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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

February 19, 1999

Whenever possible, I write an annual review of the venerated Oakland Roadster Show. "Venerated" is an appropriate word here in view of the fact that this year, the show is 50 years old.

It's really a misnomer to call it the "Oakland" Roadster Show since its official name for many years has been the Grand National Roadster Show. To further complicate the name situation, the show has been held across the bay in San Francisco for the past few years. But I still love it.

Maybe part of the reason that I'm so enamored is that it's a kind of personal tradition - I attended the first Oakland Roadster Show as a teen-ager back in '49 and I've been hooked ever since.

I also go because I enjoy the individual craftsmanship that goes into every car and truck that's on display. The quality is outstanding, even though some of the offerings aren't in the best of tastes. For almost two decades in the '70s and '80s, I was soured on street-rod and custom car shows in general and the Oakland show in particular. The vehicles that were being specially-constructed for these events became more and more bizarre and finally culminated with cars that were made to look like elegant dual bathtubs on a street rod chassis, supercharged cartoon strip hearses that must have come from the "Munster" TV series, and other iconoclastic freaks.

Being a traditionalist, my allegiance was and is to the architypal street rod: a 1932 Ford "High Boy" roadster, with or without fenders, that's powered by a traditional "souped-up" (an ancient expression) flat-head Ford V8 engine of pre-World War II vintage and detailed to perfection. This kind of a machine is, to my mind, the original all-American sports car: impractical, noisy and hard to drive, but lots of fun. Originating in the late '40s and early '50s, these cars were home-built by young men who had a thirst for speed and lots of creative talent, but were almost always short on money. Basic parts were scrounged from wrecking yards and updated with speed equipment bought from businesses that sprang up to fill the need.

There are other reasons I like the Oakland Roadster Show too. Being an incurable people-watcher, I also go to see that slice of the population that attends the show. It attracts aging hot-rodders who still slick back their now-white hair, young guys who are reliving the automotive history of their fathers, couples who are attracted to the event by the slick television promotion and thousands of citizens who simply fit into the "others" category.

Also heavily represented at the "roadster" show was a segment of the car culture commonly referred to as Custom Cars: full-bodied sedans that were chopped (a lateral section removed from the steel top), channeled (the body lowered over the frame), molded (body seams filled with lead), then painted with colors that defy description and decorated with individualistic graphics. No two custom cars ever seem to be alike.

After 50 years, many other traditions have built up around extravaganzas like the Oakland Roadster Show. Around the periphery of the main display area there are vendor's stands that feature speed equipment, souvenir apparel, automotive specialty tools of all sorts, model cars of all kinds and degrees of assembly, polishes and waxes in profusion (some that make incredible claims of restoration), commemorative posters that are signed on the spot by the buxom models that are portrayed on them and myriad other items too numerous to list.

There were also several booths that displayed the ultimate in do-it- yourself street rod parts. These companies can supply a potential retro-rodder with enough parts to assemble a typical vintage street rod from the ground up using reproduction parts. Everything is supplied clear down to the vintage chopped, free-standing windshield and about the only things that aren't supplied are the paint job and a vintage vehicle ownership certificate to make it street-legal.

This was of particular interest to me in that it appears that the show is returning to its street rod roots. Of the 50 cars that had won the show's annual title and trophy proclaiming them "America's Most Beautiful Roadster," 40 of them had returned for a "reunion." The entire main floor of the arena had been put aside for classic street roadsters and it was like a trip back in time. Some, like the '29 Model A owned by Ken Fuhrman of Richmond (Calif.), are as-was original. Fuhrman began building his car in 1943 as a high school student and has owned it ever since. Like most other classic cars, Fuhrman has rebuilt, renovated and restored his High Boy several times during the past half-century. It looks even better than it was when I saw it at the first Oakland Roadster Show as a high school student.

I know that the name and the location of my favorite automotive exhibition has been changed, and may be changed again at some future date. But to me and the automotive gray-beards of my era, it will always be the Oakland Roadster Show.

And as long as I can make it, I'll be there.