Former HRM Editor A.B. Shuman (left), author of Cool Cars, Square Roll Bars, and Curator
Vintage hot rods are hot. What the late-Boyd Coddington liked to call "our ancestor cars" continue to attract and inspire today's builders. There's been a great collection of these '50s-era cars on display in upstate New York.
The Saratoga Automobile Museum, located half an hour's drive north of Albany, in scenic Saratoga Springs, New York, is in its 10th year. Over time, they've presented everything from fine classics and storied sports cars, to collections loaned by generous enthusiasts, like Nicola Bulgari, Jim Taylor, Dennis Dammerman, and Jack Gillette.
A few years ago, the museum exhibited Real Hot Rods, Straight from the Street, a tribute to the locally based Rolling Bones Hot Rod Club, two of whose members, Ken Schmidt and Keith Cornell, received national attention after they built a pair of mean-looking '32 Ford three-window coupes that became known as "the wicked sisters." The response to these seminal coupes, and a subsequently built '32 highboy roadster, prompted both men to quit their "day jobs" and open the Rolling Bones Hot Rod Shop in Greenfield Center, New York.
For students of East Coast hot rodding, "new" cars with their low stances, hammered tops, bulldogged front ends, and heavily patina finishes evoke memories of hot rods built back in the '50s. It seemed fitting, when it was again time for hot rods at Saratoga to honor historic cars from the East Coast and Midwest, to pay tribute to their regionally popular practice of severe channeling, and display one of the latest Rolling Bones' shop's efforts, so museum visitors could see and appreciate the origins of the genre.
Brandon Salls did all the killer artwork for Right Coast Rods. His photo collage captures
Here's a bit of rodding history with an East Coast focus: Although hot rodding arguably began and flourished in California, the practice quickly spread cross-country, accelerated by the explosive growth of Hot Rod magazine, which started in January 1948. Ten years later, a Feb. '58 Hot Rod cover story featured prominent East Coast rods. HRM's editors reported that they were very impressed with the quantity and quality of cars they saw.
Right Coast rods always had a distinctive look. Because their hop-ups weren't raced at the dry lakes, hot rodders who lived east of the Mississippi often opted for enclosed cars, and they could perform many streamlined alterations without worrying about being moved up in competition classes. Most East Coasters (myself included) wanted roadsters, but given our severe winter weather, enclosed coupes and sedans were more practical, and for that matter, more available. Channeling a car (cutting out the floorboards and lowering the body down over the frame to achieve a sleeker silhouette) was cheaper, more expedient, and easier to do than chopping a top and frame Z-ing.
Hoods were usually optional on East Coast cars, no matter what the weather. The East even had its own Hot Rod magazines like Rodding and Re-styling and Rod Builder & Customizer. The mid-to-late '50s, what TV called the "happy days," represented the peak ... and that's the period that's being showcased in Saratoga. Thanks to its proximity to the heart of the automotive industry in the '50s, the State of Michigan also produced some great hot rods. The Detroit Autorama, now in its 60th year, is still going strong. So we've included a few Midwest-based cars, first because they were sensational, and also because car owners from the two regions occasionally competed against one another at the famed Joe Kizis Autoramas in Hartford, Connecticut; Springfield, Massachusetts; and many other venues.
As the Saratoga Automobile Museum's Curator, and author of The Art of the Hot Rod and Hot Rod Milestones, it was left to me to gather up a select group of historic East Coast and Midwest hot rods, many of which have been restored or are well-preserved. Several of the cars on display hadn't been seen together in half a century. For nostalgic East Coasters, as well as hot rodders from all over the country who remember them, the Saratoga show has been a trip down memory lane.
The '32 Ford is clearly hot rodding's favorite car, so this exhibit, while not all '32s, is skewed toward Deuces. Call them East Coast cars, or the more modern term Right Coast Rods, they're unique, iconic, loud, fast, and hot.
The opening wall sets the stage for Right Coast Rods. That's the former Andy Kassa coupe b
Many decades separate the heavily patina'd '32 three-window (left) of Richie Whalen, built
There were several well-preserved oldies at Saratoga. But Richie Whalen's chopped Deuce th
The Veracka family has owned this five-window Deuce coupe forever. It was father George's
The late Sebastian "Sabie" Rubbo's channeled '36 Ford roadster on a '40 Merc frame was bui
Ron and Laura San Giovanni's Altered T roadster was the Cam Carriers' Club (Branford, CT)
The Norm Wallace channeled '32 graced the cover of HRM in 1958. The magazine's editors p
We were able to assemble 15 great cars, 11 of which are channeled. All but one were built back in the day. Many were featured in major car magazines. The seminal '32 Ford roadster, built by Norm Wallace, loaned by Larry Hook, of Providence, Rhode Island, was a Hot Rod magazine cover car in February 1958. It is on display pretty much as it was built, with the exception of a polished S.Co.T. blower added by its present owner. I recall that the Norm Wallace lowboy was considered one of the best '32s in New England in the '50s, and it remains a tribute to the fine build quality of many East Coast hot rods.
Paul "Fitzie" FitzGerald's '32 Ford roadster was another well-known car in its era. A member of the well-known Boston Area No-Mads Club, Fitzie was an engineering student who was constantly updating his ride, from a solid front axle to independent front suspension of his own design, from a series of hot Flatheads to an early Chevy small-block V-8, and from steel wheels to early Halibrands. He successfully drag-raced his roadster, competed (and usually won) in hill climbs, and garnered his share of show trophies. Fitzie sold his '32 years ago and regretted that move. So he painstakingly tracked down what remained of the car and reconstructed it using a few Brookville steel body components. The car was shown at Pebble Beach in 2007, helping celebrate the Deuce's 75th anniversary. Fitzie presently lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
If you attended any of the Joe Kizis Autoramas in the '50s, or a host of other shows, as I did, you couldn't miss the striking, chopped-and-channeled Ruby Red '32 Ford three-window coupe, owned and built by Andy Kassa. Its muscular four-carb Flathead, topped with a quartet of Ferrari-style aftermarket air cleaners, was a consistent trophy taker. Kassa continuously updated his car for the show circuit, even changing its color several times, and trailered it all over the country. When he retired from show competition, he held on to his old coupe for years. Just before Kassa died, the car was restored by a contingent of his loyal friends and admirers led by Gary Mekita and Dennis Dahlinger. Rebuilt at first with its unusual Barris-built "Cyclops" single headlight grille, it's recently been fitted with a full-sized, chrome-plated Deuce shell, restoring its trademark look from the '50s. Best of all, the iconic three-window is still based in North Jersey.
Here's the original hand-painted wooden sign that Andy Kassa used for his coupe back when
As a New England kid, I loved Fred Steele's severely chopped-and-channeled, metallic purple '32 Ford roadster. Its signature bored and stroked, four-carb Flathead, white pinstripes, and impossibly low top epitomized what I thought the perfect Deuce would be. Steele had worked out a deal with a Boston area plater to where nearly everything that could make it into a dip tank was chromed. While this roadster's functional Columbia two-speed rear would have been unusual for a West Coast car, it came in handy on Route 128 because Steele really liked to drive his roadster. He made it to a lot of shows, and I can close my eyes and see his Deuce rumbling into the parking lot at Nel-Nick Ford in Lynn, Massachusetts, during a Hi-Winders Club event in 1958. I thought it was the "cat's ass" back then, and I still do. It's loaned by Ross and Beth Myers, Three Dog Garage, Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania.
Other cars on display include a barn find, rusty/dusty channeled '33 Ford roadster, originally built by Bill Schultz, who owned Country Club Auto Body, in Norton, Massachusetts. This car was last driven in 1962, after which Schultz covered it up in his garage so he wouldn't have to answer questions about whether it was for sale. (It wasn't.) Noted builder and ace parts finder, Dave Simard, from Leominster, Massachusetts, first learned about the car in 1975. Over time, Dave approached the Schultz family to tell them he was interested. After Schultz died, Simard was able to buy the car, looking just as it did when its builder tucked it away. Simard hasn't had time to get 312-cid Ford Y-block V-8 started (it still turns over). He doesn't want to lose this car's decades of patina. When the exhibit ends, Simard will sympathetically clean it up and get it running so people can see and appreciate this time-warp roadster.
Another heavily patina car in the Saratoga exhibit is a '32 Ford three-window coupe, formerly owned by Bill Kelly from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gerard Christensen, Scotch Plains, New Jersey, found it advertised in a local PennySaver newspaper. Christensen came up with a sweet deal, trading a lathe, a boat, other stuff, and a little cash for it. He had no idea of its history, but an old Pennsylvania registration, found in the car, led him to Bill Kelly, who was delighted to hear his coupe had survived. Kelly street-raced his Cad V-8-powered terror on Philly's Roosevelt Boulevard and at local dragstrips. Christensen had Dave Simard chop the top ("I always wanted a chopped-and-channeled '32 coupe," he confesses), but other than that mod, the primered and weathered Bill Kelly three-window remains almost exactly the way it looked when its first owner was winning races and outrunning the cops decades ago.
Gary Mekita, Dennis Dahlinger, and a talented group of New Jersey-based friends restored A
Fred Steele's chopped-and-channeled Deuce roadster was a well-known car when I grew up nor
Bill Leslie saved everything, including the sign for his show car. There's a see-through "
Bill Leslie's Starlight coupe looks just the way it did when it won the Buffalo Autorama.
We all wish we'd kept our high school rides, and this '32 Ford five-window coupe, built by George Veracka of Stow, Massachusetts, and co-owned now with his son, Scott, is exactly that ... a beautifully preserved peek into the past, with its faded and cracked red paint, and an authentic button-tufted white Naugahyde interior. Still running sweetly, it's been in the Veracka family since 1957, and that's where it will stay. Channeled 8 inches, chopped 4 inches, with a radically Z'd frame and a sectioned grille to match, it's powered by a bored and stroked, six-carb, Isky-cammed 425-cid early Cadillac V-8 with a rare Sky (Gardena, California) racing cam and a coveted Spalding Flamethrower distributor hitched to a '40 Ford three-speed with a Zephyr cluster, backed by a Columbia two-speed. This Chrysler Carnation Red beauty is an object lesson in "the way
Brothers Bill and Don Leslie built their '31 Ford Starlite coupe to win the Buffalo Autorama in 1964. Already chopped 4 inches, the car was channeled and a unique steel nose with floating grille tubes was constructed. A full-width rear taillight, hooded rear license plate, sectioned '33 Ford dash and twin frenched antennas are just a few period features. Points were awarded for as many modifications as possible, so the Leslie brothers piled on the features, like '57 Buick Starlite blue lacquer, a woodgrain veneer-trimmed console, a T-bird steering wheel and matching chromed column, a plethora of Stewart-Warner gauges ... even a tinted glass roof insert so occupants could see the night sky (hence the show name). The Starlite coupe's engine is classic: a 303-cid Olds V-8 with a three-carb manifold, Mallory ignition, clear red plug wires, and Offenhauser valve covers. A '37 Buick three-speed floor shift is coupled to a torque tube and banjo-style Ford rear. Custom-made lake-style headers are capped at the doors and run through Smithy mufflers and exit ahead of the rear wheels. Like many elements on this car, the chromed steel firewall was built to win more show points. The Starlite coupe won Best of Show in its first event, competed just one more time, and then was stored for decades until Gerry Christensen, owner of the Bill Kelly coupe in this exhibit, was able to buy it. Complete with the show programs and the original 4-foot-high Autorama trophy, Gerard Christensen owns this one too.
Gerry Christensen found the ex-Bill Kelly channeled three-window '32 in a PennySaver. He t
The late-Joaquin Arnett, of Bean Bandits fame, a skilled metalman in his youth, chopped and sectioned a pristine '34 Ford coupe in 1950 without removing the body from the frame. Arnett, who worked for Burner's, a San Diego company that built funeral car bodies, expertly jigged the coupe's shell and then painstakingly "cut and pasted" the metal so beautifully-it's impossible to see where any surgery was performed. Andy Granatelli saw the car on display at Bob Petersen's Second Annual L.A. Motorama in 1951, bought it from Arnett, and installed a full-race, 276-cid GranCor-equipped (Granatelli Corporation) Flathead V-8. After spotting the coupe for sale on a used car lot in Chicago, 16-year-old Bill Couch talked his father into letting him buy it, and he's owned it ever since. He taught his wife, Ellie, to drive in this car, cruised Woodward Avenue back in the day, drag raced the daylights out of it, and since he lived on a Washington, Michigan, farm and had a barn in which to store it, he kept the coupe salted away until 1996 when he had it fully restored just in time for a special appearance at the 1998 Detroit Autorama. Bill Couch visited Andy Granatelli in San Clemente, California, a few years ago. Granatelli noted, "he'd like to have the car back," but Couch, who's held onto it for over half a century, isn't selling. You can't blame him.
It's hard to know who's more of a fixture in New England, the late-Sebastian "Sabie" Rubbo, whose seminal '36 Ford roadster was (and still is) a permanent part of the Bay Area hot rod landscape, or the car's present owner and caretaker, Lenny Biondi. After buying a wrecked '36 Ford roadster, Sabie discarded the front fenders and channeled the body over a '40 Mercury frame, installed a healthy 286-cid Flathead, then made the car into one of the more unusual '36s ever by skirting the rear fenders and altering the front end with a beautifully fitted '37 Ford truck grille, fabricating a custom hood with lunch box latches and creating a pair of front cycle fenders out of a '36 Ford tire cover. A trio of transit bus seats helps make the interior as unusual as the exterior. Sabie drove this car everywhere, rolling up over 400,000 miles, including a historic trip to the first NSRA Nationals. Whether this iconic roadster is defined as a rod or a custom doesn't matter, and it never did. Lenny Biondi owns Biondi's Service Center in Quincy, Massachusetts. After Sabie died, his old friend, Biondi, and his shop metal wizard, Bobby Fuller, performed a ground-up restoration, and Biondi drives the gleaming black '36 to many events-just the way Sabie did.
Bill and Don Leslie built their chopped-and-channeled Model A five-window coupe show car t
The Saratoga Automobile Museum is housed in a former bottling plant for Saratoga mineral w
The big Cadillac mill in Tommy Foster's roadster was purchased from a local Detroit-area C
The ex-Norm Wallace channeled Deuce roadster was one of the finest New England hot rods in
Tommy Foster was a Pontiac Division GM engineer whose channeled, baby blue '32 Ford was an HRM feature car on two occasions, once with a modified Flathead, the second time with a new 331-cid Cadillac "crate motor", purchased from Jerome Cadillac, his local dealer. Foster fitted it with a Detroit Racing dual-quad intake manifold. The top wasn't chopped but the windshield was remade without its top frame edge for a cleaner look. The Deuce's ivory and blue Naugahyde exemplified what custom interiors were all about, and the big Ford Crestliner steering wheel topped it all off. Foster stepped up to an eight-gauge Stewart-Warner accessory panel, a then-pricey $89.65 item available from Bell Auto Parts or SO-CAL Speed Shop. The '41 Mercury hydraulic brakes, 15-inch wheels with big 'n' little whitewalls, '50 Pontiac taillights, a rolled rear pan, with twin exhaust tips protruding, were just a few of the standard hot rod touches from that era. Foster sold his beautifully crafted roadster in 1978. It passed through several hands, and was completely disassembled before Pat Sleven restored it, with Foster's help. Kirk F. White, noted East Coast hot rod purveyor, acquired it next. It then passed to Harry Levy in Pennsylvania before Richard Munz, of Madison, Wisconsin, was able to acquire it and add it to his fabulous collection of new and vintage hot rods. The roadster was displayed at the first hot rod presentation at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in 1997, and it appeared at the 2002 Detroit Autorama, with Foster present to take a well-deserved bow. The Tommy Foster roadster is a distinctive mid-century rod that most old-timers (like me) recognize the moment they see it.
Joaquin Arnett, of Bean Bandits fame, chopped and sectioned this perfectly proportioned '3
Although the Northeast United States was a hotbed of hot rodding in the '50s and early '60s, Southwestern Virginia had its share of modified cars, as well. Restored after decades of storage, Bob Bateman's channeled Model A/V-8 roadster, so called because it rides on a '32 Ford frame, was a Hot Rod magazine feature in January 1961; no mean feat for a hot rod built completely across the country from HRM's Los Angeles offices. Bateman had drag-raced his roadster before turning it into a show rod. An 8-inch channel and a severely Z'd frame dropped the roadster into the weeds in proper East Coast fashion. Its classic button-tufted interior, with 220 buttons, was a rolling ad for Bateman's own Roanoke Seat Cover Shop. The '51 Olds mill was bored out to 338 cid, topped with a six-carb log manifold, and juiced up with a Chet Herbert roller cam setup. Metalflake paint, a "drawpull" grille, and quad headlights brought this car squarely into fashion until Bateman retired it in 1965. Discovered in 2003 by Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute, it starred at Blackie Gejeian's 49th Fresno Autorama and the 59th Grand National Roadster Show before being bought by noted San Francisco hot rodder, Al Engel, who generously shipped it back East for the Saratoga show.
Norm Wallace's Flathead is a textbook example of how to do it '50s style. Neatly run wirin
The one pure competition car in the exhibit is a '23 Ford Altered roadster, owned by Laura and Ron San Giovanni, Wallingford, Connecticut. This was the Cam Carriers competition car, and years after it dragged its last race, Ronnie Roadster restored the car and brought it to the AACA Fall Meet at Hershey, Pennsylvania, where, after a few years of upgrades, it won a First Junior and a First Senior in the racing car class. It was the first hot rod to "crack the code" at Hershey. San Giovanni realized that a documented hot rod was eligible for Class 24, and he paved the way for Kirk F. White, with the famous Ray Brown roadster, and many others to qualify for AACA recognition.
Fred Steele and Donn Spinney built this cute '20 Ford roadster out of a steel roadster body that was hauled out of Honest John's wrecking yard, in Thomaston, Maine, around 1958. Perched on a modified Model A Ford frame, this white-painted early example of a Fad T resembles an Ed "Big Daddy" Roth caricature. Powered by a three-carb '55 Chevy V-8, with Mallory ignition and fitted with chromed cast-iron "Ram's Horn" manifolds, the tiny T-bucket rolls on custom-chromed 15-inch steel wheels. Fred flat-towed this car to Los Angeles in 1962 where he joined the L.A. Roadster Club. Finished with a Tijuana tuck 'n ' roll interior, the roadster was photographed for a trio of '60s-era record album covers, by Hal Blaine, The Ventures, and The Tokens, respectively. Bob Collins of Woburn, Massachusetts, the car's present owner calls his ride "The Album T," and he's kept it exactly the way it was built, with the exception of an upgrade to a dual chamber Mustang master cylinder. Collins likes to display his car with the record albums, and why not?
Everyone gathered around to hear the stories of each car in the exhibit. Bill Couch's '34
Rounding out Saratoga's collection of 15 historic hot rods, is the '32 Ford three-window coupe owned by Richie Whalen, Medford, Massachusetts. Whalen commissioned the Rolling Bones' Ken Schmidt and Keith Cornell to build a car that resembles a survivor that's just been dragged out of decades of not-so-benign storage. Its Brookville steel reproduction body was severely chopped, and a set of original '32 'rails was pinched, Z'd, and fitted with Model A crossmembers. The framehorns were bobbed, and a beamy '32 Ford front axle was supported with split wishbones. The wheelbase was stretched to 1091/2 inches. Under that weathered hood is a S.Co.T.-blown 286-cid Ford Flathead by H&H, with new-gen Stromberg 97s and a Vertex magneto. This car is a mix of vintage and new components, arranged to look appropriately old and authentic. A T5 transmission, Schroeder racing steering and Posies springs are big improvement over the stock Ford items.
The louvered roof insert is a Bobby Walden fabrication. Louvers Unlimited punched the hood and the decklid. A '39 banjo wheel, vintage gauges, and faded war surplus blankets ensure the interior looks very period. Ken Schmidt, an artist in his own right, created a distressed four-color, multi-layer finish using correct vintage Ford paint colors that look as though this car is weathered, cracked, battered, and decades old. Although Whalen's car isn't channeled, it has that combination East Coast/California look that fools most people into thinking it's a survivor, and not a freshly built car.
A.B. Shuman, former HRM editor, whose book, Cool Cars and Square Roll Bars, chronicles and celebrates East Coast hot rodding, along with legendary No-Mads Hot Rod Club member, Paul FitzGerald, and I hosted a big group of enthusiasts on opening night, last fall. My Massachusetts accent was back in spades as I enthusiastically introduced the "cahs," talking about each coupe and "roadsta." I'd seen most them when they were new. Little did I ever imagine, over 50 years later I'd be looking at them in a museum.
Hot rods are truly American icons. Ingenuity, craftsmanship, power, and speed underscore the provenance of these historic rods from the last mid-century. If you thrill to the roar of steel pack mufflers, delight in the rumble of a Flathead V-8, hate fenders, love chopped tops, and think any stock old Ford is ripe for modifications, you will dig this exhibit.
Dave Simard chased this '33 Ford barn find for years. Owner Bill Schultz covered it up so
Paul FitzGerald, a member of the infamous No-Mads, built this beautiful '32 and did it all