next up was a ‘23 T-bucket AA/Fuel Altered, but this time she was christened not as the “Magic Muffler,” but as “Black Magic.”

“Magic Muffler became more an ‘associate’ sponsor rather than a ‘main’ sponsor when Jim and Bill (Frontuto) built the new car,” Rod Hynes explained. As a 21-year-old drag-strip go-fer, Hynes found a home a wrench with the “Black Magic” team. “Up to the last car, Magic Muffler gave Jim a fair amount of money to run, but cut back as the business started to slowly fade.”

In retrospect, the “Black Magic” moniker seemed apropos. Because now in the mid-70s, after all the pushed circumstances with the “Magic Muffler” coupes, this is where it actually got awful, awful.

“It was the first meet of 1977 in Tucson,” is how Miles sets up the story of his last fuel altered catastrophe. “In the middle of ‘76, we had put on some Centerline wheels. The meet was on a Saturday night, and I stayed home. I had to work that weekend.”

Miles said that the twelve-spoke wheels they had been running had a tendency to get the rubber wrapped around the spindle.

“We got a registered letter and it said please return your wheels as soon as possible because there are some cracks in that run of wheels.” he continued. “They recalled all of those wheels. They found fifty pair of those wheels that had cracks going around. They were very minute cracks, but you start putting a lot of stress on those things and they all came up.”

How did they find out about this?

“Pat Foster had some bad wheels on his Funny Car and he sent his back. Frontuto got his letter Friday morning. This all happened Saturday night.”

“It was a Centerline front wheel that actually separated from the hub, Hynes said. “Very strange deal. The same day Bill crashed the car his wife had received a certified letter from Centerline. She did not open it as it was for Bill. Letter stated that the wheels were assembled by another vendor and they had done it incorrectly and the wheels should be returned to CL for a free replacement. Although the wheels had bolts around the center hub area, which made one think they were assembled with the hub bolted between the wheel halves, that was not the case. The hub was actually PRESSED into the bolted together wheel.”

“This car crashed at the lights with Bill driving at about 221 mph,” Corbett confirmed.

“When the car crashed, we were very lucky to have three paramedics who were there at the races on their day off,” Miles remembered. “As soon as they saw this, they just jumped in their 53 Ford two-door and went right down the strip. When they got there, he had no pulse or nothing. They had their stuff with them and they brought him back around. They got him in a helicopter and he lost pulse again. They gave him some more adrenaline. The third time he lost pulse, they gave it to him again and this time he maintained it.”

Miles was heartbroken. Eventually, his involvement in drag racing lessened.

“Bill lived, but he ended up a paraplegic,” he said, wistfully. “We lost him last February.”

Make A Wish

Despite the magic, Jim Miles AA/Fuel Altered career has been fickle and sometimes costly. But its appeal created friendships, decades after the peak of the Magic Muffler story. To that end, Billy Corbett came around Jim Miles house in 2003, with a dream of recreating the bitchin’ spectacular race car he saw in the magazines. And so Corbett and Miles started, building the chassis in the same garage that some busybody kid on a bicycle stuck his nose in forty years earlier, only to donate his Dad’s surplus steel Fiat body.

This time around, a copious chunk of the old drag racing community have stepped and given to the project. The recreation of the “Magic Muffler” Fiat has been charmed, indeed. So much so, nobody seems to be in a hurry to finish.

“I built the car in six weeks,” 79-year-old Miles told Corbett. “It’s taken you ten years.”

Miles should know that the Genie only said it would grant you your wish. He just didn’t say how long that would take.-Cole Coonce

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