Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tommy Sparks, my First Hot Rod, and the Last Flathead ( Part 6 )

Within a couple weeks of getting back home I booked my first flight to So-Cal for the sole purpose of checking out some more car stuff. This was going to be a different kind of trip for me. No business, no music jobs to play, just research... hot rod research.

That last bit that Tom had told me was really haunting me. Could this be that there were a bunch of guys my age building 1940s style dry lakes hot rods? Driving them on the street and to cruise-ins, and running in packs as if it were 50-60 years ago? I couldn't get there fast enough to see this for myself.

Fortunately for me a good friend had recently moved out to the Hollywood area and had a guest/pool house that I could stay in. I arrived into town and quickly gave Tom a call to see if we were still on for going over to the Bob's Big Boy friday night cruise-in. He said sure and to meet him at his house at 5pm. I hopped in my rental car, drove over the hills, and met Tom as he requested. Low and behold when I went to turn in his driveway it was already taken. Sitting there gleaming in the California sun was a '29 roadster on deuce rails. This was one of Tom's cars that I had seen the first time I visited. It is a semi-modern roadster that was built by Roy Brizio as one of his first customer cars. It has a Chevy in it with a turbo 400, a nice finished interior, above average paint, but is pleasantly traditional. I-beam axle with split hair-pins, 9 inch Ford, polished Halibrands, and a nice aggressive stance. The engine is strong and makes a great sound. I found out later that the car houses a 1970 LT1 370hp 350 that had been built up a bit and that the car is on record as having run high 11 second quarter mile times. Plenty fast for a street roadster.

So there we were. I was going to my 1st So-Cal cruise in and couldn't be doing it in any more style than this. Riding in a hot rod roadster with Tom Sparks. Pretty cool.

We ran down Riverside into the Toluca Lake/Burbank area and were soon upon the great scene. From at least a quarter mile off I saw the Bob's sign hanging out over the street in its over-the-top 1950s style and all around us in traffic were hot rods, muscle cars, and every other kind of interesting machine imaginable. All headed toward Bob's. When we came to the entrance I could see that there was no way in, and most definitely no open parking spaces... and it wasn't even 5:30 yet and still light out. There were multiple Cobras, lots of muscle cars- many of them unrestored survivors, I remember a surprising number of vintage brit bikes, solid axle Corvettes, old gassers and super stocks with their noses in the air, sportscars, and of course the usual street rods. This was definitely a "something for everybody" scene. I was so anxious to see some of these throw-back roadster guys that I was looking through the cars sharply for any sign of them. Nothing yet, but Tom assured me that they'd been showing up with great regularity.

We parked his car a block away and walked back up Riverside to take a lap or two around the parking lot. It was just amazing. So many things struck me as unique to the southern California scene that day that it is difficult to zero in on one, but I'll rattle off a few that really got me and continue to do so; For starters, you realize that many enthusiasts out there drive their cars a lot. It is such a part of the culture and signature of individuality for Californians ... and of course the weather is so damn agreeable. By and large the cars were not as show prepped as you would find at a cruise-in in the mid-west. They were driven in from where they live and looked to have been driven all that day and several times through the week. I clearly remember a '66 GT350H that was parked near the front door to Bob's that looked as though it was there because its owner had to inspect something in the kitchen. It had discarded this and that in the floorboards, the windows were down, it was unlocked, and no one was nearby watching every move every onlooker made near it. It was a very tidy car with older paint that looked well sorted. This was a look and feel that I would find in many a collector car seen through the years in and around southern California, and one I really liked. What a pleasant break from the cars with mirrors underneath and a brake drum off to show the restoration work. Nothing wrong with that of course, but in this case I knew that if I hung around long enough I would get to hear a well tuned solid lifter hi-po 289 fire up willingly, pull out into traffic, and zip away. Knowing that option was there if I wanted gave a whole new level of enjoyment to being up close to these great cars.

The other thing that I kept shaking my head at was the fact that, if you walked up to, lets say, a solid axle Corvette- it would be a high-performance version more often than not. I use the Corvette here just as an example, but it was that way with virtually anything I would come upon. A Road Runner was liable to be a 6-pack or a Hemi, the XK140 Jag over there has the C-Type head, that '57 Olds is an original J-2, and that '73 lime green 911 is an RS, and on and on. I think it just gets back to how "at the front" the car has always been in their culture. It's just a notch or two more important there than it is most anywhere else and it is clearly reflected in the kinds of cars that were ordered new and still remain there today. Lucky for the rest of us that they are in the best climate for car preservation ever invented.

As all of this was washing over me, Tom recommended that we go in and eat while we could, before the real rush happened. I couldn't believe my ears... real rush? The place couldn't be more packed. It was more like being at the coolest burger joint on the weekend of the hot rod nationals than at one of many weekly cruise-in spots. How was it going to ramp up from this? Ah, ye of little So-Cal knowledge... I had no idea. We got a table after a short wait and placed our order. Lucky for me we got a booth right in the front window bordering Riverside drive and were able to see all of the cars as they would come in. It was a great backdrop for continuing some conversation with Tom.

He was interested in hearing about the music business and I, of course, was interested in his life with cars. So fortunately for both of us it wasn't completely one sided, as I know I would have just driven him nuts. We even stumbled on the fact that we both held bicycle riding as one of the more important parts of our lives. Tom had great success as a champion level long distance racer and really knocked me out with some of his stories from those days. I had spent a few years of my life believing that I might have a career in riding BMX freestyle, having put a team together in the midwest to put on bike shows and demos complete with mobile vert ramps and the like. This was nothing to compare with what Tom had done but it was some common ground outside of the car world and I was surprised how interested Tom was in hearing about it and how it worked.

Of course we were back onto cars before we knew it and with every sentence I just became more and more amazed at what he had been able to accomplish. I had gone into this with a decent understanding of Tom's career in hot rodding and, believe me, that part of his career would be more than impressive just on its own. But I was now learning about all of the many other facets of his career that I frankly didn't see coming. It just went on and on. Success with sports cars during the golden age of Cal-Club racing in the 1950s ( including some home made Ford based specials, a C-Type Jag, and a Maserati supercharged grand prix car ), racing stock cars with Bill Stroppe, his long running history of showing his restorations at Pebble Beach and judging there for over 30 years, and then of course his long relationship with the movie studios. I just couldn't believe my ears... especially when

... it happened. We were sitting next to that window having pleasant conversation when suddenly the sound of several rapping, raspy, throaty exhaust notes filled the air both inside Bob's and out. Reverberating off of the store fronts up and down Riverside like rolling thunder and then the source finally coming into view. Tom looked out the window and said with a smile on his face,"There they are." There they were indeed. The hot rodders! It was everything I had ever imagined in my wildest dreams but intensified well past anything I could have envisioned. It was everything! The whole reason the term was ever coined. The complete explanation for why it had such a nasty and explosive reputation when it arrived on the scene back in the day. It was chaos. Every head whipped around to see what was happening, people stepped back from the sidewalk, parents grabbed their children and clutched them. And these hoodlums, these delinquents, these Hot Rodders, came wheeling into the parking lot, tires squealing, as if it were their own. They instantly made you feel like you'd been caught on their turf, like you'd better leave if you know what's good for you.

They drove around the parking lot looking for the right spot to back into. Engines revving through open exhaust, lurching forward over and over as they darted around in low gear. Every action they took, every move they made, even the way they looked and the way they sat in theirs cars, was rude. Completely rude... and in the greatest way! This was ____ing hot rodding man! This was it. Down and dirty, scaring women and children and grown men alike. This is why it existed then, why it has continued to exist in various forms to this day, and why its impact has been felt both culturally and throughout the automotive world for over 60 years. Absolute pure American hot rodding. I had no idea, until that very moment, that I had never seen or experienced hot rodding. I thought I had, but I hadn't. This was my first view of it and its pure, visceral, dangerous, human quality was filling every sense I had.

I jumped up and grabbed my camera and started for the door. Tom yelled out,"where you going? Those guys will be out there all night." But I couldn't help myself. It was like a giant shark was swimming by and I had to snap a shot or it would go under and I'd never see it again. I burst out the door and caught a shot of the lead guy just as he was wheeling past me. I continued to walk around the parking lot catching shot after shot of he and his fellow roadster drivers as they zeroed in on the best spaces. Finally they settled in the back, reversing into a corner of the lot and kinda making their own haphazard bunch up- making it look like an impromptu club meeting was happening. With a lot of noise and sawing at steering wheels, they all gave a few final blasts to their throttles and were settled.

As soon as that last exhaust note faded, it felt as though the completely awestruck crowd filling the parking lot would erupt into applause... at least that's how I felt. It was simply glorious. Nothing I'd ever heard or seen before had hit me like this and I was sold. Completely 100% sold. I quickly walked over to the lead man's roadster to get a closer look. The more I looked the cooler it got. It was the most patina'd machine I had ever seen. The car equivalent of Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar. Worn in all the right places like a beautiful old hammer, and just as simple and easy to understand. Human signature everywhere- in every way. Absolute purity of design and purpose. I had to have one. This was a fact ... and there was no turning back.

I returned to the booth where Tom was sitting, he looked up at me, saw the look on my face, and just started laughing. Then he said,"Well, I guess I know what you thought of that." And you know what?... he did. He of all people. After all, he'd been there before... just like me. Maybe in another time, but it was the same. It was the same, and it was something he understood all too well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Jim Deist 1928-2009

Well we've lost yet another one of our original hot rod pioneers with the passing of Jim Deist on March 9th of this year. Jim was 80 years of age. 

For anyone who follows auto racing, especially drag and land speed events, the name Deist is one of those industry standards that you end up taking for granted. But the truth is, it took the vision of this one southern California hot rodder to develop the first commercially available parachutes for use in drag racing when he founded Deist Safety in 1958. And thanks to Jim Deist's vision, countless lives have been saved in racing since he started his company through the use of both his parachutes and his other lines of driver safety products. 

Jim learned his trade while working for Irving Air Chute during the late 1940s and soon took the concept of air-foil deceleration and combined it with his passion for drag racing. Thanks to the support and encouragement from friend and racing pioneer Mickey Thompson, Deist was able to expand his product line during the early 1960s to include the harness style race belts and fire suits that can be seen in use across the entire range of motorsport still to this day. 

Although Jim Deist was honored with many industry awards throughout his successful career, I think it can be safely said that his greatest pleasure must have come from the countless lives that his products saved through the years and will continue to save long after his passing. 

Another example of a person from our greatest generation who spent his life developing better and safer ways of doing things and, in turn, shaped and effected our existence for the better...    and in ways we could never quantify. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Pasadena Reliability Run 2009 ( Part 4 )

...  and you thought I'd forgotten. 

As far as the day I had going on this run, I have nothing but great things to say about it. Fortunately my co-pilot/navigator seems to feel the same way. We just had a blast, and possibly most important of all, the little red '29 RPU behaved beautifully. 

For me, the most hair raising part of the experience happened at the very beginning and the very end of the day. As I think I said earlier, we left at 6am and headed out of North Hollywood. Everything was great. Barely any traffic on the streets, low 60s temps were making the engine happy, and we were packed in and comfortable- looking forward to our full day with the old hot rod. Then it all started to get rather serious. 

We were following our friend Vic in his old roadster and I guess it just never crossed my mind that we'd be hopping on the interstate to get over to Pasadena at a decent time. You see, driving around town is exactly what a flathead roadster seems to like best, and after all it is what they and the parts that make them up were designed for. Cruising around at 30-45 mph is plenty exhilarating in one of these but, take it from me, 60-65mph on the interstate can be downright scary if you're not ready for it. And I wasn't. I had never driven one of these, at least not a truly primitive ( and I mean that in a kind way ) early hot rod. I may sound like a pansy to some of you out there right now, but until you've jumped out onto the 210 in LA in one of these vehicles, running old bias-ply tires that are picking up every line in the road, sitting upright in that old cockpit, eyes even with the top of the windshield and knee cap even with the top of the door, bouncing along with no seat belts while SUVs fly by all around you ( with zero regard for anyone else ) going at least 15-20mph faster than your already seemingly way-to-fast 65...  well, you get the idea. It'll put some grey hairs in your head. 

Fortunately we weren't on the interstate for more than about 20-25 minutes and it was over. I couldn't help notice while hanging onto the old girl, that everything felt and read through the gauges as completely happy. It was running a cool 140 or so on that drive in the morning, and never got above 160 at anytime throughout the day. That's including the Reliability Run itself. Now remember, we climbed up into the mountains above Pasadena and took the car as high as 8,200 feet! And it never missed a beat, not for a moment. I can say this without exaggeration, the car felt so good it gave you the feeling that this was part of its daily commute. And if I'm to be honest with myself, I have to admit that that just shouldn't have been the case. I have such a high opinion of Tom's abilities as a car builder and mechanic that I'm over confident in anything he has touched, but, no one can fight the time factor when a car has been in a long storage. Obviously something he built will have a better chance than most any other, but again, I really did expect something to get cranky at some point. It never happened. 

Eventually I just relaxed into the idea that we had the strongest and best built car in attendance and really started to drive with the pack and have fun. 

We left off at 30 second intervals but bunched up together somewhat by the time we got into the mountains. The traffic lights in town helped this happen but also I think my fellow roadster drivers had the same feeling I had about it; It was nice to be in with a group. This was one of the more enjoyable experiences about the run. Carving up through mountain passes in a flathead roadster, and seeing a line of similar cars in front and behind us, and more importantly to me- HEARING them working all around was a huge thrill. As we all know, nothing in the world sounds like a well built flathead, and to hear a pack of them accelerate up a grade together with their gurgling pipes reverberating off the rock walls that the road is carved through... well, you can just imagine. When one guy would get into his roadster a bit to really jump up an incline, it would inspire all of us and together some great mechanical music was being made. 

We stopped off a few times for breaks, pit-stops, and to help a friend here and there who was overheating ( Did I mention we never broke 160?) but really made good time considering, and always came into the various stop off points when there were quite a few cars in attendance. Tom's car got a good bit of attention, as it was one of the few cars there that was an actual old hot rod from back in the day, and we would always draw a nice little crowd when we parked. This reminds me, I can't remember if I've mentioned this or not, but the long-term ownership award has to go to the gentleman that I approached to compliment on his very smart and clean '32 full fendered roadster. He was an older guy and when I asked him how he's had the car he answered,"Well, I built it in '39 and I've had it ever since." 

This is the kind of stuff I think you could only experience with an event like this. As famous as this run is to followers of old Hot Rod magazines and old hot rodding in general, it is still a rather underground, and certainly under publicized, event. Therefore the people who do come out are there because this is their main focus in the hobby. These are the guys who are dedicated to the tradition of the hot rod for life. 

For the princely sum of $60 each, oh, and having been invited because of Tom and his car, we and the other 93 cars who showed up had an incredibly unique experience that I can say will go down solidly in my top 5 list of all time greatest car events/activities that I've ever been part of. 

And yes, we made it home fine...  even in Saturday evening traffic, which was a good bit hairier than the morning. As I pulled into Tom's driveway and let out a sigh, the little flathead was idling smoothly and running cool. Almost as if it were mocking me and my doubt...  and I could feel it was ready to go again at that very moment. And you know what?, so was I. 


Monday, May 11, 2009

The Bronco lives!

I hope that everyone that reads this can directly relate because it is a truly great thing to experience. I can't imagine another action that you could take in the old car hobby that would give you so much back. I'm of course talking about the "first drive" made after months or years of a build or restoration. The reason I'm so excited and inspired on this subject is because that is exactly what I got to do today. 

As some of you know, I've been deep in a complete rebuild/restoration of my friend and boss Gary Allan's 1976 Ford Bronco for some time now. I've had the truck in my possession since last August and the paint shop had it for about 8-9 months before that. So, although I did get it running when it was delivered to me from California after its almost ten year hibernation, and drove it a little bit then, that was almost 2 years ago and my memory of wheel time with it is foggy at best. Not only that, but it has had a complete drivetrane rebuild as well as an entirely new interior built and installed. That includes a beautifully fabricated dash-board by Kevin Tetz. 

So I didn't really have much to go on today by way of comparison, and honestly I was only thinking about how all of my work was going to behave on this first test run. Now, I should say, it has been run before. The engine was assembled by Shaklette Automotive and dyno run and tuned. Then after a couple of days of wiring by my friend Mark Lambert, we started it up and ran it in place for several minutes- enough to get it up to temp. For the most part it behaved. The usual little nit-pick stuff wasn't working; a couple of gauges, two of the outside lights, we had a fuel leak that I finally licked this morning, and as best we can tell...  a bad distributer cap. Don't you love it when a new part is bad in a situation like this when you're dealing with everything else on the truck being new as well? Really helps the diagnostic process! 

So that was my goal today...  drive the truck for the first time since its total rebuild. Once I got the fuel leak taken care of it was full speed ahead. Just taking it off the casters and setting it on the ground was cool. Its a funny thing, when you've been working on the same vehicle, in the same place for so long; a vehicle that hasn't run or moved or made a sound. When you finally get in the drivers seat ( which you haven't really had a reason to do yet ), you have an entirely new view of the vehicle. It all suddenly looks so pretty and new because you're not underneath it or working with a part on the bench or under the hood. Everything is smooth and shiny and clean around you and you can't really believe it's the same machine. Then it happens... you turn the key and it jumps around and vibrates and starts making all of this noise ( In today's case it was a whole lot of noise, as it is still without exhaust and running through open headers ). 

When this happens with me I spend a ridiculous amount of time checking and double checking and triple checking every inch of it before I leave the driveway. You've become so incredibly familiar with it at this point that you can envision every part working away and you can remember having your hands on it and assembling it and putting it on the vehicle. It's nerve racking, or is for me anyway, because all I can think of is,"I hope that bracket I had so much trouble fitting is holding", or, "I hope that hose that never seemed to go on the PS pump quite right is not going to pop off ", or worse yet," I hope my torque wrench is accurate... I'd hate for those rod caps to be loose." 

And on and on and on. I just start thinking about all of it, every part, moving faster than I can see in focus. But then it happens, at some point you just have to start to trust- or you'll never leave the driveway ( or finish any project ). And you begin a real world test. Treating it like a soccer-Mom would a new car. Throw it into gear, accelerate, brake, accelerate. Run it up to high-way speed. Pretty soon it starts feeling like what it is, a working machine. One that can and will be used and now has a new life. But as much as it can seem like something that can be understood plainly, it's still too exciting that it was all put together by your own hands and it's working...  and you're pleased, you're smiling, it's fun, real fun, and this is what it's all about. This is the feeling, the high that you're working towards the entire time you're out in the shop. Every move you make starts with you thinking about how this will work when you start and run it, and therefore you are constantly picturing it and imagining it in your mind until it stops seeming real. Like maybe this thing that has taken on all the personality of a huge piece of furniture sitting on casters that you roll from one side of your shop to the other will never be more than that. A completely frozen structure. 

But you know better, and soon you prove it to yourself and the car. It is the biggest daddy of all, in my opinion, and I had a great day around here because of it. For the record, the truck sounds like a top fuel car with the open headers, and the 400hp 351 Windsor under the hood pulls really really hard. Gary's words to me when talking about what he wanted me to do with the engine were these, and I quote,"Man, I want it to be SCARY fast!" Well, I know one thing, he will not be disappointed. Tomorrow morning the truck will be at the exhaust shop at 7am and then I can really get it out on the road for some serious sorting. 

Two great things will come from all of this work, Gary will finally have his old Bronco from his youth back in his life, and I can then get back on my long awaited roadster project. Now let me tell you, if you think I'm excited at the first drive with the Bronco, just wait until I fire up that flat-head roadster for the first time. Consider me counting the minutes. 

Stay tuned!     

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Pasadena Reliability Run 2009 ( Part 3 )

I know, it seems impossible that I still have material for this but I do. And if you think this is crazy, let me tell you, I'm just scratching the "traditional hot rodding" surface. My head is so fully in that zone it's hard to see any other form of vintage motorsport at this time. This is a good thing, as I'm just putting the final touches on the Bronco build for my boss and am hyper over-anxious to pull that truck out of my shop, deliver it, and start wheeling in all of my roadster parts to finally get back on that project. But that is another story for another time. 

As I hope I've been able to get across, I had a pretty good time at the old Pasadena Roadster Club Reliability Run. Again, the people and cars in attendance, combined with a wonderfully "in tune" feel that I had with any and all of the folks I met and spoke with, was beyond compare. But what I haven't arrived at until now is the actual hands-on experience that I had as a real live participant. 

I arrived into Burbank on Friday mid afternoon. This was the soonest I could get there because of some work I had in Nashville that week. I would have loved to have been able to get in sooner for a number of reasons. For starters, I always enjoy my visits with my friends Tom and Laura Sparks and they always race by and are over before I know it. But more importantly to the task at hand was preparing Tom's old roadster pick-up for the run on Saturday. You see, as well built and sorted as that vehicle is, it has been sitting in hibernation for several years. Tom does have a schedule where he starts all of his cars every month or so and brings them up to temperature, moves them around a bit, and makes sure the brakes etc. are still fairly happy. But with a collection like he has, you can only do so much. And the roadster pick-up doesn't exactly get called out onto movie sets like the other cars oftentimes do, so it sits unused more than possibly any other car he has. Again, I'm absolutely confident of the build of the car, but anything will get cranky when not given proper attention. So, I felt like every minute would count from the time I got there...  and I was right. 

The first thing I did when I arrived was check all the fluids throughout the car. Fortunately our good friend and fellow flathead roadster owner, Vic Cohen, had spent an afternoon with the car earlier in the week and a lot of this stuff had been checked off. The brakes were topped off and the fluid looked OK. The clutch needed a touch of adjustment and the coolant was a bit low. After we felt like everything we could think of in the garage was checked off we headed out for a test drive. 

The car started right up as if it had just been shut off. No kidding. I've heard this car run a lot over the years and am always impressed with how responsive and eager its little flathead always sounds. We got it out of the garage and headed down the driveway and before we made it half way down Tom's block the front end took off in a terrible rhythm. The king pins were clearly loose and the front tires were rocking back and forth violently. This wasn't exactly a surprise to me, as the car had done this on our way back from the Throttler's annual car show and picnic a year and a half ago. What was a surprise was how immediately it would take off and at such a slow speed. This was not good. We had no way of doing the king-pin repair before the morning. It was now getting dark the night before the event after all. So, back to the garage we went to see what we could do. 

Tom had an old So-Cal steering dampener kit that he suggested we try. I agreed of course and got to work trying to fit it to the car. The kit was made for split hairpins and not for the split Ford wishbone that the roadster pickup is running. This caused me to have to modify the bracket supplied with the kit, and cut some aluminum plate to size that the new bracket/clamp could mount to on either side of the wishbone. After a good hour and a half of setting this up we hopped in for test drive number two. We never even made it out of the shop. The front lower crank pulley, which I knew was close to the dampener mounting point on the center link of the front end, was rubbing on this new clamp when the wheels would turn. Even though I jacked it up from under the i-beam axle to load the front end so as to constantly check for clearance, the front end settled even more when put on the ground. Just enough to make it impossible to run this dampener. Onto plan B. 

Tom suggested adjusting the front end toe to maybe get the car to stop its violent front wheel shake. I first tried towing it in, test drove it, and it was worse. So, back at the shop, I toed it out. This helped a bit but it was still taking off, though now I knew I was going in the right direction. A little more toe out and it got better still. I kept going until it was completely gone at any speed but without having the front end crab walking. This was all done old school, in the driveway with a tape measure. My throwback hot rodding experience was starting early on this trip. Vic and I took the car down to Bob's Big Boy to see how it would behave and also to see if anyone was still hanging around down there. Of course the place was still pretty full at nearly midnight and we got some thumbs up from the folks hanging out. 

Now we were all feeling pretty good about the car and its chances of having a good following day. That is until Tom started trying to figure out when the last time was that the car really driven a good distance. He thought back farther and farther, so far that I was getting scared, and finally came up with something like 15-18 years ago. 15 or 18 years ago!!!??? And we're about to set out on a 130 mile reliability run and that's not including the 20 or so miles to get from north Hollywood to Pasadena just to get to the start of the run! Well, apparently the only person concerned about this was me because both Vic and Tom just sat there saying over and over that it would be fine, and saying it with confidence. I know I heard Vic say in several different ways,"You don't know how tough these things are." Well, I guess we were going to find out. After all it is a "Reliability" run...  it's right in the name. 

The following morning showed up quickly, with Tom and I meeting Vic at 6:15 am in front of Tom's house. Vic has a super bitchin' '27 roadster pickup that runs a full house 59AB flattie, stroked with original Eddie Meyer heads, two pot intake with 97s, Winfield SU-1A cam, '39 trans and a 3.78 banjo. Very cool and extremely well built car. Vic is quite the machinist and takes great pride in his work. It shows throughout his entire car. Speaking of, a little skinny on Tom's roadster while we're at it; 

Tom built this car in either '42 or '43 and had it sorted out enough to run at one of the rare lakes meets that happened during the war in '45. After the war Tom got a job at Eddie Meyer Speed equipment as a machinist and engine builder. Sometime around '47 a customer had Tom and fellow Eddie Meyer employee Ray Brown build up a hot flathead for a race boat. For some reason the guy didn't want the engine when it was done and Tom scraped enough dough to buy it in long-block form. It was a 59AB, 3/8 overbore, fully balanced, ported and relieved, with a Winfield cam. Oh, and built with care by Tom and Ray Brown. Once Tom took ownership of the engine he needed heads and an intake to complete it so that he could get this new mill set down into his roadster pickup and give some new life to it. The problem was that Tom had spent every penny on the engine and had nothing left over. He went to his boss Eddie Meyer and asked if there was a way he could get a set of Meyer heads and a two-pot intake and be put on some kind of payment plan. Old man Meyer came back at him with the following proposal; Tom had two weeks of vacation time coming up and Meyer needed someone to paint his house. The two struck a deal... Tom would spend his vacation time painting the entire Meyer house in exchange for a new set of heads and intake. And so it was done. 

As I said before, that little engine, still sporting its famous Meyer equipment, still resides where Tom placed it all those many years ago. It has never been apart and still runs like a top, or at least like you'd think a flathead built by Tom Sparks and Ray Brown would. 

( Well, I've done it again. I suppose it's probably time to invest in an editor. See you on Monday for the conclusion of the story of the Pasadena Reliability Run '09 ) 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Pasadena Reliability Run 2009 ( Part 2 )

I'm sure the previous post has made all who've read it want to run out and get themselves an authentic flathead powered hot rod roadster right? Well, it should have anyway. I can certainly understand how it would. My first experience of really living with a flathead roadster for a day was pretty damn life changing I must say. 

I've spent so many years admiring these cars, somewhat from a distance, that it seems strange to me that it has taken so long to have some real world hands on experience with one. In my defense, I simply don't own one ( well not one that is assembled ) and they aren't exactly running around in the part of the country where I live. So I guess you could say that this day that I got to spend running this old car, and the event that I got to be a part of, really was a bit of a double down in the fantasy column. 

As far as my impressions go from having driven one of these for an entire day, and over a pretty trying route, is that they are everything I ever imagined they were and more. It did not let me down in any way, and my expectations were pretty high. The only possible negative surprise might be the fact that at 5'10" I'm just a tad bit too tall for the cockpit of a model A roadster. But, Tom is probably about 4 or so inches short than me and he built the car to suit him after all. I'm confident that some adjustment could be made with the seat when my roadster project gets to that point. It's certainly nothing close to a deal breaker that's for sure. 

The main thing that was delivered in huge way was the totally visceral motoring experience that can only be provided with a car like this. I've had it in my mind for years that this is how it would be and it did not disappoint. The only thing that could deliver such a pure connection to a machine would have to be an older open wheel race car. You feel and smell and hear everything going on beneath and around you that is making this thing go. When you accelerate you can feel the linkage pulling through the firewall and turning open those twin Stromberg 97s. And the great thing is, if you wanted to lean far enough over the windshield and you weren't running a hood, you could actually see them working while you're driving. This can be said for a lot of what goes on with the car. Just lean out to the side and you can see the front tire humming along, the steering arm pushing and pulling at the backside of the front hub, the suspension action, and when you press on the brakes you can hear the shoes scraping away at the inside of the brake drums. 

The purity of it is something you just have experience. You feel a direct connection to every part of the car. When you step outside of it, it looks like a motorama cut-away display. Nearly everything is in plain view. If you bend down and sight the car from the side you can basically see the entire drivetrane running front to back. It really is the automobile in its purist and most basic form. Finally, having driven and having ridden in many a late 1920s early-mid 1930s American automobile, I now have a complete understanding of the life-changing and emotional connection so many young guys made with these cars. Compared to an everyday car in its time, these must have felt like rocket ships. They are so light on their feet, responsive, handle well when set up properly, that I just can't imagine the feeling they provided to someone used to a stock early 1930s sedan. The feeling of freedom that this kind of unimaginable, for the time, maneuverability must have provided is something that I don't think any of us could ever have a true perspective on. It is no mystery to me why so many of the original guys are still into these old roadsters, will still make appearances at events like this, and in some cases were never able to let go of their cars. And I'm expressing this and feeling this solely based on my experience of driving one of these for a single day. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be involved with this as part of a community of like-minded fellow roadster owners and builders. Again, it all ads up. 

The last thing I want to touch on here that really impressed me while attending the Reliability Run relates directly to what I've just written about, and that is the state of the current traditional hot rod scene. I couldn't possibly be more pleased with where we've ended up in 2009 with this movement. The arc of this has been a funny one and I was never quite sure where it was going and honestly worried about it from time to time. Of course I shouldn't have and it probably speaks to some kind of short-coming with me that I would be concerned about a scene and how it is being perceived or what the face of it is. Ideally it should never be about that and should only be about you and your car. But, being so tied into this movement, I did tend to worry about what it was becoming from time to time. It seemed as though a few years after this started to get traction, a lot of people were beginning to populate the scene who thought of it almost as a fashion statement or lifestyle belief. Nothing wrong with that of course, but that smells strongly of "fad" and that is never a good thing. Especially for something that I feel is such a beautiful and important part of our country's 20th century history. 

I suppose I worried that it was getting cheapened and had no way of defending itself. I knew their were a good number of folks who were involved that respected the traditions of it, like understanding its history, being knowledgeable about the mechanical make up of the cars ( if for nothing else to be able to build a smart and reliable car ), and that it was not supposed to be a kookie-car build-off. So I knew none of this would be terminal, but I still didn't know where it would go. Now I know where it is and, again, it's in really good hands. 

There were a good number of younger guys ( 20s and 30s ) that had come out to be a part of the PRC Reliability Run. I would estimate that almost a third of the participants would fall into this category. What I saw with these guys was what the traditional hot rod scene has finally been distilled down to. After all of the over the top rat-rod guys have come and gone, and the trucker cap wearing-PBR drinking-Buddy Holly glasses-wearing dudes ran out of steam, we are left with a bunch of folks who are building spot-on period correct lakes-style roadsters and doing it with a great attitude. Every guy I met in this group had a safe, well built, historically accurate roadster, had done enough of the work himself that he could talk about any part of his car intelligently, had a strong grasp on the history of the sport and its culture, was quick to honor the guys that built this for us, and were excited to meet the ones who we're lucky enough to still have around and who were in attendance that day. What more could you ask for? I didn't encounter a single one of these guys who was wearing "I'm a hot rodder" on his sleeve. Just the opposite. 

A very cool example of this was seen first thing in the morning as people were arriving and getting their roadsters in line. A couple of original Pasadena Roadster Club members were nice enough to bring along some scrap books from roadster runs etc. from back in the day for people to see. They placed them on a table next to the morning's free coffee and donuts and left them opened to the first page for anyone who was interested. Not only were the younger members of the club on these things immediately, but they tracked down the owners of these photo albums and had a great question-answer session with them looking over their shoulders while us younger guys leaved through them. You could easily sense the joy it was bringing these "old timers" to have these younger guys be so interested and curious about what they did when they were our age and younger. It was perfect harmony, both groups overjoyed to have the other in attendance showing an equal amount of enthusiasm. 

So do I think the future of real hot rodding is safe and sound? Absolutely I do. And if what I've written here doesn't convince you, consider the fact that 94! traditional hot rod roadsters showed up with their pilots and navigators at 7am to get in line for a 130 mile round trip to help continue the tradition of possibly the greatest test of man and roadster that any early southern California roadster club performed back in the day. The Pasadena Roadster Club Reliability Run. 

( Tune in next time for more on the story of how things went for me and Tommy and his old roadster ) 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Pasadena Reliability Run 2009 ( Part 1 )

Well here we are folks, back home after a glorious hot rod excursion out in So-Cal that I, once again, was certainly not worthy of. A great time was had and the goal of being able to do this with my buddy Tom riding shot-gun with me at the wheel of his '29 A-V8 RPU was achieved. There was simply no better way to experience this great hot rod tradition for the first time and it may possibly go down as the best hot rod event I've ever been a part of...  and I'm happy to say that that is against strong competition. 

I will be writing more on the actual story behind my being able to attend this and what was involved in making it happen in a future post, but for now, and because I just re-read the PRC letter to participants and I think it is totally bitchin', I've found myself inspired to post a copy of this letter here for your entertainment. There are several things about it that I just love and I have a feeling you'll recognize them immediately. Mainly I admire the purity of vision that the newly revived club has of itself. They are absolutely in touch with what constitutes a traditional hot rod in the classic sense of the term, or at least how this is defined by southern California traditional hot rodding standards. It reminds me of the afternoon I spent with the great hot rodder Harold Johanson, now in his early 90s, who said to me when he recognized my enthusiasm for this kind of car and the culture that existed when these ruled the streets,"Boy oh boy, you would have enjoyed hot rodding." 

This has stuck with me in a big way for a couple of reasons. For starters, it communicated to something that I'd been getting a sense of from the many "old timers" that I'd been lucky enough to be around, and that is; to them hot rodding started several years before the war and was dead and gone by sometime around 1952-53. And not only that, but the kind of car that they considered a legitimate hot rod was a stripped down roadster...  and only a roadster. This was a car built of Ford parts, built on a budget and, although modified to at least double or even triple its original power output, it was everyday transportation, it was the pass to your social scene and your sport and, most importantly, not so purpose-built that it was an occasional-use toy. It was a vital component in your life, extension of yourself, and communicated something to fellow folks in "the know" loud and clear.... you were a hot rodder. 

I hope you enjoy the following as much as I did; 

Pasadena Roadster Club Reliability Run #10 Saturday May 2nd, 2009. 

In October 2002, 57 years to the month after the Flyers club and Vellociteers club joined to form the Pasadena Roadster Club, the PRC was revitalized with the goals of building and using early-style hot rod roadsters, preserving Pasadena's hot rodding history, and re-establishing events hosted by the original club. 

As part of this continuing hot rod tradition, the Pasadena Roadster Club is hosting its Reliability Run #10. This run, which will include a poker run along with a timed run, will start in Pasadena and follow a predetermined timed course ( standard time established by a PRC member driving a hot rod roadster.) It will include minimal city driving and lots of two-lane scenic rural roads, with some extreme changes in elevation, and end back at the starting point. It will happen "rain or shine". 

Like the original, this run will be limited to open hot rods only, 1936 or earlier. We are also inviting old hot rodders who were involved with hot rodding in the Pasadena area in the 1930s thru the early 1950s to join us for a reunion at the finish line following the run. We are especially searching for cars and participants from the original reliability runs. 


Participation in this run is by "invitation only" and is restricted to roadsters, roadster pick-ups, phaetons/tourings, modifieds and cabriolets, years 1936 and older. This event is intended for early '50s and earlier hot rods only. Hot rods with 1953-and-earlier running gear and equipment are emphasized and encouraged, although more modern components may be considered of the hot rod otherwise adheres to an immediate post WW2 style and appearance. Due to limited space, only 100 hot rods will be accepted, and the PRC reserves the right to reject any application at its sole discretion. 

All entries are responsible for their hot rod being properly maintained and in safe operating condition, currently licensed and insured. ALL entrants will be required to obey all traffic laws at all times. We are able to hold this event ONLY with the co-operation of the Pasadena Police Dept. Irresponsible behavior ( speeding, burnouts, reckless driving ) will jeopardize the holding of future runs and will not be tolerated. Violators will be promptly removed from the run and will not be invited to or accepted for any future Pasadena Roadster Club events. 

Well, I guess that says it all. Doesn't this sound like something you'd like to be a part of? I'm going to tag on a few photos to get us started. There are many more to come. 


Friday, May 1, 2009

The Pasadena Reliability Run 2009

You read that right. How appropriate that with all of this talk of traditional hot rodding and my pal Tom that I'm leaving bright and early in the morning for LA to partake in one of the coolest hot rod events of the year? Feels pretty cool to me anyway. 

To make things extraordinarily cool for me I'm getting to not only participate in the Reliability Run but will be doing it with Tom while driving the very '29 flathead roadster pickup that I wrote about earlier. That's right folks, the very car that I first saw that fateful night the day I met Tom. It all seems pretty surreal. This will not be the first time I've had the pleasure to drive this car while Tom rode shotgun, I had the chance to drive the car to the Throttlers annual club picnic/car show in Burbank two years ago. You can't imagine how "not worthy" I felt pulling into that event driving the old Tom Sparks roadster with Tom riding next to me. Pretty cool. Eventually I'll get to the part of that day when we left the show and got involved in a real live flathead roadster verses flathead roadster street race on the streets of Burbank. I guess you could say that if you'd told me in 1995 that that scene was in my future I wouldn't have believed you for a second. 

So that's the story, off to So-Cal in the morning. I'll spend the afternoon prepping the old roadster for its big run in the hills. I'm not even sure how long of a run it is. I believe that when they did the original run in the '40s and '50s it was 100 miles. I'm sure this will be a fraction of that but I understand that it is still a pretty decent challenge for man and machine. I participated in the 2001 River City Reliability Run ( which has since turned into the Pasadena Reliability run ) as navigator with friend Buddy Pepp while Tom rode shotgun with Bruce Meyer. I believe that was a 60 mile run. The cool thing about the Pasadena run is that is starts in the a.m. in the parking lot of Rose Bowl just as it did 50-60 years ago. We've all seen those super groovy Hot Rod magazine shots of the original run when all of the cars were in this same location back in the day and Saturday morning will be no different. Talk about nostalgia!? Not to mention that this run is notorious for attracting many original hot rods that participated in the original runs, like the Doane Spencer, McGee, and Ray Brown roadsters. You can bet I'll be taking photos. 

So that's my story. I have a great weekend to look forward to and I'll be back early next week to give you all the full report.    

Stay tuned!!!  

( The above photo was taken right after we got home from the Throttlers show two years ago. That's our friend Vic Cohen with his exceptionally well built '27 flathead powered roadster pickup parked next to Tom's original '29 RPU. This was the cast involved in the street race I mentioned. Vic's car is in a good bit better tune and I didn't really feel comfortable running Tom's old car flat out...  in other words we lost. Not used to losing, Tom was sitting next to me the whole time yelling at me to run it harder. I know I should have listened, but I think you understand.) 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tommy Sparks, my First Hot Rod, and the Last Flathead ( Part 5 )

As you can imagine, I left southern California a couple of days later with a serious skip in my step. It's almost laughable now to think about it. I mean come on, I just met one of my heros and basically got to see behind the hot rod curtain. AND, speaking of that, I got to step out from behind the curtain on The Tonight Show. It was a pretty damn good time.

I returned to Nashville fully energized and ready to begin my journey to the next level of involvement with this whole early hot rodding thing. I honestly can't say if it entered my mind on the flight home, or maybe when I was inspecting Tom's original A-V8 roadster pick-up, but all I know is that I immediately started focusing on the idea of building an authentic hot rod roadster. After all, my research was now getting me closer to understanding what the traditional ingredients were for making one of these, and I had the best counselor you could ever ask for in my new friend Tom, to help guide me. I had been asking him specific questions about the building of one of these and he had the answer every time without hesitation. The problem was where to begin.

As I continued to stay in touch with Tom, I started to learn first hand about southern California car culture and how mind-boggling it is. I don't think this is a thing that could ever be exaggerated. Until you've spent some time around it you just can't understand the support and activity in that scene. There is just so much to see and do and participate in that it is overwhelming. Every day, weekends and week days, there is something going on. Oftentimes on the weekends you have to choose between 4-5 car happenings. There is a cruise-in somewhere every night of the week and ( and I love this ) several that happen in the a.m. on weekend mornings. Just imagine that? Morning cruize-ins! It's not enough to just have them in the evenings, they have to have them in the morning too. Of course there are the car shows, the swap meets, the race meets, the auctions, the rallies, the various club get togethers, some of those happening once a week year round. I'd have to say this was the first thing that I had to get used to when talking with Tom. Every time we spoke there was something else going on. And I'm not talking mundane stuff, I'm talking like,"There's a dinner tonight at the Petersen Museum that Carroll Shelby is hosting..."

It was always something. Of course that last example might not be on everyone's calendar because, as I was also learning about Tom, Tom was swimming in a pretty serious group of folks out there. Because of his many accomplishments, and having been in the So-Cal car world his entire life, he was naturally a member of this pretty elite group. Fortunately, I would never for a moment feel like he and his friends thought they were, in any way, more special than anyone else. Of course they were to me, but they didn't feel that way and they continued to act like the same speed crazed maniacs that they'd been their entire lives.

Sometime in the month or so following my initial meeting with Tom, I was talking with him on the phone, asking him question after question about the early hot rodding days, asking him more stuff about his career with cars, asking him about his old hot rod buddies who were still around, and began telling him my idea about building an authentic 1940s roadster. He perked up when I said this and knocked me out with the following,"You know, something must be going on with you young guys and this hot rodding business because I just saw a crew of young guys at Bob's Big Boy last Friday night driving old roadsters like we used to have. They were even dressed like we used to be." Whoa whoa whoa, what? What did he just say? I asked him to repeat this. He said,"Yeah, I couldn't believe my eyes. There must have been a half dozen or so of them that came to the Friday night cruise-in over there. I thought they must have been from a movie set or something but apparently this is something they're really into, just like you are."

Well this was some heavy duty news to me. I'd thought I was the only one my age on the planet thinking about this stuff. I mean, what were the chances that other guys my age had come upon this early hot rodding stuff at this time? Whoever these guys were I had to see what they were up to. As Tom and I kept talking he asked when I thought I'd be out there again. He said we could go over to the cruise-in on Friday and I could see this stuff for myself. I remember he added,"You should really get to know these guys. It sounds like they're doing the very thing you want to, with building a roadster and all. They must know where to find these cars and parts etc." Yeah, I couldn't have agreed more. I definitely needed to see what these guys were up to.

Pretty soon I was booking my first of what would eventually become many many trips out west to take in the amazing southern California car culture, and with the greatest tour guide imaginable. Within weeks I would find myself at Bob's Big Boy in Burbank face to face with some of the first players in what was about to explode into the 1990s traditional hot rodding phenomenon and would experience the biggest surprise of all as it pertain's to this whole early hot rodding interest of mine... I was not alone!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Still here...

Yup, this is how bad it has gotten. I'm now posting a note just to say that I'm still around. Because of multiple business goings on, I am pretty overwhelmed these days. I'm writing this at 1:06 am and have just finished for the day...  and I was up and working at 8am. So, obviously this blog has had to take a hit, as anything else is on my schedule that I consider a luxury. 

That being said, my goal still is to try and find that pocket of time everyday to sit and write away, and that will again be the goal tomorrow. So, for those who are still interested, it could happen any day. I'm especially keen to get back on the Tom Sparks story so be looking for more of that. 

Thanks for your understanding, and I hope you enjoy the next installment.      David 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Open House on Gasoline Alley (15)

And lastly, we're on our way home. I may have mentioned that my brother Rob and I ran his two cars down to gasoline alley for the open house. It certainly makes the experience complete when you can roll in in a period ride. Parked along serious competition, both cars managed to receive their fair share of compliments...  which was nice considering I restored the Corvette. They also ran like clocks there and back, and that was after the two of us couldn't help ourselves from running them off from a dead stop and all the way through the gears a couple of times. The Impala runs good but is no match for the Corvette. 

For the record I built both engines and the Corvette's is a 1962 340hp 327 that has been modified with a modern hydraulic Comp cam and compression that has been lowered to 9-5.1. It's a BW T-10 4spd car with a 3.55 posi. The Impala is a 283 power pack car with a similar Comp cam, RPM painted intake, .30 over, a really nice set of cleaned up 461 double hump heads, M-21 4spd, and a 3.55 posi. Both cars are super fun and have a nice crisp stock look- if I do say so myself. 

I liked the photo of them in my Mom's driveway ( though the colors do clash ). I tried to imagine a guy in the mid '60s lucky enough to have a stable like this. 

Open House on Gasoline Alley (14)

Finally, this F100 was really knocking me out. Just couldn't have been cleaner or more tastefully done. Props to whoever built and owns this! 

Open House on Gasoline Alley (13)

Another cool group shot of some interesting RPUs, T-based speedsters, etc., lined up for the Indy open house. The F100 was very interesting. Looked like it really runs at Bonneville, and with a few different engines. Cool! 

Open House on Gasoline Alley (12)

Easy to forget how popular the GM stove-bolt 6 was back in the day. What a cool alternative but period choice for motorvation. I love the way these sound hopped up too. Very cool hybrid RPU. 

Open House on Gasoline Alley (11)

Another really well done Indy hot rod. This time a '29 sedan with a period Chevy. Great color and wheel/tire combo. Nice to see a model A shell too. 

Open House on Gasoline Alley (10)

I'm not usually taken by Munster Ts, but I really liked this car. Nice job by Indy area hot rod builder Steve "The Greek" Panarites. 

open House on Gasoline Alley (9)

More amazing stuff from the Automotive Hammer Art shop. A crunched AC Bristol front end is not a problem for these guys...  they'll just make another. The late XK120 roadster had taken a bad hit to the rear and this is what it's looking like after they just got another back end scabbed on. I'm confident it'll finish out as nicely as the AC. 

open House on Gasoline Alley (8)

I love the early '60s super stocks. I believe this was a tribute car, but it was a really well done one...  complete with original black Ford paint. 

Open House on Gasoline Alley (7)

Open House on Gasoline Alley (6)

Yes, that's right, there are more. I was loading the last of my photos today from this great Indy open house and realized there are still quite a few I need to post. I have to say, aside from the obvious thrill of getting to tour these shops, this was a damn fine gathering of well built and tastefully done machinery. I guess we should assume that would be the case in a town with such an impeccable motorsports history. 

Sit back and enjoy! 

The above photos are of Johnny Capels bitchin' '32 roadster. Johnny has a serious history at the Speedway, and with racing in general, and upon his recent retirement built himself a really nice flathead roadster. The craftsmanship found in this car is just what you'd expect from one of the greatest Offy race engine builders Indy has known, not to mention the rest of the detail work that his fellow ex-Indy friends helped with. Great car! 

The roadster is all steel, runs an early '50s Merc flattie with an Isky 400jr, Offy heads, a T-5, quick change, and a fuel injection system built by he and his buddies. I've ridden in this car and it is a serious runner.