Friday, April 3, 2009

Tommy Sparks, my First Hot Rod, and the Last Flathead ( Part 4 )

One of my favorite things about how Tom lives is the overriding understatement of everything about him. He is completely unassuming in every way and simply doesn't have it anywhere in him to brag or boast. Heaven knows he has the material, but I think that when all you've ever known is the big leagues, you let your accomplishments speak for you. After all, they can never lie.

This understatement showed itself to me and Al as soon as we pulled into Tom's driveway. His house is a very lovely, tidy, stucco adobe Spanish ranch home built in the 1950s. A narrow, single car width, driveway rolls back past the left side of the house and fan's out into a two space car port. As we got out of our car, Tom carefully tucked his 356 under the carport next to a pale yellow '65 Corvette coupe that was as dead original and California clean as the Porsche. He motioned us back into his little courtyard area and we all had a seat. Around us were several pieces of automobilia like a couple of old gravity feed gas pumps, some nice old porcelain automotive signs, and some cool hit and miss engines. From where we were sitting we could see that he had some buildings hidden behind his house. They were incredibly well positioned, far under the public's radar. You would simply never imagine that any of this was back there.

Soon we were greeted by Tom's lovely wife Laura. An absolutely saint-like woman who has been at Tom's side since they were students at Hollywood high. She not only came out to say hello, but brought a tray of cookies and lemonade to tide us over until dinner was ready. I was still just shaking my head at all of this. A mere 4 hours ago I was driving around the valley without any direction, searching for long lost scenes and landmarks, becoming completely discouraged, and had yet to meet a single resident of California. Now I was hanging out with a true hero of our sport and was about to see an actual dry lakes hot rod from the 1940s in the flesh. Incredible. Of all the things that I had thought about while reading those two books, all of the history I wanted to try and find, the people I wanted to search out, it never once crossed my mind that any of the cars could possibly still be around. I mean, a lot of them were looking pretty used up in those old grainy black and white shots from 50 or more years ago! How could it be possible that a single one could have escaped and been preserved?

After a nice relaxing time there in Tom's courtyard, it was now time for the show to begin. Tom stood up and said,"Oh, I was going to show you my old car." I said,"Oh yeah", like I could have possibly forgotten this. We walked over to a small parking space between his two buildings, and there it was... the distinct shape of a Model A roadster underneath a plain cotton cover. He asked if I would walk around the other side and help him roll the cover off. Of course I did. With every turn of that cover, with every foot or so of bodywork that was revealed, time turned back, back, back,... until it was 1946 again.

I couldn't believe my eyes. There it was, a real live WW2 era flathead hot rod roadster. Something that I'd never seen in my life, and never thought I would ( or ever could for that matter ). Everything that had been feeling like fiction was now real and right in front of me. And all of the ingredients were there. I knew them from these great books and knew them well, but to be seeing them in person with the greatest tour guide I could ever ask for answering my questions?... well, you know.

I remember thinking that it seemed larger in scale than I thought it would be. I also was impressed by how big the flathead engine appeared nestled down between those Model A frame rails. Oh, and what a flathead it was. You have to remember that Tom Sparks is often sighted as one of the greatest flathead builders in the history of hot rodding. This has been said by many people including Tony Nancy, Alex Xydias, Ed Pink, and Ray Brown- so don't just take my word for it. And if it is any proof, the engine in Tom's roadster was built by him in the late 1940s while he was working for Eddie Meyer speed equipment. He raced it on the dry lakes, street raced it during the week, and the engine has never been rebuilt or apart for any reason. It is as he built it 60 years ago. Take a minute and think that one over.

The engine is a 59AB block with stock crank and rods, a Winfield cam, a full port and relief job on the block done by Tom at Meyer's, full Eddie Meyer speed equipment including heads and heated two-pot high-rise intake, and two Stromberg 97s sitting on top. Behind is the ubiquitous '39 Ford top-loader transmission and it all feeds into a stock banjo rear end with 3.78 gears. A classic period hot rod set-up. The frame was a '29 that had been boxed and the body was stock. The front axle had been dropped 3 inches and filled, and the wish bone had been split. '39 Ford juice brakes were at all corners, the spring eyes had been reversed front and rear, and the car had the perfect stance.

This was the real deal alright. I walked around it slowly, taking lap after lap. I felt like I couldn't open my eyes wide enough or focus sharp enough. Tom was nice enough to answer questions and offer up anything interesting about the car that came to him. Suddenly I noticed something that I had seen in my beloved hot rod books. It was immediately recognizable and I zeroed in for a closer look. There, mounted in plain view on the face of the passenger side dashboard, an actual 1940s dry lakes timing tag. I could not believe how cool this was. Again, the scale of it was not what I expected. It was actually larger than I thought it would be. It would be hard to miss if you were looking for it. How interesting to think that guys would advertise their car's top speed to the world, collecting one after another with each SCTA timed run, and hard mount them right on the car. What an amazing time this was. Just think... you could go to a drive-in or roadster run and just look inside other guy's cars and see what they've got. It must have helped tremendously when choosing off someone for a street race.

As I continued asking Tom about the car, I found out some interesting things about both the car and the man who built and owns it. Apparently Tom built the car during the war years and had it done in time to run at El Mirage in 1945 ( Yes, they did run some dry-lakes meets during the war ). This first version of the car can be seen in a photo from a previous post. I'll try and post that photo again here. The car had an unknown 21 stud flat-head in it and wasn't quite built for speed at first. See Tom had a full fendered '29 straight roadster ( this was a roadster pick-up ) at the time that was a nicely finished out car. It was the car that he and Laura used most and had both a full interior and a top, which was pretty unusual at the time for a hot rod. In fact, Tom appeared in the very first issue of Hot Rod magazine standing next to it. The roadster pick-up on the other hand was a true, stripped down, jalopy style hot rod. Tom said that he never even got around to painting it until the late 1960s.

I asked him how it was possible that he still had it. He said that he was as amazed as I was by this, as he and Laura had quite a few lean years while trying to get a business going in the speed world and the car had to be moved around from place to place many times over the years- sometimes when the car wasn't even together. Imagine that... he held onto this car through all of those times... times when the car could have easily been sold for parts to help pay the bills. I said this to him and he came back with,"Well, it was never worth anything back then- but it was always worth a lot to me, so why sell it?" I couldn't agree more.

This guy was turning out to be everything and more that I thought I would find in these early hot rod pioneers. He had as much energy for this stuff as I imagined he had when he was 19. You got a sense that he had never slowed down, and when you got him on the subject of the early days, he would light up even brighter. All of the names would come flooding back, the cars and their owners, the stories and the triumphs, all framed against this dream-like back-drop of 1940s southern California, one of the greatest American paradises that has ever existed. Weather that was absolute perfection, terrain and landscape that were pleasing, and a spirit of adventure that clearly enveloped the populace. What a high it must have been.

Now here I stood visiting with one of the great adventurers and true geniuses from this place and time. He walked over to his old roadster, reached in, turned the key, and fired it up. He stood there next to it while it rumbled lumpily at idle, and at that moment I could see and feel and smell it all like I was standing there living in that time. It was now all, every bit of it ( the people, the cars, the community ), totally real to me. I truly saw it as a complete reality right then. The books had taken me this far, and I was forever grateful to their authors, but now I stood here in a new reality, learning from and observing one of the true architects of this great American lifestyle.

Oh and we were just getting started...

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