Motorcycles, Hot Rods, and Fine Art:
The Life and Times of Renaissance Man, Don Nowell
by Paul Garson
With half the year already gone, one can start reflecting not only on the future but the past as well. It can get pretty interesting when you’re looking back 75 years and start clicking off the redlined high points. You also add in Father Time and Mother Gravity calling in their chips. Case in point, Don Nowell of Don Nowell Design.
We’ve known about Don for some 30-odd years…and there have been some really odd ones…but you could say anything he touches turns to gold in one form or another… especially when horsepower, performance and innovative design figure into the project at hand. When it comes down to it, Don is an “artist” in the real sense of the word, one gifted with an analytic mind and a work ethic that nudges fanatical in its attention to details.
Let’s start from the beginning. When we made the call to check on his current doings, we heard his reply to our opening query “Is this the famous Don Nowell?” to which he replied “I think you’ve got the wrong number.” But before he could hang up, we explained the reason for our visit and started gathering the facts.
Don was born in Inglewood, CA on May 22, 1941 at 4:30 in the morning. Since then he likes to get an early start. By ten he was earning money mowing lawns, hawking newspapers and selling flowers on the weekends. In Junior High during the ‘50s it gave him some coin to buy some nifty clothes. “It was all about impressing the girls,” chuckles Don. “They were all wearing their poodle skirts and tight sweaters, so we guys had to look cool.”
His first wheels was naturally a bicycle which he “hot-rodded” by placing playing cards in the spokes to produce some “vroom-vroom.” Then in 1956 Don was in high school taking shop classes where he earned his first award, winning Best in Class in a Rotary Club competition for his electric motor, the best of 320 entries. “It was at this point I learned to operate a lathe. I also couldn’t resist hopping up that little motor, trying to get the most rpm out of it and had it smokin’ and jumping all over the bench.” You could say the die was cast, as this was Don’s first motor, one of a long line of high performance engines that would power cars, bikes and boats.
Another milestone arrived at age 16, when after working his butt off after school at a model toy shop, he saved enough to buy his first car, a turnkey 1951 Chevy Bel Air coupe, paying a grand total of $325. “Most of my friends had ’49, ’50 Fords but I just liked the look of the ’50- ‘51Chevies better.” The car just had a stock 6-cylinder, but Don took it right to the Cohia muffler shop in San Fernando and had it slammed to the ground with a spindle kit, leaving ¾ inches of inch ground clearance.” Don was already letting off sparks. He laughs and adds, “At San Fernando High, they wouldn’t let you in class unless your car was lowered.” He also bought himself an airbrush set and tried his hand at scalloping his own custom paint job, cream over charcoal grey. “I just read some articles in Hot Rod magazine to see what Larry Watson was doing, his work just taking off.” But when he took his “low-rider” to Bob’s Big Boy in Van Nuys, he got turned away. Only hot rods allowed. This was 1957, the year of Sputnik and a rapidly changing world.
Graduating high school, he wrangled a job at the San Fernando based Tom Carroll Chevrolet as a lot boy handling deliveries. One day he spotted a spiffy ’59 Impala, white with a turquoise interior. It happened to be a repo and the price was tempting. Says Don, “It came with a 3-2-barrel carbed 4-speed with a hydraulic cam so it wouldn’t turn much rpm, but it was a pretty car, a neat car. I painted the wheels the color of the interior and street raced it all over the Valley.”
Then one night, Don’s ’59 got bested by a ghost white ’57 Chevy. Later he spotted the car, now parked and went to investigate. “The owner’s name was Kenny Safford and we became best of friends. He later became famous as a fuel dragster racer. He was also a member of the Road Kings and I started hanging out with those guys. It eventually brought me to a ’57 Chevy with a motor built by Ray Cash. I sold my Impala and got it. It was my first serious street racer and skirt chaser.”
Since the motor had seen plenty of racing and was a bit tired, Don decided to rebuild it, his first time tackling a pro hot rod motor. When asked where he got the skills to do the wrenching, Don laughs again and says, “I didn’t. I just took the heads off and started doing it. Rappa-rappa, I got it together.”
In late1960, Don took another quantum leap, buying a ’37 Chevy Coupe bodied car was not in top form after being flogged at El Mirage and Don had to work his magic to get it up to snuff for the B Gas drags, choosing that class because it was the most competitive with more cars to race. He then took part in the early NHRA sanctioned events and at independent ¼-mile drag strips at San Fernando, Long Beach and Irwindale. “My pit crew was me and my buddy John with my tow car tied with a rope. It was run what you brung.
“The first time I raced the car at San Fernando, in September 1963, I ran 11.85 on an 11.84 record, beat everybody and took a trophy home. That was a good day.”
People started taking notice, Don and his dragster featured in the December 1965 issue of Hot Rod. It would also get him invited to join the Hot Rod crew for both the ’65 and ’66 events at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He would campaign his Gasser for four years, lastly setting the speed record in ’66 at Irwindale with 121.80 mph in B Gas.
Don with some of the trophies won by his super Chevy and his heavy foot. The tall trophy on the far left was for a First Place at the L.A. Sport Arena, the trophy with the globe awarded at the Winter Nationals Car Show circa 1965 while the smaller trophies represent wins at the various drag races.
Don was also slinging a hammer to help pay for work on his car, and things were getting pretty slow financially, but then he got a call in April of ‘67 to work at engine shop, and not just any shop, Don finding himself building Cam Am race motors at the famous engine shop run by Al Bartz. In fact Don was his first employee. “I first started just doing rebuilds because Al wanted to check my assembly knowledge in building a small block before I started both rebuilding engines and all the new engines. They were 350 Chevy’s stroked a little, making about 525 horses. I’d also modify other parts like the distributors, the water pump, the front timing cover, etc. to get parts ready for the engine builds. By ’68, he was shop foreman, but left to start his own business, working out of his Dad’s garage.
In the process he met a boat racer, Tom Paterson, who also owned a helicopter company and ended up building parts for choppers, including the very first Los Angeles TV station news helicopter, that for KTLA Channel 5. Asked if he got in some rides, he says, “No, I don’t like to fly so wouldn’t have enjoyed that a bit. Airplanes are bitchin’ but I don’t like being up in the air.” But Don was still building car motors and flying as fast as he could on terra firma, but he did step off onto the water.
Don’s stint in the Air Force reserve helped fuel his interest in aviation.
Seen here is one of his favorite, the F-4 Phantom Navy fighter, in this case a radio controlled scale model
“The Sparkler” skittering across the Colorado River.
Don found himself working on race boats, even piloting his buddy Paterson’s 385 horsepower, 1300 lb. 16-ft long “Crackerbox” class race boat aptly named “Sparkler” with its motor in the center, rider in the back. “It’d scare the wee out of you like an ocean going Sprint car. We set the record at 95.70 mph in the Flying Kilo at the Colorado River. Tom’s now 88 and still racing boats.”
Jerry Titus campaigned in Trans-Am, motors built by Don.
In 1969, Don got another of those milestone making phone calls, this time from the legendary racer and moto journalist Jerry Titus who wanted him to build his engines, 302 Chevy’s with cross ram manifolds, to race the last part of the season. Titus also raced for Carroll Shelby winning championships in ’67 and a class victory at the ’69 24 Hours of Daytona. Sadly, Titus aka “Mr. Trans Am,” would die in a 1970 crash during the Trans Am race at Road America.
When asked when he got into motorcycles, Don points to 1964 when he bought his first bike, a Yamaha 80 motocross, then wanting more power went for a 175 Montesa for blasting out into the desert and through the canyons. Says Don, “Back then people were running imported Greeves and the Dots fitted with Blooie pipes, basically straight pipes and you could them making bitchin’ music playing off the canyon walls, but then they went to those expansion chambers for more power but they sounded like bumble bees.”
In 1970 he met up with a young guy named Terry Dorsch who raced AMA Grand Nationals, mostly flat track events on Triumphs against the likes of John Hateley. Terry had ordered a Trackmaster frame and it was specially marked with#1 on its bottom. “I started riding with Terry on the fire roads and he taught me how to go fast and slide in the corners. We did that for ten years. It was a ball and very addictive. Terry used to say it was the most fun you could have with your pants on. I got to go with Terry when he raced flat rack at Ascot, then he started running Champion frames in Northridge. He asked me to make brake rotors for their Champion flat trackers and I made about 200 of them, some probably still being used in vintage racing. That’s also the time period when I did my first frame-up build, my Honda thumper. ”
Don’s first scratch built bike powered by rare Honda race motor was built for doing it in the dirt…and fast!
Don built the frame out of .049 chrome moly tubing, tipping the scale at a mere 15 lbs. plus a 4 lb. swingarm. Says Don, “That was a cool thing, building that frame from scratch, a real education.” Into that frame Don stuffed a rare Honda factory short rod, big bore 350cc motor made for the Baja 1000 race. “I just happened to get one of those trick engines with its sandcast barrel. I got some metric wrenches and took it apart. The cylinder had a quarter inch lining, so I bored that baby out to 385. The frame was nickel plated, the gas tank yellow, the seat upholstered in metallic blue Naugahyde. It was some bike, but then Yamaha came out the TT500 and I just had to have it, so like a dummy I sold my Honda, and I still wonder where it is today.”
During the 1970s while working on his race motor builds, Don figured necessity was the mother of invention. Since it was a mother trying to get the angles of a valve job to meet exactly which then determines the diameter of the valve and where it seats, he came up with a tool of his own design, calling it Qwik-Seat, and it made the job much easier. Gaining a patent, he sold them to machine shops all over the country.
1923 McFarlan, owned by silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, was restored by Don. The rear section featured a special trunk that house booze for Fatty who took his film breaks getting toasted.
Jumping to 1975, Don took another creative tangent when he was signed on by the late J.B. Nethercutt, wealthy owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics, to restore one of his 250 rare classic cars, now on public display at the San Sylmar Museum. In this case, the project was a 1923 McFarlan, the chauffeur driven Knickerbocker Cabriolet Twin-Valve Six originally owned by the silent screen star Fatty Arbuckle who went down in flames after a major scandal.
Says Don, “I worked on that car every day for four months at the museum’s workshop. It had come out of the paint shop with just the bare body, so I put everything else on it…all the metal pieces, the bright work, glass…fabricated the front grill guard, the tail lights, you name it. The car, painted a ketchup color, won a Best of Class at the 1975 Pebble Beach. I was standing there next to the car when I heard a familiar sounding voice say, can you open the door, I’d like to look at the interior. I turn around and there’s Clint Eastwood. And I said, sure, you bet. He looks inside, and he says, thank you. And I say, oh, you’re welcome.” It sure rounded out a cool day. Then later, Mr. Nethercutt came up and said, “Put your hand out. I want to give you a good handshake for turning my old truck into a show winner.”
It was the first recognition of his talents, nor far from the last.
In 1978, while hanging out with Terry Dorsch at a party, Don met up with veteran screen actor Bobby Carradine who told Terry he had a Triumph he wanted to put together. When Terry looked at the Trackmaster frame, he noticed it had #1 stamped into it…so it was his first frame from back in the day. Terry was pretty busy so asked Don if he wanted to handle the project. “I asked how they wanted the bike to look and they said, just do it like you were building it for yourself. Now in high school I had drawn sketches of my dream Triumph and Bobby said go for it. It took two years but I got it done, a real race bike, the real deal.
As Don recalls the moment with his usual photographic memory when Carradine first through a leg over the bike, he says, “He’s wearing cowboy boots, pressed Levis, crisp white shirt, leather jacket with fur collar, shades, a scarf, no helmet, the bike wafting the distinctive aroma of Castor bean oil, it’s the pre-requisite Lee Marvin/Keenan Wynn classic attire for an actor blasting down Sunset Boulevard. One kick and the bike starts…rappa-rappa!…and he’s off blasting down Sunset Boulevard. Bobby’s riding his dream bikes, laying it over in the corners, wide open megaphone growling. One of the better days in my life! And we got the photos. The Triumph was featured as a center fold in an issue of Motorcyclist. Bobby still has that bike, almost 40 years later.”
Then Don took yet another jog in the road, trying out a bit of “downsizing” when he was contracted by Fred Thompson, the new owner of the famous Los Angeles based Smith Miller Toy Company (circa 1948-55), known world-wide for their large scale model trucks, beautifully crafted and very expensive, even more so as collectibles when the company faded out. Getting things going again in 1979, Fred asked Don to turn a flatbed trailer into a low-boy to carry a Doepke D-6 Caterpillar Tractor, another top end classic toy. Using vintage photos to take measurements, Don made a balsa mock-up, then a metal version as the final prototype prior to production. In the process he also designed and built a pumper fire truck. Fashioned in 1/16th scale, the large models measured from 22-48 inches long. Don laughs and says, “It was up to me to figure how A fit into B, and I built 20 trucks, about one new design a year, both prototype and production, for the 20 years, producing about a 1000 trucks at my shop in the first three years. The rebirth of the Smith Miller company proved immensely successful, eventually producing 48 different hand assembled trucks, much sought after in limited editions.
It’s safe to characterize Don as a “Man for All Seasons and All Reasons.” For example, he even took a bite out of the dental industry. In 1980 he met the people at the Proma Company and designed several prototypes for fixtures and appliances used during dental procedures.
Now into the 1984, Don found time to build another fire-breathing motorcycle. In this case, it was commissioned by Michael Bowen, another Hollywood actor, and half-brother to Bobby Carradine. The BSA triple project featured a Marzocchi front end as well as a motor beefed up with an 840cc kit by hyper motor guru Jack Hateley. During the build, Don designed and fabricated a bunch a neat components as well as the 3-into-1 pipe. The badboy Beezer was also featured in a 1986 issue of Motorcyclist, the magazine recognizing the quality of Don’s work.
Then another quirk of fate occurred. While perusing model vehicle magazines, Don noticed the high-end car models gaining attention for French and Spanish artisans. “It got my wheels turning to try my hand at world class models. But I didn’t know what to build. Those guys already had a foot hold in car models.” But while talking with his buddy at the aforementioned dental company, he heard him say, Well, you big dummy, why don’t you build a Harley model. “Yeah, cool, okay, and I thought a ¼ scale, two-foot long man-sized model would be the real deal. So I got it going, that was in 1994.”
Meticulous attention to detail makes it difficult to distinguish the full-sized Softail from Don’s “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” version.
The prototyping alone took 13 months, the design based on the Harley-Davidson Softail with the Evo motor. Previously, his only scratch-built bike building experience was with the Honda thumper and now he was going from full-scale to quarter-scale. So how to make it happen? It turned out that Nick Ienatsch, now well-known in the pages of Motorcyclist, was dropping by in the evenings to earn a few extra bucks by doing some spot-welding work on the model cars Don had been designing. Don says, “I go up to Nick and say, where’s your Harley. He says it was at his Dad’s house in Salt Lake City. I told him I needed a bike to get dimensions. He says hold on, and a few minutes later I get a call from Frank Kaisler the Editor at Motorcyclist. I told him my story. Later that day, he gave me a brand new Softail and I rode it around for a week. I started measuring the length of frame, the swing arm pivot, head stock angle, all the dimensions and then divided it by four, took my
blueprint paper and started drawing. I also got the dimensions from a set of brand new S&S cases. At Monday night bike gatherings at a burger stand in Van Nuys, I’d meet Frank who’d bring me a part, an oil pump, a hand lever, whatever I needed to get my measurements to make an exact scaled bike.”
Get out the magnifying class. For example, Don made the swingarm pivot bolts, the rear and front axle bolts and nuts, the front end bolts, the head stem bolts…all cut from stainless on his lathe and milled to attach the 1/16th inch Allen heads, then polished each tiny piece and we’re talking 152 miniature screws for each bike. Talk about labor intensity, just to make the rear axle sleeve nut, it took 55 separate moves. The frame parts alone took months of machining. In this case when they say big things come in small packages, they weren’t whistlin’ Dixie.
Don wanted the bike to “feel” right as well as look right. So the swing arm moves with 3/4 inch of travel as does the front fork. The left hand lever incorporates a spring for the operational feel of a clutch lever. The right lever is fitted with a rubber o-ring so that as you squeeze on it, you feel resistance, replicating the feel of a front brake lever, the same for the footbrake lever. For the shift lever, there’s a ball détente, so you click-up, click-down, echoing gear changing, again like a real bike.
He went so far as to upholster the seats in real leather, added .040 of an inch diameter individual polished stainless spokes laced to the wheels. He also contacted the Avon Tire Company in England to secure permission to cast from molds exact rubber miniatures of their tires including their logos, and the Avon people graciously agreed, eager to see the finished product themselves. To thank them, Don handmade a unique pen and pencil set incorporating the polished wire wheel and mounted tire. Don chuckles and says, “The Avon honcho wrote back saying “You really screwed me. Now I have to buy a brand new desk because your pen and pencil set is so nice.”
In 2000, with the dawn of new millennium, Don shipped a specially commissioned Knuckle version of his model to the Motor Company in Milwaukee, this before the new Harley-Davidson museum was completed, so it was kept in their archives department until moved to the new museum upon its opening in July 2008.
The paint for his bikes was various candy pearls, except for the Harley-Davidson Museum model. They wanted a Knuckle chopper that looked like something aa guy would have built at home in 1960. There was a custom red scalloped, yellow paint job, but no polish on the cases, the barrels black, aftermarket open primary, just like back in the day.
A motorcycle fan in Germany noticed Don’s creations in a local magazine and just had to have one…to the point that one day he arrived at Don’s house/work shop in Granada Hills, CA and “went shopping” and upon up close and personal inspection it turned out that he had to have not one, but three…including a black Fatboy based on his own bike and also a Knucklehead created in the likeness of the iconic Capt. America chopper seen in the classic 1969 film Easyrider.
Don’s workshop contains a wide spectrum of industrial grade and vintage tools down to surgical instruments capable of fashioning almost microscopic components.
Don’s latest projects include building replicat of Bonneville speed record bike, here seen in mock-up stage.
2017 and Don Nowell’s “Engineered Art Worth Its Weight in Gold”
Says Don during our most recent conversation with him, “For a long time I’ve been wanting to build some art for the real art world. I had tried some stuff with the bikes I built, pieces out of wood and aluminum but that didn’t fly, so put the pieces back in the drawer. But after I took some hard knocks including losing both my Mom and Dad and then my lady friend and most recently, in March of this 2016, seriously injuring my back which was keeping me mostly bedridden, I was feeling pretty low. I knew I needed to do something to get back on my feet mentally, something that turned a new leaf, to step in another direction besides the gearhead arena…so I put head together to create some world class art.”
“I wanted something both plain and elegant at the same time. Something that drew your eye and kept it, something that wowed your senses. So I gathered rare woods from South America, Africa and Australia, all with awesome colors and grains. I’m a wood nut and love the grain, and found that the use of clear coating really makes it pop, a mile deep… there’s nothing like it.
Don’s premiere piece was titled “GoldBlades” and in part was inspired by the vintage mirrors and golden pocket watches he had seen during his experiences at the Nethercutt Museum. Deciding to employ blade shapes and gold to create the reflections he sought, Don took out his French curve templates and starting drawing, counting on the smooth transitions the forms allowed. After making some full sized sketches, he started making parts, finally sending the parts to the platers, focusing on the ultimate richness of 24K gold matched to a black granite finish for contrast. Says Don, “When it all came together, it exceeded my expectations, the gold having this rich, rosy finish that is staggering when amplified by the reflections playing back and forth from any angle your view it from.”
Tasmanian veined Eucalyptus on Gold Base, the piece is titled “GoldenWood” and measures 22 inches long, six inches wide, 12.5 inches high.
A work titled “GoldenBlades” features a total of 100 pieces including 14 separate 24K gold plated blades set in a mathematical progression, creates unique visual impact from all directions and angles. It measures 36 inches high, 14 inches wide, 22 inches long.
As for his choice of materials, Don says, “You can’t ask for anything better than Mother Nature’s finest… gold…and the trickest woods available. There’s nothing like seeing the gold and woods together…it’s the best of the best.” Toward that goal he opted for 7075T6 billet aluminum, the hardest you can get but also the best for acquiring the 24K highly polished gold plating. The choice of woods offered include Maple, Walnut, Burbinga burl, Tasmanian Resin Vein Eucalyptus, Buckeye burl, American Redwood and others, all finished to perfection.
These GoldenWood and GoldenBlade models are currently available with more designs in the work. In addition to fine art collectors, it would seem they would also lend themselves well as exceptional corporate gifts or even as exceptional awards of achievement.
If you’re interested in investing in art that grows in value every day, check out www.donnowellart.com, email him at email@example.com or call Don at (818) 363-8564. International delivery as well as local Los Angeles pick-up available.
As we put the final touches on this story, we’ve become aware of Don’s growing difficulties, time and gravity taking their toll. The sale of his awesome art will go toward easing the mounting financial stress of his long-term recovery now requiring round-the-clock healthcare. While it’s especially hard for a solid, self-sufficient guy like Don to reach out for assistance, at 75, he sums it up with his tell-tale sense of humor, “I’m happy, just fucked up! Don’t get old!”
Paul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via firstname.lastname@example.org