The Camfather – T with Isky
In 2008, when I was director of the Wally Parks Motorsports Museum, I got a call from Nigel Grimshaw, a journalist friend of mine in England. He wanted to come over and photograph Ed “Isky” Iskenderian, otherwise known as “The Camfather” driving his infamous Model T Roadster. In typical fashion I said, “Sure, no problem. When will you be here?” “Oh, in a couple months.” No problem, I thought.
I buttonholed our curator Greg Sharp and told him of the planned Brit invasion. “It doesn’t run. It hasn’t run in years. You’ll never get it running.” I moved on to our facilities guy Wayne Phillips looking for a more positive response. “It doesn’t run. It hasn’t run in years. The tires are shot. The radiator leaks.”
“Well, can we get it running, because they’re coming.” “I doubt it.” “Well, try.”
For those who don’t know, Isky is now 97 years old. He was born in 1921. His folks had a vineyard in Tulare, California, but lost it to a severe frost and moved south to Los Angeles when Isky was one year old. It would be the making of him.
Like all kids back then he was obsessed with cars and built his first hot rod, a Model T Ford with a Frontenac head, when he was 16 in 1937. More hot rods followed and in ’39 he built his first V8-powered T that turned 97 mph at an SCTA Harper Dry Lake meet.
Isky bought his next rod – a Rajo-headed ’23 turtle-deck T from his lifelong friend John Athan for $4. However, it proved unreliable and understanding that four was poor and eight was great, Isky pulled the banger and installed a 239 ci ’32 21-studder between the Essex rails. Meanwhile, for ten bucks Jimmy Summers banged out some dents and massaged the metal. The grille is two ’34 Pontiacs welded together. And the coveted winged skull radiator cap? Isky cast that up himself in trade school and hand-turned his own firewall.
Isky also attacked the engine, porting and relieving the block after boring it out to 3-1/16 inches. He also fitted a cam from Ed Winfield who was really the only game in town, then. Next, came a set of rare sohv Maxi heads that were designed for Ford trucks. The Maxi heads retained the stock intake valve in the block but relocated the exhaust valve to the head for a cooler running, better breathing flattie. “I liked them because they looked like racing overheads” confessed Ed to author Ken Gross in Gross’s book Hot Rod Milestones. He went on to say, “ I got them from a guy whose name was Rex A. Head; I paid $65 for them.”
To eliminate the exhaust ports in the block, Isky tipped the car on one side and then the other and poured molten lead into the holes.
A friend at Santa Monica Trade School cast up the aluminum valve covers and engraved Iskenderian on the face. Over time, various intake combinations were tried but Isky eventually settled on an Edelbrock manifold with three Stromberg 97s.
On May 8, 1942, just before the lakes were shut down for the War, Isky ran 120 mph in the Modified class at a Western Timing Association El Mirage meet. The timing tag is still on the dash. Isky still owns the car that went on to be the Hot Rod of the Month and the cover car of the June 1948 issue of HOT ROD Magazine. He went on to build a multi-million dollar cam business and became known universally as “The Camfather.”
Fast-forward exactly 60 years to May 2008 when I got the dreaded phone call from Nigel. “We’ll be there next week. Is the car running?” “I’ll check, I said.”
Needless to say, the Brits arrived and Isky arrived and I looked at Wayne and Greg. The car wasn’t running.
Suddenly, and I don’t know where this came from, Isky whipped out a bright orange turkey baster that he had filled with gas. He squirted fuel down the throats, pushed the button on the dash and that ol’ Ford fired right up. I looked at Wayne and Greg.
Somehow, and I sure don’t know how, the nimble Mr. Iskenderian who was 86 at the time, stepped over the side of the door-less T, slipped behind the wheel, nudged it into gear and took off like he was 21 all over. It was magical. He roared up and down the back lot with a big grin on his face. All that was missing was his signature cigar.
He talked about driving down to Mexico and running along the beach when a big wave washed over him and flooded the carbs. He talked about how hard it was to drive down there in a hot rod when there were barely any real roads. He talked about the time he and Athan went off-roading behind Dorsey High School (there’s a great photograph of that in Paul D. Smith’s excellent book Merchants of Speed). Remember, this was before the war. It was in Mexico where apparently a cop nicknamed the car “La Cucaracha” a Spanish folk song about a cockroach that loses one of its legs.
I’ve had many magic moments meeting my heroes but that day has to be at the top of the list. Almost 10 years later I bumped into Isky at the Eagle Field Runway Drags. As we sat on the side of the strip chatting, Isky pulled out an iPhone. I thought to myself, that’s rad, a 97-year-old with an iPhone. Well, he pulled out a second phone and was working them both at once. When I can barely work one, Isky, “The Phone Father” can work two.