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The Atomic Punk hits the Digital Age

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Exclusive paparazzi action shot of Aaron Grote and his “Atomic Punk” bubbletop hot rod at the Playboy Mansion for Mopars At The Mansion. That’s “Grote,” not “grotto.” C’mon, man…

Imagery courtesy Aaron Grote, Barrett-Jackson, Turn 10 Studios, Microsoft Studio

If you follow the hot-rod circuit, it’s more than likely that you’re aware of Aaron Grote’s “Atomic Punk”: a handbuilt bubbletop hot rod that harkens back to not only the Atomic Age, but Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink cult of personality that ran concurrently, just under the surface of American Pop Culture. At full-tilt, the bubbletopped showcars coming out of Roth Studios in Southern California in the Fifties and Sixties were reaching into the movie houses, hobby shops, record stores, magazines, and anywhere else a red-blooded American kid could throw his lawn-mowing cash: If you couldn’t see the actual car, you could buy something that Roth had put his name and art to. Brilliant six decades of brand marketing, that.

Anyway, 50-plus years later, Aaron Grote–a rabid hot-rodder living and working in the Corn Belt–decided to build his own bubbletop, after trying his hand at custom cars. “I guess it would have been back around 1999 or so after I bought a crappy Model A hot rod and had to constantly work on it,” Aaron explains. “After fixing a lot of stuff, I realized that I could probably just build something myself. The first thing I ever built, by myself, was my blue truck, the “Spacetruck.”

The Spacetruck, his ’34 Chevy pickup with its heavily modified bed carved from a ’59 Buick rear end, was loved everywhere he took it, while it captured its own following in the online forums of the day. But, it was time to crank it up a notch: bubbletop. “I think I started on it in the winter of 2006. I was obviously influenced by the works of Ed Roth. I had already built a couple other cars using discarded 60s model four door parts, so I just continued on with that formula.”

A more-door ’59 Plymouth Savoy had followed him home around that time and, as he’s been quoted, Aaron decided to “cut the ugly off” and ended up with its tailfins. Along with sections of a ’54 Oldsmobile body and a whole bunch of drawer pulls, the body came together over a fabricated frame and behind a radical ’58 Chrysler 392-cu.in. V-8. “I was lazy and called up a plastics place in Canada and had them make me a few (bubbletops).” Lazy. Right.

The whole project took just under two years to complete. The Punk debuted at the Detroit Autorama, proceeded to crush it at every car show field Aaron drove it across (yep, it actually runs and drives), and was even a guest of The Hef at the Playboy Mansion for a “Mopars At The Mansion” event. And we can’t talk about that.

In the end, the car went across the ramp at a Barrett-Jackson auction. Enter the mighty gamer brand, Microsoft Studios: Ten years later, the designers of its heavy driving game, Forza Motorsport 7, developed its Barrett-Jackson Pack–a collection of seven cars that were sold at Barrett-Jackson auctions over the past several years. As they were looking for unique machines, they stumbled across the Punk. “I got a call out of the blue one day asking if I would be okay with them using the car for the video game,” Aaron continues. “Somehow, they tracked me down at my real job at the fertilizer company (United Prairie–shameless plug) where I have been employed for the past 23 years. They were hooked up with Barrett-Jackson and were looking at past sales for interesting cars to use. I guess I should thank Richard Rawlings at Gas Monkey, because he was the one who sold it there, not me. This was way back in 2011, before he had the TV show.”

Was Aaron hoodwinked on a street corner and spirited away to an underground bunker where he masterminded the digital incarnation of his bubbletop? “I wasn’t involved at all. I have no idea how they created it, although I did send them a link to the YouTube video of me driving it around after work one day. I guess we will see how loud it is in the game!”

While the Atomic Punk is digitally immortalized, where is it, these days? “As far as I know, Ernie Moody from VideoPoker.com still has it out in Vegas. He also bought Robosaurus at one of the Barrett-Jackson auctions. I thought it would be cool if he got a wild hair and fed the Punk to Robosaurus out in the desert somewhere. I’m going to be out in Vegas soon and am trying to see if I can pay the car a visit.” And what’s next for the guy who has a penchant for naming his cars after Van Halen songs? “Currently, I have a 1934 Ford three-window coupe that is about 75 percent done sitting in the corner, while I have focused my efforts on a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr three-window coupe. I don’t seem to hit it as hard as I used to, so it takes me a little longer to finish my projects now.” Sheesh.

If you don’t have an Xbox, the Barrett-Jackson Pack for Forza 7 might be just what you need to take the plunge into gaming. If your kids already have it, the fact that you can drive the Atomic Punk on some of the most famous race tracks in the world might compel you to sit down with them in front of the TV. If you’re already wondering what to get your grandkids for Christmas this year, here’s a suggestion. Point is, Aaron’s bubbletop made that crossover leap to popular culture and we absolutely love it. Matter of fact, we’d implore Turn 10 Studios to create a new game made up entirely of important hot rods and customs. We have a few in mind. In the meantime, go see our brand-new friends at Forza Motorsport 7 and collect your Barrett-Jackson Pack. The world truly is an amazing place.