The Birmingham News. March 14, 1999.
Call him "Mr. Muscle Car"
Garage owner Lee Hurley has a national reputation of putting special care into exotic, antique and just plain-vanilla-cars.
By Ted Pratt
News staff writer
Ask Lee Hurley to explain his unusual auto-repair business and he's likely to point to a photograph hanging on the wall in his office.
"There's a Rolls-Royce on the rack, a Yugoslavian tractor on the floor and the same mechanic is working on both of them both," Hurley says. "That's just about a normal day here. And that's the way my customers are - the same man may own both of them."
Call Lee Hurley the doctor of the dynamometer. For almost four decades, he has been known as "Mr. Muscle Car" in Birmingham for his mastery in the auto shop.
Actor Paul Newman has been a Hesco customer. NASCAR great Neil Bonnett was a disciple. Car owners from all over the United States have sent their rides to the burly Hurley.
"When somebody wants big and fast - or little and fast - they bring it to Lee," says Alan Revis, service manager at Long-Lewis Ford in Hoover, who has known Hurley for nearly 25 years.
Hurley's expertise with engines helped Revis build a winning race truck in the mid-1970s. An admiring Revis can repay a favor. If a Long-Lewis customer wants something done to their Ford that Revis and company can't do, he'll point them to Hurley.
Revis and other automotive professionals pop in at Hurley's ramshackle Third Avenue South shop. The three-story building - once home to a spaghetti factory - has anchored Hurley Engine Service Co., better known as Hesco, since 1976.
Inside the shop is a smorgasbord of exotic, antique and plain-vanilla autos in various states of disrepair. Spread through the dozen service bays last week were an unrestored green 1931 Packard sedan, a pristine 1967 Pontiac GTO convertible, a Volkswagen Golf packing a supercharged four-cylinder engine and an anemic mid-80s Mercedes-Benz undergoing a tune-up.
Outside, two Dodge Vipers sat with a 1959 Jaguar coupe, a Porsche 911 and a 1935 Chevrolet street rod.
"From the time I was old enough to walk, I've always been interested in something," Hurley says. By that, the Ensley native means tinkering with all things mechanical.
Hurley, 56, has spent a lifetime building race engines and coaxing extra horses out of ordinary ones.
"He's a legend in Birmingham and he's got a national reputation," Revis says.
Paul Newman's visit
Hurley's engine-building reputation is legendary in Birmingham racing circles, particularly at the Birmingham International Raceway.
When the late NASCAR great Bonnett, then just a teenager, wanted to learn about engines, he offered to sweep the floors at Hurley's garage to get some experience. Later, Hurley helped Bonnett get his first ride in a real race car.
"He was a good friend," says Hurley. Bonnett, a member of the celebrated Alabama Gang on the racing circuit, died in 1994 after a crash during a practice ride at the Daytona International Speedway.
Hurley's customers now include a large number of well-heeled car owners who no longer get grease under their fingernails, but still have a penchant for hot-rodding. They find him by word-of-mouth.
"I work for friends of friends," Hurley says, "I don't advertise."
Newman, the Hollywood legend, turned to Hurley several years ago for a souped-up Volvo station wagon. The actor flew into the Bessemer airport to test drive the Swedish screamer before shipping it out to California.
Other customers have included the owner of a Dodge Viper whose 500-horsepower V-10 was deemed sluggish. The owner turned the $60,000 car over to the maestro to find a few hidden horses.
The new owner of a V-12 Jaguar fretted about being left in a lurch on a cold morning. He let Hurley pull questionable British brute and replace it with a dependable Caddy engine instead.
Longtime Birmingham radio personality Tommy Charles, who died in 1996, was also a Hurley friend and frequent customer. Charles, a one time racer who kept a need for speed his whole life, had Hurley doctor up a little BMW 2002 with a big engine that let it blow the doors off unsuspecting street racers.
The two shared airtime for a while on a call-in auto fix-it show that provided advice for shadetree mechanics and do-it-yourselfers. Many auto enthusiasts around Birmingham remember the show, which featured Hurley as a kind of Dr. Laura for gearheads.
Lunch at VJ's
Friends say Hurley's gruff demeanor is a fašade hiding a soft streak inside.
"He tries to act big and bad, but he'll give you the shirt off his back," says Hoover's Paul Gilliam, a long-time friend who still turns to Hurley for help on hot rods.
"I had to quit piddling with cars and go to work for a living, but he's still doing it," Gilliam says. "But he knows his engines --- that's his life."
Hurley's business, which now employs about 15, is noted for its innovative workmanship. If his repair crew can't find a part for that green 1931 Packard in the service bay, Hurley says the parts can be fashioned in his machine shop.
Hesco developed an after-market fuel injection system that's proved a big hit with Jeep Wrangler and CJ-5 owners. The $2,000 system replaces the vehicles carburetors with a multi-port injection unit. Chrysler thought its dealers would sell about 200 of the systems, six times that many have been sold.
Hurley now has plans to build a climate-controlled vehicle storage shop -- he calls it a "livery" - where customers can keep exotic or collectible cars that can be ready to run in an hour's notice.
Though cars have long been Hurley's passion, he has also developed a love of flying, something that Gilliam says is taking up more of his time. His favorite restaurant is VJ's On The Runway, where he can be found at noon just about every day.
"He just walks in and waves his hand - they don't even bring him a menu," says Joe Molina, another friend who works at Hesco. "Hamburger steak with onions and a salad --- every day."
LEE HURLEY: JUST THE FACTS
Name: Thomas Lee Hurley
Born: April 18, 1942
Eduaction: 1959 graduate Ensley High School.
Service: U.S. Army, 1959-63; 15-month Far East tour; maintenance instrustor helicopter repair.
Occupation: 1971-present, owner, Hurley Engine Service Co.; master mechanic.
Experience: 1963-1971, mechanic at various Birmingham auto dealerships, including Jim Burke Buick, Drennen Buick and Cadillac, Tom Gloor Chevrolet and Lonnie Russell Ford.
Racing: Engine builder, Bobby Allison racing, Built engines for Neil Bonnett that won two NASCAR championships. Projects for NASCAR, Chrysler Motorsports.
Family: Wife - Martha Jo, Daughters - Connie & Beverly.