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NOSTALGIA: MODERN STREET RODS TOO NICE

by Bob Hagin

May 3, 1996

Last week I got a letter from Ron Plescia, a now-retired industrial designer whose friendship with me goes back to our salad days as mechanics 40 some-odd years ago. Besides having been a space-industry engineer as well as a professor on the subject at San Jose (CA) State University, Ron was the designer of the Apollo, a Buick-powered coupe that looked very Ferrari-ish and was assembled in a former shrimp processing plant in Oakland. His partner in the venture was Milt Brown and a couple of young guys with dreams could pull off things like that in the early '60s.

Ron and I correspond roughly twice a month and the latest subject of our exchanges is mutual lamentations over the fact that being a street-rodder was a great deal more fun and less expensive in the '40s and '50s when we were young and foolish. His mode of transportation during his early college days was a Crosley Hot Shot that he bought cheap because the former owner had rolled it, totally destroying the body. Ron re-bodied it with conduit tubing and aluminum sheeting, if I remember right, and it was the most minimal street-legal transportation possible that involved four wheels, a motor and seating for two. It was a typical hot-rod of the day, albeit in miniature. Other members of the student body either envied his originality - or thought he was crazy.

My own early street-rodding ventures included the installation of a much larger Austin engine into a fragile Singer roadster that had sawed its powerplant in half as I was commuting to one of my first jobs. Through experience I learned the technique of using coat hangers in place of more expensive welding rod, how to visualize conversion parts while looking at a pile of scrap metal, and experienced the thrill of making something "work." I had to trade off that Singer for more reasonable transportation before I could sort out the brakes and make it stop as well as it went.

My wife Carole car pooled to college with a friend who utilized a derelict Ford Model A sedan that he had stripped of all its extemporary parts like the fenders and hood. It had what was called a fabric "soft-plug" in the top and it had long-since shredded to the point where the occupants were continually exposed to the elements. But Carole's friend was proud of his acquisition and was planning the installation of a well-used V8 flat-head engine. At that point Carole transferred and lost track of her friend and his project.

The subject of kid-built street rods came up recently at a family party, too. Jim Hatch, one of my co-in-laws, related that he and his brother Bob had rebuilt a '52 Ford V8 engine using used speed equipment during their high-school days and raced it for a couple of years at several of our local drag strips. "We learned what it meant to 'blueprint' an engine and taught ourselves how to use a boring bar on that old flat-head," said younger brother Bob. There was nostalgic sigh in his voice when made the comment.

The last true "beater" street rod I saw in daily use was a '32 Ford Model A pickup that was driven by one of my high school student some 10 years ago. His father had assembled it a decade earlier and had almost tossed a tiny Ford V8 "60" into the engine bay. It was a rough and rusted but true to the code. Needless to say, it was the most envied car in the school parking lot.

It seems that the days of a kid using his or her recently learned welding skills to install a set of home-made motor mounts in a resurrected sedan frame are long gone. And it's not hard to understand why. Pollution control laws in some parts of the country make the modification of a car built after the mid-'60s a crime akin to bank robbery and insurance risk charts run off the scale at the corporate thought of someone under the age of 25 driving anything but an underpowered four-door sedan

"Beater" street rodding is gone. Street rods now are more likely to be built from body and chassis kits supplied by specialty makers and assembled by well-heeled adults for whom the avocation is therapy. The extreme high-end of the genre is built-to-order custom-cars that bear a resemblance to the original '51 Mercury two-door or '32 Ford Deuce Coupe but may cost their well-heeled buyers up to $100,000. Ron put it succinctly when he wrote that "Nowadays the (street rod) trend is to dove gray leather interiors, blueprinted and chromed small-block mills, lots of bits sculpted out of aluminum on numerically-controlled machines and a obligatory pair of designer tinted glasses."

Somehow I can't picture those fancy sun glasses on the dashboards of any of the home-built machines I've mentioned here.