When Indy Cars Roared in Montrose – Part 1
A little known aspect of the history of the Indianapolis 500 is the central role that Glendale, and by extension the Crescenta Valley, played in Indy car development and history. Glendale was a powerhouse of race car production from the ’20s into the ’60s, building powerful innovative engines and car bodies that dominated the racing scene. The Crescenta Valley also played a part in this racing renaissance. The famous Winfield Brothers hailed from La Cañada, along with several other less famous drivers and inventors.
Montrose played a role as well, particularly in the ’20s and ’30s, as it was home to the machine shop of race car builder Paul Fromm.
I’ve been unable to find a definitive history of Fromm, other than the fact that his name was attached to several winning race cars in a variety of race formats, such as the big open-wheel Indy cars and the smaller sprint cars that raced at Ascot Raceway. Fromm was one of the early American developers of the famed “Hisso” racing engine. The Hisso had been adapted from the Spanish Hispano Suiza aircraft engine, a powerful V-8 mass-produced in WWI, and acquired cheaply by car racers after the war. One bank of the vee was cut off, and the resulting 359 cubic inch four-cylinder engine was stuffed into a racecar body. Fromm was adept at this conversion as he had a background in aeronautical engines. The resulting engine was so powerful it was banned at some racetracks.
Fromm’s shop, alternately known as Valley Machine Shop and Taylor & Fromm Machine Shop, was located at 3512 Ocean View. The building is still there today, and is now home to Augustine & Bailey Glass and Mirror. It’s a small non-descript building, with a standard retail front to Ocean View and a large shop-area facing an alley behind. But through those front doors strode some of the greats of Indy car development – Ed Winfield, Harry Miller and Fred Offenhauser. And in the alley in back some of the greatest drivers fired up their newly-built race cars for the first time, legendary drivers such as Wilber Shaw and Rex Mays.
I was alerted to this little known history by Paul Brown, who grew up in Montrose in the 1930s. Paul, now in his 90s, wrote several memoir pieces that were published in the monthly newsletter of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley (which my wife Pam produces). As a young boy Paul was fascinated with machines, enthralled by the robust racing scene that existed in Southern California, and he even raced his home-made “soap box coasters” in the Soap Box Derby held on the hilly portion of Slauson Boulevard in Los Angeles. He later parlayed his enthusiasm for racing into summer jobs at Paul Fromm’s machine shop. Rather than paraphrase Brown’s memories, I’ll just reprint what he wrote:
“Starting sometime when I was about 10 years old I discovered Valley Machine Shop, just below Montrose on Ocean View Boulevard. When I found that race cars were being built at Valley Machine, that building became a Mecca for me. I would stand at the door and ogle any car, under any stage of construction, and bask in my nearness to a car pictured in the newspaper, magazine or in a movie news short.
“I was living in the reflection of shining glory. There were people [who] worked in the movies and lived in Montrose who we saw from time to time, or in a Republic western film at Monte Friend’s theater (Montrose Theater), but that was nothing compared to being close to a bright-colored shiny racecar that was pictured in Popular Mechanics or the Los Angeles Times.
“The Valley Machine Shop built cars that raced in the Indianapolis 500, the many dirt tracks, and even at Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles. Being there, within touching distance, was like being close to Clark Gable or Dizzy Dean.”
I’ll continue with Paul’s memories of the Valley Machine Shop next week when he recounts the many racing legends he encountered when he worked at the shop.