Azusa Firm Turns It Up A Notch

Pasadena Star News October 1st, 2007

by Kevin Smith

“I’m a futurist. It’s always about what’s next. We tend to engineer the automotive future.” – Gale Banks

AZUSA – In the world of business, some entrepreneurs are forever mired in the here and now.

In an effort to keep their companies afloat, their time is totally consumed by budgets, deadlines, customers expectations and the drive to maintain product quality and reliability.

All of these things are important to Gale Banks. But the founder, president and CEO of Gale Banks Engineering in Azusa takes a decidedly broader – and more visionary – approach to the process.

`I’m a futurist,” Banks admits. “It’s always about what’s next. We tend to engineer the automotive future.”

That “what’s next” approach has served the 65-year-old Bradbury entrepreneur well.

His company, which began as a small automotive shop in Lynnwood back in 1958, has become a powerful force in the automotive industry.

Gale Banks Engineering is now known as the premier designer/manufacturer of power-enhancing products for diesel and gas-powered light trucks, motorhomes, SUVs, Jeeps and boats.

Banks offers a variety of conversion kits that allow customers to make their vehicles more powerful and more fuel efficient.

Entry-level kits start at around $300, and complete systems run anywhere from $2,000 up to $3,000, according to Banks.

The company sells 10,000 to 12,000 kits a year. But when you combine kits and individual parts sold, the business equips about 35,000 vehicles a year, he said.

Staffed by world-class automotive people, the company’s 12-acre campus at 546 Duggan Ave. serves as a design center and testing ground for Banks’ latest high-performance equipment.

The company’s work is diverse – and cutting edge.

The military is currently testing a boat engine that was designed by Gale Banks Engineering.

Banks has also served as a consultant to such automotive heavyweights as GMC, Volvo, Buick, Pontiac, Chevrolet and Robert Bosch LLC.

Gale Banks Engineering built Volvo’s first turbo-charged prototype engine. The company also built a twin-turbo V6 engine prototype, a concept that led to the Buick Grand National.

“We also built these 200-mph supercars based on the Firebird at that time,” Banks said. “They were sold worldwide. That was the beginning of today’s `tuner-car’ industry, where companies take production cars and amp them up.”

Banks has also set a variety of marine, automotive and even motorhome land speed records and national championships.

He set his first speed record in 1960 with a modified 1953 Studebaker at El Mirage, topping out at 189 mph.

In 1981, a Banks-equipped Sundowner Corvette set a passenger car speed record of 240.7 mph.

That was followed by the twin-turbo Firebird GTA, a 1987 model that became the world’s fastest passenger car with a speed of 283 mph.

Banks said some of his innovations have been fueled by adversity.

When the 1974 fuel crunch happened, most of my compatriots went out of business,” he said. “But you can pick opportunity out of adversity. In every business downturn comes new product needs.”

Banks turned his focus to achieving better fuel economy for pickup trucks.

A second fuel crunch in the early 1980s convinced Banks to get out of marine engines at that time.

“If you don’t have fuel, nobody’s going boating,” he said.

Banks more recently became a member of the Automotive X Prize advisory board.

The X Prize Foundation is seeking teams – from students to start-up companies to large manufacturers – to build a four-passenger car that will get 100 miles per gallon (or its energy equivalent).

The vehicle must also go from 0 to 60 mph in 12 seconds or less and be commercially desirable, according to Banks.

The winner will receive a prize “in excess of $10 million,” said John Shore, senior director of the Automotive X Prize.

“Gale’s been really helpful to us,” Shore said. “He’s passionately interested in efficiency, not just power.”

Gale Banks Engineering also hot-rodded an engine from a military tank that now resides in a car owned by TV star and comedian Jay Leno.

“I first got to know Gale professionally, and then we became friends after that,” Leno said. “He’s the sort of guy I like – an up-from-the-bootstraps kind of guy who learned by doing. He’s the kind of guy who’s always educating himself.”

And the car?

“It was originally 800 horsepower, and I said to Gale, `What can we do to get some more power out of it?”‘ Leno joked. “Now it’s got between 1,400 and 1,600 horsepower!”

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