A Unique Engine-Building Time Capsule — The Larry Ofria Story

There were 98 companies exhibiting at the first SEMA Show, which was held at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium in 1967. Larry Ofria and Valley Head Service was one of them. His cylinder head shop, founded in 1965, was literally on the ground floor of the burgeoning performance industry.

The decision to strike out on his own came from a conflict with his then-employer, who was seemingly taking advantage of his work without due compensation. His first customer was none other than automotive legend Carroll Shelby. As word of the effectiveness of his shop’s cylinder heads spread through the racing world, his customer base soon included the likes of Dan Gurney, Jim Hall, Smokey Yunick, NASCAR’s Holman & Moody, Bud Moore, and other racing icons.

This, of course, was back in the day when there were no multi-axis CNC machines and computerized 3D modeling; everything was literally done by hand. Cylinder head porting was an art form — not easily mastered — with the trial-and-error method being standard procedure.

Ofria sought to add technology to the mix and set about developing a flow bench in 1968. Crude by today’s standards, it employed an electric motor-driven Paxton supercharger to provide the airflow and had a manometer, inclinometer, and other instruments. He built a second unit for Carroll Shelby.

Before there was a SuperFlow, Ofria constructed this flow bench in 1968. Crude by today’s standards, it got the job done. Now retired, it’s been replaced by a SuperFlow 1020.

Reflecting on the device, Ofria recalls, “It was kind of awkward to use and required a lot of calculations, but it sure got the job done.” SuperFlow flow benches didn’t hit the market until 1972, and today, Valley Head Service relies on one of its 1020-series models. “These days you can buy highly CNC machined heads from manufacturers, and it’s simply not cost-effective to hand port them. However, we still do extensive work on low-volume heads and vintage iron, as well as port match heads and manifolds,” Ofria says.

In 1978 the company moved into a 10,000 square foot building in the San Fernando Valley community of Northridge, and remains there to this day. This enabled VHS to expand into all facets of engine building with “one-stop shopping” convenience. In addition to helping develop their own engine combinations, the company’s trusty SuperFlow dynamometer has been employed by legions of tech writers and automotive enthusiast publications over the years.

A Look At Larry

Larry was born on a farm in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1936 to Sicilian immigrant parents when the area was largely agricultural. Enamored with hot rods, his first ride was a 1940 Ford that had a 3/8 x 3/8 (overbore and additional stroke) flathead and three Stromberg 97 carburetors on an Edelbrock manifold, along with Edelbrock heads and a Winfield cam. Ofria’s first new car was a white 1957 Chevy Bel Air hardtop equipped with the 270-horsepower dual four-barrel 283. He still owns the car today, along with numerous other vehicles collected over the years.

Ofria “cut his teeth” at the venerable San Fernando Raceway drag strip in the 1950s, and remains active in the sport today. He has campaigned an A/GS ’57 Chevy powered by a 6-71 supercharged 388 c.i.d. small block at nostalgia events for decades, and is also currently involved in an ND1 classed digger that runs on a 7.60 Index. Former San Fernando track manager and later Hot Rod Magazine publisher, Harry Hibler, remains a friend of Larry’s today with some lively tales emerging when the industry vets socialize.

While his shop offers a full range of engine block and cylinder head machining services and is fully capable of pushing the limits on highly-boosted contemporary engines, he’s found his niche in the realm of unusual projects and vintage iron. “From flatheads to Ferraris” is the company motto. A stroll through the shop today will find a myriad of engine projects in various stages of completion, including a few of the aforementioned Ford flatties, a Packard V8, Hudson, and a Ferrari. Some others that have recently gone through the shop include a Maserati, Citroen and Lamborghini — versatility is VHS’s forte.

No CNC routines for old iron. Here’s a before/after port modification of a cast iron head. Ofria still practices the art of hand-porting cylinder heads and has done so many in over the decades he could probably do them blindfolded.

In his half-century-plus in business Ofria has come to establish long-standing relationships with many aftermarket parts manufacturers, including ARP (he was the company’s first commercial customer), Isky, Donovan, Scat, Milodon, Manley Performance, and Justice Bros. Says Larry, “Many a time, these companies have gone out of their way to get us parts for critical timelines. I’m sure you know how that goes with racers.”

In addition to those racers mentioned earlier, over the past 55-plus years, many notables have been VHS customers, including Mickey Thompson, Warren Johnson, Jack Beckman (when he won the NHRA World Championship with his Super Comp dragster) and nostalgia standouts like Dan Horan and Champion Speed Shop.

A number of engine professionals got their start under Ofria’s tutelage; one of the more prominent being intake manifold guru Tim Hogan. Larry’s employees remain the backbone of the company, with shop foreman Ruben Pulido being with VHS for 33 years and counting. His crew of six includes seasoned vets like Ruben, his brother Alex, and some younger technicians getting their start in the trade.

Seeing as how he’s 85-years-old, Ofria is often asked when he’s going to retire. His standard answer is, “I’ll retire when this stops being fun, and right now, it’s still fun.” Well said!

One thing that stands out about Ofria is how much of his business is about people. On the left is a photo of 1970 NHRA Winternationals T/F champ Larry Dixon, Sr. ( left, an old VHS customer), Ofria (center), and many-time NHRA World Champion Larry Dixon, Jr. In the center image, Ofria (right) celebrates Ed Iskenderian's (left) 95th birthday. Both displayed at the first-ever SEMA Show. On the right is Ofria's Valley Head Service team. He credits his crew at VHS for keeping things going. The man on the left, Ruben Pulido, has been with him for 33 years.

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About the author

Bill Holland

Bill Holland has been involved in racing and the performance aftermarket since the 1960s in the capacities of racer, speed shop proprietor, journalist, street rodder, designer and advertising/PR/marketing professional. Along the way he’s raced Top Fuel and Funny Car, been editor of NHRA’s publication, National Dragster, was involved in off-roading as publisher of SCORE News, built a variety of Featured Vehicles for the SEMA Show, as well as a Track “T” that was a Contender for the AMBR award. He currently races vintage sports cars. Bill was inducted into NHRA’s California Hot Rod Reunion Hall of Fame in 2017.
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