When I was a boy my father used to take my brother and I to the custom car shows in Cleveland
. We'd go to the Memorial Hall in the frigid weather and head inside under the bright lights to check out the custom car
s. My father had grown up a hot-rodder, and when he met my mom he drove a '49 Ford Flathead
with Edelbrock heads and three Stromberg carburetors on an offy manifold. He used to drag race
out by the Goodyear Airdock
and hung with some of the better racers of the day. My Dad was nothing special as a racer, he had a good, but not great car and he was a good, not great driver. In the company of guys like Otis Smith and 'Ohio' George Montgomery, he was an also-ran. But the loved the scene, loved the technology, and the challenge of making a car faster and neater.
But then he got married and I came along in very short order. Persnickety hot-rodded engines weren't the thing for young families, so the both sets of parents got together, took away the '49 street rod and replaced it with a much more respectable Packard. It would be years before Dad dabbled in hot rodding again, this time with a 1969 Dodge Dart with a free-revving 340 V-8, blueprinted and balanced, .040" overbore, .520" lift cam, new rods, pistons, headers, Edelbrock torquer manifold, with the bigger four-barrel off a 440, and narrowed 9 3/4" posi rear-end. The car required constant attention, but went like it was shot out of a cannon. One hundred miles per hour came really quick and the car shock at idle. The sound fired my dreams and I loved that car even after he got sick of it and sold it. In fact, I still love it.
The problem back then was the custom car shows had gotten a bit wierd. George Barris studios were really big back then Barris created the original Batmobile for the campy sixties TV-series, as well as the Munster coach and Dragula for the Munsters TV show. Cool looking cars, nicely fabricated (though I admit the Batmobile proved a big disappointment up close) but there was no way you would ever drive one. In fact they weren't driveable at all. Dad despised trailer queens. He thought the whole point of a car was to go, that a car that just sat there made no sense. The kind of car he liked was driven regularly, and hopefully raced. They were real cars unlike the absurd Red Baron mobile at the shows. He thought the real hot rods were going away, and so we stopped going to the shows.
Today I went to my first custom car show in almost forty years. The drawing card for me was three 'Swamp Rat" dragsters from the 1960s. You see "Big Daddy" Don Garlits always called his dragsters a "swamp rat". Garlits is quite simply the greatest drag racer of all time. He defined the Top Fuel Dragster for three generations. He created the original front engine 'slingshot rails that dominated the late fifties and sixties. After a transmission explosion amputated part of his foot, Garlits created the first competitive mid-engined dragster. He won National races and championships in three different decades. And so to see three Swamp Rats was a look back into history, for me, and to see three of the most historically important cars in the sport. The fact that rails run by Connie Kallita and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme were also on display sealed the deal, for if Garlits had a rival in the day, it was Prudhomme.
I know my race cars. They didn't have a single road racing car on display, an omission I found sad though road racing isn't so much about hot-rodding, though modding street cars is very much part of the sport. They had plenty of trailer queens, whose paint jobs cost more then a year's worth of the minumum wage. But I think Dad would have been pleased. None of the cars looked as if they could not be driven, with one exception that sort of lacked any real provisions for braking and engine management. All the rest looked like the could be started and at least driven on the trailer. The sort of car a determined hobbyist might build, and to be honest pretty much everyone there was a hobbyist. Real, pretty fast cars, sometimes chopped and channeled, pretty cars with great detailing and big, honkin' motors. And they had a new trend, 'salvaged' race cars, they called them 'barn cars'. Old, rusty cars, operable but not so pretty, often with bar metal and surface rust that had not (yet) been ground away, owners who showed pride in the car's salvage from imminent cancer.
I ran into a man who raced pro stock on a budget, a nearly impossible proposition when a competitive engine runs for $150K. He explained the pull shifters as no one can row a gear fast enough these days. I saw old indy cars, one with twin rear axles and shiny offenhauser engines. And many of these cars were truly beautiful, labors of love. It was easy to find people to talk to, for everyone there loved cars, and wanted to know more. I had a really good time.
I don't know if I'll go to the custom car show next year. But I'm sure it won't be forty years until I go again.