Hot Rod Nostalgia – La Crescenta’s H&H Automotive
I recently went on a tour of H&H Automotive with the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. (Just an aside here: If you enjoy these articles on our local history, you really should join the Historical Society. They offer amazing tours and events. For instance, last weekend we got to sew reusable grocery bags using 150-year-old hand-cranked sewing machines. Go to www.cvhistory.org to get involved with this group’s fun activities.) So what does H&H Automotive have to do with history? They rebuild and soup up antique car engines.
H&H Automotive is a local family-owned business that has been in the same location at 4451 Ramsdell Ave. (just above the high school) since 1972. The business was started in 1969 by Max Herman out of his home garage in La Cañada, rebuilding antique four-cylinder Ford engines. As his business took off he moved into the machine shop he has been in for the last 43 years, where his two sons eventually joined him. Max Jr. oversees the four-cylinder business under the “H&H Antique Engine” company name, while Mike Herman concentrates on the V8s under the banner of “H&H Flatheads.” Max Sr. supports both and serves as the R&D guy.
The business is nothing to look at, unless you’re an avid motorhead. The yard in front of the building is dominated by literally hundreds of old engine blocks and miscellaneous parts, along with a few trailers, and cars in various states of rebuild. For me personally this was Nirvana, as nothing excites me more than ancient rusty metal!
The interior of the shop is even better. The office is floor to ceiling with a kaleidoscope of automotive and racing memorabilia, a feast for the eyes. Adjacent to the office are the various machine shops where the true business of building engines is done. Specialized tools of all kinds dominate the centers of each shop, while the walls hold racks and racks of connecting rods, pistons and heads. Waiting on the edges of the shops is an amazing variety of antique engines that have been sent in for work – on the bench sits a four-cylinder Whippet engine from the ’teens, while on the floor waits a Lincoln V12 block.
Although H&H will work on any antique engine no matter how exotic, the meat of their business is the “flathead Ford,” so named because the intake and exhaust valves are on the side of the engine blocks, rather than on top as modern engines are. The top of the engine, or head, has a flat cover over it – thus “flathead.” The four-cylinder flathead Fords were produced by the millions, first for the Model T, then later for the more powerful Model A, including millions more built for and in overseas markets. When Ford introduced its first V8 in 1932, again with the flathead design, it was also produced by the millions, until it ended its run in 1953. Because these Ford flathead four- and eight-cylinder engines were so numerous, they became the backbone of the hot rod movement that started post-WWII and ran through the ’60s.
Due to the Ford engine’s dominance in hot rods, these flathead engines have always been in demand, and Max Herman has from the start been able to capitalize on that market. Today there is a vast population of “baby boomers” who are reaching comfortable retirement, and many of them are reaching back and rekindling their romance with hot rods – the nostalgia factor. To put it mildly, business is booming for the Herman family, not only domestically, but also internationally. Those millions of Ford flatheads that were exported to Europe and Asia are also being souped up here in La Crescenta for exotic foreign hot rods.
I was surprised to find that La Crescenta’s rather humble H&H Automotive is famous, both here and abroad. I’ve passed by them a hundred times and never gave them a second glance, yet they hold a powerful place in hot rod culture. They are the honored keepers of the flame – a keystone piece of American history. I’m confident that they will live up to their company motto: “Flatheads Forever!”