Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lennie "Pop" Kennedy and the Buicks

Editor's Note- This article was written by Jim Bell for the Kenne-Bell Newsletter in September, 1980. We are presenting it as written -we thought it important to hear from Jim in his own words- 



Lennie "Pop" Kennedy and the 1968 GS 400
The Oldtimers say Lennie "Pop" Kennedy was the first man to run down the Pomona Drag Strip. His first Buick was a 100% pure stock 1955 Century that turned a best of 86.97 at 15.60. In those days everyone ran their cars stock before they started cheating, so I was able to witness first hand which car was really the fastest off the showroom. The Dynaflow, coupled with the old man's tremendous reflexes made it a real mystery car.

How could a Dynaflow, of all things consistently beat those '55 Chevy sticks? In 1961 I bought a '55, blueprinted (the) motor, and installed the hot gear set up for that year car- 4.44 gears from a Buick ambulance. It turned a best of 14.73 at 93 mph which was enough to handle the trick 1957 Powerglide cars from Marv Ripes A-1 Transmission and Bill's Service. There was no question that the 1955-56 Buick trans had the first high stall converter.

Next, "Pop" bought himself a '56 Century. It ran a best of 87 at 15.60- not much better than the '55. Again, in those days, the only modification was to remove the air cleaner and install duals. Headers, cheater cams, blueprinting, etc., were considered unfair by "Pops". He enjoyed beating the Chevies, Olds, Pontiacs, etc. with a stock Buick and would have no part in cheating.

The first time out with the '57, at the old San Gabriel Drag Strip, the Dynaflow laid down a 14.90 at 90 mph. The Century was a 364 cu in. 4 bbl with 3.90 gears.

The only color picture of the 1959 Invicta

Next came one of the most exciting cars in California Stock drag racing- the (1959) 401 Invicta. The stock converter had a 3500 (rpm) stall. The beast weighed 4600 lbs. yet turned 90 mph at 15.0 first time out. The 4.44 gears and shaving .030 off the heads brought it down to 14.70 and 93 mph. The Dodges of Bill "Maverick" Golden and The Flying Dutchman and Tom Ritchey's Pontiac were a few notables who fell to the big finned Buick.

The only other modification to the Invicta was Bucron tires. They replaced the Vogues as the hot tire setup in the late 50s. We didn't know what a cheater click was in those days. The '59 accumulated over 100 trophies. I purchased the car was a street cruiser when the '61 Invicta came in. I had more fun with the '59 than any car I ever owned.

Pop Kennedy, his trophies,  and the '61 Invicta in our old Showroom


The '61 got the same treatment for drag racing- 4.44 gears, ,030" off the heads and a new set of Caslers. Pete Reynolds, a local Buick dealer, was so impressed with the way the car ran that he sponsored the gas for 2 trips to Indy. "Popsy" rewarded Pete with class wins for both trip in 1961 and 1962. The Pontiacs could hardly believe the Old Man from California. The '62 turned a best of 97.70 at 14.21 with headers and 2 Speed Switch Pitch Converter and Trans.

Pop Kennedy at the 1962 Winternationals in Indy

In 1964 Buick came out with a little 300" 4 bbl motor in a 3200 lb. Skylark 2 door coupe. First time out - 14.21 at 97.8 mph. 4.44 gears (ambulances were getting rare by this time), headers, .025" off the aluminum heads and Casler cheater slicks. The new TH300 2 speed was absolutely amazing. This was our first Turbo Switch Pitch Converter. It had (a) 3000 stall with the 300 incher. 

Pete Reynolds gives Pop Kennedy the keys to the '65 Gran Sport

In 1965, Buick introduced a 400 incher (the 401" de-rated by one cubic inch to meet GM's limit of 400 inches in a small car.) The 1964 had to go. Pop bought the first one to hit California. 12.70s at 107 mph with our Switch Pitch Converter, 2 Speed Trans, Mark 3 cam kit and 11:1 pistons. The 3 Speed TH 400 picked up exactly .1 and 1 mph to 108 at 12.60 One of these cars lightened to 3300 pounds with ram air ran a best of 111 at 12.30 back in 1966. The '65 was run mostly in brackets until 1967, when Buick came out with a completely new 400 inch engine design. A GS 400 was soon getting the treatment in our garage for NHRA Super Stock. 13 years ago we ran a best of 111 at 12.10. It put out another 75 hp over the 401, but we were paying a heavy price for the horsepower. We were blowing up the 400s as fast as we could build them.

Pop Kennedy with the '65, '67 and '68 Reynolds Racers
Between burned crankshafts, we were desperately trying to test new cam profiles, manifolds, headers, and other components for an engine no one had played with before. We finally discovered the problem was insufficient oil pressure. By this time, the '68s were out. Pop discovered that the '68 had more rear fender well (width) for wider tires so he bought one.

After successfully racing the 400 inches for a year and a half we began testing 455s for the upcoming 1970 models. Standard, Stage 1, and Stage 2 heads were all evaluated on the flow bench and drag strip. I can still see the smile on Pop's face when he came back from the first run with the prototype set of Stage 2 heads. .3 and 3 mph with no other changes and it pulled strong all the way to 7000. The 455? Good for .32 and 3.3 mph over a 400.

The iconic Reynolds Buick '70 GS 455 Stage 2
The new Stage 1 was a beautiful sight. Quite a derivation from the '65, '67 and '68 gold cars. It was picked up at Reynolds Buick on Monday and driven around until Saturday nite where it proceeded to dazzle the boys with a 101- 13.9 blast just as it came off the street (plugged up, air cleaner, stock tires, etc) The primary objective was to be successful in NHRA Stock Class, where no other Buick had ever been successful. The factory was always too honest about their horsepower ratings so the cars could never be class contenders.

However, 1970 was different. We had a legal GS car running 12.0s on a 12.55 record. Furthermore, Bill Trevor and the other '70 Buicks were no where close to these times.   The Winter(nationals) were in the bag- until (the) NHRA factored the cars to 400 hp! Discouraged, and with no way to win in Super Stock, we bolted on the Stage 2s, an Edelbrock, a 1000 cfm Thermo Quad, 11" tires and our factory Stage 2 hood scoop. The MKC 113 cam came out and in went the Mark 4. 123 mph at 10.7s in 1970 was getting with it in anyone's book.

Old Popsy was 62 by then but could still handle the wheelstanding 3600 lb. 455. A couple of heart attacks and 2 or 3 strokes didn't slow him down at all. I vividly recall the Hot Rod Meet at Riverside in '69. Only one foot was working after a stroke. I thought we'd have to hook up a hand brake but he got by with "low-stalling" the converter the whole day.

Then there was the time we were running a new motor combination in the Riviera oval car. Pop's entire left side went totally numb. Not wanting to miss the race, he drank a pint of Jack Daniels to get some feeling so he could drive. We were at the races when Pop limped up through the stands. The next day he drove to the hospital in the '65. The doctor thought the story was some kind of joke. Pop spent 2 weeks in the hospital. One day after being released he was back to Orange County trying out a new manifold. At 72 he's finally retired from Kenne-Bell and talking about making a comeback. Running gas mileage tests for us is becoming a bore he says. if he returns, It'll be in the 104. 127 mph Stage 2 bracket car. I guess those fast runs are needed to keep the heart pumping.

I've watched the old man drive for 20 years and he was unquestionably one of the best. Always first out of the hole with those uncanny reaction times. I've often wondered how good he would have been at 20-  or even 40.

I think I made all of the winning and going fast sound easy. There was, of course, another side. The experimenting with the various engine components and combinations, transmissions, converters, suspensions, tires, etc. was laborious, expensive, and at times very frustrating but I wouldn't have traded those years with "Pops" for the world. Is there anything more enjoyable than racing and beating the Fords, Chevies, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Dodges, Plymouths, and Chryslers for 25 years with cars that "don't run?" And we all know Buicks don't run- particularly the old "nailheads."

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For more of the Reynolds Buick racing legend, visit our Reynolds Buick Racing site.

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