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Postwar Era Brought Racers Into Mail-Order World

Postwar Era Brought Racers Into Mail-Order World
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By John Gunnell

The world of racing changed after World War II and one of the big new trends was the selling of speed equipment nationwide via the U.S. mail. The Bell Auto Parts Catalog was one of the first mail-order catalogs of its kind.

Bell began in 1923 when George Wight opened a salvage yard in Bell, Calif., southeast of Los Angeles. Five years later, he started a shop that and sold speed equipment for Ford Model Ts and other cars. Bell sold Miller, Winfield and Edelbrock parts. Crane Gartz—the founder of Cragar—had the rights to a Model A overhead-valve cylinder head. Wight bought the design and improved it.

Wight died in 1943 and Roy Richter, a successful racing driver and creator of the Richter Streamliner, bought Bell from Wight’s widow in 1945. A year later he launched his first mail-order catalog. Richter called the 36-page book  “Racing’s dependable source of supply.”  Enthusiasts who wanted parts were asked to pay with postal or express money orders and were expected to pay cash with orders or cash on delivery. Shipping charges were the customer’s responsibility. Air freight or air express shipping was extra.

Page 2 of the catalog showed Paul Schiefer’s racing roadster that hit 148.02 mph at the Southern California Timing Assoc. dry lakes speed trials in 1948. Its Merc engine had Edelbrock heads and a Harmans and Collins cam. Right below this was Edelbrock’s Super Manifold. It sold for $43.75, but you had to add $6.50 for a Ford install kit or a dollar more for a Mercury install kit.

Illustrations of a variety of Edelbrock heads for Fords were surrounded by charts and graphs showing compression ratios and power curves. Then came the Offenhauser heads section, led off by a pictures of Fran Hernandez’s ’32 Ford coupe that clocked 122.04 mph at El Mirage in Russetta Timing Assoc. competition. Hernandez’s heads, manifold and ignition lead plate came from Offenhauser and were teamed with a Winfield cam and Kurten ignition system.

The catalog listed Weiand manifolds and heads made for Fords, Mercurys and Studebakers and Navarro, Meyers and Cyclone heads for FoMoCo V-8s, but there were other choices on other pages, such as Knudsen’s go-fast goodies for the Ford six and Tattersfield dual intake manifolds for inline Chevrolets, Chryslers and De Sotos. Promoting Harman and Collins cams for Ford and Mercury V-8s, Ford sixes, Chevy stovebolts and Lincolns, Mopars and Studebakers was the fastest car that had ever run at a SCTA meet up to that time-the Burke/Francisco streamliner that Wally Parks drove to 153 mph in 1948. It had a Harman and Collins camshaft teamed with Edelbrock heads and manifold.

Winfield offered speed parts for the Ford V8-60 engine that found its way into many oval track racers. These included semi-, three-quarter-, full- and super-race cams. Winfield also sold special Ford/Mercury V-8 valve springs, adjustable tappets for the Ford six, V8-60 valve spacers and adjustable cam gears.

Bell Auto Parts also sold hot-sparking ignition systems from Kurten and Spaulding, rajah ignition terminals and Kong dual-coil ignitions (the latter cost $67.50). Mallory, DSM Electric and Barker offered other ignitions with prices up to a steep $133.00 for a dual mag drive type. Ignition wire looms made of chrome-plated steel tubing were available for Ford and Merc flatheads for $7.50.

An assortment of pistons included designs from J.E. and Grant, A 3/8 Mercury Stroker crank kit was $198 complete or could be purchased piece by piece. A Halibrand quick-change rear end for roadsters, big cars and midget racers was $514 with six changes. No wonder they’re rare today. Schiefer offered an aluminum flywheel for big Ford and Mercury flatheads, The catalog’s 2-color centerspread showed Bell’s own racing axles.

Gould 6-volt batteries, Champion spark plugs, and Air Maze and Hellings air cleaners were other items in Bell’s inventory, as were Douglas dual-tone mufflers and lowering blocks for 22 different cars. The catalog included legendary versions of the types of products that Speedway Motors, JEGs and Summit Racing sell today: steering wheels and linkages, brakes, steering gears, pressure pumps, headers, carburetors, instruments, water pumps, dropped front axles, racing engine hardware and, of course, the classic Bell goggles and helmets.

It would be safe to say that most items in the catalog sold for under $100. Some were only a few bucks in 1949. Shipping probably ran about 10 percent of the retail prices, a ratio that used to be the norm in the mail-order business. Today, some of the $10 items are worth hundreds and a Halibrand quick-change rear end might bring thousands. Many of the Ford V-8 heads and intakes are so collectable that they may never go on a car again, but in many cases reproductions are available. Roy Richter became a member of the SEMA Hall of Fame in 1973 and retired in 1978. He died in 1987. The Bell name survives and is probably best known to the public for manufacturing sports and racing helmets

 

Cover art depicted a racing roadster and driver wearing a Bell helmet.

 

“Offie” heads were a hot ticket item for racers and rodders in 1949.

 

A dual intake manifold for flathead 6 Chryslers and De Sotos.