An Interview with K&N Co-Founder Norm McDonald

Man on motorcycle (Norm McDonald) racing at Lake Perris in 1959

It’s been fifty years since K&N officially became a manufacturer of performance air filters, and those five decades have been full of exciting innovations, forward-thinking technology, and the best of the best in filtration engineering. Founded by racers for racers, K&N has long been known for manufacturing the best air filter in the business. While K&N is now a household name for many performance enthusiasts, the company had humble beginnings born out of California’s dirt track racing community.

 

Norm McDonald—the “N” in the “K&N” name—was one of the founders and original owners of K&N. It would be impossible to deny the longevity of his influence on both K&N products and culture.

 

Norm is in his 90s now, but still retains a sense of youthfulness that belies his age. He sat down to talk with us about the earliest years of K&N, and how he and Ken Johnson (the “K” in K&N) got their start in the automotive aftermarket business.

“I met Kenny in a motorcycle club that we both belonged to. He was a mechanic at the shop that helped me out—he started coming over in the evenings to help me in the garage,” Norm reflected. “We opened up [our shop] in Loma Linda on Highway 99 in 1957. That was the start of K&N. . . .Kenny always had an interest in engineering. Along with [running] the motorcycle shop, we built handlebars, fork braces, higher fenders for the endurance bikes that came from Japan, road race farings—a little bit of everything."

Norm McDonald, Ray Lee, and Ken Johnson with motorcycles circa 1960s

After purchasing air cleaner manufacturing equipment, Ken and Norm started manufacturing their first air filters. Developing an air filter design that would hold up to the rigors of the racetrack was a challenge.

 

“Everybody that had a motorcycle had problems with air cleaners,” Norm commented. “The paper filters would just get clogged up immediately. . . .when we started making the K&N air cleaner, we were using motor oil.” K&N would eventually develop its own proprietary filter oil, which is still in use to this day.

 

Ken and Norm’s new filter developed a reputation in the motorsports community—a reputation that still lives on. “I think the reason we have so many loyal K&N users is [that] they work,” Norm said. “Nothing works better. They’ve got a wonderful guarantee on them. They’re easy to clean, easy to maintain, and if you take good care of them, they’re pretty well good for a lifetime.”

 

Be sure to check out the video above for the full interview with Norm McDonald—including recollections on a very famous racing family, as well as vintage race footage and images from the earliest days of K&N. Thank you for helping us celebrate fifty years as the manufacturer of the World’s Best Air Filter™!

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