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Hair That's a Fright: George Hurst and the "Hairy Olds"

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Hair That's a Fright: George Hurst and the "Hairy Olds"

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In our history of the Olds 4-4-2, we mentioned that it was not exactly the leader of the pack when it came to Supercar performance. To rectify that problem, Oldsmobile joined forces with Hurst Performance Products to create the ultimate high-performance Oldsmobile: the fearsome Hurst/Olds.


No history of American muscle cars would be complete without at least a passing mention of George Hurst, who became one of the era's most successful aftermarket manufacturers.

Hurst grew up in Pennsylvania, dropping out of school at the age of 16 to join the Navy. When he was discharged in 1954, he became very active in the drag racing scene in eastern Pennsylvania. In the mid-fifties, he and his friend Bill Campbell started a garage in Abington, where they built aftermarket engine mounts for performance cars. Although Hurst had little formal training, he had a strong intuitive grasp of automotive engineering, and he was a natural showman, with a flair for clever promotions.

After some early setbacks, Hurst and Campbell formed a partnership with Ed Almquist and Jonas Anchel, the co-founders of the speed shop Anco Industries. They developed several new products, including a revised engine mount design called Adjusta-Torque and a floor-mounted shift linkage for three-speed manual transmissions.

At the time, manual transmissions were at low ebb in America. Since the advent of Hydra-Matic in late 1939, American buyers had shown a marked preference for fully automatic transmissions, and development of stick-shift technology had languished. In the fifties, many automatics were still too inefficient and too fragile for serious hot rodders, but the available manual gearboxes left much to be desired. The typical "three on the tree" was clunky and cumbersome, with a vague, ropy linkage that was rarely sturdy enough for aggressive driving.

The Hurst linkage, which George Hurst first installed in his own '56 Chevy, was a vast improvement. Although it was rather stiff by modern standards, it allowed clean, fast, accurate shifts, and it was very durable.

Hurst and Campbell asked Almquist and Anchel for $90,000 to market their new linkage, a lot of money at that time. Almquist and Anchel balked, so Hurst and Campbell went out on their own. In 1959, they obtained a $20,000 loan to found Hurst-Campbell, Inc. in Warminster, Pennsylvania.

The hot rodding and drag racing scene was booming in the late fifties and early sixties, and Hurst-Campbell found a ready market for their shifters and shift linkages. Whatever Hurst's mechanical abilities, his greatest talent was concocting news stunts and gimmicks to market Hurst-Campbell products. Hurst sponsored drag racers, offered new cars as prizes for race winners who used Hurst products, and hired a buxom beauty queen named Linda Vaughn as "Miss Hurst Golden Shifter," paying her to attend racing events in her gold bikini, suggestively caressing giant replicas of Hurst's signature product.

Some of Hurst's promotional stunts were in dubious taste, but they were undeniably effective. By the mid-sixties, Hurst-Campbell revenues were more than $20 million a year, and Hurst shifters had become almost de rigueur among serious enthusiasts.

In the sixties, this badge was a mark of distinction for any car with performance aspirations. It's seen here on a 1968 AMC AMX 390.


One of the key selling points of Hurst products was their lifetime warranty. In the early sixties, Hurst hired a young man named Jack Watson, who had previously worked at General Motors. At first, Watson's role was minor -- Ed Almquist described him as a gofer -- but he subsequently became Hurst's traveling repair technician. Armed with a portable machine shop, he traveled to various drag racing events to perform on-site repairs and adjustments for Hurst products. The role eventually earned him the nickname "Shifty Doc," or just "Doc."

Watson still had connections at GM, and in 1961, he helped Hurst get a meeting with Pontiac general manager Bunkie Knudsen and chief engineer Pete Estes. Estes had seen a favorable write-up on the Hurst shifter in Hot Rod, and had been impressed. He was also impressed with Hurst and his obvious marketing acumen. Hurst, Estes, and Knudsen struck a deal to use a Hurst linkage and shifter in Pontiac's new limited-production Super Duty Catalina.

The deal was a great achievement for Hurst-Campbell; Detroit tended to ignore the aftermarket, or look on it with disdain. It was also the beginning of a long and mutually profitable association between Hurst and Pontiac. Over the next few years, many high-performance Pontiac models would carry Hurst shifters as standard equipment, including the highly successful Pontiac GTO. Pontiac's association with Hurst did great things for its credibility with hardcore performance cognoscenti, helping to cement the division's status as the hot American car.

To cultivate more relationships with the major automakers, Hurst opened the Hurst Performance Center in Detroit in 1965, appointing Doc Watson to run it. Much of Watson's business was with Pontiac, where Hurst now had a strong relationship, but he eventually made deals with other many automakers, including Plymouth, Dodge, AMC, and Oldsmobile.



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