In the world of Chevrolet, there are people that stand out among the rest, names like Don Yenko, Parnelli Jones, Smokey Yunick, Zora Arkus-Duntov, and Dave Strickler. We’ve heard the stories of these men time after time, but what do you know about their time leading up to being legends tied to the Chevrolet Bow Tie?
That’s exactly what we’re planning to explore in this new series; the history of some of Chevy’s greatest contributors before they were considered “greats”. And who better to kick off this series than one of Chevy’s finest: Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins?!
Grumpy Jenkins is widely known for his superior engine building skills, being a top-notch drag racer and a multi-motorsports hall of fame inductee. But, before he made a name for himself, Jenkins was just a normal guy, or at least as normal as any future Chevy great could be.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 22, 1930, Jenkins was born William Tyler Jenkins (it wasn’t until much later in life that he acquired the nickname “The Grump” or “Grumpy”). Raised in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Jenkins grew up on his grandfather’s unused farm property, located within a few miles of what is now the ritzy Main Line area.
Like many young boys, Jenkins became interested in engines and vehicles around the age of 12. After all, he would be old enough to have some sort of vehicle to drive around the farm soon, and he looked forward to that opportunity. Unbeknownst to him, it was this first real thought of engines and vehicles in his early teenage years, that would eventually lead him to being the amazing engine builder he became later in life.
Having worked on area farms and saved up his money, Jenkins was able to purchase his first car shortly after his initial intrigue at the age of 14, but what might surprise you is that it wasn’t a Chevrolet product.
Jenkins’ first car was a rough Ford Model A, which he purchased for $100 (roughly $1,350 by today’s standards). It was with this vehicle that Jenkins got his initial lesson in fuel-to-spark ratios.
In the summer of 1945, at the age of 15, Jenkins moved from farm work to working on tractors at an area Farmall dealership. He worked there until his freshman year at Cornell University, where he was enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering department. While in college, Jenkins worked at a Pontiac and Cadillac dealership, basically doing whatever needed to be done.
In 1951, in his second year of college, Jenkins’ father was killed by a hitchhiker he had picked up. Absolutely devastated, Jenkins only remained in college for another year, before deciding it wasn’t right for him at the time. But, before leaving college, Jenkins had previously switched his major to Metallurgical Engineering (engineering with a specific focus on metals) and began his trek into the metal fabrication and milling career path.
The year 1955, is when most know his famed Chevy history began, behind the wheel of a ’55 Chevy convertible. What you might not know, is that is also the year Jenkins went back to college, completing over a hundred credits and passing all of his classes, but not graduating.
By the time Jenkins finished school, he had already built up a decent clientele, working on Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs at Usher’s in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. He also had a few years of experience drag racing on a real dragstrip (an entity that didn’t really hit the East Coast until about 1953), and many more years racing on the streets. It was his combined knowledge and experience on the street, track, and at school that literally set him up for his racing and engine-building successes that followed and made “Grumpy Jenkins” a household name!