Known by a single name — mononym, it’s called — is a proven yardstick of celebrity and accomplishment. Madonna, Elvis, Pelè, Lassie, Prince, Tiger, Mozart, Dante, Gandhi, Monet, Charlemagne, to name but a few. Hot rodding, too, has its one-name celebs — Moon, Magoo, Boyd, Humpy, even Goodguy.
Then there is perhaps the most famous mononym in all of cardom — Isky — the simple two syllable moniker for one Ed Iskendarian. Known to all as “Isky,,” the man practically invented the performance camshaft. Today, he remains a dynamo, a 96-year-old dynamo, an indefatigable and seemingly indestructible icon of hot rodding.
Born in Los Angeles to Armenian immigrants in 1921, Isky was seduced by the allure of fast cars while a student at Polytech High School. Like nearly all the Goodguys hot rod legends, he took every shop and technical class he could find. His auto shop project? Turn a Model T pickup in to a hot rod.
After high school, he focused on extracting as much power as he could from Model T 4-bangers, then shifted to tweaking Ford flatheads once they became popular. He was an early participant in the pre-war lakes scene, running a lakester that topped 100 mph at Muroc. Later, he put together a hot flathead with an Edelbrock manifold and partial overhead-valve conversion — a project that led to a meeting with the legendary driver and tuner Ed Winfield — a meeting that, in retrospect, changed the face of the performance aftermarket.
Winfield broke with his penchant for secrecy and invited Isky into his shop, where he shared the details of how to grind a camshaft. Isky was 18. World War II interrupted Isky’s plans to get into the cam business, and he soon found himself in Long Beach building aircraft for the war effort —learning tool and die making along the way. Then in 1943, he joined the fight in earnest, becoming a tail gunner on transport aircraft in the Pacific Theater.
When he returned to LA after the war he found the hot-rod lakes racing scene exploding like a flathead with a bad connecting rod — with a subsequent insatiable demand for performance camshafts. This proved an opening for Mr. Iskenderian, who knew that other cam makers, like Clay Smith (of cigar-chomping woodpecker fame) couldn’t keep up.
Isky studied up on camshafts design and started making his own using a unique rocker bar mechanism for cylindrical grinder (a crude device compared to modern dedicated cam grinding machines). Working out of a shop in Culver City, business started slowly.
Hot Rod magazine began publication in January 1948, and woven within its pages, along with the race reports, Parts With Appeal (comely ladies showing off speed parts in suggestive poses), tech pieces, and car features were the first advertisements for the nascent performance industry. If anyone has any doubts as to the effectiveness of advertising, Iskendarian isn’t one of them.
“I was doing okay selling cams by word of mouth at the lakes,” Isky recalled in a recent phone conversation (his mind and memory still whip-smart). “But once I bought a small $10 ad in the back of Hot Rod, well, business took off. That’s how NASCAR racers found me, they wanted camshafts that gave them more mid-range torque that would help them pass cars on the short tracks.” (Isky and his T-roadster also appeared on the June 1948 Hot Rod cover.)
And so it began, Iskendarian’s rise as the most prominent and influential camshaft maker in hot rodding. The number of technical breakthroughs is countless. The number of racers who were propelled to victory running Isky cams is incalculable, as is the number of street racers whose late-night blasts down abandon roads owed their newly won pink slips to the Isky bumpstick beating within.
Here’s just a few Isky innovations.
• First Hard-Face Overlay camshafts in the industry
• First to employ computers in camshaft design.
• Created advanced cams in 1950s and early 60s: 5-Cycle and polydyne profile 505 Magnum
• First hydraulic racing camshafts in the industry.
• First High-Density Chilled-Iron lifters for Top Fuel Dragsters
• First drop-in, self-locking roller tappets
• First anti-pump-up hydraulic lifters enabling hydraulic cams to produce higher revs
• First corporate sponsorship of a race team, Don Garlits
• Introduced first manufacturers’ cash contingency awards for drag racing in the 1950s
• First coordinated cam and assembly kits for home mechanics
• First “Ultra Rev-Kits” for small-block Chevy roller cams
• Helped launch created the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association in 1963, known today Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA.
Today, Isky Racing Cams (its official name) is the world’s largest manufacturer of performance camshafts and related components. The Gardena, California, Isky complex sprawls over a full city block — four buildings and 75,000 square feet. Inside more than 100 staff work to develop and test products and assist the thousands of Isky dealers and customer worldwide.
Iskendarian turned the company over to his sons Ron and Richard several years ago, but he still makes it to the office from his Gardena home quite often. He is a beloved figure, who answers his cell phone with a quick, “Ed here.” When asked what personal traits powered his career, he said, “I always liked to take things apart and figure them out, they try things to make them better. You can learn a lot by studying old engines.”
Hot rod heroes don’t come any bigger than Ed Iskendarian, and he has been duly honored. In 1985 he was inducted into both the Chevrolet “Legends of Performance” and the SEMA Hall of Fame.
Ed Iskendarian may be best known by the single word, Isky. But if a second word was added, the most logical choice would be “legend.”