In the last few years the hot rodders, who used to play "chicken" down the center lines of the nation's highways, have virtually disappeared from view. Most motorists assume that the rods broke down, the boys (if they lived) grew up and the fad died out. Not so. Most of the rodders have left the road for the drag strips, but they have founded their own fantasy city and they have proliferated. Today a legion of cats shack and shuck in Rumpsville, which is in the Holy Land and strictly scooby-doo (scooby-dooby to a square like you).
Rumpsville—or Rumpville, depending on how far out you feel—is the hot rodder's heaven, and to a student of contemporary American culture it is a place of fascination. For here the modern phenomenon of automobilism, that devout interest in cars entirely apart from their use as transportation, has reached its pinnacle in the creations turned out by onetime chicken players, and in the world they have built around their cars. It is a world that invites and rewards" study, for the hot rod cult—and there is no better word to describe this movement—is limited only by the fetish-oriented imagination of its cultists.
Automobilism has been called "a major movement in society," but it would be more accurate to define it as a quasi religion, what with its concept of the car as power, its special set of doctrines and the extraordinary behavior patterns exhibited by its devotees. It embraces a number of cults given over to the veneration of a particular type of vehicle. There are cults devoted to the sports car, the classic car (the vigorous subcult of Bugatti believers has all but made a saint of Le Patron, the late Ettore Bugatti), the Indianapolis racer, the motorcycle (rent by schism between the sophisticated enthusiasts of English cycles and the Brandoesque brutes known as "hog riders" who favor the big American machines), the kart (the latest, smallest and most retrogressive of these vehicles) and, of course, the hot rod.
The hot rod cult is the most flourishing of all. Fifteen years ago there were only 3,000 hot rodders in the United States; now there are 1.5 million. Most hot rodders are law-abiding. A minority, dubbed "shot rodders" by the orthodox, is not. (To some outsiders, there is scant difference between the shot rodder and the hot rodder. Briefly, however, the hot rodder is interested in ' "improving" his car in some fashion or other and the shot rodder's interest is in using his car as an instrument of aggression on the street.) Altogether, they spend an estimated $250 million a year on their cars and related products, and though this in itself is a considerable sum they manage to have a greater impact on society by virtue of their influence on automobile design. For, whatever its extremes, the hot rod cult has produced creative enthusiasts who have left—and are still leaving—their mark on America. Several mass-produced cars now reflect hot rod innovations—for example, the Chrysler 300 line—and it is no exaggeration to say that the unusual alterations on the machine some teen-ager is driving in Los Angeles today may be adopted by Detroit tomorrow.
April 24, 1961
Almost all members of the hot rod cult are males between the ages of 14 and 40. Generally, they adhere to a code of totems and taboos complicated enough to make the sociologist pause and the Freudian leap for his pencil. It is, for instance, required of a hot rodder who is "with it" to chrome the undercarriage of his car, or at least paint it white, but it is definitely "Mickey Mouse," hot roddese for bad taste, to fly a foxtail or use mud flaps.
Hot rodding has an involved hierarchy. In the early days of the cult, a hot rod was a standard Detroit car with a souped-up engine for "go." Nowadays, however, a hot rod may also mean a car with an altered, or "customized," exterior for "show." At the bottom of the hierarchy, which feeds upward in farm-system fashion, is a high school youngster with a hot rod that might be go, show or "show and go." More often than not the youngster will belong to a car club. If he does, he will exhibit a club plaque in the rear window of his rod and wear the club jacket to school. The jacket is likely to be wool and blue in color (motorcyclists wear leather). Most clubs have aggressive and evocative names: Black Widows, Cam-twisters, Cannibals, Demons, Igniters, Miss-Fits, Nomads, Satans, Shafters, Undertakers, Vampires, Vandals, Voo-doos, Wipers. One of the most popular, over the years, has been Road Runners, but the Untouchables is coming on fast. A typical Untouchables plaque shows a car streaking away from another car or a reaching hand.
Higher in the hierarchy is a more or less independent rodder in his 20s. Many of his contemporaries will have given up hot rodding—half the hot rodders are teen-agers—but this cat has held fast and channeled his passion in a particular direction. If he is interested in the "show route," he will spend hour after hour adding new touches to his custom car. If he is interested in racing, he will spend an equal amount of time tinkering with his "dragster," which might best be described as an engine on wheels. The dragster is run only on drag strips, the straightaway quarter-mile course where rodders stage acceleration races against one another in pairs, or individually against the clock. A class A dragster can reach 170 mph with ease.
At the top of the hierarchy is a speedster like Mickey Thompson, 32, who drives a "Streamliner," a car specially built to perform on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In one spree Thompson, who has a Pontiac engine for each of his car's four wheels, hit 406.6 mph, the fastest man has gone on wheels.
Whatever a hot rodder's standing in the hierarchy, he has a mystical reverence for cars. "The automobile is the most majestic thing to me," says Lou Schorsch, a Los Angeles hot rodder who has given up go for show. "The automobile has done more for the human race than anything or anyone. More than Michelangelo or Knute Rockne. A guy who hates cars or who doesn't cherish them, I don't want to know."
This sort of feeling burning in the hot rod heart led to the creation of Rumpsville (or Rumpville). "Rumpsville would be the Elysian Fields of hot rodding," says Le Roi Smith, an editor of Hot Rod Magazine (the bible) and a former national field director of the National Hot Rod Association (the society for the propagation of the faith). "It's where hot rodders could go and all the people would know about mechanical things. Hot rod heaven, that's Rumpsville. When you hop up an engine, it makes a noise like 'rump, rump!' That's where it comes from, man, like from Wildsville."
The lingo with which hot rodders ordinarily communicate with one another is a melange of bop talk, beat talk, teen talk and garagese. "Bear" means car, and so does "beast." A "pig" is a car "that's like nothing, dirty." A "Sally Rand" is a car with "no radio, no heater, no nothin'—stripped." A "gook wagon" is a car with tabooed ornamentation, and it is driven either by a "choke" (a slob) or a "squirrel" (a dangerous character, derived loosely from the frowned-upon foxtail). A Chevrolet is a "stove," and a Ford is a "can." A "deuce" is a sporty 1932 Ford, probably the most desirable machine.
"Scooby-doo" means sharp or good, to "shack" is to live, and to "shuck" is to talk. "Mother," always spelled and pronounced "mutha," generally has a connotation of endearment as in "Look at that mutha go!" (A hot rod club in the Midwest used to call its president "head mutha.") "Fuzz" and "heat" mean police. When I told a hot rodder I had been talking to police, he exclaimed to a friend: "Hey, man, this cat's been dancin' with the heat!"
Around all this jazz, daddy-o, revolves hot rod culture. There are hot rod movies like Hot Rod Gang showing "Crazy kids...living to a wild rock 'n' roll beat!" There are hot rod novels like Street Rod: "Ricky Madison was going too fast to do anything but watch the highway. How good it felt to split the night like the point of a knife, pipes blasting against the road. Speed...speed...speed. Tonight he'd find out what his rod could do!" There are records like Transfusion by Nervous Norvus on a Dot label, which sold 950,000 copies and goes in part:
Toolin' down the highway doin' 79
I'm a twin-pipe poppa,
and I'm fee I in' fine.
Hey, man, dig that!
Was that a red stop sign?
(Sound of crash)
I'm just a solid mess of contusions!
Never, never, never gonna speed again!
Slip the blood to me, bud!
Jump in my rod about a quarter to nine.
I gotta make a date with that chick of mine.
I cross the center line.
Man, you gotta make time!
(Sound of crash)
Oh, man, I got the cotton pickhin' convolutions!
I'm never, never, never gonna speed again!
Shoot the juice to me, Bruce!
The ultimate in records are those put out by Riverside Records in New York which contain only the sounds of the engines themselves. Riverside has recorded a whole sonic gamut of automobilism, ranging from the "brrraappp" of a Formula Junior racer to the "vroom" of a Corvette, but of all these the three hot rod records have sold the best. "The exciting thing in listening to a hot rod engine," says Bill Grauer, Riverside president, "is when it has reached its peak and starts that undulating wail, 'ooma, ooma!' This is a hell of a bit of mass culture."
The spread of the hot rod cult and culture has caused all sorts of reactions. The California legislature has passed a law prohibiting hot rodders from lowering any part of the car body below the rim of the wheels. (Hot rods were getting snagged crossing railroad tracks, and one hot rodder with a flat backed up traffic for miles on a Los Angeles freeway when he was unable to get a jack beneath his beast.) Last year the United States Information Agency dispatched a hot rodder and his car to Germany to explain the American way of life. The Germans were baffled. "They didn't know what it was," says the hot rodder. Bob Clifford, 16, of Orinda, Calif.
The International Association of Police Chiefs has branded hot rod racing a public menace, but a growing number of police officials favor drag racing because it cuts violations on the open road. Still, the National Safety Council condemned supervised racing on the grounds that speed itself is bad, and some educators have gone so far as to deplore ownership of any car by a high school student. One study showed that not a single straight-A student owned a car, but 83% of those failing did. The Air Force and the Army, on the other hand, endorse hot rodding—hot rodders make first-rate mechanics.
Sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists have sought to explain the cult and the allure of the automobile. Eugene Gilbert, president of the Gilbert Youth Research Co., which advises business on teen-age interests, has found that to a teen-age male a driver's license means more than his first date, his first kiss or his first time out after midnight. Youngsters can hardly wait to flee the family car, which is to them a "baby carriage with a motor," for a motor of their own. Hot rodders apparently want to stress their freedom and individuality even more. Reuel Denney, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, has written in The Astonished Muse, a study of popular culture, that the hot rodders are in revolt against Detroit. They are "Participative Purists" who require something different from the mass model. Hot rodders are members of "the salon of the refused," and they get their kicks by indulging in "gasoline fiestas."
Peter E. Siegle, a former consulting psychologist for Maremont Automotive Products in Chicago, has an even more personal interpretation. In the August 1952 issue of Hot Rod Magazine he wrote, doubtless to the confusion of many of his readers: "The serious hot rodder is compulsive...which may mean that he is attempting to bring some order into his life by organizing and manipulating gadgets, an action which is, for him, easier than trying to manipulate people.... Since all motivation and response is modified in some way by the cultural milieu, it is only natural that in a mechanistic culture, young people tend toward mechanistic pursuits. In this culture status is achieved through money, sex or the acquisition of physical status symbols. The hot rodder gains recognition (negative or positive) by building the noisier, faster, flashier vehicle...."
To Ernest Dichter, the motivational researcher, hot rodding, along with high fidelity and gourmet foods, is symptomatic of a new trend in the market place which he calls "mass organized nonconformism." Dichter, who sold Chrysler on manufacturing the hardtop convertible as a one-package symbol of both wife (sedan) and mistress (convertible), is fascinated by the auto-erotic in hot rodding. "Speed is power, potency, conquest," he says. "It's the demonstration of your own power. You're going 100 mph, not the car. These hot rodders are basically insecure sexually, and they overcompensate."
Psychiatrists who view the car as a phallic, or potency, symbol find a rich field for research among the extremist fringe, the shot rodders. The shot rodders are in revolt all right, but against Mom, not the Motor City. Two St. Louis psychiatrists. Dr. Jack C. Neavles and Dr. George Winokur, examined 30 such boys in a seven-year period and reported their findings in the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic for January 1957. The "typical" shot rodder, they deduced, "is a precocious, physically strong boy. He is aggressive of temperament, and his early history shows evidence of emotional deprivation. His relationship with his mother is usually a very ambivalent one ('Yuh gotta have mothers, but I can't stand 'em. They're bossy')....
"Athletics, at least in these 30 cases, were no source of release," the report continued. "Either the boys were too threatened by the direct competition, or else they could not face the complicated team cooperation that goes into, for instance, a good baseball game. Many of them excelled at swimming or individual sports. But certainly interest in sports which employ interaction was lacking in these adolescents.
"Art, music and poetry were considered 'sissy stuff.' There was a general dislike of reading and literature. The verbal ability of this group was distinctly lower than their mechanical performance. They came mostly from lower middle class homes.
"Study of these 30 cases shows that the automobile can become a sort of accessory body image. The boys verbalize this by such statements as: 'That old hot rod of mine gets to be like a part of me,' or, again: 'Behind the wheel I get bigger and bigger. Man, it's a real cool feeling. I swell up to be just as big as the car. Next year I'm gettin' a Cadillac.' Thus the ego boundaries expand to include the car, in a sense. A feeling of megalomaniacal power and invulnerability ensue. Further evidence of this use of the automobile as an expanded body image is afforded by the decreasing tendency that these boys show to call a car by a feminine first name (Lizzie, Betsy).... There is a great self-destructive element in their behavior," the report concluded. "Yet, their vitality, their urge to live and their real skill as drivers pull them through. It is the thrill of the 'near miss' that they are after."
Hot rodding was born and nurtured in Los Angeles, a city given over to the car, to speed and to experiment. Precisely when hot rodding first appeared is not recorded, though it has been said it was "firmly entrenched as an automotive sport when Model T Fords were popular." At any rate, hot rodding was well under way by 1937 when the Southern California Timing Association was formed to supervise races on the dry lakes 120 miles away and calm an aroused public. (One rancher complained 10 head of cattle were rustled during a race meet, and another said the engine noise kept the hens from laying eggs.)
During World War II hot rodding died down, but it revived with a fury once the war was over. Most of the hot rodders were using old cars—Detroit didn't put out "a really new machine" until 1953—and they held street races with daredevil variations. "Crinkle fender" became popular, and hot rodders began collecting dents "in much the same way," an observer noted, "as an outlaw of an earlier and wilder West notched his pistol stock." "Chicken," brought to its full glory by the late James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, took hold. In one version, two drivers would head toward one another, the left front wheel of each car riding the center line on the road. The first to get out of the way lost. Smilin' Jack, the comic strip, featured Hot Rod Happy, a highway hooligan who ignored his dying dad for his cut-down car.
As it grew in popularity, the cult grew in infamy. On every level the hot rodder was damned. Outraged parents began to enforce reforms. After Dr. Waldo Pendleton, a Los Angeles surgeon, lost his 17-year-old son in a crash, he made each member of his late son's club, the Gents, sign a pledge to promote safe driving. The Gents held their meetings in the doctor's home, where they listened to informal talks by a policeman and, as a result, began behaving like, well, gents. In 1950 the town of Santa Ana, plagued by hot rodders coming from L.A. to race on its long, straightaway streets, converted an unused airport runway into the first supervised drag strip in the country. Other communities followed suit, police took an interest in clubs and, as a result, street racing in the area declined to the point where it was no longer a problem.
One person who did much to make hot rodding presentable was Robert E. Petersen, a 21-year-old movie press agent who was also among the first to realize the commercial possibilities of the cult. In January of 1948, shortly after he had been dropped from M-G-M in an economy wave, Petersen teamed up with another firing victim, Robert Lindsay, to start a monthly, Hot Rod Magazine. Together they splurged $400 to print 10,000 copies, and after they had hawked many of them personally at drag races and drive-ins, they published a second issue. Within a year HRM, as the magazine refers to itself, had a circulation of 50,000, and by 1952 Petersen, an aggressive sort who had ideas for other magazines, was able to buy out Lindsay for a quarter of a million dollars. Today HRM has a circulation of 650,000, the largest of any automotive magazine in the world, and Petersen himself, who is worth $3.5 million, tools around town in a $14,000 red Ferrari and sups with the likes of Tina Louise.
Besides HRM, Petersen Publications, housed appropriately in a former automobile showroom on Hollywood Boulevard, puts out a clutch of other mechanistic monthlies. Among them are Motor Trend, with a circulation of 450,000; Rod & Custom, with 130,000: and Kart, started last August for the newest cult and already up to 130,000.
One of Petersen's latest ventures is a hot rod comic book, Car Toons. In one story, Saga of Rumpville, in the first issue, all the hot rodders in the country gather on the West Coast "to discuss the mutual problem of how to get an unappreciative public off their back." The rodders buy the offshore island of Catalina, deport the islanders back to the mainland and hack out drag strips. Back on the mainland, cars pile up in junkyards for lack of mechanics. The government asks the rodders to return, "offering to make Rumpville the 51st state." The hot rodders can't be bothered. Finally, out of curiosity, they send a couple of cats back to the mainland to see what's going on. They find streets devoid of cars and freeways overgrown with shrubbery.
"Holy gaskets!" exclaims one of the cats. "We never realized our departure would work this kind of hardship upon future generations!" They drive up a mountain, unplug the powerful pipes of their beast and blast out a message to Catalina:" WAPP, wapp, wapp, wapp—WAPP, wapp—WAPP, WAPP." Catalina gets the message. "Using their normal amount of ingenuity, the entire population of Rumpville returned to the mainland now that they were convinced that they were needed—and rod-ding again assumed its helpful place on the national scene!"
The Saga of Rumpville is a fair gauge of the literary taste of much of the hot rod cult, but it does point up the strong desire of the movement to prove that hot rodding has a helpful—and rightful—place in society. This is the constant theme of the Petersen magazines and the National Hot Rod Association, a close ally. The NHRA was founded in 1951 by Wally Parks, then the editor of Hot Rod Magazine and now the editorial director of Petersen Publications, with the help of a $1,500 loan from Petersen himself. Under Parks's guidance the NHRA has fought against shot rodding ("Names that include such words as 'Maniacs,' 'Killers,' 'Hell' or 'Wrecks' have a tendency to give the public the wrong impression of hot rodding") and sought to have hot rodding recognized as a safe, sane and useful sport. Since its founding NHRA has enrolled 100,000 members, all of whom are pledged to uphold the law, and it sanctions and insures 150 of the 250 drag strips in the country and runs a semiannual National Drags Championships and a National Custom Car Show.
Los Angeles, birthplace of the cult, continues to spawn fads. Five years ago hot rods in L.A. were tilted up in front. Now they are tilted up in back. In the East, which is generally reckoned as being three to five years behind in style, cars are still tilted up in front.
Color schemes change all the time. Five years ago flames on the hood were the thing. Then they suddenly went out, and scalloping came in. Pin striping followed, then paneling. Now the fad is to paint the car a solid "candy" or "pearl" color. Candy, made from toners and clears—the unmixed ingredients of pure paint—makes a finished job shine like a candied apple. Pearl, made from fish scales used in nail polish, not only gives clarity and polish but a satinlike sheen. "Indianapolis is going real wild for pearls and candy colors," says Dean Jeffries, a painter who claims to have been the first to pearl cars. "I've got quite a few of them lined up for this year. Jim Hurtubise, who set a record there, had an orchid pearl with candy burgundy scallops, and the crowd went wild over it, the women especially."
Larry Watson, another custom painter, is working on pearls that change color with the lighting. One pearl glows red in the sun and turns green in the shade, while another is blue in the light and gold in the dark. "Guys like to come down to my place, lock the doors and get high on the fumes of the lacquer," Watson says. "When I painted my '59, man, I got so high. I went out and got a haircut, man, and the guy was cutting burgundy-colored hair."
Like all cultists, hot rodders have their shrines. A favorite in the Los Angeles area is Harvey's Broiler, a drive-in in the suburb of Downey. Here high school hot rodders gather to partake of the glorified "chubby," a double hamburger, gape at one another's cars and check on the latest fads. On weekend nights hundreds of cars jam the parking lot, and eager drivers waiting for a berth circle the block. Occasionally an impatient driver races his engine twice in rapid succession, sending a throaty whoom-whoom into the soft night air. Instantly other drivers respond in automatic litany. In the old days this ritual, called "rapping the engine," was a challenge to a street race.
I visited Harvey's one rainy night with two guides, Lieut. Ron Root of Pomona and Sergeant Bob Thomas of Lynwood, both of whom serve on the Police Advisory Council for Car Clubs in Los Angeles County. From our car, I pointed questioningly to rods with huge rear tires. "They're racing slicks with no tread," Root said. "It's a fad." In turn, he pointed to a car that had no hub caps on the wheels. "That style," he said, "comes from the drag strips. The strips won't allow hub caps because they might come off and get in the way of an oncoming car."
Several cars had bongo drums on the rear window shelf. "It followed the beatnik craze," Root said with a shrug.
Thomas said some hot rodders prefer stuffed lions to the drums. "It was the answer to our making them take graduation tassles and baby shoes off the rear-view mirror," he said. Still other hot rodders encircle the mirror with a soft fur muff known as a "fuzzy."
"One of the things the kids do," said Root, "is to take a cocktail glass, fill it with acetate glue, put a red marble in it for a cherry or a green one for an olive, and glue the base of the glass to the dashboard and let her sit. Looks strange.
"Here's an outlaw [shot rod] coupe. He's trying to look squirrelly. An outlaw doesn't care how he looks as long as he draws attention."
"One reason you're not seeing many candy paint jobs tonight is because of the weather," Thomas said. "Water spots them. The guys get them cleaned up real nice, and they want to keep them that way."
"Another outlaw," said Root, pointing, as he prepared to pull out. "No license light. Bad taillight. Loud pipes. If this were Pomona, I'd pick him up."
"Damn right," said Thomas. "Make him get off the street."
Automobile supply houses keep an eye on L.A. for marketable fads. "The latest craze from California" is the only line needed to sell to hot rodders all over the country. J.C. Whitney & Company in Chicago is offering a "fuzzy wuzzy" steering-wheel cover at $1.25 "for that smooth luxurious feel," and for only $3 you can "give your car that way-out look" with nine feet of the fuzzy stuff, "enough material to customize dashboard, door moldings, all interior knobs, horn ring, rearview mirror, etc." Two dollars buys a voodoo-head gearshift knob, and $6.95 in the mail brings a "classy jacket" with "NO CLUB—LONE WOLF" or "HAVE GOODIES—WILL TRAVEL" silk-screened on the back.
Most of the major fads, however, are set in motion by the high priests of hot rodding. With the exception of a few scattered near San Francisco and in the Middle West, the high priests reside in the Los Angeles area and are products of the hot rod movement itself. One is Dean Moon, 33, a machinist by trade, who owns a specialty parts house that grossed more than $500,000 last year. Moon has contributed to literally hundreds of fads, including spun-aluminum wheel disks and floor-shift-conversion kits. (Hot rodders insist on a floor shift.) So many Moon items have become "in" that it is now "in" for hot rodders to paste a decal with his trademark, the two O's in Moon drawn as oversized eyeballs, on their cars. Last year Moon sold 4 million eyeball decals.
George Barris, 35, is "the king of kustomizing." Last year his firm grossed $300,000. Barris is responsible for many of the design innovations of the last 15 years: floating tube grilles, outside exhausts, recessed taillights, air scoops and continental rear ends. "I like to get things that are very futuristic," he says. "I don't like to repeat." When his wife was expecting a child, Barris had a name all picked out for a boy: XM 140. "I like to be different," he says. "But since it was a girl we named her Jo-Ji. Like Georgie, but still different."
Barris does much of the car work for the movies. For instance, he did the hot rods for Rebel Without a Cause. After Dean was killed speeding in his Porsche, Barris bought the wreck for $200. He exhibited it at car shows "to promote safety," but he was dismayed by the way kids reacted. "They stole pieces of it despite every precaution we took," he says. "Girls would flick paint off to save."
With his entree into the movies, Barris has extended the range of custom culture. He upholstered Liberace's Cadillac in a black-and-white Naugahyde pattern that formed keyboards on the seats. On the bottom of the front seat Barris sewed the notes from the singer's theme song, I'll Be Seeing You. Barris hit a high note of some sort when he customized a Jaguar for Senator Barry Goldwater. "We built full bumpers front and rear for protection," he says. "We built a box continental kit on the rear deck lid with an outside tire. We constructed two full rear fenders, extended with air scoops to the brakes. We constructed taillights of pieces of clear Lucite eight inches long. The light lit one end and penetrated the full length of the Lucite. The front was a specially constructed concave bar grille with twin headlights extended into oval shapes. The car was painted rustic bronze, with 30 coats of lacquer. We installed several aircraft dials in the dash which Senator Goldwater hooked up himself."
One of the top interior designers is Ed Martinez, 24, a trained upholsterer. "The 'in' things are pleats, bucket seats, furniture cloth and tufted bottoms," Martinez says. The bucket seats, made of plastic, rotate on swivels made for deep-sea-fishing chairs. Most cars now have carpeted floor mats with Naugahyde pleats under the pedals. The "in" carpeting is an Acrilan-fiber resembling fur.
The most unusual of the high priests is Roth, the Crazy Painter, the Famed Kahoona of Weirdsville, who originated the Weirdo shirt. Roth's first name is really Ed, but he doesn't dig it. "I want people to think that this cat has really flipped his lid," Roth says. Nobody who has ever met him is inclined to doubt it.
Roth's shirts, rendered in fluorescent colors, cost $5.50 each, and most are beyond description (see cover). His favorite shows, to quote him, "a head cut off at the neck being held up by a weird monster who has a straw going into the brain cavity, and he's sucking it like a sundae with a real funny-type look on his face." As Roth sees it, the shirts sell because they're "the secret little weapon each juvenile has to terrorize his parents and his environment." (Ernest Dichter scoffs at Weirdo shirts as "a detachable tattoo." He says, "It's a phony way to rebel. You can take it off if you change your mind.")
Roth takes only 15 minutes to airbrush a design on a shirt. "When a kid comes in to me, I take a good look at his face while I'm asking him what he wants," he says, eyes aglitter. "I do the face at the end. He'll have a little thing he wants, the beer he drinks, the girl friend's name or some favorite saying. Like 'It's the water,' from Olympia beer. 'My sister stinks'—I just did one yesterday. 'Flatheads forever,' or, 'I gobble Fords,' or maybe 'Corvette Eaters.'
Not all Roth's customers are hot rodders. Tommy Rettig, who was bounced off the Lassie show for growing too big to play Jeff, the small-boy hero, ordered a shirt showing Lassie being barbecued on a spit.
It was Roth who introduced me to Lou Schorsch, whom Roth described as a hot rodder of the old school. Whatever school he belongs to, Schorsch emerged as an archetype of hot rodder. Now 29, he is married with four daughters and makes a living here and there. A gifted inventor, he has drawn as much as $8,000 a year in royalties for some of his brain children. But he complains bitterly that he cannot get more of a hearing in the industry. "You have to go to college and get a piece of paper," said Schorsch, a high school graduate. "I've done things mechanical engineers said couldn't be done." One example is a carburetor that gets 36 miles to a gallon of gas for a big car like a Buick.
When Schorsch was younger, he used to drag-race a 1932 Ford sedan with a swastika painted on the door The name of the car was "Hitler's Mother." "I did it to more or less shake people up," he explained. "I'm Jewish, so no Jew could come to me and say anything." For the same reason presumably, Mort Zauss, a friend of Schorsch, used to race wearing a German helmet which came, he said, from the Gestapo.
Schorsch, who is now interested in show instead of go, estimated he had been in "maybe 2,000" street races. "I lost my license six or eight times," he said. "I won most of the races, but I got shut off, too. I'd say I won 1,500, lost 500." Schorsch has no fondness for police. "Quote me," he said. "The cops are trying to be big heroes to the kids. That's for the Little League. Real hot rodders don't dig cops. They give you a hassle. I don't know any guy of our age who likes cops. A cop can't even—quote me—handle a screwdriver. Police have no skills of any kind. The job takes no brains. All they want to do is stop you to be the big hero."
Schorsch is absolutely committed to cars. "Hot rodding comes first," he said. "It's above my home, anything. I'll take money out of the milk fund and the kids can eat beans for two months so I can have a new piece of chrome. I've done it. I'm doing it right now. I'm building a solar-powered car."
When his wife objects to his hot rod-ding activities, he walks out of the house. "The car's got gas in it," he said, "and after I go around the block I can't hear her any more. My wife has never told me that she was sorry she married me. Not that I give a damn—I'd just as soon be with a car."
Zauss agreed. "My woman said it was either my car or her," said Zauss, "so I said, 'Goodby, baby!" You take the best thing you can get because you can't have everything. Women are a dime a dozen, but cars, cars you want, are hard to get."
I asked Zauss what he would do if I touched his car. He said he would fight. "If you were a baker and you baked a cake," he said, "wouldn't you get teed off if I put my hand on it? Nobody touches nothin'! You keep your hands to yourself."
Schorsch went even further. "If a guy went up and leaned on my fender, by God I'd flip!" he said. "It's like going up to Michelangelo's Venus de Milo and putting black paint on it. A bad scene! Back East you got magazines showing pictures of cars with broads lying on the hoods and fenders, sittin' on the roof. Oh, it wouldn't happen to the guys I know! In my town, a car gets known like a human being. A good car is known just like a person. Cars have personalities, just like people. You can have two 32 Ford coupés, same color, but something is different. A car is a person. I can tell when it's sick. Man, when my car isn't running right I think about it all night."
Schorsch likes motorcycles, but they have to be "limey bikes," English motorcycles. "Guys in limey bikes are groovy cats," he said. "They wear dark glasses at 12 o'clock at night and ride the beach." He wanted nothing to do with the "hog riders" on American "sickles." "The hogs are usually a bunch of Okies who wear big boots, hang out in bars and dance with ugly girls," he said. "In one club the guys wear earrings. They don't change their Levi's. They wear leather jackets with the sleeves torn off. Not cut off, torn off. They've got weird tattoos all over their arms. The broads are tattooed too. I've seen broads with the cats' names tattooed on their legs. All the broads wear long hair and helmets. The hog riders are cats you wouldn't want to associate with. Strange clan."
"Man," said Roth, who had been listening in, "if you get in with the hog crowd you've really got it made!"
Schorsch disagreed. "I thought I was weird until I saw those guys," he said.
Unlike rugged individualists like Schorsch and Zauss, younger hot rodders want to belong to a group, a club. There are now 40,000 car clubs in the United States, and they are increasing at such a rate that Wally Parks plans to set up a national organization for them alone. The new organization will have nothing to do with the National Hot Rod Association—indeed the name hot rod will be avoided—or drag racing, but will devote itself to such activities as customizing.
Parks should have his hands full. Clubs range from one extreme to the other. The Waddlers of Bell, for instance, are composed, as Roth puts it, "of a bunch of guys no one else would let in. They've got a plaque that shows a privy on wheels with a guy sticking his head out the window throwing up." At the other extreme were the Heaven Pacers of the East Bay, a club near San Francisco that required each applicant to have been "born again, accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior." At drag races the Pacers held prayer meetings over the PA system, and once when the club dragster wasn't running properly they gathered around to ask for divine guidance. The dragster went on to top the strip record by six mph. The Pacers, who disbanded in 1960, had as their motto I Corinthians 9:24: "Know ye not that they which run in the race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run that ye may obtain."
Occupying the middle of the road, sociologically speaking, are the Glen Cove Road Panthers, of Long Island in New York. Formed nine years ago by Ed Eaton, now the national field director of the NHRA, the Panthers enjoy local police sponsorship. The Panthers meet in a city garage, where they work on the club dragster, and everything is done in proper fashion before the public eye. The club has detailed bylaws—one forbids members from wearing the club jacket into a bar—and anyone guilty of squirrelly behavior is liable to expulsion. Last summer two members were drummed out for good for drag racing on Glen Cove's main street.
To improve public relations, Panthers assist motorists in trouble. After changing a flat or adjusting a minor mechanical failure, a Panther will present the motorist with a courtesy card which reads, "You have been assisted by a member of the Glen Cove Road Panthers...a 'HOT ROD' organization formed by a group of responsible auto enthusiasts, dedicated to promote interest in the sport, wherever it may be found, and who some day hope to unveil to the Public the true meaning of the word, 'Hot Rod.' " As a good-will gesture last Christmas, the Panthers raised $100 for a needy family.
Club membership now stands at 16, equally divided between speedsters and customizers, and on a January afternoon Reporter Mort Sharnik and I talked to a half dozen of them, all but one of whom worked as mechanics.
The six offered a figure of $1,000 as the yearly sum each spent on his car. "This is what it costs you after you have bought your car," said Jack Eaton, 28, Ed's younger brother and president of the club. "This $1,000 is for nothing—for bolts." Eighty-five dollars a week was given as the income for the affluent members. Married Panthers indicated their wives handled their paychecks and several mentioned $15 a week as their car allowance.
All admitted to street racing, but stressed that this was either before they joined the club or to "tame" a shot rodder who was a menace on the road. Steve Petersen, 18, said he had lost his junior license for nearly two years after he was caught doing 110 mph. "Since then I've been tame," he said. "It hurt too much not to be able to drive my car, and so now I have no trouble holding myself down."
Only one Panther, Dick Herman, 25, had ever "dragged for a pink slip"—that is, bet his registration against another driver. Herman lost. "I just didn't think of not giving him my car," he said. "If I hadn't, I suppose he would have beaten me up."
Herman, now an auxiliary policeman, agreed with other members that police, away from Glen Cove, are waiting to nab hot rodders on technical violations. "They'll tag you for a technical muffler violation," he said. "The same thing the ordinary driver gets away with day after day, the hot rodder will be tagged for!"
Eaton was opposed to many of the Los Angeles fads. "Most of them are too far out for us," he said. "We don't wear any garbage. None of those squirrelly Weirdo shirts or furry mirror warmers. The way I figure it the guys should be dressed so I wouldn't be ashamed for them to come to my house." He was also against bongo drums, but he thought voodoo-head gearshift knobs were all right.
Several Panthers disagreed. Claude Pardi, 22, who had spent some time in California, thought the bongos and some of the new paint jobs were great. "I hope to eventually live on the Coast," he said. "Every time I see a California license plate, I say, 'Holy Land! Holy Land!' " Pardi is captivated by cars. "I was going steady with this girl and she objected to my concentration on my car." he said. "At the time I was putting in an Oldsmobile motor, but she expected me to be at her house. Finally she told me it would either be her or the car, so I said so long. My car comes first."
Cars owned by Panthers are models of cleanliness. "Unless you keep it clean it won't run right," said Herman. "I wash my car three or four times a week. I just can't stand to see it dirty. I see some of these women drive around in dirty cars, and I think their houses must be a mess."
"I had the hood up on my car," Pardi said, "and a woman looked at it and said the motor was clean enough to eat off. I didn't say anything to her, but I thought, 'I wouldn't let you eat off my engine, lady, you might get crumbs on it.' "
"I talk real nice to my car," said Petersen, "and sometimes when I'm feeling real good, I'll open the hood and kiss all that beautiful chrome smiling up at me from the engine block. Yet, when it gets temperamental, I threaten it, and once I took a hammer and smashed two fenders. As soon as I did, I took a body mallet and hammered out the dents."
"I've whipped my car," said Pardi, "but afterwards I was sorry I did it."
A couple of years ago the Panthers invited the Long Island Sports Car Club to race on their drag strip. The sports car drivers haven't been back since. "They think we're greaseballs," said Pardi.
"We had hoped for an invitation to Bridgehampton," said Eaton, "but after we wiped them, they didn't even call us up and thank us. I suppose they look down on us because we're 'low class.' "
"Sports car people are snobs," said Herman. "They've got money. They don't know what's going on under the hood."
Despite the snub, the Panthers carry on. There is nothing like a hot rod. "It's a great feeling to know you own a rod," said Pete Hess, 18. "It makes you feel good, feel important. When you get on rods, you think about them all the time."
A CAT IN HIS COUPE
Here, in lighthearted fashion, is a cat in his idealized "Deuce" coupe, a 1932 Ford that has been modified for both "show and go." (Man, can it go! Up to 160 mph if the owner wants.) The original purchase price was only $100, but besides the costs indicated in the drawing—to say nothing of the approximate 3,000 man-hours invested—the owner would have spent $100 for miscellaneous body work, $100 for the transmission and $650 on chroming the undercarriage. The club plaque, up front for illustration purposes, cost $5 from a mail-order house. The tab for the cat's coupe: a whopping $5,010, not counting $1,000 a year for such jazz as maintenance, insurance and club dues.
REWORKING GRILLE SHELL, $45
"BLOWER" (SUPERCHARGER) WITH ENGINE MODIFICATION, $850
LATE-MODEL V-8 ENGINE, $300; INSTALLATION, $150
HANDMADE FIRE WALL, $80
CHOPPED ROOF, $190
GLASS WORK, $60
"ROLLED AND PLEATED" NAUGAHYDE UPHOLSTERY, $350
"BOBBED" FENDERS, $100 SET
REAR RACING TIRES ("SLICKS"), $100 PAIR
CHROMED REVERSED WHEEL RIMS, $150 SET
COUNTERSINKING DOOR HINGES INTO BODY, $150
BODY CHANNELED OVER FRAME RAILS, $500; FRAME ALTERATIONS, $200
CANDY-APPLE-RED PAINT JOB, $400
HANDMADE EXHAUST PIPES (HEADERS) WITH "LAKES PIPES" EXTENSION, $200
MODIFICATION TO RUNNING GEAR, SUSPENSION, ETC., $150
"NERF" BARS (BUMPERS), $80 PAIR