Volume III, Issue 6, Page 18

If You Look Behind All the Doors...

I'm pretty sure he’ll likely never see what you’re about to read, and he’d probably not approve of my sharing the story.  So I’m not writing this for his sake but I’ll also point out that for every successful story, if you look behind all the doors, there’ll be a clear and distinct reason for the success. This one’s a sleeper.

I met this person at an obscure engine building and machine shop, circa 1965.  At the time, he was working days shuffling air cargo for a commercial airline in the Los Angeles area.  But at night and on weekends, he spent his time in this little shop. He had visions of developing a one-off design cylinder head for the small-block Ford, and this was the only shop he found that was blessed with an airflow bench.

Now you need to understand what this meant in 1965.  Essentially, it was, “What’s a flowbench?” to just about any engine builder or performance buff in the country…except for Carl Axtell.  So now you say, “Who the devil was Carl Axtell?”  If you have any measure of flat-track motorcycle blood coursing your veins, you know that “Ax” was the practitioner of airflow skills that literally blazed the trail for National Championship flat-track engines… and drivers that included legends Sammy Tanner and Gene Romero.  Ax’s stuff, in the hands of the right pilotos, was unbeatable. But he was about as low-key as they come. 

People in the know are aware it was Axtell who built the first airflow bench for the Edelbrock family, and it was from his experiences with Ax that Warren Brownfield (who founded Air Flow Research cylinder heads) cut his airflow teeth, but that’s an entirely different story.  In fact, it was on that flow bench and while in contact with Axtell that Edelbrock perfected the industry’s first “tunnel ram” racing intake manifold, and an entirely new range of rpm became available to the high-performance marketplace.  Much of my nearly twenty years at Edelbrock was spent passing air through that bench. I was sitting in Axtell’s shadow, sure enough. But in ’65, that was part of my yet-to-unfold future, for me and my friend at Axtell’s shop.

So it was in this nights and weekends environment that he labored on his little Ford cylinder head under the careful eye and tutelage of Axtell, and I had a first-hand opportunity to find out what flow benches can and cannot tell you…little did I know the course of fate.

Time passed and I moved on from Petersen Publishing Company into the halls of Edelbrock, never hearing again from my friend who had frequented Axtell’s shop. My sense was he’d finally given up on his project for reasons of time or funding, maybe both. You well know how dreams can dissolve.

Of course, over the years and because of its uniqueness to the industry and proximity to many of the west coast specialty parts manufacturers, the Edelbrock dyno facility was frequented by numerous and renowned engine builders and equipment providers.  Many were long-time consorts, including luminaries Ed Donovan, Ed Iskenderian… and Nick Arias, all of them early drag race mountain motor and drag boat engine fame. Nick was widely acclaimed for his mega-displacement, all-aluminum engines. These often one-off designs were (and still are) marvels of hot rodding ingenuity, frequently boasting features not found in even the most exotic racing engines.  Some ran on gasoline, others were fed alcohol and virtually all tended to bend the needle on Edelbrock’s dyno.

On one occasion, the wrench who’d come along to tend one of Nick’s behemoths needed to remove the cylinder heads for some internal inspection. So I took the opportunity to spend time examining the ports and chambers. Some of the features seemed familiar, harking back to what I fuzzily recalled seeing in my friend’s little-block Ford airflow boxes, so I asked who’d designed the heads.  “Oh, there’s this guy who has a little shop across the street from ours [Arias] and he does our pattern work.  I think he may also do some flow stuff.”  I asked if it’d be OK if I paid him a visit, and the answer was, “I guess.”

You already know what I found.  Sure enough, there was my friend who’d put his best efforts into a small-block Ford head that never materialized… all by himself, covered with wood dust from sanding patterns for an experimental, 5-valve head for a Yamaha.  A Yamaha?  In the span of time since I’d last seen him in at Ax’s shop, he’d been clearly under the radar of more high-performance engine projects than you could imagine, including a stint helping Ford with some of their early 351 Cleveland designs.

Scattered around his diminutive quarters were “interesting” projects in various stages of completion.  There was an F1 transmission case and a four-valve design for an aftermarket small-block Chevrolet cylinder head…in aluminum, no less.  Another bench held the initial patterns for a three-valve, upright inlet-port cylinder head and injector manifold for a sprint car engine.  And, of course, there was an assortment of soon-to-be Arias engine pieces strewn around.  Truly, it was a one-off engine parts toy store and each component had features that had been seeded thirty years previous in Axtell’s shop.
My friend had even assumed the “Axtell attitude” and borderline shyness.

 “You’ve got some pretty neat stuff in here!” I said.

 “Well, just some ideas I’ve been kicking around and wanted to try,” he softly replied.

Does anybody know what you do?”

“Oh, I guess the ones that count.”

“What got you into doing parts for Nick?” I ventured.

“He just sorta needed somebody to do patterns for him, so I learned how to do that so I could make my own parts, too.”

“How do people know about what you can do for them?”

“Probably word of mouth,” he said.

 “Anybody else in this shop?”

 “Nope,” was all he said.

 “So you’re the guy who’s been doing all Arias’ pattern work.”

“Yep,” replied this man of economy. 

Best I can recall, this conversation took place around 1994. I saw him again at the ’99 SEMA Show.  He came armed with a bulging scrapbook of photos showing his latest body of work, and it was just as exotic as anything I’d seen previously.

I’ve not seen him since.

He is a person who simply got the job done.  Formalities aren’t part of his persona.  And he can do it all.  From flat-head Ford parts, to gearboxes to complex racing engine components and blower assemblies, his dedication has missionary zeal… and tenacity in the workspace.  Employing some of the most contemporary CAD techniques (another self-taught skill), he has applied natural talent with the speed of computer analysis and is continually sought after.

And, had either of us known forty years ago what the future held, I’ve often wondered what might have transpired from that chance meeting in Axtell’s little shop in Burbank if we’d chosen to work together.

Here, I’ll get that last door for you. Google “Tom Roberts Designs” sometime and see what you find. Myriad racers and high performance parts users probably never realized how some of their favorite pieces came to pass. In many cases, you can thank Tom Roberts.  

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