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Don Montgomery, hot rod chronicler, dies at 88

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As the monochrome-and-billet excesses of street rodding began to give way to the stripped down, back-to-basics aesthetic of traditional hot rodding in the late Eighties and into the Nineties, one voice of authenticity rose above the others: that of author Don Montgomery, who died earlier this week at 88.

Montgomery’s authority on the topic came from decades of experience with hot rods and racing. As he told the American Hot Rod Foundation for its profile on him, he started hanging out in L.A.-area garages and speed shops just after World War II as a 15-year-old yearning to get his hands dirty and learn how to make cars go fast.

While he found a Ford Model A for his first car, he soon sold it for a 1941 Hudson Commodore Eight four-door sedan that he hopped up with a Buick in place of the Hudson’s original engine. In 1948, he began racing at the Southern California dry lakes, running as fast as 129 MPH in the Hudson. His choice of an overhead-valve engine amid a sea of flathead Fords led the other racers to nickname him Rockerhead.

If the Hudson was an unusual choice for dry lakes racing, his next ride blew it out of the water. The 1936 Cord sedan he began running in 1952 featured a rear-wheel-drive conversion using another Buick straight-eight, Buick transmission, Pontiac rear axle, and Dodge front axle. It ran well – well enough to capture a Russetta Timing Association record at 135 MPH and a quarter-mile sped of 107 MPH at Pomona – but in 1953 he swapped out the Buick engine for a GMC six-cylinder with a Howard 12-port aluminum head.

As he transitioned from the dry lakes to the dragstrip with the rest of the hot-rodding world during the Fifties, Montgomery bought Larry Shinoda’s “Chopsticks Special” 1932 Ford coupe shortly before Shinoda traveled Back East to go to work as a designer for Ford. Montgomery swapped the GMC six-cylinder from the Cord into the Ford and raced it as an A/Fuel coupe until the NHRA’s fuel ban came down in 1957. After that, he sold the Ford and bought a junkyard 1941 Willys, which he re-powered with a blown Chrysler Hemi and ran in Gas Coupe classes through 1972, lettered with his Rockerhead nickname.

With a family to raise and a career in electronics, Montgomery decided to watch from the sidelines as the hot-rodding world evolved through the Seventies and Eighties. Then in the late Eighties, as he told Gray Baskerville for a Hot Rod magazine profile on him, he had enough.

“What really got my attention was how inaccurate those few historical articles were,” he said. “Either the writers were not doing their homework or they were misinformed. I decided to set the record straight.”

He started with a few magazine articles of his own and then, in 1987, put together his first book, “Hot Rods in the Forties,” which featured his own photographs alongside photographs he convinced his friends from that era – Dean Batchelor, Jack Calori, Alex Xydias – to send him.

The first book proved a success, so Montgomery returned to the formula for “Hot Rods As They Were” in 1989, “Hot Rod Memories: Relived Again” in 1991, and “Authentic Hot Rods: The Real ‘Good Old Days’” in 1994. He followed those with books that highlighted his drag racing days, among them “Those Wild Fuel Altereds: Drag Racing in the Sixties” and “Supercharged Gas Coupes: Remembering the ‘Sixties’.”

Montgomery’s books, especially the hot-rodding ones, ended up a sort of guide to the then-nascent traditional hot-rodding scene, illustrating how Montgomery and his fellow hot rodders actually built cars before the national media attention and the hot rod exploitation films of the Fifties layered their own interpretations of hot-rodding culture atop the actual history of hot rodding. As Ryan Cochran, founder of the traditional hot rod-focused Jalopy Journal, wrote, “In my mind, he is absolutely the single most important figure in the rebirth of real hot rodding.”

Montgomery died February 18.