Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The passing of Jocko Johnson

Unfortunately it's true what the title of this post says, we have lost another one of our hot rod pioneers. Robert "Jocko" Johnson, master cylinder head porter, developer of early streamlining, artist, and all around master craftsman, passed away over the weekend. A true genius and one of the great innovators from the early days of hot rodding, Jocko's many talents helped him to excel at nearly everything he tried throughout his life. 

    Johnson grew up in southern California and was just coming of age when hot rodding was taking off. Completely taken by this new youth movement based around speed and performance, Jocko dropped out of high-school to go to work in a speed shop porting and relieving flat head Ford engine blocks. As the OHV V8s were coming on, Jocko quickly learned the art of matching combustion chambers by hand... long before the idea of CNC porting was invented. Soon his talents were so sought after that he was able to open his own shop, Jocko's Porting Service in Long Beach California. As his business grew, Jocko became more and more interested in taking his ability to sculpt cylinder heads to another level and onto a larger scale. Much to the surprise of many a hot rodder, Johnson began his quest by carving wood sculptures... a talent that he quickly found came quite naturally to him and would ultimately bring him world wide notoriety. I have a feeling that the number of hot rodders who didn't know this about him is equalled only by the number of people in the art world who would never believe a word of his delinquent drag racer past. 

     By 1956 Jocko Johnson began one of his ultimate sculptures, a fiberglass all enveloping streamliner body that he would fit over a Hemi powered dragster chassis. Known as "The Jocko Porting Service Special" ( later to be sold to Dean Moon and run under the name "Moonliner", and BTW, it's still around ), the GMC blown Hemi streamliner fed by 6 Strombergs and burning a heavy dose of nitro, would make its debut at Riverside raceway. With Jim "Jazzy" Nelson at the wheel, the revolutionary streamliner would turn an impressive 8.35 et @178mph. That's in the late '50s folks! This idea of a streamlined dragster would have its best chance to show its true potential in the early 1970s when Jocko joined forces with drag racing legend Don Garlits to build the Wynns Liner. Unfortunately, due to some Jocko-Garlits disagreements, the car was never properly sorted, and therefore never had a showing at an NHRA event. 

    Sometime in the mid 1970s, Jocko became disheartened with the world of big time drag racing and hot rodding in general. He sold his business and moved himself and his wife out to the desert near Joshua Tree to concentrate solely on his wood sculpting. In classic Jocko Johnson fashion he soon became one of the leading artists in the country doing hand carved furniture and artwork. How respected is Jocko's art you might ask? I recently saw a hand carved rosewood and English walnut table that Jocko had done in the '70s for sale and the price was just under $30,000! 

      Not bad for a high-school drop-out delinquent-hot rodder. Godspeed to you Robert "Jocko" Johnson... you'll be missed. 

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