Autry National Center

Tinkering Around

After World War II, the design and production of an airplane required an extensive engineering staff and a scope of investment that could only be marshaled by large corporations. Before the war, aviation technology was generally accessible to mechanically minded individuals, many of whom started their own manufacturing firms. The small producers did not survive the consolidation of the industry into a few dominant companies. Some of them were acquired by their larger competitors, others turned to different manufacturing pursuits, and many more just closed up shop. While they were active in the 1920s and 1930s, small aviation companies contributed technological diversity to the growing field, including many innovations that would be incorporated into the designs of later mass-produced aircraft. They also contributed a sense of competitiveness to the business and embodied the pioneering spirit of early flight. The demise of the aircraft tinkerers was a sure sign that aviation had moved into a new and more highly institutionalized era.

ALBERT MENASCO, ENGINE BUILDER

Born in Los Angeles in 1897, Al Menasco had a troubled early life, including stints at an orphanage and Juvenile Hall. After a trade-school education that ended at age fifteen, he worked a series of jobs in truck and auto repair and avidly attended the local air shows, where his love of aviation began. Barred from pilot training during World War I because of a bad ear, Menasco worked in aircraft-engine testing for the Army and civilian contractors. He resumed his automotive career after the war, including racing midget cars of his own construction, until a friend gave him some war-surplus airplane engines. He promptly started the Menasco Motors Corp. to modify the engines for commercial use. When that failed, Menasco set out to design his own motors, and in 1929 he came out with the first of a series of in-line, air-cooled engines. Over the next ten years he brought out three different upgrades of the original design but enjoyed only spotty sales for highly specialized uses. Menasco’s greatest success came in racing, where his in-line engines were modified for high performance, won regularly, and became, according to his biographer, the “air racing paragon of the 1930s.” Menasco’s innovations in the configuration of engine parts to increase the efficiency of air-cooling found their way into many subsequent aircraft motors, but by 1938 he had left the company he founded. Menasco Motors supplied landing gear for Lockheed planes during World War II and continued in that business for decades after the war. Menasco opened a car dealership, tried his hand at grape cultivation and winemaking, and was sought out for advice by aviators and engine manufacturers for the rest of his life, which ended in 1988.
 

Al Menasco and his B4 aircraft engine, 1935, at Menasco Motors Corporation, 6917 McKinley Avenue, Los Angeles.

Al Menasco and his B4 aircraft engine, 1935, at Menasco Motors Corporation, 6917 McKinley Avenue, Los Angeles.
Automobile Club of Southern California Archives, Copyright © 2011

Menasco’s engines were all inverted, with the pistons facing down, which was supposed to allow greater pilot visibility. He produced 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder models, all configured in-line rather than the “V” pattern of opposing pistons. Before leaving the company he founded, Menasco continued to work on experimental designs, including side-valve engines and the massive E6 Privateer engine, with almost 1,000 cubic-inch displacement.

EDDIE MEYER, USED-AIRPLANE DEALER

Before opening his used-airplane lot in 1946, Eddie Meyer was an auctioneer who specialized in selling cars, boats, and planes in bankruptcy proceedings. Something of a wheeler-dealer who prided himself in his “knowledge of human nature,” Meyer sensed an opportunity after the war, when extensive interest in aviation coincided with the military selling off its surplus training planes. His customers included ranchers who used planes for crop-dusting, “businessmen with hurry complexes,” military veterans who retained an appetite for flying, and “youngsters with a Butch haircut who only yesterday tinkered with a hopped-up car.” The business did not last long, in part because with the onset of the Cold War the military clamped down on the disposal of aircraft to prevent foreign nationals from assembling their own rag-tag air forces. Short-lived and apparently never duplicated, this unusual business nonetheless indicates the existence of an active secondary market for aircraft, clear evidence that a technology has permeated throughout society. (Quotations from Westways, July 1946, pp. 32–33. Note: This is not the same Eddie Meyer who built race-car engines and was one of the original hot-rodders.)

Eddie Meyer’s Trading Post, corner of 3rd and Vermont, Los Angeles, 1946.

Eddie Meyer’s Trading Post, corner of 3rd and Vermont, Los Angeles, 1946.
Automobile Club of Southern California Archives, Copyright © 2011

After securing the land in the mid-city district of Los Angeles, Meyer could not obtain a business license until he promised that planes would not be flown off the lot but would be towed to the city limits before going airborne. It is easy to see why the city objected: on the right side of the picture, the tall building in the distance is Bullock’s Wilshire department store, sitting at one end of the Wilshire Boulevard shopping district, which had the highest traffic counts of any street in the nation at that time. The days of the casual airfield on any convenient strip of land were receding into history.

More Than a Dream: Aviation Development in Southern California is an online exhibition from the collections of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives

Collection Spotlights

  • The Watercolor Works of Eva Scott Fenyes

    The History of Wells Fargo & Company
    The history of Wells Fargo & Company is inseparable from the history of the American West. The stagecoach and galloping team of six horses—the symbol that is synonymous with Wells Fargo—recalls a time when the stagecoach was the dominant means of long-distance overland transportation and communication.

  • The Watercolor Works of Eva Scott Fenyes

    The Motoring Explorer: Philip Johnston and the American Southwest
    The rise of auto tourism played out in the Auto Club’s member magazine—originally titled Touring Topics before a name change to Westways in 1934—especially in the work of Philip Johnston, the author of 120 articles between 1925 and 1962.

  • The Watercolor Works of Eva Scott Fenyes

    Capturing California’s Romantic Past: The Watercolor Works of Eva Scott Fenyes
    The Braun Research Library Collection houses more than three hundred watercolors of California adobes and California missions created by Eva Scott Fenyes. These works date from 1898 to a week before Mrs. Fenyes’s death in 1930.

  • The Colt Revolver in the American West

    The Colt Revolver in the American West
    The Colt revolver had a dramatic impact around the world, but its greatest influence was in the American West in the second half of the nineteenth century. This online exhibition features slideshows and the stories behind 130 Colt artifacts in the Autry's collection.

  • Spanish Songs of Old California

    Spanish Songs of Old California
    Charles Lummis, founder of Los Angeles's Southwest Museum, dedicated much of his life to preserving cultures that he felt were vanishing. Like a number of Americans at the turn of the twentieth century, Lummis was convinced that Native Americans’ lifeways were on the road to extinction, and that Hispanic cultures in particular were doomed by modernity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Lummis lamented these developments and worked to preserve at least some records of Indian and Hispanic cultures.

  • Opera in the Autry Collections

    Opera in the Autry Collections
    This online exhibition draws on the collections of the Braun Research Library, the Autry Library, and the Autry. Featured items include a rare 1912 recording of French tenor Augustarello Affre recorded in Los Angeles by Charles F. Lummis and the libretto from La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) with music composed by Giacomo Puccini.

  • New Spain

    History and Cultures of Mexico and the Southwest
    The Autry National Center’s permanent collection of colonial Latin American artifacts includes objects that exemplify the material culture of New Spain's northern frontier or "borderlands." The traditional arts of the borderlands, which developed over generations, reflect regional diversities.

  • More Than a Dream: Aviation Development in Southern California

    More Than a Dream: Aviation Development in Southern California
    This online exhibition is from the collections of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

  • More Than a Dream: Aviation Development in Southern California

    Theo Westenberger:
    A Woman of the West

    In 2010, the Libraries and Archives of the Autry National Center of the American West received a generous gift: the entire photographic work of Theo Westenberger (1950–2008).

4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462 Phone: 323.667.2000

© 2014 Autry National Center of the American West. All rights reserved.