Barney Navarro from Hemmings Muscle Machines
December, 2007 – Daniel Strohl
Up until two or three years ago, you’d be more likely than not to find Barney Navarro, 80-something years old, still making hop-up parts for the flathead Ford from his Glendale, California-based business, Navarro Engineering.
When we say “making,” we mean it literally. He’d be at his lathe or CNC machine with his hands on the high-compression heads and intake manifolds, not just sitting in a front office, schmoozing with other hot rodders his age. If he had any down time, he’d use it thinking–always thinking–about how to continually improve the internal combustion engine.
“He was way too smart,” said Mike Herman, now the owner of Navarro Engineering and the man that Navarro himself chose to continue the legacy. “He knew everything about an engine, why things happened, how to make them better. He was so smart about every single inch of his engines.”
Born in 1919, Navarro became enamored early on with hot rodding and with building hot rods to test out his theories on how to extract more power from an engine. In 1941, he took a relatively new 1939 Ford flathead V-8 engine, fitted with heads of his own design and a Weiand high-rise dual-carburetor intake manifold, installed it in a borrowed Model T roadster, and clocked 107 mph at Muroc Dry Lake.
That Weiand connection got Navarro started in the hot rod parts business. According to Herman, Navarro started out by machining intake manifolds for Phil Weiand. “He wanted to make some changes to Phil’s design, but Phil told him, ‘No, go build your own,’ which is just what Barney did,” Herman said.
Specifically, Navarro considered the timing sequence of the Ford flathead V-8 engine, then redesigned the intake manifold’s passages to improve the fuel mixture distribution for a dual-carburetor setup. Weiand’s design, as well as other multiple-carburetor intake manifolds at the time, simply added the additional carburetor mounting flanges without considering the paths taken from the carburetor to the cylinder.
Navarro eventually designed his own aluminum cylinder heads with improved combustion chambers, but his major claim to fame came when he became the first hot rodder to place a GMC supercharger on a flathead Ford V-8 and race it, eventually recording a 147 mph pass with the engine and influencing generations of supercharger addicts after him.
Herman said Navarro rarely advertised the company, which he started in 1947. “He wrote a few tech articles for the magazines, but he found that those took away from his real focus,” Herman said. “He believed in true work, and he wasn’t into hot rodding to be as famous as possible. He wasn’t a buddy-buddy, joke-around type of guy.”
The lack of advertising probably led to Navarro’s pursuit of other forms of racing and other engineering pursuits when the popularity of flatheads waned during the 1950s. He built engines for boat racing with partner Ken St. Oegger in the 1950s, including a Hemi-powered boat that he built and raced for Henry Kaiser. That particular enterprise led to Navarro’s development of a heart pump for use in Kaiser’s hospitals. During this time, Navarro also owned a concrete business and developed a type of concrete saw that remains in use today.
By the late 1960s, he decided to get into racing again, but in a different medium and using an entirely different engine. “He chose to race at Indy at first because it was just another avenue to racing,” Herman said. “But as more people said he couldn’t do it, it drove him to say, ‘Yes, I can.’ “
Navarro also chose an engine that had never before run in the Indianapolis 500–the Rambler overhead-valve 199-cu.in. six-cylinder, due both to its strong bottom end and thick cylinder walls. Navarro built both a fuel-injection setup for the engine and a variety of single- and double-turbocharger setups, eventually wringing in excess of 600hp from the little six-cylinder engine. According to Herman, Navarro tried to qualify at Indy with some form of that engine for three years, starting in 1968, but never actually qualified due to problems with drivers and with the suspensions of the cars.
During the years, Navarro Engineering remained in Glendale, where Navarro attended high school and vocational school, and continued to produce flathead speed equipment in increasing quantities as the nostalgia hot rodding movement gained steam. Herman said he first met Navarro several years ago when the business he and his father ran, H&H Flatheads, started carrying products from Navarro Engineering.
“He was always willing to help and offer solutions to problems, answer the questions that nobody else could,” Herman said. “You ask him a simple question, and he’d eventually explain the turbulence in the flow of gas when the fuel mixture came into contact with the valves. He could have been a rocket scientist if he wanted to be.”
And all the way to the end, his favorite quote was ‘There’s nothing more fun than learning.’ When he was in the hospital, he asked me for the instruction booklet for an MSD electronic ignition unit because he wanted to read up on it.”Navarro died August 20, 2007, on his 88th birthday.
This article originally appeared in the December, 2007 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.