By Andrea Wojcik
More than 60 years in the automotive service industry makes Don Gallant a walking history of the street rod scene on the Berlin Turnpike. Gallant's enthusiasm and ingenuity have played a key role in shaping Connecticut’s hot rod culture and making the turnpike the street to show off souped-up classic American cars.
Gallant is the 82-year-old owner of Don’s Speed Shop on the Berlin Turnpike. He runs the shop with the help of his youngest son, Paul. But in his prime, Don Gallant was a drag racer. When he returned from his post-World War II military station in Japan in 1950, Don Gallant threw himself - full throttle - into the emerging drag racing culture.
The early dragsters, or gassers, were altered American factory cars. People bought cars and adjusted them in order to transfer weight to the back wheels and make the cars accelerate faster. The goal of drag racing has always been to have the car that accelerates the fastest within a quarter mile.
According to Paul Gallant, early drag racing was an art. Modern racing cars are streamlined; racers know how the parts function and which work best. It's merely a matter of buying a part and installing it. In the heyday of drag racing, those parts didn't exist.
“Back then everybody had different ideas and they would try through ingenuity, whatever they thought might work, to see what they could build,” he says. Drag racing was an art, and Don Gallant was an artist.
His own enthusiasm and ingenuity helped him make a name for himself. He started winning races, and after his speed shop opened in 1953, when he was only a 20-something, it quickly became a hub for drag racers looking to repair or improve their cars. In fact, Don Gallant was solicited to do mechanical work on movie star John Wayne’s Auburn Cord and Charles Schwab’s Ford Cobra.
He was also active in promoting the development of street rod culture throughout Connecticut. He is a founding member of the Connecticut Street Rod Association, and he helped initiate sanctioned “pike cruises” during which people show off their classic American cars while cruising up and down the Berlin Turnpike.
While Don Gallant’s expertise is classic American cars - GTO’s, Camaros and Mustangs to name a few - his experience as a mechanic is unlimited. “If it has wheels I like to get involved,” he says. And he means it. He’s worked on muscle cars, monster trucks, tractors and lawn mowers.
He was born interested in cars. He remembers admiring them as a boy growing up during the Great Depression on Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, Mass, and he fondly recalls examining a car someone traded with his father. “Some guy gave him a nice Nash with jump seats in it,” Gallant says. “I mean, beautiful car. I used to open the hood and look. It had one of the big distributors. Boy, I was so fascinated by it.”
When he stepped off the fast track, so did Don’s Speed Shop. The Gallants still build classic cars, but the focus of the business has shifted from speed to functionality. “We focus on helping people enjoy the car that they have so they can drive it,” says Paul Gallant. The business is also more family-oriented, with a lot of customers being father/sons and families.
Even though Don Gallant is 82-years-old, he is not done learning about cars just yet. He still loves his job and takes pride in his business. “Even today I love to come to work because I’ve always got something different going on,” he says.
Paul Gallant proudly claims Don’s Speed Shop to be the oldest in New England, and when his father is ready to retire, he says he plans to walk in his father’s footsteps and continue the legacy.
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