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.


Lacey Sue said...

David it makes me so happy to hear how much you look up to my grandpa. You are truly one of the most awesome people that comes around their house for multiple reasons! Haha! Honestly though, it just makes me feel so at ease. SO many of these guys come around and either want to borrow money, try and buy a car, or try and put their claims on one for the future.. =/ Thanks for being so wonderful to them!

Lacey =]

Holly said...

I just recently found your blog and I really enjoy it. I am a novice gearhead, I have always been mesmerized by the classics but i'm just now digging into the complete histories. Thank you for all the interesting information.

Anonymous said...


You probably don't remember me, but I took guitar lessons from you for a couple of years back in the late 80's/early 90's in Bedford, IN after your "Redline" days. Then you ran off to Boston and got all jazz-ified;) At that time, I was going to high school at Mitchell. Give me a shout back when you have time. I'd like to catch up. I still have some of the lessons in a tab book you gave to me!:)

Wes LeRoy

Holly said...

I really have enjoyed reading this blog. Will you please continue to share your photos, stories, and your knowledge? I know a little bit about my "dream machines" but I also enjoy learning about other awesome machines. Any other books you recommend?

Anonymous said...


Hope you are doing well. I see you from time to time on CMT with Gary Allan and love to pull out the old guitar lessons materials you gave me back in the late 80's/early 90's here in Bedford, Indiana!

Wes LeRoy

LF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stringbender said...

Hey David: I have been trying to find your phone number for ages - I misplaced it and JJB no longer has it either. Send me an email - I miss ya! Hope all's well,

David Langner