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The Stoner T: How to build a hot rod in 10 years (and impress people), part 10

Published in blog.hemmings.com

My T coupe and all its influences. When I look at this collection of cars that I’ve loved for the entirety of my own consciousness, I pause and just marvel at what this purely American phenomenon has produced over the last 70 years. Just amazing. All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.

Ever reach the point, when you’re working on an old-car project, where you just get…stuck? You’ve tapped-out all your credit cards, you can see the bottom of the drawer where you keep your slush fund, and you can actually hear your own echo in that one corner of your bank account that you swore you’d only use for car parts. And then you can’t figure out the fuel-system fittings. Or why the doors just refuse to line up and gap correctly. Or maybe the steering is buckling and you screwed up the geometry. These are the things that can stop me dead in my tracks, but I thank all that is holy in the Temple of Hot Rod that I’ve got a shaman like Conder to fearlessly guide me through these moments when I feel my own car-guy mortality. He’s like that wizard on the rocky hilltop with the lantern on that Zeppelin album cover, silently floating over the rocks as I follow along behind on my bloody knees. Understand? I’ll bet you do.

I’m at that point with the T. Really, it just comes down to money. I’m lucky that I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting so many great, if not historic, hot rods here in Northern California, so all that inspiration keeps me focused. So, while Tim and I are figuring out the rest of the punch list on this car and gathering more epicness to share with you, I thought I’d take a breather, clear off those two stools over by the workbench, crack two cold ones, and dig into some of my –– and, consequently, this car’s –– inspiration with you. I think you’ll dig it.

Pure Hell

Rich Guasco built this early Fuel Altered Bantam drag car, piloted by Dale Emory. This thing still lives in the northern California town of Pleasanton with Rich, and they both can still be seen at car shows and drag strips. One of the most well-known Altereds, it’s a national treasure, for sure. Photo: Stephen Justice.

Rich Guasco’s “Pure Hell”
In January of 1963, Rich Guasco was running a front-engine dragster (FED) at Northern California’s Fremont drag strip when the rear end came apart. In those days, an FED was either a “legs under” or “legs over” car –– meaning that the driver either sat with his rear end on top of the rear-end housing or the housing sat in his lap –– neither of which is a smart place to be if something in that rear end breaks loose. When exactly that happened to Rich, the once-stationary aluminum rear-end housing started spinning as fast as the wheels were turning. And they were turning pretty fast in mid-pass down the track. The accident just about vaporized Rich’s hips and made quick work of some fairly vital organs.

But, that accident didn’t seem to do much more than give Rich some time on his back to think about his next dragster. The next year, he called on a young race-car-chassis fabricator, Pete Ogden, to build a chassis for a Bantam-bodied racer to campaign in the newly minted AA/FA (double A, Fuel Altered) class. The thing ran well into the 8-seconds with not much tinkering. “Ogden tells me that he said, ‘Guass, that car is pure hell –– you ought to name it that.’ But, you know, I used to say that damn near everything was ‘pure hell’ back then,” Rich remembers about the naming of his new car.

I love everything about Pure Hell: the crazy stance and wacky proportions make it look as mean as it was squirrely as it was fast. I should say, “is:” the car –– and Rich –– are still running around his stomping grounds in Pleasanton, California, and I’ve had the good fortune of knowing Rich. Matter of fact, he traded me a pair of rare 17-inch magnesium spindle-mount American Racing front runners from the Bantam-bodied AA/FA car for the 15-inch versions I have on the T: he needed my wheels for his restoration of the Pure Hell Funny Car that replaced it when the Fuel Altered class was killed off by the NHRA in ’69. I just about passed out when I got my hands on such an irreplaceable piece of drag-racing history, but it turned out one wheel was a Ford spindle and one was an Anglia –– a mismatched pair from a wreck that Pure Hell survived in its first few years of racing. Totally unusable for me, but Rich was such a kind and understanding soul about it, and we reversed the trade. I’m still running my 15-inches, but Rich owned them for a hot minute. How cool is that? I’m such a fanboy, I can barely stand myself sometimes.

Red Baron

The Red Baron brought all kinds of influences of its age together in one car: the German helmet and “iron cross” were symbols of outlaw biker culture in the late ’50s and ’60s; the World War I flying ace idea was also picked up by Snoopy in Peanuts; and the show-car circuit had the potential to be a fairly good income for anyone with the right, seemingly mysterious idea for a car that could also become a model kit. Ah, the Good ’Ol Days… Photo: Tom Daniel.

Chuck Miller’s “Red Baron”
The Red Baron started life as probably the most popular plastic model kit ever conjured by Monogram –– that Pillar of Plastic that took most of my hard-earned allowance through the ’70s and early ’80s. Tom Daniel, who designed a fair share of the most popular model kits ever sold, actually conjured the Red Baron in time for a toy fair in Chicago in 1967. A car-show promoter named Bob Larivee Sr. saw the kit at that show and worked out a deal with Monogram to allow him the privilege of building a 1:1-scale version of the German-helmeted T-bucket and drag it out at his car shows. The Baron was an instant hit at the Autorama the next year –– perfect timing, since the idea of a purpose-built “show rod” was all the rage in the late ’60s.

A giant, silver World War I German helmet on top of a T-bucket hot rod with twin machine guns mounted to the cowl and six baloney-sliced megaphone headers lined up in front of them, accented by iron crosses all over the damn place, and wee, chromed German helmet air cleaner cover hovering over the carb? YES. PLEASE. All day long. This thing was built and campaigned two years before I was born, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s now a timeless design. Also, in a world of muted-color “traditional” hot rods, I say candy-metalflake the entire planet and then top it off with show-chrome. All of it. This stuff is supposed to be fun, man. Seriously.

Druid Princess

By the time the Druid Princess (named by none other than artist, Robert Williams) made the scene, things were getting truly wacky on the hot-rod show circuit. But, it could be argued that this is just what happens when Hollywood picks up on an idea and shoots it through its own psychedelic wormhole. Photo: Darin Schnabel, courtesy RM Sotheby’s.

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s “Druid Princess”
My all-time favorite Ed Roth car was also probably the most unique of all his bubble-topped, rounded-off weirdo cars. Roth had originally contracted with the folks behind The Addams Family TV show to build his answer to the wildly popular “Munsters Koach” gothic behemoth that George Barris had built for its rival, The Munsters. The Princess was more of an 18th-century Baroque royal-carriage-meets-Dandy Dick Landy’s Dodge Big-Block-meets-Ken Kesey’s surfboard. Larry Watson had laid down the purple ‘flake over the white pearl base paint and, by the time he, Jim “Jake” Jacobs, Dan “Milk Truck” Woods, and Roth were finished with it, nobody would’ve guessed the Druid Princess had started out as mere plywood sheets with plaster gingerbread stuck to them. The car never made it to the small screen, though –– as Hemmings’ own Dan Strohl reported a few years ago, Roth said the show was cancelled before it was ready for prime time. No matter, he dispatched it to the show circuit and it probably would’ve become a favorite model kit of the era, too. No idea why that never happened, but maybe it had something to do with the actual child’s coffin mounted in the rear as the fuel tank.

You can probably make the leap of Roth’s influence on my T: those sharp angles and proportion look like an early Ford “center-door” Model T on angel dust and I just think it’s the coolest car he ever built. You can also see the influence that Top Fuel drag racing had on Roth at the time. The non-functional Enderle bugcatcher mechanical fuel injection perched on top of a 6-71 blower make the Dodge 383-c.i.d. big-block V-8 look all race, yet the rest of the car is fairly shag-a-delic. The height of Roth Studios’ fantastic odyssey, if you ask me.

Drag-U-La was my favorite car to ever come out of George Barris’ Barris Kustom in North Hollywood. It wasn’t as popular as the Batmobile or the Munsters Koach, but a coffin with a bubble-top and slicks? C’mon, man… Photo: Brett Barris and Barris Kustom.

Barris Kustoms’ “Drag-U-La”
Let’s stick with the show cars of the shows, for a minute, shall we? By the mid-’60s, camp met drag racing in Hollywood. The drags were not only one of the most popular American sports, but the kids were wild for it, and TV and movie studios figured it out in ways only they could. As if a dysfunctional family of horror movie monsters couldn’t be more of a stretch for a TV sitcom, The Munsters’ producers figured adding a drag-racing element to it made perfect sense, too. Why not, right? In addition to the gargantuan “Munsters Koach,” George Barris was also tapped to build “Drag-U-La”: a front-engine dragster made out of a gold-bombed fiberglass coffin, complete with a gravestone perched over a suicide front-end up front and a bubble-top canopy out back. The thing looked like a Top Fuel dragster, sorta, and it even pulled the wheels in an episode of the show when Grandpa raced the Koach to win it back for Herman Munster, who’d apparently raced for pinks…and lost.

See a pattern yet, with these cars? The story goes that, since it was illegal to sell a coffin without a death certificate, Barris’ man, Korky Korkes, made a midnight deal with a local funeral home and was able to abscond with this fiberglass unit, which arguably became the most famous gold coffin in the history of gold coffins. That gothic look, mixed with seemingly gobs of dragster speed parts and topped off with a set of wicked cathedral organ pipes, makes for such a killer look. Pardon the pun. In the first sketch of my T that illustrator Jeff Allison made, it featured a set of vertical pipes a la Drag-U-La and he dubbed it, “The Pipe Cleaner.” While the car won’t feature those style pipes, I sure do love them on Barris’ coffin dragster. So good.

Scotty Strebel’s hot-rod pickup was a big, modern-day influence on me, because of its stance and those ever-present slicks-n-slicers. First time I saw it, the truck was in its Army drab livery. I remember the day I got the call that he’d wrecked it. One of the great San Francisco hot-rod stories, and it’s still a real “Kennedy” moment for many of us who remember where we were when the accident happened. Don’t worry, Scotty is still with us, ruling hard. Photo: Scott Strebel.

Scott Strebel’s ’30/’31 Model A truck
Here’s what I’d call a “real-world” influence that informed my opinions of hot rods: Scotty Strebel’s Model A pickup. This is one of a few historic San Francisco hot rods that makes me proud to live in The Sucker Free. Scott’s buddy and owner of California Hot Rods, Mike Smith, helped lay out this truck and it had all the right cues: wide-white drag slicks on the rear, 18-inch American Racing magnesium spindle-mount front runners, no fenders, cowl-strapped 4-2-1 headers, Deuce grille with perfectly positioned headlights, and a wicked little stance. When Scott first started showing the car in 2001, it was red oxide primer, but soon was painted drab Army green with a white stenciled military star on each door and one in the middle of the grille. He wrecked the truck one fine Frisco evening and it ended up back at California Hot Rods. Today, the car is still alive and well, but as a pale-blue chopped Model A coupe that Smith still drives to car shows.

As far as true spindle-mounts-n-slicks hot rods go, Scott’s truck was one of my absolute favorites. And, it was an early influence for me, as I embraced the idea of my own hot rod –– which was a real departure from my power-ballad mid-60’s custom aesthetic I’d harbored as a natural-born East-Coaster. This truck was a short wheelbased, rip-snortin’ red-blooded hawt rawd in every sense of the word: street-driven, but with no front brakes and big slicks in the rear, it was squirrely, quick, and loud. Just like a hot rod is supposed to be, in my estimation. I don’t want to hear about gas mileage, practicality, or how much luggage can be stored in a hot rod. Those things don’t compute. That’s not the language of Hot Rod. On the other hand, Scotty’s truck was fluent in it.

Purple People Eater

Probably the most influential hot rod of the last 30 years, Marky Idzardi’s Purple People Eater is still in one piece, still owned by its builder, and still making passes on quarter-miles all over the world. I know it sounds corny, but this car makes me proud to be a member of the generation that redefined hot-rodding in ways not seen in 40 years. Photo: Mark Idzardi.

Marky Idzardi’s “Purple People Eater”
If you’ve been paying attention to hot rods at all over the last, say, 25 years, you know the Purple People Eater. Built by Marky Idzardi and his Shifters car club out of Orange County, California, in the early Aughts, the car was nothing less than a spaceship that landed on the sleepy, old-guy air-conditioned street-rod scene, and started blasting lasers all over the place. When Marky and his brother, Alex, found a ’56 Pontiac 316-c.i.d. V-8 for sale at the March Meet in Bakersfield, California, in ’97 or ’98, they picked it up, quick. Turned out, the motor was hogged out to 450 cubic inches and had some good drag-racing history: It ran in an Altered-bodied rail between 1959 and 1961, and held a track record at Riverside for a supercharged, gas class. As they cracked it open and ran through it, they found all kinds of early speed equipment and the truly historic motor is probably the earliest supercharged Pontiac engine still in working condition, much less existence. The Shifters got to work and hacked up a Model A sedan and built a hot rod based on a Sixties-era Altered dragster: short wheelbase, HUGE motor perched way up in the air for weight transfer on launch from the starting line, skinny spindle-mount front wheels with no brakes, racing slicks on the rear, a solid-mounted rear end, no radiator, and gobs of attitude. The car was, by all accounts, like nothing that had been seen in some 40 years. When it showed up at the West Coast Cruisin’ Nationals car show in Paso Robles,California, the next year, people LOST THEIR MINDS. Freaked out. Babies were crying, women were rushed to safety, windows were shuttered, the National Guard was called out, and the hot-rodders in attendance quietly ate themselves to death. When Marky, surrounded by his club’s cars, showed up on one end of the park in the center of town that year, he described it as “the leaning of the park,” as everyone’s attention shifted to, well, the Shifters.

When the motor showed up on the cover of one of the most influential hot-rod magazines of the era (presumably because there was no room for the rest of the car in the shot), it was game-over: our generation had officially taken over hot-rodding, breathed new life into it, and turned it into a popular culture heavy. Loved that car ever since I first saw it at that Paso show. And the insane proportions had a profound impact on me. People swore it couldn’t run. It did. They were convinced it would blow up. It didn’t. Nobody thought it could be raced. It was. It’s still running, I still love it, and I’m proud to consider myself a member of the generation that created this genre of hot rod. God bless America.

Boot Hill Express

The Boot Hill Express was the monster truck of its time: fetishized by the kids, loved by the show promoters, questioned by parents, and lauded by the model-car kit brands. While Ray Fahrner’s Boothill Caravan traveling circus is long gone, the original Express can still be seen at the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed. Photo: Darin Schnabel, courtesy RM Sotheby’s.

Ray Fahrner’s “Boot Hill Express”
In the midst of the Summer of Love, what do you do with the funeral wagon that supposedly delivered a member of the outlaw James Gang to his final resting place on Boot Hill? You turn it into an injected Elephant Hemi-powered show rod, of course! Such was the case with Ray Fahrner’s Boot Hill Express –– another favorite model-car kit, show-circuit winner, and all-around mindblower. The body was, in fact, an original horse-drawn hearse built in the mid-19th century. And, in the age of the Bunk Bed Rod, the Bathtub Rod, and the Hard Hat Hot Rod, it just seemed logical that an antique funeral coach might be stuffed with a 426 Hemi, velocity stacks shoved through the roof, Volkswagen steering repurposed for the stagecoach driver, 18-inch magnesium spindle-mount pizza-cutters up front, deep (15 x 12-inch) Cragars on Goodyear Blue Streaks in the back, and one of the most wicked rakes of any show rod every built. Fahrner dragged this thing all over the show circuit in the late ’60s, much to every squealing kid’s delight, before a fiberglass copy was built and campaigned at drag strips –– I guess that rickety, old 1850 Cunningham coach just wasn’t built for quarter-mile passes. Weird, I know.

Once again, that sharp-cornered, gothic look, beset by a mean rake and extreme proportions of wheel and tire combination was a theme that I’d always gravitated toward. It’s a look that came first from Top Fuel dragsters in the early ’60s to get the most traction at the drive wheels and the least rolling resistance from the fronts. The short-lived Fuel Altered dragster class doubled-down on that approach, and it’s jut the coolest when hot rods pick up and run with it. The Boot Hill Express was also turned into a wildly popular model kit, complete with a cowboy-hatted skeleton that wore a six-shooter around its pelvis. Because, hallucinogenics.

The one and only “Uncertain T.” When Steve Scott built an addition to his mom’s house so he could start building this car in high school, I don’t think he had plans to change the world. And, now that I think about it, it’s hard to imagine under what circumstances a high-school kid might do some modern-day version of the T. More to come on this one… Photo: Steve Scott.

Steve Scott’s “Uncertain T”

Ah, the granddaddy of them all, Steve Scott’s Uncertain T show rod. Probably the biggest influence of all these cars for me, Steve built this thing in his mom’s garage in the San Fernando Valley, finished it in early 1965, and then ruled the world with it for a few years before it disappeared. The signature feature of the car –– the wildly proportioned Model T body –– was hand-formed by Steve out of fiberglass, and then mounted atop a really short custom frame and a 322-c.i.d. Nailhead V-8 from a ’55 Buick. Another distinguishing feature of the car, that neither Conder nor I was aware of till just recently, was the torsion bar front end that Steve fabricated! Had no idea he’d done that and it never occurred to me to even research that front suspension, even though I’d seen plenty of photos of the body off the chassis from the mid-’60s. Once Steve finished the car and started showing it, the model kit was soon to follow, which just made it even more of a sensation in those pre-digital days. Lucky for all of us, there was plenty of photographic evidence of Steve and his Uncertain T: at car shows all over the country, promotional photos of the car for its model kit, at drag strips, and in magazines. But, the car that, in some ways created the idea of the purpose-built show rod, disappeared by the ’70s.

In 2008, I tracked down Steve, living in Hawaii. I was determined to produce a magazine feature on my favorite show car of all time. It took me a few months to find him, but find him I did. We became fast friends and I consider my 10 years of friendship with Steve not only one of the great accomplishments of my career, but a personal highlight of my life, too. His Uncertain T –– a car he drew a 1:1-scale version of on his mom’s garage wall when he was a high-school senior and ruled the world with for a glorious few years during the Golden Age of hot-rodding –– was one of the biggest influences on me for my own car. When Conder first drew his version of my T coupe, he hadn’t been thinking about the Uncertain T at all, but it was the first thing I saw and immediately fell in love with it. Sometimes, the stars just line up that way, right?

So, these are my hot-rod influences. Like I said, you can probably see the consistencies among all of them: that fueler slicks-n-slicers wheel and tire combination, a mean rake, big motor, no fenders, no front brakes, some sort of gothic-inspired vertical shape in the body with sharp edges and right angles, all wrapped up in an unmistakable attitude. The art-school grad in me is driven by the aesthetics of these cars, and Conder and I bonded as builder/customer over his own approach to choppers: “They’re supposed to be dangerous, man. If your butt doesn’t pucker just a little when you light it, you’re wasting your time.”

Back to the build next week, friends. Thanks for taking a breather with me and talking about inspiration –– it’s important, if hot-rodding is going to survive.

To catch up on other installments of the Stoner T build, click here.