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SEMA Pioneers - Bill Neumann

SEMA Pioneers

Bill Neumann, Neumann Distributing/Neuspeed

SEMA NEWS December 2003
By Drew Hardin

(Editor's Note: As part of SEMA's 40th anniversary, this is the first in a series of articles that will look at those entrepreneurs who had a hand in shaping the automotive aftermarket as well as the Speed Equipment Manufactures Association formed decades ago. The series kicks off with a profile of Bill Neumann, whose efforts at hot rodding four-cylinder domestic and foreign cars in the '70s and '80s foreshadowed today's tuner market)

A four-cylinder economy car with performance potential. To today's tuners, that phrase could describe any number of Hondas, Mitsubishis or other sport-compact cars. In the early 1970s, it fit the Ford Pinto to a T. At least it did to Bill Neumann.

Before relocating to California, Neumann was a successful hot-rod builder on the East Coast. Here he poses with the Neumann Special, which was a Hot Rod cover car.

An East Coast hot-rod builder, Neumann relocated to California in the early '60s to work at Peterson Publishing Company and went on to form an ad agency that catered to the aftermarket clients he met while at Car Craft and Rod & Custom. When Ford introduced the Pinto in 1971, Neumann thought its four-cylinder engine might give some of his clients-among them Isky Cams, Offenhauser, Arias Pistons, Vally Head Service and S&S Headers-some new market opportunities.

I wondered what could be done to hop up that four-cylinder like a V8, Neumann remembered. I had a lot of connections with Ford at the time, so I proposed the first project car. He talked to his clients about fabricating parts for the motor and pitched the idea to Lee Kelley, then editor at Popular Hot Rodding. The result was a 13-part series that not only turned the little car into a 14-second quarter-miler-Damn respectable for a four-cylinder of that era, said Neumann proudly-but also generated a ton of mail.

Bill Neumann's Pinto buildup ran as a 13-part series in Popular Hot Rodding, starting in 1971. Neumann's sons Gary (at the hoist) and Aaron (leaning on fender), now Neuspeed vice presidents, helped Bill with the project.

Most of those letters were from Pinto owners waiting to buy the prototype parts. To fill those requests, Neumann started a little mail-order business in my garage. That little business soon outgrew not only the garage but Neumann's agency as well, and so Neumann went into the parts-distribution business, doing engine building and tuning on the side.

After each engine modification, Neumann dyno'd the Pinto and ran it at the strip. In its final state of tune, the engine sent 98 hp to the wheels and turned 14.56 seconds at 91.33 mph on the strip. That's quicker and faster than today's SVT Focus.

The Pinto never blossomed into much of a performance car, but the groundwork was laid for Neumann to apply a similar approach to the import cars that appeared in the U.S. In the mid-'70s. Those cars really interested me, Neumann said of the Datsun 510s and 240Zs he worked on. You could put tremendous power into them for performance that could equal or better a V8 of the time, but you still got fuel economy. At the same time, Neumann built relationships with aftermarket companies such as VDO, Koni, Bilstein and Hella-many of the same companies he's affiliated with today.

Birth of the Thunder Bunny

Although he worked on early Japanese imports, the first water-cooled Volkswagens really put Neumann on the map. He tinkered with the Rabbit's early fuel injection system and developed the first Rabbit turbocharger. From a 1980 trip to Germany to visit Golf tuning company Oettinger, he brought back heads, throttle bodies, injection modifications and other tuning tricks and used them to build the hottest Rabbit in the U.S. When Motor Trend tested that 1981 Rabbit, it dubbed the car the Thunder Bunny. In Road & Track slalom testing, the only cars that were faster at the time were the Ferrari 512 Boxer, Lamborghini Countach and the Renault R5, Neumann remembered.

Neumann's work with VW speed parts led to the creation of the Neuspeed brand. It sounded good and was easy to remember, Neumann said, and it has since expanded to include tuner parts for Asian as well as German makes.

At the Dawn of SEMA

Years before the Bunny or the Pinto, when he was still an editor at Rod & Custom, Neumann shared ideas with his friend Henry Blankfort, who was vice president of advertising and public relations at model-builder Revell. Neumann believed Revell could make its kits more authentic by including scaled-down decals from speed equipment companies. During those conversations, Blankfort asked Neumann if there was a manufacturer's association for speed equipment companies similar to the Hobby Industry Association (HIA) Blankfort was involved in.

Henry told me, 'If you think the speed equipment companies would be interested to hear about how the HIA works, I'd be glad to give a talk. Neumann set up a meeting of about eight manufactures, and that first meeting was very well-received, Neumann said. The enthusiasm was high, and it was decided that the first group would get out the word for more speed equipment owners to attend a second meeting.

At the second meeting, attended by about 20 company owners, all agreed that an association would be beneficial, Neumann said. Ed Iskenderian was elected temporary president, and in the discussion of what the group should be called, I suggested Speed Equipment Manufactures Association, which was unanimously and enthusiastically agreed to, Neumann remembered.

It's a credit to those early manufactures who were hands-on guys, running companies and developing products, who had a little extra time to follow through with all the legal stuff and the organization and made it happen, Neumann said. Everyone who is in the aftermarket today owes a great deal of gratitude and thanks to the idea guys and pioneers.