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Reinventing the Wheel

Ken Gross

Once considered a working-class, quasi-outlaw pastime, hot-rodding has achieved a level of respectability today beyond anything that its dry lakes–racing, drag strip–streaking pioneers likely could have imagined.
A few years ago, the coveted Ridler trophy winner for “best in show” at the Detroit Autorama went to a 1936 Ford coupe that reportedly cost more than $2 million to build; while every two years, a highly select group of historic hot rods parades over the hallowed lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and other respected classic-car events.

Although guys were stripping down and souping up old cars before World War II, hot-rodding and its more benign cousin, customizing, took off in earnest after the war. Thrill-seeking vets returned from the battlefield with newly honed mechanical skills and—thanks to saved-up combat pay—money to spend. After nearly three years of pent-up demand (cars weren’t produced from February 1942 until early 1946), new models were in short supply. By way of a resolution, guys began buying older cars and modifying them to run faster and look better.

When it came to what hot-rodders valued most, two things prevailed—power and performance. To meet demand, an entire industry sprang up to sell speed equipment and “doll-up” parts. Customizers lowered cars for a sleeker silhouette, shaved unnecessary trim, leaded in the holes (hence the name “lead sleds”), reshaped fenders, and chopped tops, transforming lowly Fords and Mercurys into pseudo-Cadillacs.

Hot-rodding boomed through the ’50s but slumped in the mid-’60s, when factory muscle cars, like the Pontiac GTO and Dodge Charger, invaded dealership showrooms and offered high performance at an affordable price. Predictably, street rods were mothballed, but they began to reemerge after George Lucas’ American Graffiti reminded enthusiasts of how much they had lost.

Whether you have a restored or custom vehicle ready for show at a concours, a historic drag race, or simply a Sunday drive, you can relive your misspent youth or enjoy the youth you never had in a hot rod. As Bruce Meyer, a Beverly Hills–based collector and the owner of the former Pierson Brothers ’34 Ford coupe and the ex–Doane Spencer ’32 Ford roadster, likes to say, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

Getting there, of course, requires the car. Some enthusiasts have the skills to build a hot rod themselves, but many others turn to experts to create or restore the vehicle of their dreams. From coast to coast, exceptional shops abound, ready to produce the car you’ve always wanted or one that you’ve never seen. The only thing they require from you is the vision.

Remembrance of Things Past
Rick Dore is blessed with a vivid imagination, and one of the things he does best is reach into the past, find a classic everyone knows, and integrate those old themes into a fresh approach with countless subtle updates. The result is at once familiar and like nothing ever seen before. The sleek ’37 Lincoln-Zephyr coupe that Dore built for James Hetfield is a perfect example. But then, so are the sleek Auburn Speedster and Buick Riviera customs that Hetfield commissioned. As the 48-year-old car enthusiast and Metallica front man declares, “Rick Dore is in a league of his own.”

The cars that bear a Rick Dore Kustoms (www.rickdore.com) insignia haven’t been hacked up and decorated with trim from other makes. Instead, Dore accentuates their best features, severely lowers the chassis for a better silhouette, and simplifies the lines. When they’re ready, he coats them with a gleaming iridescent finish, an artistic aspect that has become his signature. Notably, Dore chooses to work his magic on cars that most customizers don’t often fancy, like a Lincoln four-door convertible from the early ’60s, a Mercury-like Hudson coupe from the early ’50s, even a custom ’34 Ford roadster, accented by the swoopy skirted rear fenders from a ’36 Ford. “It opened up people’s minds,” Dore says of that car. “Nobody expected it.”

As one Seattle-based hot rod writer declares, “Rick Dore has a restless and inventive spirit. He reaches out and goes where nobody has ever gone before.”

Talk to Dore’s customers and they’ll all agree: he sees the inherent beauty in many cars, strips away the excess trim, and reveals the purity of the original designer’s intentions. He respectfully pays homage to a long-lost model many people revere, and in the end he’ll make it better. Dore himself will tell you that he once was influenced by classic custom cars like the legendary Nick Matranga ’40 Mercury and Matranga’s trendsetting ’51 Mercury that was hard-topped by the Barris shop. Dore has been there and done them, but he’s moving on.

“I’ve done some traditional ’50s-style customs, but I’m not really into sleds anymore,” he says from his main shop in Phoenix. “I’d prefer to take what Detroit gave us and enhance its existing lines. Both Cadillac roadsters I built resemble concept cars, or maybe they’re long-lost show cars, just discovered, that Detroit designers put away in storage. They borrow from the best of the past. I still like ’em slammed on the ground, though.”

Dore’s iridescent finishes may be his trademark, but his imaginative use of color is what attracts the eye. Dore’s work with pastels, pearls, and candies is both unique and unmistakable. “I’m fortunate that some of the best painters in the business, like Art Himsl, let me fool around in their shops,” he says. “I’ll come up with a shade, something I’ll mix myself, and they’ll figure out how to make a hundred times as much.

“My inspiration comes from everywhere,” he adds, explaining that a walk through an Italian flea market south of Rome led to his discovery of some African stones, where almost instantly he found a shade of green that he would later use on a 1934 Ford “Flashback.” “To me, color is 99 percent,” he says. “It has to draw you to the car. Then you look at the details.”

Sweet Home Alabama
Northeast of Birmingham, Ala., in the city of Gadsden, Alan Johnson maneuvers through a busy shop, creating rods and customs that build upon the inherently great lines of early Fords or Chevrolets. After surveying Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop (www.johnsonshotrodshop.com) and its stable of completed projects, it’s clear that there’s not much Johnson and his talented crew haven’t tried, and even less that they can’t do. From traditional hot rods to modernized muscle cars, a phantom woody, a super rod–style pickup, even a record-setting Bonneville racer, nothing scares them. “My interests vary, like my customers,” Johnson says. “If a project excites me and my guys, we’ll go at it 110 percent. It’s just got to turn me on.

“I really don’t like doing the same thing over and over,” he adds. “While I like the traditional look, with most of my customers I’m able to make some changes and add modern improvements.” Johnson’s efforts on Doug Cooper’s subtly reproportioned ’32 Ford B-400 and on his own modern classic Deuce roadster illustrate that skill. The critics rewarded him for it, too, as the B-400 won the coveted Don Ridler Award at the Detroit Autorama in 2009.

To best describe the car, it’s what might have happened had Henry Ford hired one of the leading coachbuilders of the time to build an automobile. They started with a decent Ford Victoria body and carefully massaged it into a fabric-topped B-400. “I wanted to keep what Henry had with the original B-400,” Johnson explains, “but more like the feeling of a classic Duesenberg with a Murphy or Dietrich custom body. This really is a coachbuilt hot rod.”

The hood was lengthened a few inches, so that it now runs all the way to the windshield—a long-forgotten styling trick that a handful of enterprising coachbuilders executed during the 1930s. Besides dramatically reproportioning the car, Johnson says that the modification eliminates the inherent stubbiness of a ’32 Ford, allowing it to approach the majesty of a major classic. “I wanted something elegant,” he continues. “This is a gentleman’s hot rod that would look right pulling onto the field at Pebble Beach. There are a lot of custom billet pieces, but they’ve been extensively modified, then hand-finished so they resemble original factory castings.”

Cooper agrees. “This car is very understated,” he says. “That’s Alan’s style. He likes to push a car outside, stand back a ways, and look at it. He lets the design speak for itself.” As a car enthusiast who always has taken a hands-on approach, Cooper had a lot of involvement with the project. “I tried to get to Alabama half a dozen times a year,” he says. “I’d stay three or four days, even a week. Other times, Alan sent me photographs or I looked at sketches. I was very interested and I wanted to contribute.”

A Different Drummer
A childhood spent working in his family’s flower shop earned Ken Fenical the nickname of Posies, but within the hot rod community he’s better known for the Super Slide springs that he manufactures. “Years ago,” he says, “when Jim Ewing was fabricating dropped axles, most springs were custom-made. I gave Jim the measurements and said, ‘if you can make your axles to these dimensions, I’ll give you perfectly consistent springs.’” A suspension expert, Fenical now offers a wide range of street rod springs, including Bugatti-like quarter-elliptics, through his central Pennsylvania–based business, aptly called Posies (www.posiesrodsandcustoms.com).

But Posies offers much more than suspension components; it also creates complete custom vehicles. In that regard, Fenical marches to the beat of his own drum, which can result in some unique cars, like his Extremeliner, a woody-like, Art Deco station wagon—a car that some people believe was the inspiration behind the PT Cruiser—or his Aeroliner, a long, skinny roadster that took a 1935 Ford to heights Henry never imagined. Inspired by the French Art Deco speedsters of the 1930s, the Aeroliner’s chassis was stretched to a 139-inch wheelbase and narrowed by six inches, while the body was massaged until it took on a more graceful shape.

“I like to build statements,” Fenical explains. By that he means head-turning rods and customs that often don’t resemble any portion of the cars on which they were based. “With the Extremeliner,” Fenical says proudly, “we made everything on that car except the engine, the driveline, and the tires.” The car shook up the scene at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas a few years back, and if you happen to meet people who were present at that event, you’ll likely discover that they’re still talking about it.

Currently, Fenical is putting the final touches on a ’55 Ford two-door station wagon, equipping it with a 600 bhp, Jack Roush–built Ford Coyote V-8. Mildly customized, with a totally contemporary driveline, the wagon will tour the car show circuit for an entire year flying the Roush banner. Fenical also recently completed a Kaiser pickup truck, one of just three examples originally built in 1950, though it now boasts a unique, dechromed, discreetly trimmed shape. Instead of the anemic 6-cylinder flathead that Henry J. Kaiser had installed under its hood, the vehicle—finished in a distinctive metallic green—now gets its power from a hot Chevy V-8.

“It’s one of just three Kaiser pickups built for Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz,” Fenical explains. Known as the king of California television sales in the ’50s, Muntz also invented the four-track tape recorder, a forerunner to the eight-track. According to Fenical, back in the day these rare pickups were used by Kaiser dealers as promotional vehicles. This is the sole survivor, he says, and you can bet some purists are upset that it’s been extensively modified. But if Fenical is worried about retribution from the Kaiser Frazer Owners Club, he doesn’t show it. Not as he cheerfully sells T-shirts in his shop that read, “Anybody can restore a car; it takes a real man to cut one up!”

Gary Maisel of Annapolis, Md., is the proud owner of the custom “Kaiser Kamino” and points to Fenical’s portfolio of work as the selling point. “I wanted a very different car,” he says. “My wife and I came with some of our ideas, and Posies added his input. Now that it’s almost done, we can’t wait to show it off.”

Building on Tradition
From his shop in north central Massachusetts, Dave Simard builds traditional-style hot rods, specializing in 1932 to 1934 Fords. However, the talented fabricator and owner of East Coast Custom will assure you that he can do anything, even 100-point restorations. As proof, he’ll point to his award-winning restoration of the ex–Jim Khougaz dry lakes roadster, which appeared at Pebble Beach in 2007.

Simard’s credo is simple: he does everything as well as it can be done, with great respect for originality. “You’ve got to restore a car before you can make a hot rod out of it,” he says. “If you don’t, you’ll never get it to look right.” Guided by that philosophy, Simard will spend as long as it takes to find original parts, and he’ll scrutinize every aspect of his metal-finished cars, making sure each panel is razor-straight. If you think old Fords never were assembled this well in the factory you’d be right. “Standards are higher today,” says Simard. “Everybody wants the best.”

Surrounded by authentic old parts and customers’ cars in various states of completion, Simard will work continuously on a car or do as little as a week’s worth of work per month, whatever budgets permit. With a staff of only four technicians working out of his approximately 2,000-square-foot shop, Simard does a lot of the work himself, and he likes it that way. There’s a waiting list for those seeking an East Coast Custom roadster, but past customers will tell you that it’s worth the wait. As they explain, Simard’s ability to combine the very old with the latest technology and gift wrap it in a beautifully restored original body is what separates Simard’s shop from most others.

Currently, Simard’s attention is focused on a ’32 Ford roadster commissioned by Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s vice president of marketing and communications. Equipped with an original steel body and frame, the car boasts a modern 4.6-liter, 4-valve Ford V-8 that Simard has reworked to closely resemble a one-off experimental engine that once graced magazine covers in 1955. Because Farley admires Indy cars from the ’50s, this roadster is intended to resemble the type of car that an Indy crew chief might have built in his spare time, if he had any. The car won’t be ready until the 2013 Grand National Roadster Show, but when it’s finished, the car—painted a dark maroon reminiscent of 1930s racecars—will wow enthusiasts with oversize vintage Stewart Warner instruments, a torsion bar suspension, plenty of handmade parts, and that bespoke engine.

“Dave’s a special guy, a true artisan,” Farley says of Simard. “He really does define the ideals of hot-rodding. He is very innovative, despite using materials from back in the day, and he never takes the easy way through his craft. He makes it better, faster, and safer with his own intuition. That’s rarer and rarer [to find] these days.”

Hot Rods by the Bay
Roy Brizio didn’t grow up in the ’50s, but you’d never know that from the cars he builds. Take the little ’32 Ford three-window coupe that his shop produced for his longtime friend and client, John Mumford, who has a secret hideaway atop Brizio’s shop in South San Francisco. The car is a total time warp, with a stout Oldsmobile V-8 under the 25-louver hood, immaculate wide-whites, ’53 Olds Fiesta spinner hubcaps, twin-tone tuck–and-roll Naugahyde, and a wet aqua finish that looks as though it came right off an Esther Williams bathing suit.

With Brizio, the devil’s always in the details, and Mumford’s coupe is a perfect example of what a guy with skill, taste, and money would have crafted half a century ago. Notable features include an Art Deco ’40 Ford steering wheel, Guide 682-C headlights, Pontiac taillights, and a painted script on the decklid that reads “Stagger Lee.”

Brizio’s shop, Roy Brizio Street Rods (http://www.roybriziostreet.com), is packed cheek by jowl with beautifully preserved early Ford V-8s, historic custom cars, and rare flathead speed equipment, along with several other magazine-cover-quality Brizio builds. He may fabricate cars for a Rolodex of successful rock stars and professional athletes, but he also accepts commissions from other, less-notable hot rod enthusiasts. Such builds include a chopped and dropped ’36 Ford that first appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in 1949 and more recently won its class at Pebble Beach when the Concours celebrated prewar custom cars; and a little lakes roadster modified with a narrowed Model T body and an Alfa Romeo twin-cam four.

Brizio is famous for rods that run, and run, and run. Brizio’s crew built Dave Schaub’s ’32 roadster, a car that Schaub used to circumnavigate the country in 2010, driving through 49 states in eight days. Last year, Schaub accomplished the feat for the second time, only he did so in one day less. “Roy and his guys don’t miss a detail,” Schaub says. “I had a lot of faith in them. When I picked up my car to drive cross-country, it was ready to go. And they do that for everybody.”

It’s a service that many other customers have come to discover and appreciate. “Although Roy probably builds more street rods than anybody, he’s really distinguished by cars that are built to drive and are very reliable,” says Mumford, who commissioned the first of many cars from Brizio 20 years ago. “He internalizes what his customers want and builds the cars that way. I’ve taken my cars cross-country, up to Canada, and I never worry. I just get in ’em and drive.”

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