SEMA News—June 2023


Living Legend

By Drew Hardin


Photography: Eric Rickman, Petersen Publishing Company Archive

As Ed Iskenderian recalls it, he wasn’t at the meeting in 1963 in which several members of the automotive performance industry gathered to name officers for their new trade organization. So they decided to appoint him president of what was then the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Even in an association made up of now-legendary figures, Iskenderian was a standout. He was mentored in the art of grinding camshafts by Ed Winfield, regarded as the father of performance cam grinds. Iskenderian bought a Model T-based hot rod to test various combinations of speed equipment in 1938, and he was clocked at 120 mph at a Western Timing Association meet at El Mirage in 1942, just before he joined the Army Air Corps. Iskenderian still owns the car, which, much like its owner, remains in unrestored yet well-preserved condition.

Iskenderian began his cam grinding business after World War II, setting up a used grinding machine in the back room of a tool and die company owned by a friend. As a dry lakes racer himself, he had a lot of ideas about how to wring performance from Ford flathead V-8s, Olds Rockets and, later, the Chevrolet small-block and Chrysler Hemi. He studied the camshafts in Italian sports cars to come up with his famous 5-Cycle cam (the fifth combustion cycle being the valve overlap period). He would be the first to augment his own intuition about cam grinds with computer-aided designs, what he called “IBM electronic computed calculations” in his information-packed magazine advertisements.

Those ads were just part of an innovative, and often ground-breaking marketing approach Iskenderian took with his business. He was constantly looking for ways to get exposure for his products. Along the way he was one of the first, if not the first, to put his name on T-shirts, done originally in 1951 for a Bonneville racing team. He also brokered what is believed to be the first professional drag racing sponsorship for a young racer out of Florida named Don Garlits. He was a prolific advertiser in Hot Rod magazine and would use the typically full-page ads to celebrate recent winners who used his cams while also informing readers about his latest products—when he wasn’t sniping at other cam grinders, most often Howard Johansen, in what came to be known as the “cam wars.”

It was Iskenderian’s notoriety as much as his business and marketing acumen that made him an attractive candidate for the SEMA presidency. The other founding SEMA members were as successful as he was in their various performance niches, but Iskenderian—even before he shortened the name on his business to his nickname, Isky—was a bigger name, so to speak, to the general racing public.

This month’s Heritage photo was shot by Hot Rod’s Eric Rickman during the 1963 March Meet in Bakersfield, just a couple of months before Iskenderian was named the first SEMA president. The young woman next to him is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his latest innovation: the Polydyne Profile 505 Magnum camshaft. The Polydyne Formula was Iskenderian’s term for a computer-aided cam design, and the 505 was the 5-Cycle-based successor to his very popular 404 grind that he originally produced for the Ford flathead. The 505 Magnum was a high-lift cam that “reaches rpm’s of unbelievable magnitude,” he said in a 1962 Hot Rod ad that introduced the camshaft. Not long after, his ads featured racers winning with the 505, including Jim Nelson, Tommy Ivo, Jack Chrisman and Big John Mazmanian.

Today, nearing his 102nd birthday, Iskenderian remains an enthusiastic participant in the automotive performance world. He may not make it to the shop every day, but he is a guest of honor at nostalgia drag races and car shows, always willing to tell stories and sign an autograph.

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