Born in 1928 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Ray Brown and his family relocated to sunny southern California while Ray was still a young boy. Fascinated by anything with wheels, Ray Brown was bitten by the hot rod bug at a young age and began the construction of a ’32 roadster at age 16.
While still in high school Ray got a job at the famed Eddie Meyer Speed Equipment in West Hollywood where he learned the ins and outs of engine building, high performance tuning, and machining. Little did he know that he and his ( mostly ) teenaged co-workers would go on to be some of the biggest names in the history of hot rodding. Names like Bud Meyer, Tommy Sparks, Fred Carrillo, Lou Senter, Ed Pink, and Phil Remington, just to name a few.
Attending this hot rod university would soon equip Ray with skills enough to develop his trusty old ’32 roadster into a real contender at the SCTA meets out at El Mirage dry lake. In fact, Ray would ultimately amass 11 timing tags with this roaster known as 99C running in the 125mph range. A very impressive showing for a street driven roadster built by a teenager.
At the age of 21, Ray started his first of many successful businesses with the opening of his own speed shop, Ray Brown Automotive. With his trusty and talented old friend, Tommy Sparks, by his side, Ray became one of the first believers in the Chrysler Hemi V8 as a potential performance engine. Using the performance concepts he’d learned while working at Eddie Meyer’s, Ray quickly developed several versions of the new Chrysler wonder-engine for use in everything from early dragsters to sports cars to land speed racers and even race boats.
In 1953 a sleek fiberglass sports car called the “Mabee Drilling Co. Special” set the Class D record with a fuel injected Ray Brown built 353-ci Chrysler at the Bonneville speed trials. At the same time, Ray had built another Hemi Chrysler for the famed Shadoff Special streamliner that would also compete at Bonneville. Using a 331 cubic inch version of the engine and
It was around this time that a business idea that had haunted Ray for years began its fruition. Back in 1947, Ray had seen too many of his friends being jostled around in (or thrown from)
Within three years Ray became one of the largest seat belt manufacturers in the world, employing over 150 workers across two, daily, shifts. By 1962 Ray’s company was the first contracted supplier of seat belts for the U.S. government. With the passing of the 1964 legislation that made safety belts mandatory equipment in all cars produced in the U.S., Ray would be enlisted as the vice president of the newly formed American Seat Belt Council. Ray would remain active in this national safety effort until the sale of his safety belt business in 1966 and move on to a position with Superior Industries, the world’s largest manufacturer of cast aluminum wheels. Ray would remain with Superior Industries for the remainder of his career.
A SEMA Hall of Fame recipient, Ray Brown spent his retirement years in a way that will come as no surprise to anyone involved in hot rodding… he revisited his youth! That’s right, within months of his retirement, Ray Brown phoned his old pal and co-worker, Tommy Sparks, and said, “Tommy, I’m calling because you’re still the best flathead Ford engine builder I know and I’m in need of your services.” That’s right, Ray Brown went right back to where it all started for him; in a 1932 Ford roadster ( this time in Washington Blue ) and with a Tom Sparks-built flathead V8.
Although Ray is no longer with us, it always made us happy to see him out in his roadster in his later years and even happier to be able to say that he was one of our original advisory board members here at The American Hot Rod Foundation.
by David Steele