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Rat Rods, Hot Rods & Customs: We Didn’t Need No Stinkin’ iPads

 By Larry Leonard

 “While we had America, though, we turned a blues riff in “B” to rock and roll, developed fashion to its pinnacle of blue jeans, a white t-shirt, a leather jacket and James Dean.”

North Plains, Oregon, just after Easter of 2012 — My HAM pal, Wayne (WA7ZNZ) was visiting the local post office (which when I first saw it had single letters on each box — for the young, this means so few residents that their address consisted of one, single letter (and there’s a tiny linguistic irony.)  Wayne does not have a mental lens of the correct focal length to view humanity from a psychological perspective, and then grinning ear to ear dance across the tops of the bubble ironies, like Santa laughing all the way.

Photo by Wayne

He is German. Northern Oregon is just chock full of them. Quite often they are named Gerry or Schmidt, but are all over the place and have an unusual attraction to machines. Wayne the HAM is a machinist by trade, in fact. When he and I were young — not that Germans are really ever young — he found a 1931 Model “A” coupe just like this one. Then ,In McMinneville, we found one for me, too. It cost me $25, and was a 1931, as well, but was a “roadster.” That is, a convertible. This was during the Fab Fifties. It was a pre-nanny-state period in America which did not make boys wear motorcycle helmets. Then beginning in the Sixties women noticed they could vote, and a less than perfect, but glorious, America was ruined.

Back in the Day

While we had America, though, we turned a blues riff in “B” to rock and roll, developed fashion to its pinnacle of blue jeans, a white t-shirt, a leather jacket and James Dean. And, since a full time job in those days might earn four hundred bucks a month, we began combining old and even older automobile components from various years and makers into unique, personal vehicles.

In Australia the car above would be called a “rat rod.” That is, as it stands. The instant one painted it and refreshed the chrome, it became another species: the “hot rod.” Young fools today, think a ’49 Merc coupe is also a hot rod. It is not. It is a “custom.”  Only cars like that may be called a “rod” of any kind.

The joys and tribulations of the Fifties hot rodder

Well, I saved Wayne’s life during the construction of his rod, and cannot tell you about the incident for geographical reasons even though the act was deserving of a segment in an Errol Flynn adventure film — and to this day stands as my finest exhibit of both quick-thinking and top-drawer guts. (Not even the confrontation with a Great White shark compares.) And, in like manner, the construction of my rod saved my life, as well. That’s two lives saved. One per rod.

Just for the technocrats born to unfortunate later eras who don’t understand why they’ve never been really happy, the secret to the age was an old barn or shed, an Arvin AM radio playing Buddy Holly and the Crickets or a sports contest, a girlfriend with a pony-tail, access to a cutting torch and a chain hoist and an old Ford. You put the old Ford in the barn where the milk cows used to be, then took it apart, cut out the bottom and welded or bracketed the sides to the frame. Then you removed the old four-cylinder engine and in its place bolted a V-8. The best V-8s were also Fords. Called “flatheads,” you could modify them by adding carburetors, improve compression values by removing layers of their “heads,” changing their camshaft lobes into elipses of greater eccentricity, changing the valve ports so that they allowed an increased rate of fuel/air mixture and changed the exhaust system so it allowed a more efficient release of the combusted mixture.

Twin-pipe crooners

This latter element, when sent through twin glasspak mufflers (one for each four-cylinder bank of pistons) made a sound that caressed the ears like the languid tongue of a teen supermodel at the Carview Drive-in theatre in Cornelius on Saturday night. Lord, but one wonders how many present family dynasties were founded in such a place and time.

Anyway, add the radiator shell from a ’32 Ford, ’50 Pontiac tail lights, the hydraulic brakes from a ’39 Ford, big fuzzy dice from a Jan and Dean concert, tuck and roll upholstery, up-dated shock absorbers, an electric fuel pump, a 12-volt electric system from a ’49 Merc, a stick-on-the-floor transmission from a pickup truck (along with its clutch), a tachometer and sixteen coats of the paint color of your choice, perhaps with flames, and you had a vehicle which could break 90 mph in the quarter mile while making music that could rattle window glass half a county away.

But, sweetly so. It was an exhaust roar made out of Perry Como components. Lightning made of cotton candy. Next to a Harley Davidson knuckle-head, one of the two most beautiful sounds ever to exist in the universe.

If they paint the rod, above, it will go from “rat” to “hot.” Because of the giant OHV eight they’ve installed, it will go faster than the old flathead version, but will pay a price in aural symphonics in the process. It will sound like muscle, not like a song by crooner gods. But, it will still be a “rod” that comes from the noblest of blood lines, and when passing will bring watering to these old eyes.


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