Gene Schwartz: Strawberry Fields DeLuxe With A Heavy Bass

February 9, 2017

ECDT Hall of Fame Story by Jim Hill

This is a story about a kid from Cleveland grabbing a guitar, learning a few chords, then going forward until he gains considerable fame in the  music world. That’s what happened with Gene Schwartz, and along the way, his other love, building and racing fast cars, created for him a second career as a Gasser hero.

Kids growing up in those days were naturally drawn to music, and just as many to hot rods. Schwartz found a way to excel at both avocations.

Schwartz’s considerable skills with a guitar and a 30+ year career playing with blues and rock legends established him as a music standout. His skills with wrenches and a four-speed manual transmission provided diversity to his music, and a world of fun.

As teenagers, Gene and his brother Glenn were typical. Glenn developed an early ability at playing lead guitar, Gene was more into hot rodding cars. Glenn finally talked Gene into learning the bass guitar, and together the Schwartz Brothers worked their way into paying gigs. Glenn focused on music while Gene couldn’t quite abandon his love of drag racing. The brothers went their separate ways for awhile until reuniting as blues musicians, Glenn playing lead and Gene laying down the bottom-end on bass. That brought recognition neither expected.

Gene and Glenn Schwartz became masters of America’s unique music form known as The Blues, as well as providing hot licks for some of the world’s best known rock bands. Gene’s talented fingers also manipulated tools, wrenching on engines, transmissions, suspension components and bodies for that equally American automotive pastime, drag racing.

Gene Schwartz’s unlikely “day job” actually happens at night, when he performs as one of America’s premier bass rock and blues guitarists. Over his many decades career Schwartz has performed with many of the world’s most famous groups.

Gene Schwartz grew up keenly interested and involved in hot rodding. That led him to become a member of an unofficial group that eventually became known as The Ohio Gassers. The ‘Gassers included names such as Joe and Tom Hrudka, Eddie Schartman, Ron Hassel, Dave Koffel, Virgil Cates, the Bellino Brothers, Rodriguez Brothers, Hill Brothers, Ron Hutter, Dave Meal, Fred Hurst, Arlen Vanke, Jeg Coughlin, Eckard & Kirk, Hiner & Miller, Stickle & Riffle, Jim Thompson, George Montgomery, Jerry Ault and many others.

Gene’s interests centered around building a Gasser from a bulky yet sporty ’52 Chevy DeLuxe coupe, a gift from his dad. DeLuxe coupes were low production, aimed at the buyer wanting an upscale Chevy. Their distinctive roofline and split, three-piece rear window, put the unique DeLuxe at a premium in a market that chose Chevy for its strictly utilitarian cars.

The inline 235 CID six-cylinder engine was anemic. Gene decided to instead opt for a far more serious approach. The ’52 DeLuxe would be built as a Gasser, with V-8 Chevy power. E/G was the heaviest class for Over Head Valve (OHV) V-8 engines. A well-built, small-block 283-based Chevy was perfectly suited for that task.

He began by pulling the 235 six and its clunky torque-tube. In its place Gene installed an Oldsmobile rear axle, supported by multiple-leaf rear springs. He added ladder style traction bars and a driveshaft.

This photo of Gene Schwartz’s ’52 DeLuxe Chevy E/Gasser is typical of early 60’s lower-class Gassers. Straight front axle, whitewall front tires on Halibrand mag wheels and 8,000+ rpm off the starting line were every day happenings.

Inside the Olds rear axle were 5.86:1 ring and pinion gears, later replaced by 6.14:1 gears. A limited-slip “Posi-Traction” unit was unsatisfactory. Instead racers arc-welded the stock spider gears, or installed a set of Ansen Equipment’s Locking Spider Gears.

Stock Olds axles were factory-forged and sturdy, but the shock loads of “dump the clutch”, 8,000 rpm starts eventually caused the axle shafts to twist, and eventually fail. Racers drew a long, straight line the length of the axle shaft. When the line showed twisting, the axles were pulled and replaced with fresh, junkyard units.

The transmission was a Borg-Warner T-10, a close-ratio box with a 2.20:1 first-gear mounting a new Hurst Competition-Plus shifter jutting through a generous hole cut in the floorboard, for easy trans access.

To shift smoothly at 8,000+ rpm the transmission was modified to a “crash box”. The brass-tooth synchronizer rings were carefully modified by filing away alternating synchro teeth. Crash-box mods became so popular that Schwartz’s Cleveland pals, Joe and Tom Hrudka, began offering the brass rings already modified as part of their expanding Mr. Gasket product line. This easy-shifting concept evolved in the 70’s to complete drag racing transmissions with large synchro teeth, Doug Nash Racing and Liberty’s Gears leading the way.

Weighing 3,200+ pounds, Gene Schwartz’s E/Gas Chevy usually leaves the line like this, with front wheels a crowd-pleasing couple feet in the air. (Bob Wenzelburger’s Famous Fotos)

Gene liked the idea of getting a head start on faster cars. The psychological impact can have an unnerving effect on even seasoned drivers. Gene chose E/Gas, for just that reason.

At 11 lbs., per CID, the ’52 Chevy had to weigh a minimum of 3,212 lbs., with a 292 CID small-block Chevy. No problem, and extra weight came from thick steel plates, welded into the trunk and carrying a heavy-duty battery.

The ’52 carried an overly complex front suspension. Gene discarded it for a simple, forged steel, I-beam front axle with multi-leaf springs mounted parallel to the front frame horns.

Front and rear the car carried Halibrand magnesium, five-slot wheels and M&H Racemaster drag slicks. Their tiny “wear holes” were monitored and about half-way through their lifespan, the tires were dismounted and remounted, their direction reversed. This re-set the wear pattern and helped squeeze several additional runs out of the tires. A new pair of M&H’s No. 148 compound tires was nearly $200.00.

Gene welded the front end into a hinged, one-piece, flip-forward unit. Schwartz did most of the work on his cars himself, but preferred to have legendary Cleveland race engine builder Sam Gellner perform the machine work and assemble his engines.

The engine itself was straightforward. A 283 Chevy passenger car engine provided its two-bolt main bearing, stock 3.00” stroke, forged crankshaft. Cranks were first checked for correct indexing, then straightened, polished and oil-hole chamfers added on the journals. If “clean-up” grinding was needed it was kept to the “low-side” of clearance tolerance, and not more than .010” undersized.

Blocks were chosen by examining the casting at the camshaft location. Blocks with “core shift” were avoided because cylinder wall thickness was compromised, leading to poor ring sealing due to destabilization of the cylinder walls. A Corvette oil pump was preferred, then disassembled and examined. Pump impeller gears were polished along with the cast iron housing.

Schwartz ran all the famous Ohio and midwest drag strips in the 60’s. This early shot shows him making a run at National Trail Raceway, outside Columbus, Ohio.

In the days before “deep sump” oil pans were commercially available, racers made their own. A stock Chevy pan was band-sawed down low, then steel sheetmetal was welded in to drop the oil collection sump below the crankshaft. This eliminated rotating friction, reduced oil foaming and increased oil capacity from five quarts to six or seven. The deeper pan also required a longer oil pump sump pick-up. All these labor-intensive steps were eliminated – for a price, after bolt-on pans, pumps and pick-ups became available.

Only forged aluminum pistons were used for the typical high rpm engine. These carried maximum dome “pop-ups”, increasing static compression to around 12.5:1. One trick was to mill a “fire slot” across the dome, to unshroud the spark plug for better flame travel.

Chevy “461 Fuelie” heads were heavily ported. Large diameter valves, 2.02” intakes and 1.60” exhausts, were installed with a multi-angle valve facing and seat-grinding.

Gene Schwartz and many of the Ohio Gasser racers relied on cams, valve train components and ported heads from Crane Cams. Harvey Crane, a 2009 ECDT Hall of Fame member, provided the Super Port-Flow heads fitted with the correct components for the Crane roller cams Gene favored. Schwartz always raced with Harvey Crane’s products, and even lettered “Crane RamSonic Cams” on the hood of his first ’52 DeLuxe.

Once prepared, Gene hit the Midwest tracks, winning E/Gas class and Street Eliminator titles. The lumbering Chevy set the NHRA E/Gas class record at Muncie Dragway, Indiana, and won Street Eliminator at the ’65 NASCAR Nationals. That came over a young Bruce Larson, in the Costilow & Larson, 289 Ford Cobra.

Schwartz was looking forward to the ’65 NHRA Nationals, taking a Nationals E/Gas class win trophy, and maybe Street Eliminator. That dream and his car went into the ditch after a highway towing accident. The car was almost totaled, and The Nationals seemed hopeless.

Rather than throw in the towel, Schwartz found another ’52 Chevy, a mongrel two-door sedan picked up for less than $100. Everything about the car was wrong, but Gene set his goal as the Nationals, now just a few weeks away. With help from other racing pals, he saved the heart of the ’52 DeLuxe and installed it into the dog-eared sedan. A bright red paint job and inspiration from The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” resulted in artistically air-brushed, psychedelic art applied on both doors and trunk lid.

Here’s Schwartz’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, a hastily built ’52 Chevy sedan built to run at the NHRA Nationals in 1965. With it he took hotly contested E/Gas Class Championship trophy. The car’s psychedelic graphics were a tribute to The Beatles. This shot in the Indy pits shows the familiar “tank farm” behind the pits at IRP.

Hardly an embarrassing flop, the hasty-pudding sedan was fast and quick, winning the Nationals E/Gas trophy. The Strawberry Fields concept garnered Schwartz considerable exposure in the drag racing media.

Although Gassers had been hugely popular, the winds of change were blowing. Gene ran the ’52 a couple more years before parking it to more aggressively pursue his music career. The crashed ’52 DeLuxe was never far from his mind. Sentimentally, he refused to abandon the car given to him by his dad. It sat crushed but still intact for more than 30 years, waiting for the drag racing bug to bite once again.

Gene Schwartz went on to perform with blues man Robert Lockwood, Jr. Brother Glenn Schwartz went west, to California, becoming a founder of legendary Pacific Gas & Electric and playing with Joe Walsh, who would later make his mark as one of The Eagles.

At Jimi Hendrix’s birthday party, in New York, the Schwartz brothers again met up and the legendary Hendrix became an admirer. Gene and Glenn toured with music legends such as B.B. King, Ray Charles and of course, Robert Lockwood.

In spite of this global success and professional acclaim, Gene missed nights spent turning wrenches, power-shifting a clutch assisted, manual transmission and driving the wheelstanding, ’52 Chevy. A plan was hatched to repair the classic Ohio Gasser, and bring it back to run at Nostalgia Drag Racing events.

A lengthy rebuild ensued with help from many Ohio people who remembered when Schwartz’s ’52 DeLuxe Gasser was as bad-ass as his bass guitar. Ohio Gasser legend, Ron Hutter, of Chardon, Ohio, built Gene a powerful, reliable small-block Chevy for the project. Curiously, the engine retains its Gasser heritage with a relatively minute CID of just 292 cubic inches, true to the days when little engines and extreme rpm were common.

“Yeah, just like what we used to run back in the 60’s”, Schwartz adds.

Gene’s restored ’52 Chevy is a popular attraction at nostalgia events and displays such as those at the NHRA Nationals. The new car is no static display however, and Schwartz runs the car as often as possible, reminding all of what a 10,000 rpm, small-block Chevy Gasser sounds like!

Gene runs the car at Nostalgia events and displays its show car attributes at outdoor and indoor hot rod car shows. At the drag strip he makes wheelstanding runs while power-shifting the old-school manual transmission. Like its days as a class-legal, E/Gas stormer, the most recent edition of the ’52 DeLuxe is shiny black, fast, quick and above all, fun. That enjoyment includes the ritualistic maintenance routine necessary to keep one of these race cars operating at optimum. While Gene Schwartz has a unique talent for fingering his electric bass guitar, he’s equally at home and obsessed with turning wrenches on an injected small-block Chevy.

The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame is proud to welcome Gene Schwartz, world-class blues bassman, drag racing Gasser legend and now a Class of 2016 Hall of Fame inductee.