Clay Center Man Key Player In Rally-type Race

By Nate Jenkins
The Salina Journal
Clay Center--
Salina Journal

The front end of a canary-yellow '49 Chevrolet protruding from the face of his downtown shop gives you the first clue Randy Rundle operates with wiring a bit different from most.


But although nonconformity is sometimes frowned upon, Rundle's brand of mechanical eccentricity has helped him carve an antique-car niche as unique as his shop, Fifth Avenue Antique Auto Parts.


The colorful downtown joint is representative of the forward-looking (or backward, depending on your perspective) work Rundle does. And business, including and thanks in part to The History Channel Great Race that will rattle through Salina Friday, is good.


The Great Race is a rally-type race where timing is essential and features more than 100 vintage, antique cars racing from Atlanta to Pasadena, Calif. The race began Sunday and should end June 30.


It wasn't that long ago Rundle was caught in a classic business quagmire. He had an innovative product with a not-so-flashy name -- the six-volt alternator -- but potential customers were in unseen reaches of the world, not at his doorstep.


The owner of a 1951 model Chevrolet pickup in high school, Rundle had the same annoyance as many with antique vehicles -- the six-volt generator in the truck wouldn't charge the battery when the motor was idling or moving the truck at slow speeds.


"I knew if I had a problem, so does everyone else," said Rundle, a burly man with a gift for describing complex mechanical functions to the layman. The gift has served him well in writing award-winning technical books.


The Clay Center native developed a fervor for fixing the power-shortage problem in his old truck, bugging local grease monkeys and tinkering on his own time after school.


"I drove them crazy," he says.


In 1987, the mad search for a solution ended. At that time, Rundle made the alternator that now has Hollywood studios and even the British Royal family calling his downtown shop.


Using what he calls "backwards technology," Rundle invented the six-volt alternator as a solution to the common problem of the old-style six-volt generator-charging systems without compromising the originality of old engines, a key to antique aficionados such as the ones involved in The Great Race.


"In most cases, modern technology and the changes that go with it are applied to old problems to make something old work," Rundle says. "My alternator does that while allowing everything to stay original."


"To me, this seems real obvious, but to most it's backwards, technology."


Using the same, persistent technique that led to the alternator invention, Rundle had a breakthrough in 1989 when a Seattle man involved in The Great Race agreed to give the newfangled invention a shot in the road run.


It worked, solving the problem of premature power drain in the car, and the racer finished third his best finish ever. But sales didn't start to roll for another couple of years, baffling Rundle, who thought, "What part do you not get?.


In 1991, the product finally caught on with the Great Race crowd and since 1993, Rundle-equipped cars have won the race six times and his cars nearly always finish in the ten percent. The entrants will tell you that a reliable car makes a huge difference. It is nearly impossible to keep track of the race route and have to fix a broken car at the same time".


Affiliation with The Great Race, a household moniker for those interested in antique cars, has provided the marketing edge Rundle expected it might. He gives the race credit for getting his business off the ground while taking some credit himself for improving the performance of the cars.


About 15 of the approximately 100 cars that will park on Santa Fe Avenue Friday have received the Rundle touch.


During the past couple of years, Rundle's name has spread through the movie-making business, and he has helped equip cars in such movies as "Devil in a Blue Dress" and "LA. Confidential."


In 1999, Rundle got an unexpected call from the Royal Minister of Transportation for the Queen of England, asking for his services. The Minister of transportation has seen Rundles work with the Great Race cars and wanted to know if he could do the same for the Royal Family.


Alternators aren't the only part Rundle has modified to kick-start old cars. After the great racers realized Rundle was on to something with the six-volt alternator, they asked him to solve a couple of other problems.


Namely, old-style fuel pumps fouled up by hybrid gasolines (containing such things as ethanol) and cooling systems that didn't do enough cooling, especially in high altitudes.


Surprise, surprise -- Rundle came up with solutions for both problems, and he promptly wrote another couple of books.


Today Rundle is well known worldwide for his ability to make antique and classic vehicles more reliable and fun to drive. Rundle and his company Fifth Avenue Antique Auto Parts have established a proven track, record. Best of all when you call you are likely to get Randy himself on the telephone. It is nice to know you are on the same level with the Queen of England, even if it is only for a few minutes.

Fifth Avenue Facts

Randy designed and built the first 6-volt alternator in 1987. Up to that point there was no such thing as a 6-volt alternator, only modern 12-volt alternators were available.