When assigned to do this historic retrospective on show rods, I immediately realized that are so many different opinions on the subject that it would be darned near impossible (if I might be allowed to quote a historic statement) to even please some of the people some of the time.
Being similar to programmatic architecture (you know, where a giant hot dog is a refreshment stand and a motor lodge represents a Native American wigwam encampment, etc.), these cars are difficult to accurately catalog or adequately describe. Knowing this as I started was both a curse and a blessing . . . I think.
First of all, we're looking at a sub-group of vehicles that are, in certain instances, not all that easy to define--hence the "Wacky" prefix to our title (although it also fits the more bizarre of the genre). For instance, was the "Ala Kart" a show rod? Most definitely! Was it wacky? Not in my mind. Flamboyant, possibly, even excessive, yes, but wacky--no way! I feel that it, and Ed Roth's "Excaliber," were the first real show rods. They weren't merely rods put in a show, but purpose-built vehicles made to perform a particular task--to take home the gold! These cars performed this task (particularly the "Ala Kart") quite admirably.
I believe that the "Ala Kart" was the first actual show rod to be turned into a model car kit (AMT). However, it had a close race with Revell's miniature of Roth's "Outlaw" (the name was changed from "Excaliber"). With this, a trend was started for these and other model car companies. Here, you will find one reporter's opinion on the rise and fall of what was either Roddingdom's greatest folly, or most entertaining offspring--your call. Even the lines that define the era of the show rod are a bit gray, for if a hot rodded and/or customized car is already an automotive anomaly, what then is a show rod--a Superanomaly?
Since the beginning of the automobile, fertile advertising minds (and this ain't no bull) have put unique vehicles on urban streets to hype products or businesses. Some of these vehicles even complemented the chain of roadside eateries or other business ventures that they represented (a phenomenon that took place mainly in the '20s and '30s). A great example that still exists is the Harry Bentley Bradley-designed "Weinermobile."
Over the years, there have been many cars and trucks either partially or fully decked out. We have seen everything from beer bottles to mission-style buildings, as was the case with the fleet of '29 Model A Ford advertising/delivery cars for Bell Potato Chips (they were replete with faux Spanish tile roofs and bell towers). George Barris even got in on the programmatic vehicle act (what act hasn't he been involved in when cars are involved?) with the "V-8 Roadster" for Campbell that was fashioned after a giant V-8 Vegetable Juice can--it was even made into a toy by Zee Toys.
So, what then can be said of vehicles that represented everything from a pinball machine, to a popcorn vending wagon, to in and outdoor household "necessities" (as they too were most definitely made for advertising purposes--the advertisement of car shows that is!)? A line from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities might be appropriate here, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and it certainly was!
Indoor hot rod and custom car shows have, from the very beginning, been the result of a three-way symbiotic relationship between promoters, car builders, and the show going public. The later is the wild card, as they have their choice of entertainment venues. The very reason most indoor shows are held during the winter is two-fold (besides the obvious protection from the weather). First, it's garage time for most car guys; time to build for next season. This is especially true in the Midwest and Eastern states. Second, it gives non-car folk something to do during the doldrums of winter, as they might be otherwise occupied during the summer months.
As I see it, there are possibly three categories of show rods. First, the over-the-top "designer cars" like the aforementioned Barris "Ala Kart." This grouping would include experimental efforts like Starbird's "Predicta," Dave Puhl's "Illusion," Dean Jeffries "Manta Ray," Bill Cushenbery's "Silhouette," Gene Winfield's "Reactor," the Harry Bradley-designed "Indy Rod," and several others of note as well.
Then, there were the whimsical, hot rod-based vehicles, many of which, like Dan Woods' "Milk Truck" and Carl Casper's "Paddy Wagon," were variations on a C-cab, commercial vehicle theme. Included with this group should be the countless T-based show rods like our Milestone car (the "Mod Rod," by Mike Haas) for this issue. It seems that the efforts of professional builders started a trend, inspiring numerous homebuilders to get into the act as well.
Others promoted the skills of their custom shops, which also built rods (as there were really no rod-building shops like there are today). Some, like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, used their odd rod prodigy not only to receive appearance money, but to attract buyers to their line of merchandise (the bulk of which consisted of airbrushed and silk-screened T-shirts).
There were also the professionals who specialized in creating vehicles for the show circuit. Professionals included men like Bob Reisner and Jay Ohrberg, who's California Show Cars Company was responsible for commissioning many such vehicular aberrations for their touring automotive menagerie. Designers such as Tom Daniel and Ed Newton came up with many of the concepts, and some were even offered as model cars before or at the same time the actual vehicle was built. Also, many such vehicles were TV and movie cars first, afterwards being put on the show circuit. Productions of the model version (if offered) followed shortly behind. It must also be noticed that just because someone is credited with a particular vehicle, doesn't necessarily mean they actually designed or built it.
A car's creation often took a team of talented individuals, many of which we'd recognize if all the information were able to be gathered (but most likely never will be, as there were, and are, a lot of egos involved). (Note: there is a germ of a great book idea here--who'll pick up the challenge?)
At this point we haven't even gotten into the three-wheelers (except for the "Peanut Machine" in our lead photo). Although these were generally lumped into the same pile, they can hardly be classified as being cars at all. This is actually a shame, as these creations have a history of being ignored by both bike and automotive publications.
Adding to the decline of show rods, the times themselves had changed. Hot rod and custom street action had evolved into factory muscle and professional drag racing venues like the "Gasser Wars." Another change came when many young men had to go off to fight a real war in Southeast Asia. Pick up a Car Craft from the Vietnam era and check out some of Ed Roth's T-shirt ads penned by Robert Williams--you won't believe your eyes, and you'll probably laugh so hard at the political incorrectness that your sides would hurt!
Now, all of this makes for a great story in a linear historical prospective kind of way, but like most things involving lots of people and things, it's just not all that neatly cut and dried. Although all of the reasons mentioned are true, some things were happening simultaneously and continued well after the time frame we'd like to neatly package it all into--the '60s and '70s. Just like customizing, show rods never really died out completely, especially to those with cars competing on the ISCA circuit.
So what does it take for a car to be a really wacky show rod? It must have that air of impracticality, as the public has already experienced the average and mundane in their personal, daily transportation. I do believe that there are at least some rules that generally apply (but obviously not so in every case). A show rod must have, as stated, that obvious air of impracticality (at least implied), and a novelty of design. A car must imply pure folly, with things like an exposed chromed and polished engine (or engines), or have a theme, such as a stagecoach, cement mixer, beer wagon or outhouse (Notice that I listed the exterior "facility" after the liquid refreshment dispenser).
In the next issue we'll bring you even more wacky and zany vehicles. We'll show you vehicles that got rodders and sane citizens alike out of their warm homes and into local sports arenas in the dead of winter to ogle in dumbfounded wonderment. See ya' then!
The image of wacky show rods...
The image of wacky show rods is no better illustrated than in this trio of Carl Casper creations. From left to right are: the "Pinball Wizard," "Beer Wagon," and "Peanut Machine."
The "Ala Kart" is shown here...
The "Ala Kart" is shown here at the Grand National Roadster Show with the prestigious 9-foot tall America's Most Beautiful Roadster trophy in 1958 (it won back-to-back in 1958-59).
Ed "Big Daddy" Roth built...
Ed "Big Daddy" Roth built the first sculptured interpretation of a Model T hot rod. His "Excaliber" (named after the antique sword hilt used as a shift lever) was in no small way responsible for the use of fiberglass as a street rod body building material.
The "Barber Car" was built...
The "Barber Car" was built by Joe Bailon, and represents the very wackiest of concept theme vehicles.
Carl Casper's "Popcorn Wagon;"...
Carl Casper's "Popcorn Wagon;" again a kind of antique truck-themed vehicle, but with a circus-vending wagon flare. Note the dual huffers, and that the truck was also offered in model form from MPC.
The "Phone Booth" from Carl...
The "Phone Booth" from Carl Casper played on slang for tall, or unchopped T coupes, etc., and was also offered as an MPC model kit. It could very well be a case of that old saying, "Does art imitate life, or life imitate art?"
Chuck Miller's "Fire Truck"...
Chuck Miller's "Fire Truck" played on the popular Model T C-cab trend of the day, and used American 5- and 12-spoke wheels for a purposeful, streetable look--that is if you didn't mind steering with a tiller.
The "Red Baron" was first...
The "Red Baron" was first offered as a Monogram model designed by Tom Daniel in 1968. Bob Larivee, Sr. liked the concept so much that he had Chuck Miller translate the model to full scale in 1969 at his Styline Customs Shop. It may also be noted that the "Red Baron" was included in the first series of Hot Wheels from Mattel.
Carl Casper's "Paddy Wagon"...
Carl Casper's "Paddy Wagon" was a new, blue version of the old jail on wheels that hauled offenders off to the Iron Bar Hotel. Its C-cab heritage is evident, and it apparently started out as a Tom Daniel-designed model for MPC.
"Cecil the Diesel" is an all-metal,...
"Cecil the Diesel" is an all-metal, handmade, fifth-wheel tractor from Darryl Starbird, and is on permanent display at the National Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum in Afton, OK.
The "Li'l Red Wrecker," a.k.a....
The "Li'l Red Wrecker," a.k.a. "The Redd Foxx Wrecker," and "Freeway Hauler," was a California Show Cars vehicle with a hand-formed steel body by Dick Dean. It was recently displayed at the 50th Detroit Autorama, and the 50th Grand National Roadster Show.