In a 2012 interview with SEMA News, Carmen Arias, controller at Arias Pistons, talked about her father’s passion for his work. “Great creators, all they do is think,” she said. “Twenty-four hours a day, they’re thinking. It never stops.” She said that Nick Arias Jr. seemed puzzled—and maybe a little insulted—when asked about retirement. “Retire?” he replied.
To the entire Arias family, work is viewed as a privilege. In fact, family Patriarch Nick Arias Sr. attempted retirement in 1968, but he returned to work for his son’s company—Arias Pistons—when it opened in 1969. Nick Sr. was a blacksmith by trade and worked for Southern Pacific Railroad for 45 years. He then went on to run the shipping department at Arias Pistons for almost 20 years. With that kind of hardworking role model, it’s no surprise that Nick Arias Jr. has been so successful—and it’s equally clear why he has never considered retirement.
On the wall at Arias Pistons is a diploma from Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles: ever since the counselors there suggested auto mechanics to him, Nick Arias Jr. has been in love with engines. In addition to his studies in the classroom, Arias Jr. and his neighborhood buddies Joe Pisano and Kenny Bigelow formed a car club while still in high school, the Photons. Named after a particle within the atom, photons travel at the speed of light—especially when driving down Sepulveda Boulevard, South Broadway and Main Street in Los Angeles. At least in part, it was this nighttime ritual that gave birth to what’s now referred to as the automotive specialty-equipment industry.
After graduation, Arias Jr. joined the 40th California National Guard, shipping out to the Kumsan Valley above Seoul, Korea, where he was assigned to work in the motor pool during the Korean War. Back home, however, fellow Photon club member Kenny Bigelow was attempting to get his name in the record books and was killed at the El Mirage speed trials.
El Mirage is a dry lakebed and was home to the 100 Mile-an-Hour Club of South Los Angeles, which Arias Jr. had been a member of for several years. In tribute to his friend Bigelow, Arias Jr. purchased the ill-fated ’37 Chevy coupe in a partnership with fellow veteran Bob Toros when he returned from Korea. As a team, the two salvaged the GMC engine from the wreck, transplanted it into another ’37 and ultimately used it to power their way to a championship as Russetta Timing Association’s most successful Class A and B Coupe. The two also advanced the existing record from 136 mph to 148 mph unblown on alcohol, winning the Kenny Bigelow trophy two years in a row.
With the success of the ’37 Chevy Coupe, Arias Jr. joined the Screwdrivers car club of Culver City, alongside members that included Craig Breedlove, Don Rackeman, Lou Baney and Joe Pisano. During the buildup of the GMC block, Arias Jr. was also offered a job at Wayne Manufacturing, purveyor of high-performance inline six-cylinder engine parts. This proved to be an ideal location, because Frank Venolia was making pistons next door and selling them to Arias Jr.’s boss, Harry Warner. Arias Jr. thereby had the chance to learn everything he could about designing heads and pistons at the same time.
A few years later, Arias Jr. was introduced to Louis Senter via fellow Screwdriver member Rackeman, who was working next door to Senter’s Ansen Automotive. It was rumored that Ansen’s piston division needed an overhaul, and knowing that there was a huge market potential for that type of performance part, Arias Jr. suggested that Senter sell him the piston business, including the machinery. One month later, Arias Jr. bought out the business from Senter, and he opened Arias Pistons in 1969.
Arias is a legend not just for his forged pistons, but also for his ’72 Hemi-head conversions for big-block Chevys that were known as “Hemi-Chevys,” as well as his complete 10L engine that dominated tractor pulls and drag boat races, an 8.3L powerplant for Top Fuel and Alcohol drag racing, the Arias four-cylinder for USAC midget circuits, the Arias V6 Hemi, A/R Boss 429, Howard 12-Port GMC…and more. On a personal note (in 2012), he and his wife Carmen celebrated 55 years of marriage with their family, including five children and 13 grandchildren.
Carroll Shelby once said: “I’ve had more failures than successes in my lifetime, and some of the failures have been more fun than some of the successes.” Nick Arias Jr. has the same philosophy about life. And speaking of Shelby, it’s rumored that Arias Jr. is currently working on a hemispherical head for the small-block Ford and that it would fit nicely under the hood of one of those old AC roadsters, otherwise known as the Cobra.
SEMA is grateful to Nick Arias Jr. for his contributions to the specialty-equipment industry. He’s always been a thinker, and we hope he never stops.