Every company has a story, and every story a beginning. With the performance industry that story is often much more interesting than with many of today’s corporate conglomerations. Some of the more established companies can trace their roots back to the early days of performance and hot rodding. Many of these companies were founded by a driven individual, a member of that greatest generation, who overcame hell and horror to make it back home. Once here they had all the determination they needed to succeed at whatever path they chose for their lives. One shining example within our industry was Bob Hedman and his company Hedman Hedders.
Bob Hedman had a fascination with modifying and racing cars from an early age. At fourteen he had purchased his first Model T and set out customizing and racing it. Soon after, he would purchase a Model A and eventually swap in a flathead V-8. That fateful move is the triggering event that set young Hedman on a journey where he would eventually pioneer a header and exhaust juggernaut for the street and performance industry.
Hedman had heard that local gas station owner Tommy Ikkadana could build him a set of headers for his engine swap. Ikkadana built headers in the shop behind his gas station, and told Hedman he would cut the tubes but Hedman would have to weld and assemble them himself.
Having just completed a welding course, Hedman had no trouble finishing up the work, and showing it to Ikkadana. Ikkadana saw the talent and ability of young Hedman immediately and offered him a job. With a job established, Hedman quit school and focused on working and racing.
The early days of speed and performance were shunted for several years though as Bob Hedman and many other young men of his generation signed on to fight the Axis powers in Europe and the pacific.
The Post War Scene
Hot rodding and racing were thought of by most of the police and many community groups as a reckless, irresponsible nuisance. Many didn’t understand why young men who had endured hell and survived fighting overseas would come home to later risk their lives at high speed in an automobile.
The post World War II days of racing and car customizing were the early years of our hobby as we know it today. Soldiers returning home from the war were looking for a hobby, and a thrill. This renewed interest in speed and personalization made the 1950s a golden era for racing and customizing. Many firsts were achieved, the salt flats and dry lakes boomed in popularity for top speed runs, and the NHRA was formed.
Returning from the war, Bob Hedman found himself unemployed. Tommy Ikkadana had written him while he was gone to fight the axis; Ikkadana was of Japanese decent and had been placed in an interment camp during the war. His business was confiscated and thus Hedman was left without a job.
Hedman Hedders Timeline
- 1947 – Began working for Equaflow.
- 1954 – Bought out Equaflow and began Hedman Hedders as a one-man shop.
- 1963 – Began talks about a trade organization that later became SEMA.
- 1974 – Bob Hedman retires, sons run business.
- 1979 – Business sold to Bob Vandergriff and Dick McMullen.
- Today – Upgrades to benders to maximize production, reduce costs and waste, improve accuracy and to bend 304 stainless steel like the headers above.
Like so many of his generation, Hedman would not be discouraged. He soon found work once again in the exhaust business. Working at Porter Muffler in Hollywood seemed to be another fateful move for Hedman, it was there that he met and developed a business relationship with Sandy Belond.
Belond left Porter Muffler in 1947 to start his own business, Equaflow. Hedman began working at night for his friend Belond and eventually became a full-time partner in the shop.
Birth of an Empire
In 1954 Bob Hedman purchased the other half of Equaflow exhaust from Sandy Belond, and Hedman changed the name to Hedman Muffler and Manufacturing. With a startup crew of somewhere between eight and ten men, most of whom were skilled welders, Hedman’s shop was bustling and soon running two shifts.
Demand for headers was skyrocketing. Hedman had cleverly, and intentionally misspelled “hedders” to associate the product with himself.
This increased demand forced Bob Hedman to do two things with his business. The first of those was to get out of the muffler business, because mufflers were low demand and he had plenty of work building “hedders” to keep him busy. The company name was changed to Hedman Hedders.
The second change would be a harder one. Hedman had gotten into the exhaust business back in those early days with Tommy Ikkadana to help fund his obsession with racing. Racing is what had promoted the Hedman name and helped raise product awareness. Business though, and providing for his family, would dictate that it was time to get out of racing and Bob Hedman stopped racing so he could focus on growing his business and building the best product possible for his customers. The growth and expansion of the company would cause it to move three times over the next twenty years.
Hedman focused his business primarily on the weekend warrior and street going crowd. His goal was to produce the best header for the average enthusiast looking to get better performance out of his street car.
Hedman actually focused on headers that fit in the engine bay of most cars, and exited the engine bay in what we would today consider a normal fashion. Most of his competitors at the time were more racer oriented, many of their product offerings simply exited out through the side of the car or fender wells. While this was acceptable on a race only vehicle just like today, the street going crowd wanted something with more of an OE level of fitment. This was an untapped market that Hedman was able to corner early on.
During those early years of the performance industry, General Motors introduced the original small-block Chevy motor, affectionately known to many as the mouse. Since the SBC quickly gained favor with hot rodders and speed freaks alike, Hedman teamed with another pioneer in the industry, Vic Edlebrock, to help create some of the first performance parts for the little engine that would become a staple in the performance world. Hedman and Edelbrock were both part of the team that developed the first exhaust system for the SBC. This development fit right in line with Hedman’s emphasis on parts for street going enthusiasts.
With his roots in the industry planted in racing, Bob Hedman would not forget about the racers. His business successfully had a two pronged approach and offered headers for racers as well.
Bob’s two sons, Ken and Dick, were working alongside him in the shop, and the boys were both raised working there whenever they weren’t at school. One Hedman brother was always at the shop whenever it was open, and whenever one of their sponsored racers was at the track one of them was always there as well.
During those early years of the NHRA, Pro Stock was the hot ticket class. The company sponsored the Maverick of “Dyno” Don Nicholson. The Hedman brothers decided it would be fun to campaign a car alongside their sponsored racer.
That racing campaign, though, was not meant to be. On their first outing to Indianapolis for the US Nationals, the car, truck and trailer were stolen from the hotel parking lot where the brothers were staying. This was before the young men could even make a pass in their race car. Even worse, the truck had been borrowed from a neighbor so they could make it to the race. Police would eventually find the car, the truck and the trailer, though each was located in a different state – one as far away as Florida. The Hedman brothers decided after the incident at Indy that their endeavors were best left to minding the family business, and sponsoring racers.
Through the years Hedman has sponsored some of the biggest names in Pro Stock. Perhaps the most widely known and longest lasting relationship has been with the Professor himself, Warren Johnson. The Professor’s relationship with Hedman has remained active through the years and has proven mutually beneficial to both racer and sponsor.
For those of us that didn’t live through the experience, it’s difficult to imagine the performance world as it was so long ago. There wasn’t online or even telephone ordering yet. While most companies that built speed parts were friends, or at the least friendly competitors, they weren’t aligned as they are today. It would seem that Bob Hedman was set to help play a crucial role in that part of the hobby as well.
In 1963 at the urging of ad man Ed Elliot, Revel Model Corporation and several other speed parts companies, including Hedman, talks about forming a trade organization had begun. These early tentative talks were eventually pushed to a vote by Hedman.
With that vote, the Speed Equipment Manufacturting Association was born. Today we know it as the Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA. The same organization that holds an annual trade show advocates and lobbies for the industry and hobby that we all love.
Bob Hedman would go on to retire in 1974, twenty years after founding his company. He left the business in the capable hands of his two sons, Dick and Ken, who continued to run the company until 1979. At that time the two brothers sold the business to Bob Vandergriff and Dick McMullen. Today, Vandergriff is the sole owner of the company.
The company moved at the time of the purchase to a new facility in Whittier, CA, where it is located today, and Hedman Hedders is part of the Hedman Performance group. This group also includes Hamburger’s Performance Products, Trans-Dapt Performance Products, and Husler Race Hedders which is run out of the company’s Alpharetta, GA, facility.
Staying At Home
As odd as it may sound, the best way we have found to keep Hedman prices competitive is by spending money. -Marc Lewis
Bob Hedman believed in keeping business local, and doing things in-house as well. As such, he sourced his raw materials that way. He also kept all aspects of production in-house, refusing to outsource anything. Today the company he founded is still striving to keep jobs here in the USA, and all of its work is done in-house.
The manufacturing world is tough. Whether you’re assembling entire cars or aftermarket parts for cars, the manufacturing world has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. Many companies have outsourced work to other countries in order to remain profitable.
Hedman, however, has strived to keep all of their manufacturing in the USA. This has not been an easy step, especially in the recent economic downturn. “As odd as it may sound, the best way we have found to keep Hedman prices competitive is by spending money,” says Hedman’s Marc Lewis.
Investing In Technology
Spending money has meant investing in new equipment and technology. These investments have allowed Hedman Hedders to streamline their research and development processes as well as manufacturing. This has allowed them to expand their product line and actually reduce costs. This has also meant that the people building the product have been able to keep their jobs.
Hedman is currently in the final phases of a complete upgrade on their four in-house bending machines. Lewis tells us, “It’s like dropping off your road-weary stock ’64 Chevelle at the shop for a frame-off restoration, and getting it back shiny and new, but with an LS3, new suspension, and disc brakes on all four corners, and a killer stereo system,” referring to the bender upgrades.
Each bender has been disassembled and shipped back to their manufacturer. At the manufacturer the benders are then stripped further. They are rebuilt with the latest in CNC bending technology, software, electronic, and hydraulic components. These upgrades are allowing for tighter tolerances than ever before when building the company’s headers. It’s also allowing them to expand into using 304 stainless steel for some of the company’s newest header products.
Past, Present, Future
Since the early days of Bob Hedman and the company’s smaller operations, Hedman Hedders has always made an effort to keep up with the newest vehicle offerings in the performance car segment. Recently this has included the company offering headers for the new Camaro and Challenger models.
Hedman needs to stay on top of the latest trends so we can be first to market with headers that fit these new combinations, without the vehicle owner having to smash and ding their new headers.
The company may be best known though for it’s offerings for muscle cars, and street rods. While it may sound like this is an easy business strategy, Lewis explained to us that, much like the new car products market, the musclecar and street rod market is also one of constant fluctuation.
Various new components are introduced every year for suspension, steering and chassis. Lewis explained that each of these can present a potential for interference with the current header offerings for a particular vehicle. Rather than stubbornly stand by an old product, Hedman has looked to update their designs to reflect these types of changes. “Hedman needs to stay on top of the latest trends so we can be first to market with headers that fit these new combinations, without the vehicle owner having to smash and ding their new headers,” said Lewis. Some aftermarket companies actually work directly with Hedman to either ensure that their products will fit with the company’s current offerings or to develop a new set of headers compatible with a new component.
Once such area where this is apparent is a product the company introduced earlier this year for Tri-Five Chevys. While the Tri-Five has been around for nearly sixty years, enthusiasts and aftermarket companies alike have continued developing speed parts and other improvements for the cars.
It’s no secret that LS engine swaps are the hot ticket these days, and the Tri-Five is the perfect candidate. Hedman saw a need in the market for a product to fit these swaps, and this past June the company introduced headers for doing just that through their Husler Race Hedders division.
Passing On The Tradition
Much like Bob Hedman, Bob Vandergriff, Sr., is a family man and two of his sons have been raised in and around the Hedman Hedders business. Both started their way at the bottom and worked up over the past two decades, and each of these sons now head operations at different locations within the Hedman Performance group.
Kevin Vandergriff runs the manufacturing plant in Whittier, CA. His responsibilities also include spearheading technological advancements in the company’s manufacturing processes.
Kevin’s brother, Chris, runs the company’s Husler Race Hedders divison in Alpharetta, GA. Chris is a racer himself, giving him the perspective and knowledge to develop parts and communicate with the company’s customers.
With investments in workers here in the USA, as well as investing in new technology, Hedman Hedders is a company steeped in rich tradition and American values. Using their rich and storied history as a guide, and their new investments in technology as the tools, this company will continue to offer products and innovations to customers for many years to come. The company that Bob Hedman started nearly sixty years ago, carries on the same tradition today, and will continue for generations to come.