Gale Banks is one of those people who's well-known in certain specialized circles, but still not as recognized as he deserves in the general auto-adoring population. Banks has a great many claims to fame, and vast, complex articles could be written, but let's start with this batch of remarkable achievements.
I went out to Banks' facilities in Azusa, Ca, primarily to bask in the heady presence of the brutally impressive 2400 HP Pike's Peak-running Freightliner. And while I certainly did get to see that beast of a truck, I also had a chance to talk with Gale Banks himself, as he took me on a tour of their facilities. I realized that I was a fool for not knowing more about the man.
Gale Banks is a friendly sort of guy that you can almost imagine as the coolest father or grandfather you never really had. He's very willing to talk about past achievements, which he discusses with well-earned pride but never arrogance, and he's genuinely excited to talk about new technological developments, or just the fundamentals of engine design. He's an old-school hot rodder and gearhead, and it shows.
Okay. Here's a quick list of why you should know about this guy:
1. He did what the Veyron does now 27 years ago. In a Firebird.
The Bugatti Veyron gets a whole lot of attention for a car hardly anyone will ever even park next to because of a few key numbers: 1001 and 253, which are HP and MPH, respectively. A thousand horses dragging a street-legal car pellium-mellium at over 250 miles per hour is big, if ridiculous, deal. And Gale Banks did it back in 1986. And even adjusting for inflation, that car didn't come close to being as expensive as a Veyron. In fact, back in 1987 it sold for $68,500, including the donor car. That comes to $141,292 today.
Bank's car was a heavily modified but still street-legal Firebird/Trans Am, called the Banks Pontiac GTA, which broke 260 MPH in 1986, and then a revised version made 287 MPH in 1987. These weren't one-off experimental cars — Banks started a company to sell these 1800 HP monsters.
Many people wondered why he didn't try for 300 MPH, and this is what he said in response:
"You want me to kill somebody? At Bonneville? In a Pontiac?"
2. Modern, clean engines are because of him.
Well, not entirely of course, but the use of a pretty key component used in all modern engines that helps keep emissions low and overall efficiency high was due to his work: the humble oxygen sensor.
The sensor itself has many parents, like all inventions seem to, but it was Banks research that produced the world's first electronically injected turbocharged engine that used an oxygen sensor, which proved key for getting the engine to actually work properly. And that same basic system is still in use in modern engines today.
Banks also produces a kit for methanol/water injection, which is a well-known but fairly unexploited technology for increasing power an efficiency in engines. More importantly, Banks brought up the idea of installing such a system in my Beetle, which would be the first non-turbo, non-injected, non-computerized application of Banks' Methanol/Water injection system. Stay tuned for more details on that.
3. He's not above using a wheelbarrow as a firewall.
Of course he's working on an insane street rod with his son, because, really, there's no way that couldn't happen. That street rod is a 1600+HP '68 Camaro that's been extensively modified. The metalwork on the engine ducting alone is remarkable.
But what struck me the most was that in order to fit the enlarged and relocated (rearwards) engine in the car, a whole new firewall needed to be created. And not just a flat wall of metal— to fit everything it would need to be a concave cavity, and those can be tricky to make well.
So he used an old wheelbarrow. That's engineering I can understand.
4. This terrific warning sticker.
5. He's responsible for all those great Turbo Volvos.
Remember way back in #2 I mentioned that business about the oxygen sensor and turbo engines? Well all that research was on behalf of Volvo, who paid him all of $50 grand to essentially develop their entire turbo engine program.
From that engineering research in 1978 eventually came Volvo's line of Turbo cars, including the 245, the first turbo wagon sold in the US.
6. Oh, and also all the Turbo Buicks, too.
Once the energy crisis of the 70s came to ruin everyone's good time, GM realized that all those huge V8s weren't going to sell, so they bought back their old V6 tooling from South America (I'll research that story more, too) and then realized everything was so goddamn slow.
Buick was supposed to be providing the pace car for the Indianapolis 500, but they were just too damn slow. A pace car has to, you know, pace things, after all. So Buick sought out Bank's help developing the 3.8L turbo V6, and that eventually led to the amazing GNX.
According to Banks' site,
They were developing a turbo V6 for an Indy pace car in ‘78, and having big problems. “It was based on the old 1950s Buick V6 design, but unlike Volvo, they were using a carburetor,” says Banks. “It was down on power and running so hot you could drive at night without headlights. We helped them figure it out, and they had an Indy pace car.”
Buick returned, working with Banks to build what would become the father of the Buick Grand National - a Banks twin-turbo 437 bhp Regal. As a bonus, he got a pre-production version of GM’s new 6.2 liter diesel in 1980, and designed a home-install turbo kit for it. It was a huge success, and diesel performance kits remain the nucleus of his business.
7. He thinks about all the details we take for granted, like these piston rods.
While touring Banks' facilities, this piston rod prototype caught my eye, because I've never actually seen a piston rod in a car engine that looks quite like this. Normally, the split at the bottom that allows the rod to mate to the crankshaft is cut horizontally, not at an angle like this.
Banks showed me why this was done that way — to allow a beefier crank to fit in the same size engine cylinder. Once I saw how he put it in there, it made so much sense. Elegant, clever, simple.
8. That Gigantic 12 cylinder tank motor there.
That's a 20something-liter air-cooled V-12 motor. There's only two of them around, and Leno has the other one in some absurdly wonderful long-ass car. He had Banks get it working for him. Banks has the other one, which he has no plans to put in a car, but is thinking about just getting it working and looking great and putting it on a trailer. Just because it's a beautiful thing.
9. He was friends with the physicist Richard Feynman, and they used to hang out in a titty bar.
I'm just going to let Banks tell his own story for this one:
“There was a topless bar, The Other Ball, down the street on Valley Blvd in San Gabriel,” says Banks. “A fella with Corvair van came down to San Gabriel from Pasadena for lunch everyday because he loved nude women and painted erotic art. He stops in one day because I had all kinds of Corvair stuff. Says, “I want to get some of that speed equipment.” It was Richard Feynman.”
Even by the lofty standards of late 60’s California, Feynman was an eccentric’s eccentric. A Caltech physicist, Feynman was a key member of the Manhattan Project and had just won the 1965 Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He also played bongo drums, picked locks, ogled topless dancers and hopped up Corvairs.
“We started a friendship,” says Banks. “Sometimes I’d go down to the bar with him, you know, to see the topless babes.”
10. I could talk about his amazing marine engines, but I just want to end with this quote from when Banks was young and broke:
“I was starving to death,” he says. “Somebody gave me a free case of Sego diet drink and I lived on it for a month. Man, my skin broke out. I think that stuff was radioactive.”