Greg Wapling

PANIC | FAQ | Help
Chev 34 | 51 Pickup | Business Directory | Photo Gallery | Readers Rides | Under Construction | Virtual Body Shop
General | Documentaries | Events | How-to
Artists By Name | Artists by Genre | Music Links
American Chopper | American Hot Rod | Horsepower TV | Hot Rod TV | Monster Garage | Overhaulin | Rides | Wheels TV | Wrecks to Riches
Queensland | New South Wales | Victoria | Tasmania | South Australia | Northern Territory | Western Australia | New Zealand
Let's Go Cruisin | Dry Lakes Racers Australia | Hot Rod Internet | OzRodders | HAMB | Rodders Roundtable | Land Racing
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Hot Rod History



Al Marcellus
The Man Behind Wild Willie Borsch’s Winged Express
Photography: Bob McClurg
The late Leslie Lovett, one of drag racing’s most creative and most respected quarter-mile photographers, once told me, “When Wild Willie Borsch comes up to the starting line, it doesn’t matter who’s racing in the other lane. For all you know, it could be Big Daddy Don Garlits. It just doesn’t matter. You photograph Borsch!”

In February 1970, I was fortunate enough to capture the calling-card photo of my career: Wild Willie and the famed Winged Express AA/Fuel Altered coming off the starting line sideways at Los Angeles County’s Pomona Raceway.

William Bowen Borsch was born in Los Angeles, California, on February 19, 1930. Borsch was one of thousands of young Southern California men who frequented the quarter-mile scene during the halcyon days of drag racing.

The quiet and unassuming Borsch was a tile-setter by trade. Fully bearded yet balding, this usually shirtless racer, with his ever-present cigarette, rose to stardom in true P.T. Barnum tradition. Borsch’s fearless one-handed driving style delighted the press, fans, and promoters alike, and Wild Willie’s larger-than-life presence psychologically unnerved his competition.

Borsch suffered from narcolepsy. One minute you’d find him sound asleep in the staging lanes behind the wheel of his Chrysler-powered T-bucket, and the next he’d be blazing a trail down the dragstrip. The front wheels danced in the air, his right hand was firmly planted on the wheel, and his left hand was poised on the bodywork as if he were out for a Sunday drive. In this case, the drive lasted less than 7½ seconds at over 207 mph.

Borsch’s partner and alter ego, Alvin “Mousie” Marcellus, was born in Denver, Colorado, on June 1, 1931. Al Marcellus was and still is the spiritual leader of the whole operation, acting as chief financier, crewchief, tune-up man, booking agent, sponsor liaison, you name it.

Wild Willie is no longer with us, having succumbed to throat cancer in 1991. However, Al Marcellus is very much alive and kicking. In 1995, Marcellus resurrected the Winged Express AA/Fuel Altered, and together with Iron Mike Boyd (Marcellus, Borsch & Boyd), the Winged Express tradition continues. Rod & Custom is pleased to bring you this interview with Al Marcellus, the Grand Old Man of Fuel Altered Racing, taped in December 2001 at his Anaheim, California home.

R&C: When did you meet Willie Borsch?

AM: I was seven and Willie was eight. We were in seventh grade together at 66th Street School in South Central Los Angeles. We always hung around together. His family was much older than my family. When his mother died at age 60, Willie was only 18. His dad died shortly thereafter. So he hung out at my house, and my mother was like his mother.

Willie and I built a flathead-powered, channeled ’29 Model A roadster. We went out street racing with that car. That’s the car I almost killed myself in.

R&C: Almost killed yourself? <

b>AM: Yeah! That was in 1951. I was about to race the Peterson brothers’ chopped ’32 sedan. I had my lakes gears in the car, and I had to run the car out to about 60 in Low before I could jump on it. I had the door to my roadster open on the passenger side, and I was talking to Bob Peterson about whether it would be OK to do a running start. Suddenly I turned around, and there was this cop parked alongside of my roadster with a big old gun pointed straight at me! It just scared the hell out of me. About two weeks before, the cops had shot and killed a guy [who was] street racing. That flashed through my mind, and I took off like a scared jack rabbit.

I was quickly approaching this red light at a pretty busy intersection, so I made a hard right turn and kind of fish-tailed around the corner. I hit some double dips, and both myself and the roadster went about 35 feet in the air and landed about 100 feet down the road. The car hit a palm tree, and I was thrown another 50-100 feet. When the car hit the tree, it pushed the engine, transmission, and rearend 3 feet into the car. It’s lucky I was thrown out, because I would have surely been cut in half.

Somebody called an ambulance, and the cops intercepted the call. They gave me a ticket that wouldn’t quit! Since I was laid up in the hospital in a body cast, I couldn’t appear in court, so it cost me $118. Back in 1951, $118 was a lot of money!

I had broken my hip and severely fractured both my legs and ankles. That pretty much ended my driving career.

After the Model A got destroyed, Willie got himself a ’35 Ford and started racing it. Then, after I got out of the body cast and went back to work, we built a ’29 Model A highboy on ’32 ’rails. Eventually, we installed Willie’s Chrysler engine in that car, and raced it until about 1958. We ran a best of 129.00 mph using High gear only.

R&C: When did you and Willie build the original Winged Express?

AM: The original Winged Express was built at Harrell Engines [aka Jim’s Auto Parts] in Los Angeles. It was started in about 1959, and was a joint effort between about six or seven fellows who hung out there. Originally we had built a ’29 Model A roadster that we also ran under the Harrell Engines banner. We put Willie’s Chrysler engine (out of my old Model A highboy street roadster) in the car, and once again, Willie drove. That was one of the first Altered roadsters to run a solid-mount rearend, and it just kicked butt.

In early 1959, Willie decided that the car was too heavy, so we started building the Winged Express. Willie and Phil Johnson did all the welding on the car at night. They would mark up what it was we had to do, and I would cut and dovetail the tubing. Then they would weld it up the following night. It was a real community project.

R&C: Who else worked on the car with you guys?

AM: Besides me and Willie, Jim Harrell, Don Reynolds, Phil Johnson, Dale Young, and Jerry Hyatt were the main helpers on the project. You know that car was the very first Altered to use a Cal Automotive fiberglass T-bucket body? I remember the fiberglass was so thick that you could sit on the side ’rails and it wouldn’t even budge.

The car was originally campaigned under the Jim’s Auto Parts banner and later the Harrell Engines name. At that time, I was involved as sort of a silent partner, but then I found out that Harrell Engines was charging us list price for our parts. I dropped out of the picture and started hanging out at Howard Johansen’s shop.

At that point, Don Reynolds became the money man, but he also eventually dropped out for the same reasons. Then John Muse joined the team and it became the Harrell, Borsch & Muse Altered. Then Muse got tired of putting money into the car and quit.

Somewhere around early 1965, the folks at Harrell Engines told Willie that they figured that it was their car, and that they were going to sell it. Howard and Liz Johansen suggested that I buy the car and go back into partnership with Willie. They said that they would give us a hand. So in late 1965, I negotiated a deal with Harrell Engines and took the car home.

R&C: When did the Winged Express actually become the Winged Express?

AM: The wing was an idea that Al Barnes, who was the chief cam grinder at Howard’s Cams, came up with because the car was so squirrelly. Al had worked as chief mechanic on a lot of Sprint Cars, and he said that they worked really well on them. He gave us the design and we added a few improvements along the way. Phil Johnson and Bob Sorrel taught us a lot about aerodynamics and downforce. We made the wing out of fiberglassed plywood. It was more or less flat on the top with a slight radius at the back. The end pieces were made out of aluminum.

We tried the wing over the motor first, and that didn’t work. Then we mounted it solidly to the rollcage, and that seemed to work pretty good. Then someone started messing with some old valve-springs and shock absorbers. With the wing fully sprung, we got to where it would load the chassis and give us the much-needed traction on the top end, which kept the car from skating around. After we added the wing, we started knocking down the really big numbers.

R&C: Was that also about the same time Borsch developed his unique one-handed driving technique?

AM: Yes. Believe it or not, Willie didn’t even know he was driving with one hand. One day I asked him, “How come you’re hanging onto the door, Willie?” He said, “I ain’t hanging onto the door!”

That’s when one of you photographers came up and showed us a picture of him hanging onto the door. By then the drag racing papers were calling him Wild Willie Borsch, the one-armed Fuel Altered driver.

R&C: How many records did you set with that car?

AM: Quite a few. In 1967, we set our first record at Carlsbad Raceway with 8.39 at 186 mph, and our last big record with that car was a 7.29 at 207 at the ’72 NHRA Winternationals.

The Winged Express Altered was also the first AA/FA ever to run in the 7s and in the 200s. Those records produced a lot of personal satisfaction, because a lot of drag racers used to think we were just a bunch of dumb, backyard hot rodders.

R&C: That’s quite an accomplishment for a race car driver stricken with narcolepsy.

AM: Our racing schedule dictated that we needed someone to maintain the car on a day-to-day basis. I kept working and took care of all the finances, and Willie stayed home and worked on the car. I would blueprint all the engines, and he would hang them together. However, I would usually go back and check his work because he would often fall asleep and forget what he did and didn’t do.

I remember being in the staging lanes or up on the starting line, and he would go to sleep. I would have to bump the car with the truck to wake him. He was never nervous or anything. He would get in his twenty winks and be fresh as a daisy.

R&C: Where did the original Winged Express meet its demise?

AM: It was on our 1974 tour. We were racing in Martin, Michigan, and Willie hit a pylon mid-track. The impact bent the frame and sent the wing flying over the stands—it ended up out in the parking lot. I heard that some kids ran out from the bleachers and picked it up as a souvenir. Today, all we really have left of the original Winged Express are the front wheels and the decklid.

R&C: Then you built the Winged Express II?

AM: Willie had heard of this Logghe-built Altered sitting in storage at Goodyear’s warehouse in L.A. Keith Black telephoned Jerry Tiffin at Goodyear after receiving an order for a fuel Hemi engine. He asked Jerry why Goodyear was sponsoring this new Fuel Altered being built in Detroit when we had run Goodyear tires for so long and had done so well with our car.

Goodyear didn’t know anything about the Fuel Altered being built. After a little investigation, they discovered that a local Goodyear dealer had run the car through the company books. That was considered embezzlement. Goodyear impounded the car and told Keith not to ship the engine because they wouldn’t pay for it.

The car sat in storage for quite a while. After the crash, we desperately needed a car to cover our tour dates. Jerry Tiffin said, “We can’t give it to you, but let me find out what we can do. I’ll call you back.”

Jerry called us back the next day and said that they would have to get $2,300 for the car to cover the lawyer’s fees. We couldn’t believe it. It was a brand-new $10,000 rolling Logghe chassis. New tires, new wheels, everything, minus paint and drivetrain, for 2,300 bucks.

After Willie towed the remains of the old car back home from Michigan, we took the new car over to Frank Huszar’s shop and installed the drivetrain out of the old car. John Mazarella, Frank Huszar, and Willie put that car together, and had it all race-ready within a matter of weeks.

We ran that car for about 1-½ years. Then Willie decided to go Funny Car racing.

R&C: But you didn’t want anything to do with that?

AM: No. We didn’t have the money to be competitive. He wanted to go Funny Car racing with a Chevrolet engine because he said it was economical. I wanted to run our Chrysler. He was dead-set on running the Chevrolet. He ended up selling the Altered, blown Chrysler and all, and things just didn’t turn out as he had planned.

R&C: When did you decide to resurrect the old Winged Express?

AM: When Willie was being inducted into Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1990, I went over and told him all about it. We started talking about bringing back the Winged Express. He said that he could drive the car during the day, but he couldn’t drive the car at night because his eyesight was getting too bad.

We had enough spare parts from the two cars to build a new car, so I started making plans. Unfortunately, Willie got sick with throat cancer and passed away October 10, 1991.

NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs and NHRA Motorsports Museum Curator John Zendejas suggested that I complete the new car. They promised to help, and Zendejas wanted to drive something, so I figured why not?

Tom Medley at Specialty Cars started to build the car, but then the project got bogged down. I decided to take the car to Frank Aldonna, and he finished it up.

Then I got the engine built and had the car painted up exactly like the original. When John Zendejas came down with lung cancer and passed away, that left me with a completed race car and no driver.

R&C: Is that when you struck up a deal with Mike Boyd?

AM: Yes. I met Mike Boyd through John. We took the car to Indy and ran it in exhibition at NHRA’s U.S. Nationals as part of its 40th anniversary celebration. The crowd absolutely loved it. Mike decided that he liked driving the Altered a lot better than his Top Fueler. He said, “This thing gives me the best adrenaline rush I’ve ever had in my life.”

R&C: You know, a lot of people compare Boyd’s driving style to Willie’s.

AM: I think Willie was reincarnated as Mike. Mike’s real quiet like Willie, and he’s totally dedicated to that car like Willie was. The car comes first, no matter what, and Willie was exactly the same way. If you watch all the runs Mike’s made, it looks like Willie sitting in there.

R&C: We understand that Willie actually is with you at the races.

AM: Right. We bring Willie’s urn with us everywhere we go. Some people say it’s a bit morbid, but you would be surprised at the number of people who want to know where Willie is.

We also seem to run a lot better when we take Willie with us. Call it superstition, but whenever the Winged Express races, Willie is right there with us.

R&C: How many dates a year do you run with that car?

AM: Between six and eight. We’ve been running some of the Goodguys events, as well as the NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion shows.

We’ve got this four-car nostalgia Fuel Altered circuit going with Randy Bradford, Bob Hankins and his Blue Blazer, and Geno Bartolio with the Nanook-2. We call these cars nostalgia Fuel Altereds because they are built from the year ’69 down. In other words, these cars are built the way Altereds were built during the heyday of the class. They are based on a minimum 109-inch wheelbase, using the smaller-size M&H or Goodyear drag slick.

In 1994, NHRA asked me to formulate the rules for its nostalgia Fuel Altered class, and we based them on the 1969-and-earlier NHRA rule books. If you recall, 1970 was when Altereds started using the low-slung, longer wheelbase (110-plus-inch) Funny Car–type chassis. We didn’t want that. We wanted to preserve the integrity of the breed. However, when it comes to safety requirements, these cars are certified as Funny Cars and subject to the same safety requirements as the Funny Car classes.

We’re also building a Winged Express IV replica. That will be a non-runner, and it will be donated to the NHRA Motorsports Museum. We’re building it using the original tires and wheels from the Winged Express. The decklid from the original car will also be used on this car, and it will be there long after I’m gone to show future drag racing fans how it was way back in the good old days.

A considerably younger Marcellus and Borsch, taken at the Santa Ana Drags circa 1951. This is the same channeled Model A roadster in which Marcellus crashed and injured himself later that year.

This is the original Winged Express, minus the wing. Wild Willie poses with the just-completed Jim’s Auto Parts– sponsored Altered at Riverside Raceway circa 1960, where it turned 10.28 at 148.27 mph on gas.

Twelve years later, Borsch was still driving the very same Altered, but now it was winged, on fuel, and running in the low 7s. Perhaps the most famous shot of the car in this state was taken by the author at the ’72 NHRA Winterna-tionals at Pomona Raceway in Pomona, California.

In the same year, Borsch was elected to the Car Craft All Star Drag Racing Team. WWB is shown in the third row, far right. Also pictured (in no particular order) are Big Daddy Don Garlits, Joe Mondello, Ed Iskenderian, Ohio George Montgomery, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Jack Chrisman, Roland “Hawaiian” Leong, Doug Thorley, Dyno Don Nicholson, Dandy Dick Landy, Gordon “Collecting” Collect, Buddy Martin, George Hurst, Keith Black, and Big John Mazmanian.

After a crash demolished the original Winged Express while on tour in the mid-’70s, the team campaigned this Logghe-manufactured Altered, which performed quite well but for some reason didn’t possess the same crowd appeal as the original car.

In 1995, Al Marcellus resurrected the Winged Express, building a dead-nuts replica of the original car with Iron Mike Boyd behind the wheel, shown here in action at the ’99 California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, California.

Team Winged Express: Al “Mousie” Marcellus (left), Iron Mike Boyd (right), and the remains of Wild Willie Borsch. “To have two great drivers…in one lifetime, like Willie and now Mike, is a great privilege,” says Marcellus. “I feel truly blessed.”

Willie went on to race a couple of AA/Fuel Funny Cars with the Revell Models team in the late ’70s. However, the original Winged Express magic just wasn’t there.

Here is Al with former Hot Rod staffer and current Hot Rod Nostalgia proprietor, Dave Wallace.

1953 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Disclaimer | Contact Us | © 1995 - 2009 Greg Wapling All Rights Reserved