Monday, January 19, 2009

The Grand Daddy of them all turns 60!

That's right folks, it's that time of the year again. Time for the biggest names and biggest talents in the world of hot rod car building to gather and show off their latest creations...  the 60th annual Grand National Roadster show. 

60 years! Take just a moment to process that and really try and get a feel for just how long ago that was. The very idea of organized hot rodding was just in its infancy, and yet somehow a few young guys with nicely finished roadsters up in the Oakland, California area were brave enough to dive in and put on one of the first indoor hot rod shows in history. The very first, of course, being the 1st annual Hot Rod Expo at the LA Armory in January of 1948. I guess the Bay area guys figured that if the So-Cal guys could do it, they could do it too. What I feel is worth noting though, is that, conceptually, these were surprisingly different shows. 

The LA show was put on by the trusty SCTA and, although many very nicely turned out and finished roadsters would be displayed, a good portion of the cars were dry lakes racers and dual-purpose race/street roadsters from various So-Cal roadster clubs. On the other hand, Oakland was specifically geared towards the detail oriented craftsman who was as concerned with his cars appearance as he was with its performance. I think it can be safely said that the concept of the indoor car show, at least in the style of Carl Casper or the World of Wheels, was born with Oakland. The style of show that Oakland established would go on to be the template for most all indoor shows. 

Although the LA armory show did not go on to be a staple of annual So-Cal happenings, it certainly is famous for a few things. Most important on the list would be the launching of Hot Rod magazine by a young Robert "Pete" Petersen. In working with Wally Parks to help promote the show, Petersen saw an opportunity to launch his magazine at the same time, with the idea to have one promote the other. A thinking man from the start. 

But back to the GNRS. For anyone who is even casually interested in hot rods, beautiful cars in general, or just an admirer of great craftsmanship, the Grand National Roadster show is a must see. At least once, every gear-head should experience it. The best cars, built by our greatest builders, from both today and yesterday, all on display. Walking the different buildings that make up each year's GNRS display, you can literally go through time as you walk past every era in rod building. There are always plenty of past "America's most beautiful roadster" winners on display showing the build techniques, tastes, and fads from days gone by. Of course there are also the "theme'd" buildings housing just traditional hot rods, race cars, or customs. 

For me though, the highlight is always getting to rub elbows with the greats from our hobby. Fortunately for me I'll be attending the show with my buddy Tom Sparks who happens to fall easily into that category. So I'll, once again, get to meet and talk with a lot of my heros who I'd probably otherwise never have the pleasure to chat up. I promise, it is no secret to me that I'm not worthy, and without my friendship with Tom, none of this "extra" stuff would happen. So, as always, thanks for letting me swim in your wake Tommy! 

But you know, at the same time, that's a lot of the magic of the GNRS. It is such a must do on the calendar for anyone involved in the hot rod industry past and present, that everyone makes it. If you walked the complete show on Saturday, it would be easier to compile a list of the legends that you didn't see walking around than the ones you did. As you can see by one of today's photos, I had a surprise meeting with a real hero of mine last year at the GNRS. Now, I do realize that John Milner is a fictional character, but if I had to pinpoint one single moment in time when I knew, without a doubt, that I was 'in for life' with this hot rod business, it would be the first time I saw American Graffiti. Everything about the film made me want to build, drive, and race a hot rod of some kind someday. I knew I'd never be as cool as John Milner, and I knew I'd probably never have the "bitchin'est car in the valley", but Lucas gave us the directions and the inspiration and presented it by way of the best looking, best sounding, best everything, car film ever made. 

One of my favorite things about how this picture came to be was that I actually met the yellow deuce coupe first. I was in the main building on Thursday night before day one of the show when most people were loading in and setting up their displays. As I was walking down an isle, looking at the cars being parked and displayed on either side of me, I heard a nice sounding oldschool small block chevy behind me. Little did I know that the car was being brought into the building down this isle and was basically following me. I was so caught up in looking around and taking it all in that I didn't realize I was kind of in this cars way and was suddenly met with an engine rev right behind me. I jumped a bit and spun around only to find that I was looking the American Graffiti coupe square in the grill shell! Pretty shocking moment on a lot of levels. I stepped aside and let the driver rumble the coupe on past as I stood in awe, feeling like I was seeing a ghost. 

A few minutes later I walked over to get a closer look at the old girl. It certainly hadn't changed since the making of the film, thankfully, ( well, other than some round air cleaners over the 97s ) and I had the pleasure of meeting its owner, Rick Figari, talking about his history with the car, and getting a much closer look at it than I could have ever dreamed. He could see my enthusiasm for the car and told me that I should come back tomorrow and meet Paul Le Mat ( John Milner! ). John Milner! I couldn't believe my ears. I told him he could count on it.  

For the record, Milner/Le Mat, couldn't have been a nicer guy. Acted like he had all the time in the world even though other folks were trying to talk with him. Rick Fugari remembered me and was nice enough to suggest that we get a photo by the coupe...  way above and beyond the call of duty. I had seen this car in person, once, when I was 7 years old on display at Universal studios, but I never thought I'd see it again...  let alone meet its proper driver and one of the hot rod heros from my childhood. But that is the magic of the GNRS. 

I'm beyond happy to say that it has worked out again for me this year and I'll be able to attend the show. I'll be traveling out there with my good friend Mark Lambert, and my pal Tom Sparks will once again show us around in style. I'll have much to say about this 60th showing of the GNRS I'm sure, and will look forward to sharing it all with you next week. I'll do my best to report from the road as I'm out there this week and through the show weekend. So once again, stay 'tuned'! 

1 comment:

biggearhead said...

Man, that REALLY was an opportunity! And how many people can say, "Yeah, the Graffiti Coupe revved its motor at me to get out of the way." A one-time-only occurrance, and you were lucky enough to be in the way!

I met Paul some years ago at a World of Wheels show. I felt a little cheesy about the whole thing at the time, but I'm glad I did it. That's a great film, and it's pretty nice that car guys have one film that's so good you don't have to endure it, you can enjoy it.

I really need to make it out to the GNRS. Maybe I can arrange for a trip next year. I've done Bonneville, time to add another historic event/venue to my list.