When necessity drives innovation, many good things can come from those with the ambition to create, design, produce and persevere their way into success. While the planet has been spinning in space for a few billion years, many of us have been fortunate to be here at a time bearing witness to a variety of great creations. As a TV-show jingle states, “Neanderthals developed tools, we built a wall, we built the pyramids, math, science, history, it all,” like many creations, “started with a big bang.”
And while we missed out on the walls and the pyramids, we have seen our fair share of life-altering inventions come to be. From the automobile relieving horse and buggy, to the microchip relieving knowledge and strength from backbones and knuckles of the laborer, to an infinite number of uses originating at a computer keyboard instead. Within each grand invention forms a variety of sub creations to change, improve and progress with enhancements to meet current needs.
Many times, those in the beginning of change are able to continually create, design and build products from which so many will benefit. In the case of automobile power and acceleration, one of the pioneers of the industry, Bill Howell, has had an incredible effect on both the design of iconic automobile engines, and then later in life, wiring the fueling system that feeds them.
With an incredible history in engine design, then revolutionizing the electronic fuel injection within modern-day vehicles, the Howell name carries a long legacy of putting those tools, math, science and history, to very good use. Culminating with the expertise in his own company, Howell Engine Development, Bill Howell has had more influence on the cars we see on the road, and the racetrack, than many may know.
Mr. Howell’s fascination with automobiles began early in his life on the farm in Nebraska, unknowingly, as the spark to what would become a future legacy in the history of automobile and engine performance, design and manufacturing.
Throughout the 1940’s, Howell learned the basics of auto care and engine overhaul on his mother’s 1939 Plymouth. When it was finally his turn for ownership, Bill purchased his first car, a 1940 Oldsmobile six-cylinder that was financed by the man who sold it to him. “As I recall,” says Howell, “it cost a little over $300. My second car was a 1947 Chevy four-door sedan, which I hopped-up while living in the National Guard Armory in Laramie. I built a new 235 CID engine for it with all the latest California parts. That’s when I learned that everything wasn’t as advertised in the hot rod magazines. My next car was a new 1955 Chevy V8 convertible, with power pack and dual exhaust, purchased for $2400 in the fall of 1954, from a Chevy dealer in Cheyenne. It was my first experience with a long-term payment contract. I loved this car and enjoyed it as much as any I have owned. But I swapped it for a 1950 Chevy sedan in 1956 when I decided to save money for college. I sold the 1950 and bought a beauty of a 1949 Chevy fastback four-door, which I drove all through college. No more hot rods for a while!”
Then came a new 1961 Corvette purchased in May 1961 from the Chevy dealer in Laramie. It was maroon with a white convertible top. The dealer took a chance on Howell, having heard Bill would have a guaranteed job with Chevy in Detroit when he graduated college. “I paid $4500 for it and made monthly payments on it for the next three years until it was paid off,” says Bill. This would be Bill’s car until he received his first company car in his future career with Chevy in 1967.
Among other cars that the legendary engine man would own were a 1964 Corvair, a 1967 Camaro SS convertible, and the #6 1975 Cosworth Vega, bought from Chevy engineering.
Under his own self-analysis, Bill had determined there was a psychology to his early-life interest in racing and speed, related to the human experience during World War II. “With the minimum availability of gasoline,” says Bill of the times, “Mom never drove the old Plymouth over 35 mph. Consequently, anything over 40 mph seemed like we were flying! At 35, it took forever to go any place, but on the other hand, we really didn’t have any place to go. I first became interested in auto racing after going to a Saturday matinee movie in Torrington, Wyoming where I saw a midget-racing movie starring Mickey Rooney, The Big Wheel. It scared me to death!”
Bill says, his next experience was a race in Englewood, Colorado in the year 1948, followed by a midget race at Lakeside Amusement Park in Denver. “And I was hooked,” says Bill. “I spent a couple of weeks in Inglewood, at a time when street cars were still running in Denver. I could go to races via street car at Lakeside Speedway, located at the opposite end of Denver. After that they started racing 1934–37 coupe stock cars in Scottsbluff, Nebraska and I went to many of those races too. Mom was always ready to pick up and go to the races when we wanted to. In Cheyenne, about 1954 I began to get acquainted with Jack Hahn, the Wyoming sprint car champ at the time. I was just hanging around in his garage. He was building a Pikes Peak car powered by a Ford V8 with Ardun heads and when completed, I went with him to his first race up Pikes Peak in 1955 as a crew helper. Jack went on to win the BCRA championship several times and was inducted into the racing Hall of Fame at Lincoln, Nebraska in 2006. Jack and I remained good friends until his death, at home in Moran, Wyoming.”
Beyond tinkering with his friends’ and mother’s cars, a young Bill Howell also tried his hand at racing cars as well. It was 1955 when he and his local barber decided to race a stock car at the Cheyenne speedway. His barber had purchased a 1934 Ford coupe that was already a ‘race’ car. Bill was the driver and provided the mechanical work required. Howell says, “I was getting pretty well acquainted with it when I decided to take a week of vacation and go fly fishing in July at Afton, Wyoming. While I was away, a friend of mine took the racecar to the track and totaled it. So that was the end of my racing career as a driver, but certainly not as an enthusiast.”