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June 26, 2007

Neo Hot Rods

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The ball's in my court.

Uh, check that. That's not a ball. It's ... a grenade!

The safety ring had been pulled out. And the lever is in the open position.

What's this nonsense? It seems I got an email from Michael (Himself) Blowhard passing along a message from one "zebic" in Australia who had a link to pictures of a Holden (General Motors) dream car with a hot rod styling theme. The subliminal hint was that it might be nice to do a post on this.

[Click heels. Give snappy salute.]

The subject of hot rods -- or more specifically, hot rods with customized bodies -- is one I've toyed with, but avoided writing about. That's because I've have this thing about custom rods. I suppose I should explain.

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles had an exhibit a while ago featuring Kustom Kars from what they called the high point of hot rod custom building -- roughly 1945-1955. As it happens, I was an early-teen during the last few years of that golden epoch. Believe me, rods and Kustoms were the talk of junior high boys who were too young to drive and too broke to buy a car of any kind, let alone get the goodies to soup up the motor or pay a body shop to chop 'n' channel 'n' section the beastie.

Guys would go on and on about which car would be best (Ford and Mercury flat-head V8s were the strong consensus pick). Then the conversation would shift to how much the engine block should be shaved and what brands of hot camshafts and exhaust systems would be best. Along with this would be customizing: tweak the suspension to lower the front, the back or both? What grille to substitute. (Implicit was that nearly all the production chrome trim would be pulled off, the attachment holes leaded in and the car repainted.)

Me? I had much less of an engineering mindset than I do now, so the engine talk was largely lost on me. But the customizing subject bothered me.

Here it gets a little complicated. I was becoming knowlegeable about custom automobiles of the 1930s. These are a subset of what are known as Classic Cars. A Classic Car is usually a car that was expensive in its day and often had interesting or unusual engineering and styling features. (The Classic Car Club of America has a list of makes and models that are "officially" classic, but that's a side-topic.) A customized classic usually retained the production hood, dash panel and fenders. A bespoke-body firm (an outfit often literally in the "carriage trade" originally -- and certainly not a backyard panel-beater) would receive a chassis from the manufacturer with only the previously-mentioned body parts or, sometimes, a complete car from which much of the body aft of the hood would be removed. Then a special design would be constructed to replace the now-missing passenger area.

Fine by me. But for some reason I didn't like the idea of taking ordinary cars and playing games with their looks. I still don't, but can't really say why.

Much of the rest of the world, including many professional automobile stylists, take a different view. A popular production car -- the Chrysler PT Cruiser -- has the vibes of a mid-30s Ford with a dropped front end because the design honcho at Chrysler at the time it was hatched -- Tom Gale -- was a hot rod fan.

On the other hand, I don't object if a dream car like that Holden has a Kustom Kar theme. And it doesn't bother me if a new car is used as the basis for custom bodywork. (Kustom Kars normally were modifications of cars that were 5-25 years old and disappearing from the streets. Maybe that's why I wasn't happy with them: the historian in me.)

Enough prelude. On to the pictures.


1950 Mercury
Mercurys from model years 1949-51 in their original form disappeared from the streets far more rapidly than their contemporaries because they were prime Kustom Kar material: flat-head V8 motor and an interesting Bob Gregorie-styled body were key elements.

1949 Mercury as Kustom Kar
This Kustom goes beyond the superficial, yet dosn't achieve truly radical status. Simple modifications include a new grille, frenched headlights, trim changes and a flash paint-job. The big, expensive modification is the chopped top.

Holden EFIJY
Here's the Holden show car mentioned above. Holden is General Motors' Australian subsidiary and does a good deal of its own engineering and design work. Its web site's presentation on the EFIJY is here. Yes, it's Retro and Kustom. And fun.

EFIJY rear view
This is a corporate illustration showing what the back of the car looks like.

Holden FJ
EFIJY seems to be a riff on FJ, the model name of a post-war Holden that probably served as the basis for rodding and customizing in times past. Note that the EFIJY uses its grille theme.

Plymouth Prowler
This is the first of Tom Gale's production cars inspired by rods and Kustoms. It didn't have a large production run and isn't entirely practical, but from time to time you can seen one on the streets.

Ford 1936 Impression by Chip Foose
Chip Foose is a graduate of the Art Center and has done most of his transporation design work in the rod-Kustom field. Some of his cars become the basis for models and others are placed in very limited production. A one-off Foose can be worth well into six figures.

Hemisfear by Chip Foose
This Foose design was intended for limited production -- about 50 were planned.

Aluma by Boyd Coddington
Foose used to work for Coddington, but the Aluma is credited to Coddington and I'm not sure who was responsible for the styling. This and the Hemisfear are what hot rods might have looked like had modern technology, a trained designer and wads of cash been available.



posted by Donald at June 26, 2007


Ouwww, that Holden EF&c&c is a beautiful thing...

Posted by: Tatyana on June 26, 2007 4:36 PM

When we were 14 and 15 years old my friend Robert had quite a Ford vs. Chevy rivalry. I was a Ford man, constantly extolling the brand's virtues and denigrating those junky Chevrolets, while Robert was a Chevy man and said the exact opposite. What's funny is that we were too young to drive and had basically no first-hand knowledge of either brand.

A few years later, after getting my license, I got my first car ... a used Chevrolet.

Posted by: Peter on June 26, 2007 10:15 PM

Wow! Fantastic pictures!

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 26, 2007 10:23 PM

Woo-hoo, love those hot rods! Neo-retro-primitive-futuristic heaven. I love kooky Kalifornia Kar Culture too, people expressing themselves through their cars and making them really their own, America at its nuttiest and most lovable. You don't approve? Or aren't tickled by the spectacle anyway?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 26, 2007 10:31 PM

I like the PT Cruiser look but I'm disappointed that they didn't go all the way and bring back running boards. The Cruiser has a faux running board that's worse than useless.
So much of the appeal of the '30s thru '50s styling relates, IMO, to the retention of carriage formalities - of which, running boards are only one example - that made getting in and out of a car special, an occasion. Long and low is good in its own right but so much has been lost.

Posted by: ricpic on June 27, 2007 8:26 AM

The PT cruiser is a rip off of a chrysler air flow

Posted by: uncle leon on June 27, 2007 11:10 PM


Driving around Southern California I see cars--usually sports cars but occasionally SUVs--which I can't relate to any known brand, including "ordinary" exotics like Maserati or Ferrari. I fear that I've risked accidents by trying to get up close and read their nameplates. Obviously there is a market today for very limited production run vehicles; or, possibly, somebody is modifying production vehicles and changing the nameplates. Are you up on any of this?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 28, 2007 10:04 AM

Friedrich -- What I'm aware of is that from time to time somebody comes up with a new "supercar" that (usually) has a weird, race-car looking shape. The somebody often is a guy with cred of some kind -- maybe a former stylist for a luxury marque -- and gets $$$ from angels. The plan is to produce perhaps 100 of the things per year at $250K per item. In the effort to "do it right" from an engineering standpoint, development takes so long that the hot styling begins to look old and the order book entries dwindle to the point that there are half a dozen examples built before the enterprise fails.

Then again, you might have been seeing fibreglas "kit cars" that look flashy but are based on a comparatively cheapo platform. (Years ago the platform might even have been that of a VW Beetle.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 28, 2007 2:07 PM

I've always wanted to drive one of these.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 28, 2007 9:39 PM

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