This column derives from the last one. In it, among the many bright-colored photos of then-contemporary ’70s and early ’80s hot rods, I showed these three black roadsters gathered under one light, stating that “…this was just the beginning of the retro-rod movement…” It took a couple of days, but this jogged my memory. It was almost a bad memory, but let’s just call it a weird one.
What I remembered was that, not long after the photo shoot at Angelo’s in early ’82, I asked Tom Courtney, Dick Pickerel, and Tom Leonardo if I could get their three throw-back roadsters together one evening in a large, empty parking lot somewhere in Orange County, to photograph them and do a story not only explaining and illustrating what this “new” retro-rodding trend was, but also showing three different ways you could do it.
So we did. I had to work quickly to capture the evening light–best for black cars–shooting details on all three, mostly on black-and-white film. I had each of them fill out my brief tech sheet. And I wrote a 4-page story. I should reiterate that I was freelancing at the time, so I shopped what I thought was a good, newsworthy story on three cool and/or historic cars to the rod magazines of the time, including Street Rodder and Hot Rod. They all rejected it. Too soon? Apparently so.
It wasn’t because the article or photos were bad. It just wasn’t what was happening–yet. So it took me a while, digging through my files, to even find the envelope. But I did. It had proof sheets and negs of four rolls of B&W film, several 5 x 7 prints, three tech sheets, and a typed-out 4-page story, complete with penciled edits–what we’d call a rough draft. So, since I am finally my own boss, I decided to run it here. The cars are definitely cool, and the story is still quite pertinent. Hot rodding today has reached a wonderful level of inclusion. So I’m going to present the article (and photos) just as I wrote it in 1982. That’s nearly 40 years ago. Keep this in mind. Some of the tenses are wrong. I’ll give a little update at the end.
THREE EARLY ROADSTERS
A little more than ten years ago [i.e., 1970] a new movement known as the “resto-rod” or the “gennie look” was introduced into the street rodding sport. Original cowl lights and greyhounds went for a premium at swap meets. Full-top Phaetons became popular, as did brass T’s. With big headlights, full fenders, and luggage racks, such cars looked more like restored originals than hot rods, except for modern–usually wire–wheels and new–usually wide–tires, which stuck out of said fenders and precluded much lowering. Though not as pervasive as it once was, this movement still persists [as of 1982].
However, now there is a new kind of resto-rodding, or gennie look, that is rapidly gaining favor with a select group of rodders across the country. This new style is part of the genuine nostalgia wave that is happily infecting the 1980s. And the street rod proponents–some of whom are of an age to really remember the early days–are those who feel that hot rods should look just like they did in the ’40s or the ’50s. Well, maybe they don’t all think street rods should be old-style, but they personally love the traditional, accurate, early-days look.
Plus they love scrounging the swap meets, old garages, and other musty hiding places for traces, clues, and serendipitous discoveries of original old-time hot rod parts…if not complete roadsters. And they know that a complete, skinny-tired, flathead-powered, down-to-the-last-detail traditional ’40s or ’50s hot rod is still a mighty impressive sight running down the road.
There are several ways to participate in the new-old-style resto-rod [i.e., retro-rod] movement, three excellent examples of which are portrayed here. You can: (1) find an actual early days hot rod, as Tom Leonardo did, and literally restore it to its ’40s or ’50s condition; (2) using original old hot rod parts, contemporary reproductions, or a combination of both, as Dick Pickerel did, you can construct a brand new, yet completely accurate ’40s or ’50s style hot rod; or (3) by combining an early-style outward appearance with modern mechanicals and driveline, as Dick Courtney did, you can have the best of both worlds.
This trio of Southern California rodders are not only into the nostalgic rod look, but they also participate in the growing early-style rodding activities taking hold here. All three are founding members of the much-publicized Orange County Cruising Association, which inaugurated the monthly Cruise night here and put Angelo’s drive-in on the map. They can always be found at the Antique Nationals drags, where Dick Pickerel’s Deuce is a torrid competitor. And Dick Courtney has recently joined the Outriders, a very informal club of old time rodders. Both Pickerel and Courtney are in their 50s, and were personally very active in the SoCal roadster scene throughout the 1950s. Tom is a bit younger, but was introduced to rodding by his father, who raced a dragster at the Santa Ana drags and took Tom to all the early cruising hangouts. Obviously they know what early-time rods are all about. Let’s take a look at their individual [retro] rods.
Tom Leonardo’s ’29 Hiboy is the original, and it’s not even restored. In fact, it still has the same black lacquer paint that was applied sometime shortly after WW II. As far as Tom can figure, the roadster was built around 1942. The engine is a 1940 Ford which was bought in a crate at that time and then fitted with domed pistons, Isky 3/4 cam, Eddie Meyer heads, and an Evans 2-carb intake. Even now the engine has only about 20,000 miles on it. A ’39 top-shift trans backs it, and new ’40 complete front and rear ends were installed along with the latest thing at the time, hydraulic brakes. This car is very typical of a ’40s street rod (’29s on Deuce rails with dropped axles were more common after 1950). Characteristics are the filled Deuce grille shell, “raked” windshield posts, nerf bars, and red Kelsey 16-inch wire wheels.
However, this car was built considerably better than most, with hidden details like a body and frame fully braced with 1-inch round tubing, a rumble seat converted to a deck lid with hidden internal hinges (the gas tank and battery are in the trunk, and the handle is vestigial). A rare, classy addition is a chromed, half-round brass molding fit to the body lip behind the seat–just like the one on Isky’s roadster.
This car was begun around 1942, painted when the owner returned from the war, and then parked for some mysterious reason as-is in 1947. Tom’s father spotted it sitting in a garage in 1962, kept track of it, and finally talked the owner into selling it ten years later. The only addition Tom has made is the traditional-style brown upholstery, which had never been finished in the original car. Another very classy feature of the interior is a complete inset Auburn dash, along with its gauge panel holding gennie curved-glass gauges, plus a ’40 Ford steering wheel.
Although Dick Pickerel’s Deuce hiboy looks as old as Tom’s, it is actually a brand-new car. Not only that, but it even has a ‘glass body! But you’d never know by looking at it that it isn’t straight from the early Fifties.
The healthy flatmotor has a 1/4-inch stroker and 3-5/16 inch bore for 274 inches. It’s ported and relieved, runs Edelbrock heads and intake, with a full-race cam. The trans is a ’41 side-shift, backed by a Halibrand V8 quickie.
In true early rod style, you won’t find a lot of chrome on the car, including the Bell axle and hairpin radius rods. Dick sprayed the black enamel paint in his own backyard.
Of course a highlight of the interior is the handmade, engine-turned aluminum dash panel filled with large, early Stewart-Warner gauges. A ’40 Ford steering column and shifter is topped by a genuine 4-spoke Bell wheel.
And get this: the perfectly good all-white tuck-and-roll traditional upholstery was given to to him by L.A. Roadsters member Duane Kofoed when he decided the interior of his yellow ’32 roadster needed updating to something more modern.
Dick Courtney’s ’29 Hiboy is yet another case. It, too, is a new car. But it was built to duplicate a nearly identical roadster Dick owned in the early Fifties [of which I’m sure you’ve seen photos].
The original car, built in the ’40s on A rails with a 4-banger, then updated to this Deuce frame, V8, dropped axle, solid-wheel style in 1950, was an outstanding rod for the time. It’s highlight was the unique V-windshield (one of 12 made for NightRiders club members by well-known lakes racer Duke Hallock in 1938). Soon after selling the first car around 1955, Dick was able to acquire another Hallock brass windshield frame and saved it all these years to build another roadster around.
The new car, which is all steel, duplicates the original on the outside, down to the filled Deuce shell, 3-piece hood, shortened front frame horns, and red steel early Ford wheels. Also note the small chrome license lights, same as on the first car. However, the big difference is under the sheetmetal, which hides a mild but modern 283 Chevy V8, Camaro 3-speed trans, and Ford 9-inch rear. Dick wanted the look of the early roadster, but he’d had enough of flatheads and grinding gears back in the Fifties.
It all goes to show that hot rod nostalgia lives in various ways. But if you long for the good old days when roadsters ruled, the lakes were dusty, and the drive-in was tops–whether you were there or heard about it second-hand–there’s no reason why you can’t relive it today.
Remember, the above was written and photographed in 1982. Tom Leonardo still owns and drives his gennie ’29 roadster (among other cool rods) just as you see it here. Tom said he saw Pickerel about a year ago, but his roadster disappeared fairly quickly. He was always buying, building, and selling rods. Dick Courtney, unfortunately, passed maybe 20 years ago, but not before he sold the roadster seen here, had remorse, and built another one almost identical to it. Tom Leonardo said he painted the second one. And I’d mention that my favorite upholsterer, the late Dave Gade, did the interior you see above.
Compounding coincidences relating to this and the Angelo’s stories, I called Dennis Webb recently to make sure he’d seen the story about his and his dad’s house, plus mentioned this one. He was very appreciative of the text and photos about his dad. Then he mentioned: “You know I built both of Courtney’s cars.” Yes, right in that old garage across the street from Angelo’s. He said Dick would bring him pieces, one by one: Deuce frame, axle, body, engine. He said actually the second one was built mostly at Frank Currie’s nearby rearend shop, because Currie was another KnighRider member who had a similar roadster with a Hallock windshield back then. Small world. After interim owners, both of Courtney’s ’29s (now dubbed #2 and #3, given the long-gone original) were acquired by Ross Myers and are part of his very impressive and still-growing 3 Dog Garage collection in Boyertown, PA.
And I’ll leave you with one last kicker. Someone had asked when Dennis’ dad acquired the white house. Dennis said Marvin got it in 1940 from his father. It originally included 20 acres of citrus groves. Yes, it was in Orange County. But when the city of Anaheim extended its borders to include it, the orange crop didn’t cover the new property taxes, so he sold the property for development. However, Marvin said he’d like to keep the house, and 3/4 acre. So that’s what happened. And it’s still in the Webb family. But here’s the kicker: Then Dennis said, “You know who built that house, don’t you?” I said I had no idea. His reply: “It was Dick Kraft’s dad and uncle.” Even smaller world. And as I’ve said more than once, you can’t make this stuff up. Hope you enjoyed this one. It’s been waiting nearly 40 years to be read.