by Lynn Mills
A visit to the homestead in Gardena, where Nick Brajevich has been living and working since 1949, is like going to several different museums -- of Braje Speed Equipment, of Crosleys, of the days of hot rodding old Model T Fords, of the Los Angeles post-war era itself before the Southern California boom exploded.
The house, hidden by trees and set way back from the street, was built on farmland in the 20's, back when Gardena was aptly named. At one time, Nick had chickens and cows and horses, chiefly for his children's amusement. All that remains of the farm is a couple of barns that house Braje Equipment Co., a pen full of quail and pheasant, and a pomegranate tree. The entire surrounding area is industrial -- Braje's place is like an oasis of the past.
Nick Brajevich was nicknamed "Braje" long ago by hot rod mechanic and good friend, Wayne Horning. It was probably a good thing too, because there's just not a whole lot of room to stamp his full Croatian name on those tiny Crosley parts he made. At six foot four, Nick is powerfully built and still robust at age 76, looking more suited to those big ol' Chevy V6's that he started with than those 60 lb. weakling 750cc Crosley engines with which he made his name.
Nick confesses, "I'm a pack rat," and he loves to prove it to his visitors. He's got assorted cars in various states of restoration: a Crosley sedan, the Crosley SuperSport he now vintage races, another SuperSport, a Crosley-powered Formula Four open wheel racer, two Crofton Bugs (based on the Farm-O-Road, Crosley's version of the Jeep), the No. 1 Miller H Mod race car, a purple '59 Fiat, a '76 Cosworth Vega, and a couple of boats -- all stashed in various barns, in a cargo carrier, and under tarps in the yard.
In the house, he's got rafts of old black and white photos and programs from events at Caroll Speedway in the old days. He still has the patterns from the rocker covers, pans, manifolds, and other parts he made for the Nash Metropolitan 840 engine -- they became obsolete early on when Nash went to the 850 engine, but he still has those patterns. His workshop is filled with old Braje Equipment Crosley parts that he tracked down and bought -- including his first cam cover and a hubcap. Even after quitting the Crosley business completely about thirty years ago, he saved all the paperwork from the heady days when Braje Equipment was the place to get your Crosley souped up. And he's still trying to track down even more parts and other cars and engines that he owned and built.
The pack rat mentality started young -- when he was four, Nick planted a cactus at his house in Los Angeles, then dug it up and replanted it each time he moved. Now it's the biggest, most intricate cactus you've ever seen in captivity (12 ft. tall, 10 ft. wide). It's chained to one of the outbuildings so it won't fall over -- the cactus is so big, though, Nick had to reinforce the wall, so the plant wouldn't pull it down.
He was born and raised in Los Angeles. When Nick was very young, his father was a truck farmer, and they lived on and farmed a big chunk of land on Redondo Beach Boulevard in Gardena. Nick's mother didn't like the unhealthy swampiness of the area, so they moved to Los Angeles near the Coliseum when Nick was six, and Nick's father became a paint contractor and sometime bootlegger.
Nick had a natural aptitude for things mechanical since he was a boy, and he'd pester his neighbors to let him work on their cars. "I was always a nut to change somebody's spark plugs or something." He grew up with future racers Ernie MacAffee and Johnny Junkins, and knew Frank Kurtis back when Kurtis had a little garage on Hoover Street. Nick learned about cars in auto shop in high school, plus some then-current speed tricks from his cousins, Johnny Pasco and Marty Vousich, who were into racing in the mid-30's.
When Nick was eighteen and wild about cars, he'd go the track with his cousins every week -- Pasco was an up and coming driver and Vousich built the car. "It was a beautiful roadster. Kurtis had built the front end. It was heart-shaped, a beautiful grill." They didn't have a trailer, so they'd tow the race car behind their street car with a rope; it was Nick's job to sit in the race car and work the brake to keep the slack in the line. It gave him a chance to play racer, too. "We'd go from L.A. to Huntington Beach, wherever the track was. Corona, all the old tracks. I thought I was the biggest hotdog in the world."
One venue was Jeffries Field in Burbank, where old heavyweight champ Jim Jeffries staged fights in a barn and races on a dirt oval. Nick's dreams of racing himself were quashed when Johnny was killed there in a race Memorial Day 1934. "It exploded the family. That just devastated them because he was the idol. My mother never wanted me to drive. She said if she ever saw me, she'd go out on the track and stop the race. So, to keep her happy, I never did it. At Carroll Speedway, I'd get in the roadster and take it around a hot lap a couple of times just to see how it felt. But never in competition." Even though he "always had the yen" to race, Nick kept that promise for 50 years, until 1986, when, at the age of 70, he started vintage racing with VARA.
Hot rodding was the thing in those days, and Nick and his compatriots met every Saturday night for street racing. "We'd all go down to Redondo Beach and mill around there, and then people from the north would come down from Pasadena" (with whom they had a friendly rivalry). The usual site for the battles was behind the old road racing course at Mines Field, near LAX. ("At that time, the airport was nothing.") One night, Nick was riding with his friend Johnny Junkins (initiator of the first 100 Mile Per Hour Club), who was racing against two other cars. "Halfway down, here come the cops; we could see them coming from a distance. They always pretty well warned us with their lights, I guess to keep us from running into them." The police caught one of the racers, but Junkins took off across the field. "There were no safety belts in those days. If you're hanging onto a steering wheel, it isn't that bouncy, but I was sitting on the other side, and God, I'm hanging onto the door. It was quite a thrill charging through that field, coming onto what now would be Sepulveda. That was really when I first got started in racing." Soon after, he turned 105 mph at the dry lakes in a non- sanctioned event in a 1925 dry-sump 4-cylinder Chevy street racer (his mom didn't mind him running at the lakes).
And as far as Mom was concerned, Nick (who had become a fireman in the Harbor area) could build anything he wanted. While others swore by the Ford flathead, Nick decided to try something different -- the Chevy V6 -- and built the first roadster with the 12-port Chevy head that his pal, Wayne Horning developed. Nick stuck it in a 1927 Model T roadster that Leroy Nooks (a well-known local racer and one of the few black drivers) discovered languishing in a basement. It proved to be a successful combination. "We went 3,500 actual laps without touching the motor, and that's a lot of races. Never touched the crank bearings or anything. That's how efficient the lower end was."
While Nick himself couldn't race it, Nooks and other up and coming guys like Troy Ruttman ('52 Indy winner), the ever popular "Wildman" Frank McGurk, Jack McGrath ('54 Indy pole sitter), and Pat Flaherty ('56 Indy winner and pole sitter) drove it. "The Indy drivers all started in the roadsters," says Nick. He's got an old 8X10 of Flaherty winning the trophy dash at the inaugural race up at the 1/2 mile oval Salinas track -- he's so far ahead of everyone else, there's no one else in the picture.
Nick's tow car was a sleeper street racer that he'd built, a '28 Model A Ford Sedan, adding a Merc engine and "juice" (hydraulic) brakes. "That was my toy for six years. It fooled a lot of people. If someone looked cross-eyed at me, I was gone."
Nick's roadster was so hot that Wayne Horning asked him to bring it by so a customer could listen to it and check it out -- the customer happened to be Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio (of whom Nick is a great admirer) was just getting started and had come all the way from Argentina to buy an engine in the early 40's. "He bought one of the same engines (Chevy-Wayne engine) and drove it through the circuit down there in Argentina. He was a big success."
Of the hot rod days, Nick remembers, "It was fun. It was a big challenge, because you had to use your own ingenuity, since it wasn't easy to buy parts. You had to make a lot of the things yourself." Nick worked with some of the best known mechanics of the day -- Ed Winfield ("the father of all cam shafts"), Ed Iskendarian (to whom Winfield taught everything he knew), in addition to Horning (who went into rocketry and is still a good friend). In his best season, Nick's roadster started 88th in the CRA (California Roadster Association) standings, but climbed up to the top, and led for most of the year. There had been a number of deaths at Carroll Speedway, so in reaction, the powers that be made a late-season rule change forcing everyone to run with only one carburetor -- Nick had been running six. The car ran so badly with only one carb, that Nick eventually quit running and dropped down to finish third in the CRA standings. The next season, they went to Hillburn fuel injectors.
The roadster so impressed the owner of the Los Angeles Crosley agency, that he asked Nick if he could do anything to improve the Crosley engine. "I'd never looked at them too much before. I took a cylinder block home and worked on lightening the valves. One thing led to another and I was making manifolds, grills, pistons..." Nick's life went on to take a completely different course.
Introduced in 1939, the Crosley was one of the first economy cars, the vision of inventor/entrepreneur Powel Crosley, Jr. who made his fortune in the auto accessory business. He made another fortune producing low cost radios at a time when they were prohibitively expensive (which earned him the nickname of the "Henry Ford of radios"). So that customers would have something to listen to and would keep buying his radios, he created the era's most modern radio station, WLW. Located in his hometown of Cincinnati, it broadcast all over the globe -- with its 500,000 watts signal, it was said to be picked up in dental fillings and chainlink fences. He invented a number of things, including the "icy ball" refrigerator which is still used in parts of Africa. One passion was the Cincinnati Reds baseball team which he owned for many years, and for whom he built a stadium (Crosley Field) and created the first night ball games. But Crosley had always dreamed of designing and racing cars -- he had designed an electric car at age 13 and had built, and as a young man, raced another car until he had a major accident in it.
The Crosley automobile was a 1,000 lb. 2-door convertible, built small enough so that it could be sold out of the same stores that handled Crosley refrigerators and radios. It was fuel efficient (35 to 50 mpg), which proved an advantage when gasoline was rationed during WWII. After the war, Crosley leaped into a market hungry for new cars, introducing various models, including sedans, station wagons, and delivery trucks. In '49, it became the first American car to have disc brakes.
The Crosley HotShot became the first real postwar sports car in America, and a big after-market specializing in speed equipment sprang up, Braje Equipment being the most famous. The little engine (which had been used in military generators and to open bomb bay doors during the war) was originally made of copper- brazed sheet metal (for durability, it was later made of cast iron) and produced a whopping 26 horsepower. But in Nick's hands, he could boost that to 50 horsepower using regular gas, and 60 using race fuel -- which, in a 700 lb. H Modified home built, gave a pretty good power to weight ratio.
It may seem anathema for a big ole Chevy guy to spark an interest in a tiny Crosley engine, but Nick liked the challenge. "It was a little overhead cam and it was so far ahead of everybody. For its size, it put out quite a bit of horsepower. It wasn't just one thing that you did to perfect the little engine, it was a multitude of things -- from cams to lightening up cam followers, to reinforcing this part so you wind it up to higher rpm. You were playing with a small cubic inch displacement, so that if you made one change, it wasn't any big drastic deal. Working with a 350 engine -- you bored it a quarter over and boy, you noticed the amount of difference in horsepower. It all was a challenge, but it was rewarding at the end if I'd go to a race and see the performance and the durability of the engines which I had put together. That was the satisfaction."
Nick says it was a noisy little engine, which a lot of people objected to, so the first of Nick's improvements was to make an aluminum rocker cover to deaden the sound. From there, he made side plates, manifolds, headers, and more. As he started getting more and more horsepower out of the engine, he did what he could to beef it up. In those days, he could get a little Crosley engine to turn 8,000 rpm easily -- the big flathead Ford could only buzz 5,000 rpm, 6,000 if you were really pushing it. Braje Equipment became the source for parts and information to hotrod the little Crosley and Nick was sending out catalogs and parts all over the world. (He still remembers lots of his customers, including Alan Bolte's father, who had a HotShot on the East Coast.)
Catering to racing was a big part of the business. In 1950, a HotShot won the Sebring 12-Hour race on a Le Mans-type index of performance. The following year, Nick was asked to build the engine for a Briggs Cunningham-sponsored HotShot to race at Le Mans. It had the race won, until it blew the generator and wiped the water pump out. "I told them,' Don't run the little 10 amp (early Crosley) generator.' It just disintegrated." The car came back to the U.S. and won at Watkins Glen later that year.
Nick liked to show off with his modified HotShot during those days when Detroit's heavy metal ruled the road. At 136" long, the Crosley was a whole five feet shorter than a '49 Ford. "Being in a little car pulling up next to a big car, you wonder, gee, what a big bucket of bolts that is. I had a souped up engine, not full race, but durable for the street. If I would go out to the San Fernando Valley for something, I'd come back through the old Sepulveda Pass and really pour the coal through the turns. It used to be a thrill to me to beat the other, bigger cars."
In the early '50's, he left the fire department and went into the business full time. The little Crosley engines had become a major part of SCCA's 750cc H Modified class. "That was a good group. It was a poor group. Joe Puckett still asks me today if I have any of the invoices he never paid for. He couldn't rub two nickels together, half of us couldn't. He'd break a piston and come by and I'd help him." Nick couldn't turn anyone away and would give the guys breaks on parts and spend hours giving free advice.
A number of customers in the armed forces raced H Mods because they were cheap and easy to pick up. Two fighter pilots had somebody pound out a body for them in Japan and they'd have their buddies flying transport take it wherever there was a race. When they'd come to L.A. for parts, they'd buzz Nick's house as a friendly gesture. "I lived near where the Coliseum is. The little shop, the whole deal was there. And they'd come right over the top of the house and damn near knock the roof off." Another customer took the body off a '47 Crosley and traded it to a Japanese man who built an aluminum shell for him -- he then sold the Crosley body to someone else, who made a rickshaw out of it.
Nick's reputation was growing, and in the early 50's, he was commissioned to build twenty-four engines for the Ethyl Corporation to demonstrate how the octane boost from their lead additive enhanced horsepower and compression. The engines were exhibited all over the world. Nick remembers that the ethyl came in small bottles that weighed ten pounds -- eventually, the government banned its use.
In 1952, Crosley sold off the automobile company, a victim of the "bigger is better" mentality of the '50s. The major fault of Crosley's dream was that it was ahead of its time. A few years later, he would be vindicated by the success of the VW Bug and the Rambler. It was Crosley's same basic idea -- make it simple, cheap and fun -- that made Donald Healey's Sprite such a raging success.
"Powel Crosley was really a hell of a guy," says Nick. "He did the impossible. The guy was really a genius. It's a shame the car failed. They produced thousands of them. That was his biggest love, but he did it in a time when people didn't understand the little car yet."
Aerojet General (at that time, Aerojet and General Tire were one) bought the company, intending to make boat engines. They called in Nick to fine tune the engines and to do an evaluation on them. In order to evaluate them, he had to design and build his own dynamometer. Aerojet also asked him to make a lighter engine with more horsepower for the Forestry Department. Nick concluded that the only way possible was to develop a twin cam, but unfortunately, Aerojet canceled the project before he could finish it.
Nick's modified HotShot -- to which he'd added different headlights, doors (HotShots didn't have them), MG locks inside those doors, the windshield and taillights from a Studebaker, and generally made more sporty-looking -- caught the eye of Chairman of the Board Dan Kimbel (one-time Secretary of the Navy). Kimbel wanted to take splashes off of it and go into production, and offered Nick $25 royalties on each car they sold. The deal never materialized, though, and the car is reportedly in a museum in Canada.
The next owners of Crosley were Lou Fageol (of the bus company) and Bob Crofton (a distributor for GM trucks). Fageol raced high speed boats, a twin engine car at Indy in '46, in addition to a car with two Porsche engines. After he bought Crosley, he started racing an H Mod car and had Nick build him two engines and parts for a third.
Nick found a little Crosley called the Farm-O-Road, which Crofton was interested in getting back into producing. "It was like a little pint-sized jeep. It was light, so it could go over rough terrain. It pulled a plow, it did everything." It had dual transmissions (nine forward speeds) and some had big flotation tires (like today's mud runners). In a demonstration to prove their hardiness, they were dropped by parachute. The timing on the venture was not right, though, as the Korean War was backing off. Nick had a Crofton dealership and sold a lot of them to nurseries, which used them for hauling pots. He also sold several to Hollywood Park raceway -- they put brooms on them and used them to sweep up betting tickets after each race. "They were small and real maneuverable, but they could pull things. They could have a lot of power depending on what version you had." While the vehicle weighed 1,000 lbs., Nick asserts it was hardy enough to carry 1,000 lbs.
Nick built his own Crosley powered racer, a 425 lb. tube frame dragster with hand-pounded body ("It was a beautiful thing"). Dubbed "Braje's Bomb" by Hot Rod magazine, it set a record at National City -- 117 mph in the quarter mile, driven by Sonny Meyer (son of Louis Meyer of legendary Meyer and Drake Offy fame). Nick thought that with proper tires, and optimum gearing, they could break Goldie Gardner's record of 125 for the flying mile, so they set out to do just that.
Before they had a chance to go for the record, Nick's wife passed away and he lost interest in the whole Crosley business. "She was half the business. I sold everything, all the parts, engines, dyno, all the tools, the lathes."
Nick had been working on a twin cam as well as a V8, but completely abandoned the business and went into aerospace, making parts for the early Mariner and Ranger space shots, and later, made parts for the manned flights. But after six years or so, Nick remembers, "I got tired of this plus-or-minus .002, close close tolerances," and he got into his present occupation, making safety brake parts for trucks. He built the special machines on which Braje Equipment cuts up a ton of steel daily. They also make nozzles designed to fit on high-pressure hoses that clean power lines. Nick's son, Blaz, runs the shop now, with his son, leaving Nick time to play with his cars. "The Crosley work - that's my love," says Nick.
The Brajevichs are a close clan. Nick (who was twice widowed) has three children from his first wife, three from his second wife, and six from his present wife. "We have quite a family. Our last get-together here, we had 97, and when our grandsons came back from the marines (after Desert Storm), I promised them a big party. There were 144 of us." The numbers swelled a bit when Nick told his grandsons to bring all their fellow soldiers that didn't have immediate family to go home to.
Just as the old Crosleys and Crosley-powered specials have enjoyed a renaissance through vintage racing, so has Nick. When he returned to the racing world, he was greeted by old H Modders and new aficionados like a returning hero. At the first vintage event he visited (the Monterey Historics), he met a racer whose Siata Spyder had come in on the tow truck. As they chatted about the car, the racer pointed out the Braje engine. "I says, 'Yeah, I saw the cam cover on it. That's my name on it.' He looked a moment and then says, 'My God, are you Braje? Just a minute! Just a minute!'" He disappeared into his motor home and returned with an old Braje Equipment brochure for Nick to autograph. "He says, 'I was 16 years old when you mailed this to me,'" chuckles Nick. It all came as a surprise to Nick's present wife of fourteen years, Joan, to whom Nick had never mentioned any of his pioneering past. Now she helps keep alive the Braje story.
It was Joe Puckett, old H Mod customer of Nick's, who talked him into vintage racing. Nick laughs about the time they were reunited at a vintage race at Riverside. "He said, 'Get that camera over here. I still owe him money, but I've got to take a picture of the legend,'" laughs Nick.
Nick decided to restore a Miller he found buried in bushes in Palos Verdes; it was only a frame, with a cooked engine. Enlisting help from Don Miller (the man who designed it and quite a few of those old H Mods), Nick found out that the car had belonged to an old friend, Jim Paul. He then found a '51 Crosley SuperSport (basically, a HotShot with doors) that was in better shape and decided to restore that first. He bought an engine that had been stored since 1960, put in new rings, points and condenser, did a valve job, and ran it for the first time at Riverside in April of 1986. When he pulled the cam cover, he found that it had his cam followers. It turned out that the engine was one he had built many years ago. Nick shrugs nonchalantly. "My wife gets a kick out of it, more than me."
Nick feels at home with vintage racing -- it reminds him of the old hot rod days. "It was very competitive in those days, yet there was a lot of unity between the drivers, much like I find today in vintage auto racing. Most are out there to have a good time. And they talk to you. In big car races (professional) it's a dog eat dog league. It's big money. The sport, to me, is gone."
"I'm not a competitive driver. I go out there for enjoyment. To race something that I had a lot of creation in, that I did myself. My wife gets a kick out of it. She's my pit crew, but there's a lot of kibitzing that goes on."
Nick is involved with the Over the Hill Gang H Modified group. He raced their reunions at the Monterey Prehistorics last year and at VARA's Las Vegas meet two years ago. He also takes an old Crofton Bug out to Crosley meets. Though he only works on his own Crosley, he still gets phone calls from all over the country, at all hours of the night, from Crosley owners. There aren't many of the little cars left (maybe 200 on the West Coast and a lot more in the East), but they still have problems.
Among his many projects, Nick is restoring two boats; it's not just dry lakes he's interested in. He also built and ran boats in the old days -- fast ones, of course -- and he has Dan Blocker's old Day Cruiser and a '59 boat with a Crosley inboard engine that he built back in '60. He'd gotten rid of the engine when he sold his business thirty years ago, but a friend found it and sent it back to him four years ago. Someday, he intends to run the boats at Lake Elsinore, where he has a home and some acreage. The drive out there takes him past the site of the old Riverside track and he's sorry to see that it's all homes now -- yet another to add to the long list of racetracks that he loved and are gone now.
Meanwhile, Nick is still looking for all those Crosley parts he so hastily got rid of thirty years ago, as well as his old dragster, and all the bits and pieces of the past. At a recent swap meet, he came across the grill from the car that cousin Johnny Pasco was killed in. The sellers jacked up the price when they saw how interested he was, so Nick reluctantly had to pass on it. "I would have loved to have had it for a keepsake. It had a little cloisonne on the side -- Curtis - with a "C" instead of a "K." The jeweler had made a mistake."
Digging up the past isn't all that consumes Nick. There's still work to be done on the Crosleys, which he says he never really finished developing. With the mechanical advances over the years, including different cam shafts and heavier springs, he can buzz his little motor to 10,000 rpm now. Although, he'll tell you, his old stuff still works pretty well, too. Nick says that Bob Graham, who runs a vintage Miller, blew his engine at Friday practice at Monterey, went back and got the pieces of an engine that Nick had built long ago, complete with Nick's cam followers and Winfield ground cam. Nick beams proudly. "He put it on and went back and won the race -- with this engine that was old as the hills."
(Reprinted from "The Vintage Voice" -- magazine of the Vintage Auto Racing Association, Volume XVIII Number 4)
Posted on Crosley Automobile Club Web Page with
permission of author.
Nick Brajevich passed away in his sleep late September 2004.