Backmarker: L.A. Confidential Pt. 1: Franz and Grubb

MotorcycleUSA Staff | February 18, 2016

North Hollywood is not “Hollywood.” Although it’s just a few miles away over the hills, it’s pretty much glitz-free. The older parts of the San Fernando valley have this feel like, if you couldn’t see the cars, maybe it’s actually still sometime in the 1960s.

That’s true of Franz and Grubb Engines, too; there’s a hand-painted sign on the front window, and a logo with a handmade feel; there’s the completely old-school Kwik Way machine tools, the dial (not digital) gauges, Brigitte Bardot poster, and ― especially ― the pre-unit Triumph motorcycle engines in various states of disassembly on work benches. You’d totally believe that two guys formed the shop decades ago and resolutely refused to modernize it or even service newer motorcycles. Maybe the reason they’re not there any more is, they’ve retired.

But no. There never was a Franz or a Grubb. They sprang from the fertile and frequently profane imagination of the founder and sole proprietor, Dan “Druff” Irving, who didn’t even own a motorcycle, let alone run a hot rod shop, until 2001. But, he’s become one of the most trusted vintage Triumph specialists in SoCal. In a sort of coals-to-Newcastle turnabout, he now ships parts to (and sometimes rebuilds motors for customers in) the United Kingdom.

Backmarker Franz and Grubb

 When Dan Irving got bored with the increasingly-digital music business, he opened up a very analog engine shop.

Backmarker Franz and Grubb
The spring gauge illustrates a general obsession with documenting every build. Irving can tell you the actual (not nominal) spring measurements for every valve spring he’s ever installed.

After hanging out with Dan in his shop and talking for hours, I see his success as the result of several forces. He’s in love with old Triumph motors, but not so besotted that he wants to just do everything the way they do it in the UK. He brings a strong streak of good old SoCal hot-rodding craftsmanship to every project, applying techniques and using tools that may be older than he is, but which were proven by the local gurus he learned from.

Just beneath the surface, there’s a streak of addictive, obsessive-compulsive behavior. Everything in the shop’s surgically clean, every build is religiously documented. In my imagination, I can totally see the kid who practiced that guitar lick or skateboard trick for hours at a time, until he had it perfect. And I can still feel that punk-rock iconoclasm coming through; the customer’s not always right ― even Triumph’s not always right ― as evidenced by the degree wheel he uses, which has a laser engraved motto under the Triumph logo: “Made in England. Made faster in California.”

Dan grew up near Pomona, which was a real epicenter of the hot-rodding scene. But by his own admission, all he really paid attention to was skateboarding, guitars and dope. After a while, he got sober.

“The one thing I learned as a musician,” he told me, “is that if you want to make money you have to play really generic horrible music that appeals to a lot of people, or work for a band.”

He chose Door #2, and became a guitar technician. He got a reputation as a guy who actually made notes and paid attention to stuff rock stars thought was boring but which turned out to be essential if they wanted to replicate their sound from gig to gig. He toured with Guns N’ Roses, and worked on hundreds of albums, back in the days when it seemed like there was a recording studio on every corner in Los Angeles.

Every time he got bored and tried to quit the music business, bands raised his salary. Pretty soon, he had the money to get a hot car.Backmarker Franz and Grubb

“I always wanted to build a car,” he recalled. “Not buy one; build one.” He found a ’67 Dodge Dart, and convinced a local machine shop to let him rebuild the 340 Hemi in their place, in exchange for paying them to do all the machine work.

Although he wasn’t really a motorcycle guy, a few of his friends had bikes and he was always drawn to the Triumphs. “I didn’t know anything about them,” he admitted. “But I thought if I bought the shittiest one, I’d have to rebuild everything on it, and I’d know everything by the time I was done.”

He picked up a 1950 Thunderbird that had been customized in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. It’s actually a pretty bitchin’ bike; the original rigid frame’s been chromed, and the gas tank had some slick faux-louvers built in that give it a vibe that’s part Rat Fink/part P-51 Mustang. Dan actually started calling everyone in the phone book that had the same name as the guy on the original title, and found the original owner.

“I took it down to the frame and started figuring out shit,” Dan said. “It wouldn’t fire because the mag was timed wrong, then an exhaust valve stuck. I took off the head and saw it was the same shitty valve from 50 years ago.”

In his quest to learn all about his motor, he came into contact with just about every self-proclaimed or real Triumph expert in L.A., and realized that almost all of them did all kinds of bike work, from rebuilding motors to lacing wheels.

“An engine is completely different than a frame,” he said. “You need a different set of skills, tools, different measuring tools; I only know about three guys who can really do all that stuff.”

Seeing his niche, he opened Franz and Grubb to work on only Triumphs, and only Triumph engines at that; preferably from 1946-70.

He may have met pretty much every self-proclaimed Triumph specialist, but his biggest influences have come from car guys, like cam guru Ed Iskenderian. A lot of those hot-rod guys were, themselves, trained in and influenced by the postwar aerospace industry that flourished in Los Angeles. Their sense of what constitutes quality materials and tolerances was quite a bit different than the standards that prevailed in the old Triumph factory in Meriden. To this day, you could make the case that a lot of UK Triumph specialists are still essentially returning bikes to as-new condition, whereas Dan’s building the vintage Triumph motors that Triumph’s own engineers would’ve spec’d if they’d had access to better parts and metallurgy.

For example, Triumph cams originally spun in sintered bronze bearings. “Do you know what ‘sintered’ is?” Dan asked rhetorically. “It’s the MDF [medium density fiberboard] of metal!”

The official Triumph practice was to size the hole in those bearings by driving a steel ball through them. Instead, Dan uses solid bronze bearings from Kibblewhite, that he line-bores in the cases with a .001” tolerance. His valve guides are that precise, too; stuff’s built to half the factory’s intended tolerances ― which were sometimes taken as suggestions, at best, by workers on the assembly line.

Backmarker Franz and Grubb

Stickers from Independent skate trucks, The Eagles of Death Metal, and Kibblewhite Engineering tell the story of an unlikely route to success as a Triumph hot rodder.

Every build is done with the end user in mind. Is it a race bike? A street bike? There are still a few guys running Triumph desert sleds, too. Their needs are all different, but the obsession with quality is not.

“If you’re mowing your lawn and your lawnmower stops,” Dan told me, “you just think, ‘I guess I need a new lawnmower.’ But if you’re riding your motorcycle on the freeway and the tranny locks up, you’re going to get hurt.”

When I was in his shop, he had ten engines lined up waiting for attention. New customers are warned that it may be a year before they get their engines back. That’s despite charging $4-5000 for a typical rebuild.

From what I’ve seen, I’m pretty confident that, even though ‘Franz’ and ‘Grubb’ are fictional characters, Dan’s doing a real job of keeping Triumph’s SoCal heritage alive. During Triumph’s heyday, California was the single biggest market for high-end models like the Bonneville. Triumph’s biggest racing wins came in the U.S., thanks to riders like Gary Nixon and Eddie Mulder, and tuners like Jack Hately.

Backmarker Franz and Grubb

Next Backmarker, I’ll tell you a story about another Triumph motor that was made really, really fast in California.

Triumphs really were made in England, but made faster in California. The bikes were British, but the brand was half-Californian.

It’s cool to see that tradition kept alive and to be reminded that ‘the state of the art’ is all about the operator, and not some fancy CNC machines. Pretty much everything Dan uses is at least as old as he is.

“I had one Triumph expert tell me that I couldn’t do a good valve job using a Kwik-Way piloted stone grinder,” he said, sneering on the word ‘expert.’

“I told him, ‘You might want to mention that to Don Garlits and Smokey Yunick, because that’s all they had.’”

With that, Dan locked the door of the shop and we headed off into the California evening. He’d promised to introduce me to a guy who’s built one of the fastest Triumphs of all. But that’s a story for another column.