Autobiography: Confessions of a J. C. Whitney Abuser – The iPhone of its Time, or How to MM in Five Easy Steps

(first posted 8/14/2012)     Kids: Want to know how we (once) pre-teens and teens spent the way-too-much free time we had back in the electronic dark ages of a half-century or so ago? We read books. The classics, of course, like the famous J.C. Whitney Automotive Accessory and Parts Book (J.C. deliberately called it a book in order to let us tell our parents we were indeed reading a “book”– as though they really cared then, before the invention of helicopter parents). Now, one simply didn’t read a JC W book cover-to-cover or randomly, without some higher purpose; no, we exercised our developing minds by using this book in a very specific manner, kind of like an app.

Before even opening it, you had to pick a certain make, year and model of car that, for some inexplicable reason, was of intense interest to you– and no,not a new one; that didn’t really work. You’d pretend that at the age of 12, you somehow had the requisite amounts of money and legitimacy to buy a used car. We were modest back then; after all, this was long before Lamborghini Countach posters became the wallpaper of choice in the ’80s.

For instance: Around 1965, one of my favorite subjects for this exercise was a 1961 Chevrolet Impala two-door sedan with a four-barrel 283 V8 and four-speed stick. Why that particular car? Well, the 12-year-old mind is a mysterious thing, but let’s say that among its virtues was that it was highly unusual; in fact, it was the only two-door Impala sedan ever made. Whether one could have talked a Chevy dealer into ordering it with the four-speed is another question, but one not relevant to our topic.

Having the object of one’s  MMing (MM = Mental Masturbation, for you latecomers) session firmly in mind, you then opened the latest edition of the “book”, and began the grueling mental task of deciding exactly what to “buy” for your recently acquired car. A custom grille, perhaps? Hmmm; the ’61 Chevy’s is pretty clean, so no thanks. Next page. Camshaft? Yes. Engine dress-up kits? Yes. Kleenex dispenser? Not just yet.


It’s important that those of you born after the JCW golden era understand the real legitimacy of calling these catalogs “books”. They were substantial, and offered virtually any and every part or accessory even the most crazed MM addict could want or imagine–everything from pipe-organ speakers, to complete engines (taken from Chicago’s many wrecking yards, I assume) that opened up all sorts of possibilities for engine swapping.

How about a 392 Hemi in a Jeep  CJ2? Why not? More than likely, JC even had the adapter kit so that the  MM session rules need not be violated. Obviously, I was raised Catholic.

Anything and everything one could dream of that even vaguely related to use in, with, or on an automobile was in the pages of this holy book. Yes, an Emergency Oxygen Unit! (upper left on right page). My 1956 DeSoto definitely needs that. An Auto Shaver (upper left on left page)? Well, of course! I can practically feel my beard growing at the very sight of it. It’ll look fine on the dash of my 1961 Falcon Futura, and really impress the girls.

Or how about placing Winky the Safety Cat on the rear parcel shelf of a 1953 Starlight Coupe? And don’t forget replacement bulbs…they might be hard to come by locally. Then again, maybe too girly? Pass.

JC Whitney books would just appear mysteriously; I really don’t recall from where. Sometimes I’d stumble into an older one, perhaps left behind by the former owners of our house. Let’s see….shall we do a 1949 Olds 88 fastback coupe with ratty upholstery? Supreme Woven Saran Plastic or Supreme Melostrength Fibre?

After starting a south Chicago scrap yard in 1915, Lithuanian immigrant Israel Warshowsky soon began buying parts inventories from failed auto makers. In 1934, his university-educated son, Roy, joined the firm with expansion in mind, and placed an ad in Popular Mechanics offering a “huge parts catalog” for 25 cents,with the name JC Whitney on the cover. The rest is history.

And Roy was quick to embrace the changing taste of car buyers, and set aside a whole section to VW and other popular import brands. I remember the Renault Dauphine section vividly, and even had an MM session with one, maybe even more than once, perhaps.

But the VW section quickly became one of my favorites, and I would endlessly agonize over exactly which size Big Bore Cylinder kit to buy for my 1964 VW 1200…whoa! Fantasy meets reality! In 1973, I really did have a ’64 VW, and now the JCW book took on new meaning. But not necessarily in the best way. Now I actually had to send in money, and the stuff that came back had a decidedly cheap feel to it. Kinda ruined the whole MMing experience.

JC was a pioneer in finding cheap sources for their parts, like Brazil and Mexico and such (Update: Japan too, back when “Made In Japan” had a very different connotation), or just junky US made stuff; they were ahead of their time. I bought some tune-up parts and such, and a black vinyl cover for the spare tire that had lots of pockets in it for holding tools and the Emergency Oxygen Kit and such. I loved that, and made sure it moved on to my other VWs; channeling my inner Kraut. But pretty soon, JC Whitney went the way of so many other childhood fantasies that were so rudely popped.


But now that I’m old and losing my grip on reality; we’ll let’s just say it’s probably fortunate that I’m limited in what I can show you to the few random scans out there on the interwebs (thank you all), but it’s just as well, because if I actually had a 1965 JC Whitney book, I wouldn’t be writing about it; I’d be having a hell of an MM session right now. Let’s see…a 1962 Dodge Lancer hardtop coupe…