Since I’ve been collecting old–and new–hot rod photos for more than 45 years now, you can imagine I have them stored in a few different places. And different forms. The oldest stuff is in two tall filing cabinets in my garage. This is mostly black and white, separated in hanging folders tagged “50s Rods, ’40s Customs, ’60s Drags, and so on. Plus, I have separate drawers for “Prints” or “Negs.” For newer stuff, including most of what I photographed myself, I have a high shelf in the darkroom I added onto my garage that holds 23 three-ring binders. These contain B&W proof sheets with negs in sleeves taped on the back, plus color transparancies (i.e., “slides”) in archival clear plastic pages with little pockets to hold the color film of various sizes. Then there are trans files in cupboards in the garage with all the material from the many books I have written. And a couple of other photo collections people have recently given me. Then, since having to convert to digital–what, 20 years ago?–I’ve got a file in my office full of CD-R discs with “thumbnail” printout sheets so I can tell what’s on them. Yes, there’s a certain order to it. But even I have a hard time finding a particular photo I know I have…somewhere.
I’m telling you all this for two reasons. The first, and the reason for this column, is that I was thumbing through my “Early” B&W negative files looking for something else, when it struck me that the 35 mm proof sheets I was flipping through were loaded with a whole lot of really neat, um, stuff. Some was familiar, some wasn’t, but what impressed me the most was the wide variety on each. So I pulled out one particularly impressive proof sheet, with the negs on the back, and have scanned several of the photos (from the negs) to show here, just because they’re cool, historic, and diverse. And they were all on this one proof sheet. One roll of film.
The second reason for this explanation is that I realize many of you have no idea what a proof sheet is, let alone a dark room–or film. Well, here’s a look at the proof sheet in question. It’s made by laying strips of film directly on a piece of 8 x 10 photographic paper, exposing it with light, then developing the paper like any B&W photograph. What you get is a page of “Thumbnails,” as you see. OK, enough lesson. Let’s get to the cool, historic, photos.
I’ll show them in the order they appear on the sheet, which is not chronological. I also stress that I did not take any of these photos myself. I used my camera and film to copy them from existing prints that I collected or borrowed. This way I have negs to make my own prints or, now, to digitally scan. Also, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to give you exact names, dates, and so on. I could, but that would take many hours of research, and that’s what I’m retired from. I’ll tell you what I remember, and let the data mongers hunt up the rest. The photos, themselves, are what are important here.
So first up is a typically sexist ’50s hot rod photo. I remember that the car was from Washington state, it was red (I think), had a Pontiac engine, and is obviously channeled over the frame while retaining full fenders. We called those wheelcovers “full moons” (as opposed to baby moons). As an editor I was often asked “How do I get my car in the magazine?” A few times I used this photo as an example: “Like this.” Yes, the car owner sent these photos in. I don’t know if he even named the Maidenform model. But it did get in the magazine.To be honest, I don’t remember anything about this particular Fad T, but I love the rake and the low photo angle. You can see it has a small Hemi (Dodge? DeSoto?) with 6 carbs, cowl lights, a polished beer keg gas tank, narrow pie crust slicks, and the Rader or Astro “mags” put it in the ’63-’65 time frame.I got this photo a long time ago, and it’s the only one I have of the “Satan Coupe.” I think the strip is Alton, IL. The car was metallic blue, with red/yellow flames and that great grille art, which was stolen by Aurora(?) for their ’32 roadster model. I’ve printed the name of the owner and the artist in the past, and it was shown in color on the cover of one of the small Eastern mags. It’s a classic. And the Kennedy Bros. built a good clone of it recently.Speaking of classics… This is the Beatnik Big Daddy hisself in the little purple T he striped and named Tweedy Pie long before he owned it. Bob Johnson built it with a flathead, and Roth photographed it for a feature in R&C. Then Johnson swapped in the Chevy. When Ed bought it he added the six carbs, and later the (ugh) four headlights. It’s a shame not to show this one in color, but mags like Rod & Custom didn’t have any color inside in May ’62 when it did a 4-page “Rod Test” on Gary Heliker’s Buick-powered ’27 T. He painted it candy burgundy Metalflake, with turquoise scallops, jade mist upholstery, and a candy green dash. This is a photo you’ve never seen. I think it’s at the Lions strip.
I can’t begin to tell you where I got this engine photo. Quite possibly from Bill Burke, who gave me a whole box full of great old photos and negs. This is an extremely rare Alexander OHV conversion on a 21-stud Ford flathead V8, displayed in a ’32 Ford chassis at the first SCTA Hot Rod Show in 1948. They were F heads, with overhead exhaust valves and stock intakes. The four exhausts were siamesed into two round exhaust ports per head. I only know of two of these that exist.
I think this is a striking B&W photo, regardless of subject. But it’s also a good look at the wide-open Paradise Mesa drag strip in San Diego in the early ’50s. The car hazing the narrow slicks is clutch/flywheel manufacturer Paul Schiefer’s T roadster. Originally run at the lakes, Bonneville, and drags with a ’25 turtle-deck body, this is after he swapped on a sleeker ’27 body with a track nose and light front wire wheels.Here’s and excellent portrait of Jack Chrisman’s flawless, chopped, and FAST ’29 Ford drag sedan, at rest, and not even showing the mind-bending Von Dutch artwork at the front and rear.I was pretty sure that Dee Wescott built this “throwback” ’36 custom roadster about a decade (or two) after the style was cemented by Westergard, Bertolucci, and Calori, but I forgot the bright red custom even made the cover of the Apr. ’59 Hot Rod, topless. So I pulled that issue out of my vertically-stacked collection (another part of my archive), and sure enough, it even had a flathead engine, and the photos were by Portland’s Pete Sukalac. What really surprised me was the owner’s name: Bob Hooper. Dee must have just sold it (and where has it gone?). However, before he virtually invented and perfected fiberglass replacements for vanishing vintage Ford tin bodies, Dee was known as one of the best bodymen and customizers in the Pacific Northwest, and this car clearly shows his love of classic custom style. Long before he became Super Stock’s wizard “Dyno Don,” Don Nicholson and at least one of his brothers ran a speed shop in Arcadia, CA, and their ’50s test car was the Austin Bantam roadster you see on the left. I have other photos of it powered by a GMC 6 with a side-mounted GMC blower, but I think here–at Paradise Mesa–it’s running a flathead Ford V8. This well-populated San Diego track was run by an amateur club at a wide, flat, WW II-era abandoned Air Force landing strip (like Famoso near Bakersfield), and they had to set up, then tear down, all their equipment for each meet.The Bean Bandits were a large, popular, and highly successful lakes and drag racing club in the early ’50s that continues today. That’s long-time club Pres. Joaquin Arnett in the most successful yellow club dragster (seen on HRM’s cover, Feb. ’53), here smoking off with Holly Hedrich (I think) in a bit cruder “rail.” I also thought this was a T.E. run at a big Paradise Mesa meet, but the high-angle photo and the drop-off in the background makes it look similar to Carlsbad, a track several miles north squeezed into a coastal valley (and owned by muffler-man/Indy winner Sandy Belond).Did a color version of this photo appear on some magazine cover? For some reason I see it in red. But the front license says 1951, which predates most magazine color. Regardless, it’s a classic hot rod scene with two happy young guys taking off on a roadster adventure from a quintessential L.A. early ’50s driveway. With its Deuce frame, filled Deuce grille, and lunchbox-latched 3-piece hood, this ’29 roadster pickup was a nice piece for the time. Check the headlight stands, which incorporate a chrome-tube license surround.This good photo depicts the original Pasadena Reliability Run, staged by the Pasadena Roadster Club from ’48 to ’51 or so. It was a timed rally that began and ended at the famous Rose Bowl, seen here, climbing up and down the nearby 8000-ft. mountains in between. That’s local muffler shop owner Dave Mitchell in his ’48 event-winning roadster pickup, with partner Duffy Livingstone riding shotgun. If this is 1948, his RPU must have run a flathead V8, because the overhead Olds it was better known for didn’t come out until ’49. Those great satin club jackets in the foreground say Pasadena Pacers S.C.T.A.Obviously not chronological, here’s another ground-scraping photo, this time from about 1964, when Roth introduced his newest bubble-top creation, the Road Agent. Powered by a mid-mounted (not upside down) Corvair engine, designed in the pages of R&C by Joe Henning, and painted pinkish Candy Raspberry by Larry Watson, I once described it as a cross between a Model T and a space ship. I know Mark Moriarity found it in Florida a few years back, and restored it. You’ve probably seen enough photos of the Barris-built Nick Matranga chopped and hardtopped ’39 Mercury. But we know two things for sure: (1) this original was wrapped around a power pole and is gone, and (2) it’s the most-cloned custom car of all time, hands-down. Yet this isn’t really about the Matranga Merc. It’s a photo of the Barris booth at the first (or second) Oakland Roadster Show, advertising his Kustom shop in L.A., and displaying photos of several of their builds on the back wall. Also, look closely in the right rear corner, where several empty beer bottles have missed a perhaps-full bucket.The most classic photo of the Matranga Merc shows it parked in front of a similar high school (Fremont), but this is a much-less-seen shot of Gil Ayala’s personal–beautiful–’42 Ford custom appropriately posed in front of East L.A.’s Garfield High. I’ve got lots of photos of this car, including racing at the lakes and the Santa Ana strip, but none in color. In my American Custom Car book, I say, “Although it looks darker, the color was listed as ‘gold’ in one program.” All I can say is the Ayala Brothers never received the sort of acclaim they fully deserved.Valley Custom, on the other hand (Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen), got plenty of publicity, only partly because their shop was near most of the early rod and custom magazines. The most famous, deservedly, was the Polynesian sectioned, burgundy red ’50 Oldsmobile commissioned by Jack Stewart (why so glum, Jack?) of Canton, Ohio. While the slightly modified original sat for decades in an Ohio shop called the Red Lacquer Room (I phoned periodically to check on it), someone else built a quality clone. More recently the original finally got accurately restored, as well.Believe it or not, I’m skipping some great photos, but here’s one I doubt you’ve seen. This is the first Oakland Roadster Show in early 1950, and these are all racing track roadsters. Dirt circle track racing was really big in the Bay Area then, and promoter Al Slonaker invited these cars partly because he was afraid there weren’t enough nice street roadsters to fill the auditorium, but also because these racers were as nicely painted, chromed, and upholstered as any of the street cars. You’ll note Bill Niekamp’s first AMBR winner was a street roadster built in the track style (and raced at the dirty dry lakes).This looks like another classic top-of-the-ladder E. Rickman shot, but it was a publicity photo of Mamie Van Doren at the wheel of a slightly tense Norm Grabowski’s new, red ’23 T Touring car for the B-movie romp Sex Kittens Go To College. Yes, both Norm–as football star “Woo-Woo Grabowski” no less–and the T had roles in the movie. I probably don’t have to tell you the T became “My Mother the Car” on that even-worse TV show. Have I used the word “classic” too many times already? The only thing that would make this photo of irrepressible pinstriper/racer/artist Bob McCoy’s ’40 Tudor better was if it were in color, but you can almost see the red, yellow, and orange in those somewhat crude, but very effective flames. What might be more amazing is the shiny black reflecting Bob’s sharp duds. That’s original factory paint. This photo’s from the ’50s, but I’ve been told a few times that the car still exists in the San Diego area, fully restored to factory original. While the finally restored real Kookie Kar recently won Pebble Beach, my hot rod buddies and I all agreed back in the days of “77 Sunset Strip” that Tommy Ivo’s red, lower, Dutch-striped, and injected Buick-powered T was the one we liked better. And it was definitely quicker. Most of those trophies were for drag racing–something that ultimately sidetracked Tom’s acting career (unlike Grabowski’s, come to think of it).Speaking of the Pasadena Reliability Run, here’s a good action shot of a typical participating roadster passing one of the check points somewhere high up on the Angeles Crest highway. Note his number card taped on the decklid (and the raised headlights that tell us it’s 1951, when L.A. invoked the headlight-height law to hassle hot rods). The whitewalled hiboy in the background looks pretty sharp, too. Looks like we have a white pants, striped shirt theme going here. This dynamic photo was taken by someone standing in the middle of the track at Scappoose, Oregon, which ran from ’52-’59, though shut down (twice) by spectator “riots.” While the referee shirt makes sense for the flag starter, you’ll note white pants on most of the guys (and only guys) seen in the background. For years this was the rule in the pits at most racing venues (especially circle tracks): white pants and no girls.Well, looks like we’ve come full circle. Tony Spicola was a freelance photographer from Colorado who loved posing people with cars, especially young ladies in bathing suits, even though there was no beach anywhere near. Probably helped get his work into magazines. Unfortunately, showing this one in black and white is a shame, because Carrlyn’s vivid purple Jantzen perfectly matches the candy fogging on Jerry Volavka’s pearl white, Buick-powered ’31 Fordor, as seen in ’62.
Whew. That’s a lot of good stuff. Hopefully not too much. Because there’s plenty more where that came from. Remember, these are just some of the photos from one proof sheet–one roll of film. In the binders and files, and nooks and crannies, of my collection there are 30,000 to 40,000 more of these. Too many to count. But I will continue to share, as long as you want to see them. Let me know. Tell others. ‘Til next time.