Hot Rods Redux


The scene was faintly outrageous. Purists turned their heads away in disgust, the unintiated gaped, and a few of the anointed smiled.


The scene was faintly outrageous. Purists turned their heads away in disgust, the unintiated gaped, and a few of the anointed smiled. There, on the immaculate fairways of the Pebble Beach golf course, among the most elegant thoroughbreds in the automotive world—the Bugattis, the Fierce-Arrows, the Ferraris, the Hispano-Sui/as, the Duesenbergs, and the Rolls-Royces—were parked no less than nine cut-down, chopped and channeled, nosed and decked, flatheacl-powered “hot rods.” There they were, bad-boy junkyard dogs, intruding on the precincts of one of the world’s most prestigious automotive Concours d’Elegance, sitting in blocky defiance among the prim and polished esoterica.

The presence of the hot rods in the snooty realm of Pebble Beach in August 1997 was the final acknowledgment by automotive connoisseurs that these purely American machines, handcrafted by untrained artisans in the late 1930s and ’40s, were in fact works of automotive art deserving of exhibition beside the great classics that had long been celebrated as supreme unions between pure sculpture and twentieth-century technology. The nine hot rods, all original, flawlessly restored examples, most of them built in Southern California, the seedbed of the automotive culture, were, like most of their counterparts of the era, Ford-based. Power in seven of them came from the venerable Ford flathead V-8, though much modified by original “speed equipment” of the day (finned aluminum cylinder heads, twin carburetion, more radical camshafts, custom exhausts, et cetera). The favored bodies were from late-twenties- and early-thirties-vintage Model T and B roadsters, mounted on much-modified chassis and running gear.


The winning car, after lengthy scrutinizing by blue-blazered steely-eyed judges, was a shimmering black, all-original 1932 Ford “highboy” roadster that had been started in the late 1930s by a Los Angeles teenager named Doane Spencer, who had gone on to become a famed craftsman in the Southern California car culture. Its owner was the Beverly Hills sportsman Bruce Meyer, whose collection of pristine cars ranges from Duesenbergs and Ferraris to several rare and valuable hot rods. Second place was another 1932 Ford, whose provenance included recorded speeds of nearly 130 miles per hour during trials by its builder, Ray Brown, on California’s high desert dry lakes, where the entire culture started in the dim years of the late 1920s.

Dim because although it is known that young men were driving cut-down, slightly modified Model T flivvers to California’s Rosamond, Muroc (now Rogers), and El Mirage dry lakes north and east of Lancaster for high-speed runs sometime after World War I, no recorded history exists. By the late 1920s a fledgling speed-equipment industry had begun with add-on bits for Ford Model T and A four-cylinder flatheads. Lee Chapel had a speed shop operating out of a wrecking yard on San Fernando Road south of Glendale, while George Wight was running a similar setup at his junkyard in the tiny, dust-swept town of Bell, southeast of Los Angeles. Wight’s business became Bell Auto Parts, the source of both Cragar custom wheels and Bell Helmets, the latter a multimillion-dollar manufacturer of motorcycle and bicycle helmets.


Even in the Depression-racked thirties, young men in the Los Angeles basin found sufficient money and ingenuity to create high-powered or “souped-up” versions of Ford engines—both the early four-cylinders and the more powerful flathead V-Ss that appeared in 1932. While some racing took place on Los Angeles streets, the vast acreage of the dry lakes formed the basic testing ground. Each weekend the lumpy roads leading up to Rosamond and Muroc swirled with dust churned up by hundreds of cut-down roadsters driven by eager, brush-cut racers. Among them were instinctive mechanical geniuses who would later develop innovations in carburetion, camshafts, cylinder heads, ignition systems, magnesium wheels, fuel injection, and myriad other technological breakthroughs: Stuart Hillborn, who perfected simple, direct-fuel injection; Ted Halibrand, a Douglass Aircraft engineer, who invented the magnesium wheel; Roy Richter, who created the Bell helmet; the camshaft and carburetor prodigy Ed Winfield; Vie Edelbrock, who owned one of the first speed shops in L.A.; and the camshaft pioneer Ed Iskenderian. They and dozens of other self-taught mechanics contributed volumes to the automotive technology employed in modern passenger cars.