Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tommy Sparks, my first Hot Rod, and the Last Flathead ( Part One )

Let me just start by saying that this one has been on my mind for a long time. Ever since I started doing these posts I knew I would have to get to this someday and try to tackle it. I'll tell you up front that it is a big daddy and one that I'm a bit intimidated by, as far as communicating it to you in some kind of tidy way. The first problem is the fact that the story is a bit open ended, and just getting us to that point means having to cover about 15 years. But because it has been the major automotive distraction in my life for these past 15 years, has taken me on multiple crazy adventures, forced me to develop some new talents in the shop that I thought would be years down the road, and paid off handsomely in what will surely go down as one of the greatest and most rewarding friendships of my life, it would be impossible to not eventually tell this tale. So I guess I'd better get started...

The beginning of this story will be a familiar one to many out there who became infatuated, as I did, with early hot rodding in the last 15 years or so. I say this because (  and I made a case for this in an earlier post ) I believe the work of one man is quite possibly responsible for this motorsports phenomenon of the early 1990's...  Don Montgomery. For those who don't know, do yourself a favor and seek out a couple of Don's wonderful books on early hot rodding. These are basically scrapbooks from immediate pre-war and post-war southern California, and what makes them so wonderful is that Don was an active participant who was right on the front line with Vic Edelbrock, Isky, and all the rest. Fortunately for us, Don Montgomery was an avid photographer, had good equipment, shot often, and loved shooting his favorite subject- Hot Rods. 

I honestly can't remember where I bought my first Don Montgomery book. It was around the time I'd just moved to Nashville, which would make it about 1993, and his books were not at all widely available then ( not that they are now ). My guess would be that I spotted them at a car show somewhere in the mid-west and picked one up there. I do know that my first viewing of that book, "Hot Rods as they were", truly changed my life. Looking back on this fact, I can see clearly now why this happened. First would be the fact that I had simply never seen photos like this of early hot rodding. Of course I had seen a picture here and there, and I'm sure they grabbed me when I did, but it wasn't until I saw Don's book with page after page covering 20-25 years of development and lakes racing and roadster clubs that I realized ( and I know this sounds crazy considering how long I'd already been obsessed with old car culture up to this point ) where hot rodding and the idea of the high performance American car came from. I honestly don't think I gave it a lot of thought until then. Where did this stuff actually come from? How did it start? These were not heavy thoughts on my mind. I really think I just thought... that it just happened. Just sort of happened one day that people wanted to go fast and fast cars were suddenly available...  like it all came from a vacuum. 

I had to know that this wasn't the case. But again, it just didn't occur to me. I think I just assumed that it all came from organized auto racing and left it at that. Of course a good bit of it did but, as this book showed, there was at one time a huge youth driven cultural movement that nearly consumed a good portion of southern California, as literally thousands of young men and teenagers decided that they had to have one of these Gow-Jobs, one of these Hop-Ups, one of these Hot Rods. 

The other, and probably most important element to my instant love for this stuff, was the fact that this was the first big gear-head interest that I'd had that was all mine. As anyone who's been reading this knows, my father was a world-class enthusiast. He had my favorite quality in a motorhead, which was a passion for anything mechanical that was beautiful, fast, or just plain  interesting, from any era, from any walk of the auto world. Therefore, I was exposed to pretty much everything automotive while growing up. Pretty much. The one thing that my Dad didn't have a lot to say about was early hot rodding. This makes perfect sense, as he was simply not the right age to have a connection with it. And there probably wasn't a lot of hot rod roadster action in the Buffalo area right after the war and leading into the 1950s...  to say the least. He was certainly a car nut at a very young age, but by the time he was to begin driving the flat-head and Ford based hot rodding was on its way out. So I think it was probably as simple as that for him. He was just never around that stuff and didn't have a connection to it. I do remember him saying that he had a friend in Hamburg, New York, while in his teens, ( Ray "Zippy" Zell ) that had a chopped Merc or two and ran full house flat-heads. He also used to comment to me when we'd see a hopped up flat-head at a car show that those were the engines to fear in the early '50s and that they were very durable ( For some reason I clearly remember that "durable" comment. Good to know that someone wasn't just walking by them and saying how they over- heat ). And now that I think about it, he did own a flat-head for a while when I was probably around 12-13. He had a 1934 Ford 1-ton dump truck that had a 1946 (59A) flat-head in it. Not exactly a hot rod, but I do have a crystal clear memory of him driving the complete running chassis around the back yard as my brothers and I turned the front tires by hand, because he hadn't installed the steering column yet. 

But I digress. So, here I was. I had my first real look at the early days of hot rodding and my mind was blown to bits. Beautiful primitive cars that looked so at home with dirt roads and orchards as backdrops. Like they were in their natural habitat. That southern California was made for these hopped up jalopies whose owners never had to worry about having a top or fenders. The roads looked flat and straight and ready to be sped on. It was like finding a new planet. One that I'd discovered. Again, one that was mine. I didn't have a single car friend who was on board with this or had an interest in any way. Admittedly, my Dad was interested, but I don't think he ever thought a usable car could ever come from the piles of old Ford parts that I kept hauling home ( I hope he doesn't end up being right about that ). So he was curious, and would keep an eye on me and this new craze of mine, but he was keeping his distance. 

I continued to obsess over this, bought another Montgomery book through the mail, and found an entire new section of Hemmings that I now turned to every time it arrived. I was trying to find out what the parts make-up was for these cars when they were built back in the day. What were these guys using to make these cars go 120mph on the dry lakes? They couldn't possibly be using the existing Model A components could they? Also, I was on a fierce quest to try and find some kind of first hand account ( again, the Montgomery books are mostly scrapbooks with limited and plain captions and very little text ) , some kind of story thread that would help explain what started all of this. When exactly it started, and when exactly ( and why ) did it die. Who were all of these guys who shaped it? Who were the big players? Who invented what? etc etc etc. 

Again, I was feeling pretty alone in this, and for good reason. I needed to find that magic portal to go through that would help connect some of these dots. Maybe even find out what happened to some of these original cast members. Yes, it was a few years ago that all of this happened, but it was reasonable to think that quite a few of these folks could still be around. 

Little did I know that soon a lot of my questions would be answered about the story of it and the cast behind it. This would of course ad a huge amount of fuel to my fire and, I'm happy to say, all of my wild enthusiasm was about to pay off in a way I could have never imagined. I would soon find the magic portal...    

...  Stay tuned 


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Steelworks said...

Hello Valonia, and thank you for your kind words about the blog. I'm glad you found it and are enjoying it. Keep checking back! Thanks...