A college degree in economics doesn’t seem like the way to get started in the off-road transmission business, but it was one step in a trail of unplanned events that brought Jeff Field to prominence in the profession.
Jeff was born and raised in Southern California, and since 1955 has lived in the San Fernando Valley area. He was a desert lover, and early on joined a dune buggy club. He built his own “dune buggy”; a shortened VW with a Meyers Manx-style fiberglass body, a 36 horse motor and a crash box. It was his sole means of transportation during his years at Chatsworth High, and he fondly remembers tooling around with the car full of cheerleaders.
Once out of high-school Jeff went to UCLA where he majored in the aforementioned economics. He also indulged in some math, science and basic engineering, but his degree is in economics. He worked as a four-wheel-drive mechanic at California Off Road Equipment in Van Nuys, where he did engineconversions, roll bar installations and transmissions. He was the odd-man-out in the shop, still driving the VW, where everyone else drove Jeeps.
The buggy was getting lots of miles on it, as he used it to go everywhere, including the dunes, and up to the Sierras to fish. Then, on a trip to Pismo, he sanded his old 36 horse motor. A friend gave him a Corvair motor, and Jeff installed that in the buggy. Then he started to blow transmissions. And, he says, that’s how he got into the transmission business.
The first two times the transmission broke he had professionals do the repairs, and both times it broke again. He figured he could do at least “that good”, so he “muddled” his way through it. Jeff went on to say, “I broke a couple myself, ‘til I finally got it figured out.” Somewhere in there he bought a ‘67 VW with a 1500cc single port motor. He put 90,000 miles on the Bug in the next three years, using it to commute to school, taking it to the mountains for hunting and fishing, and by putting bigger wheels and tires on it, making it do for his off-road excursions also When that car was worn out he built a series of tube frame Corvair powered buggies. He used water pipe that he bent himself between the concrete block wall and the phone pole at his mom’s house.
Jeff was an avid off-roader, and traveled to Pismo, Dumont, Glamis and Red Rock whenever he could spare the time. He joined the American Buggy Association in 1966, and has been a member ever since. He raced a lot of slaloms, competed in the sand drags and club events, but never raced in a sanctioned off-road race. He says he was always too busy working on other people’s equipment.
When he’d been graduated from UCLA he went to work at Volkswagen of America, then located in Culver City. His title was “Porsche Parts Technician”, and he handled special order Porsche, Audi and VW parts for the west coast. He worked there until 1976. At that time a buddy of his in the dune buggy club was manufacturing sweaters and he wanted Jeff to run a sweater warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, in the garment district. Jeff opened the facility, and with a staff of three, shipped $1.5 million in sweaters, but he didn’t really like the job, so he left after a couple of years. By now he was involved with Terri, (now his wife) who was student teaching in Chico. So he was doing a lot of commuting, going up there for a few days each week. But he also worked out of his garage just “fixin’ stuff” and he worked part time for John Verhagen, another well-known tranny man, who’d been at VOA with him, and was also a member of his dune buggy club. During this period he met Carl Scholl, who was running Transaxle Specialties in Chatsworth, building race transmissions, and Jeff went to work for him also, on a part-time basis. It was a busy period, and in 1978, he married Terri.
Back in 1971, while still in college, Jeff had taken flying lessons and got his pilot’s license. In 1978, the year he got married, he bought a plane, a 1954 single engine Cessna 180. He still has the plane. He and Scholl became great friends, in part because of their mutual love of airplanes, and when Scholl decided to close up shop and move to the desert to restore old World War II bombers, Jeff bought the transmission business. He rented a shop, picked a new name, Transaxle Engineering, and in 1979 he was in business for himself.
He picked up some of Scholl’s race customers early on, one of them being Cal Wells, who worked at MacPherson Chevrolet at the time, and when Wells formed PPI, he continued to send all his Toyota transmission business to Jeff. Brian Church came to work at Transaxle Engineering at one point as a sort of training program for his job at PPI. Field did all the PPI work for 10 or 12 years, until Wells started doing his transmissions in-house. But in the meantime he’d built a big customer base of off-road racers, along with vintage racers, collectors, Paris-to-Dakar rally folks, and run-of-the-mill people who wanted reliable transmissions.
While he was doing the PPI transmissions, Jeff was also doing double-duty as a chase person for Wells in his airplane. He says that as far as he could figure he and Cal were the first to use a small plane for chasing a race car. Their first time was during the first HDRA Vegas to Reno event in the early 80s. He did flying chase duty regularly for “a number of years”, traveling all over the desert and down the length of the Baja peninsula.
In about 1982 Field bought a magnaflux machine from Sway-A-Way, and being able to do magna fluxing “in house” was a big boost to the service he could provide his customers. He says he was able to do a better job of inspection that way, rather than trusting it to someone else. The machine, refurbished once or twice, is still an important part of Transaxle Engineering’s equipment inventory.
Field says “It’s a matter of paying attention to detail. If you pay attention to as many of the details as you can possibly think of, your chances for success increase.” He continues to follow this core belief. Nowadays the majority of Transaxle Engineering’s business comes from specialty car owners. Transmissions for vintage and antique race cars, off road race cars of course, some Dakar rally vehicles, and marques like Ferrari, Maserati and Lotus move through the shop on a regular basis. They also do transfer cases, Ford nine-inch rear ends for Protrucks, and complete-car magna fluxing. Transaxle Engineering also owns all the molds, patterns and tooling for the Race Auto Automatic transmission used in many unlimited off-road race cars these days. In addition to Jeff there are now three full time employees and one part time, each of them carefully trained by Field. He is proud that Johnny Burns has been with him 20 years.
When thinking about expanding, Jeff finds himself concerned with the need to “keep more control on the quality aspect”. Already he’s had to delegate more and more, (partly to reduce the number of hours he works each week). He says it’s hard to find quality employees, but is proud of the team working for him currently. He explained that some jobs are done in a “modular” way. That is; one man does tear-down and cleaning, another does mag (questions are always referred to Jeff) and another does assembly. But a re-conditioning of a customer’s transmission is a whole job by itself.
Through the years, as his business has grown, Jeff has stayed active in his dune buggy club, and through that association, he learned about CORVA, and became an active member. Field believes that CORVA is a real plus for the off-road community of California. He’s been a member for 25 years, and gets involved in their annual fund raisers, during which an off-road vehicle is built with donated parts and raffled to members to earn operating cash. In 1997 he built one completely and netted the organization $13,000 for their fund. He was awarded the prestigious “Off Roader of The Year” award for his efforts, the memory of which he describes as “a thrill.”
Jeff and Terri have two sons, Tyler, 35, a Finacial Manager for Mammoth Mountain, and Patrick, a marketing guru for Honda. Tyler and his dad rebuilt a ‘67 Chevy Nova, which was his highschool transportation and also a car-show trophy winner. Both boys spend lots of time in the dunes with their dad, and they all still ride dirt bikes. Terri, wife and mother, recently retired after 25 years as a third grade school teacher in Simi Valley.
Talking about what he’s seen and learned over the years, Jeff explained that off-road race cars “beat on stuff in a way that no other kind of car does.” He has some customers who can “make stuff live forever”, citing Robby Gordon as an example. He says he can take a transmission apart and tell a lot about a driver’s habits; his smoothness, whether he habitually flies the car and lands on the gas. He also says, “We have customers who could break an anvil in an empty sandbox.” We asked if he was able to give advice to that type of driver and Jeff says, “You can tell some drivers they’re doing it wrong - but some don’t want to hear it.”
Jeff went on to say that his long-standing relationship with Cal Wells is a source of pride, as well as his relationships with other transmission people, naming in particular, Doug Fortin, Ken Mogi, and Mike Mendeola, all of whom he says hold each other in professional regard, sharing thoughts and ideas on the industry.
In addition, Jeff says people with questions should “feel free to call with any transaxle related questions at any time.” His phone number is 818-998-2739.
This was made possible by Judy Smith of Dusty Times.
RIP John Calvin.