Tag Archives: Hurst shifter

How an auto product brought joy and happiness to young men

7 Sep

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There used to be a company called Hurst-Campbell. It manufactured a magical product that made you cool, earned you respect and got you girls.

 

There are few products like that today.

 

Today, I never hear anyone talk about this product – the Hurst Shifter. In the days when most drivers manually shifted gears – three of them – with a clunky arm mounted on the steering column, Hurst produced a sexually charged device that stuck up out of the floor and linked to a four-speed transmission.

 

The shift pattern was an “H,” very much like the Hurst-Campbell logo. The setup was known as “four on the floor.”

 

“If you didn’t have a Hurst shifter in your supercar, you were a mild-mannered loser.”

 

That’s a quote from a 1997 book by Mike Mueller called, “Motor City Muscle: High-Powered History of the American Muscle Car.”  But you didn’t need a supercar to have a Hurst shifter, although cars that had them were usually fast and pretty hot.

 

I never had a hot car or a Hurst shifter. Still, in my high school and in my hometown the Hurst mystic was always present.

 

Two things, and only two things, made my hometown noteworthy. One was a naval base where the original Mercury astronauts trained. The other was the headquarters of Hurst-Campbell.

 

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George Hurst

Hurst-Campbell was founded in 1958 by George Hurst, a drag racing auto mechanic with an eighth-grade education. The shifter developed by him and his partners resulted in an alliance with General Motors and arguably became the largest selling after-market product in automotive history. After the success of the shifter and other products, and with an unparalleled reputation in racing circles, Hurst-Campbell wa

s acquired in 1970 by a company that made toasters.  That company, Sunbeam Products, promised George Hurst an executive position and a seat on the board of directors. He never got them.

 

Hurst died despondent in 1986 at the age of 59.

 

Last month I was in my hometown and drove by the old Hurst building. What once seemed majestic now looked shockingly ordinary.

 

But it brought back memories.

 

The memory of Joyce came first; then Danny, then John.

 

200px-hurst_shifterJoyce was an attractive young girl who became more attractive when everyone learned her father was an executive at Hurst-Campbell. For guys at least, it gave her a special aura. It almost made her off limits. Danny, however, was cocky enough to ask her out and they actually started dating.

 

Friends of Danny could not believe this had happened. It was like those Mafia movies where you feel empowered because your friend becomes a made man.

 

There was wild talk that Danny could get free shifters, or at least get them at a discount. My vague recollection is that he and Joyce broke up before any of that happened.

 

Then there was John. I was much more envious of John than Danny, and here is why:

John had saved his money from an after-school job and bought a customized Chevy from his brother’s friend. I think it was a ’59. Those old cars didn’t have bucketseats in the front. They had bench seats, which could fit three – four if you really pushed
it.

 

The car had a Hurst shifter with a knob on top that resembled a cue ball. It popped up and, when in fourth gear, arched over the seat.

 

hurst-benchseat John’s girlfriend at the time always sat close to him on the bench, consciously and deliberately straddling the shifter knob. What this meant was that as John went from first, to second, to third, to fourth, he would be moving his hands between his girlfriend’s legs. He would have to go through all the gears after every stop light and stop sign and during every slowdown and speed up.

 

From the backseat, where I often sat, this was an unbearable frustration to watch.

 

There is a cruelty to being young; a harsh chemistry that preoccupied the mind while – too often – going unserved. So all this shifting was like a sublime punishment.

 

I would have given almost anything to have had a car and a girl like John’s.

 

In time, John moved on to an even better car and – some might say — an even better girl.

 

As I looked at the old Hurst building in my old hometown, I thought of these things and more. I thought about desire and fulfillment and the things that add pleasure and prestige to life. I thought about how most of these things pass and how we struggle to replace them with other things, and how as we get older it is harder and harder to find adequate replacements.

 

At Hurst-Campbell, there was more than the shifter. George Hurst, in fact, oversaw the invention and development of the “Jaws of Life” – the device that today allows rescue workers to remove people from crumpled cars. Realizing its enormous potential, he gave away the patent and the fortune that would have gone with it.

 

So here’s to George Hurst, who became great and good and helped very young men walk tall and proud and ride with grace and dignity. I would call that a life in full; an achievement rare and wonderful. Because of George Hurst, when I drive by a once-special, now forgotten industrial building, I get a smile, a chill and an opiate-like thrill.

 

Thanks, George, even if I never did buy one of your shifters. Who would have thought I could make it through life without one?

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

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