You never know what’s going to turn up in one of these columns. And sometimes neither do I. Oh, I have running lists of topic ideas, and small stacks of photos and info waiting their turn–some too long. But then something pops up that is fresh, newsy, or requested that catches my attention or has some immediate urgency.
Well, that’s not what we’re going to do today. For some reason–heat wave? Fire? Homebound?–I got the idea to play archive roulette. It goes like this: I’ve mentioned that my extensive photo collection is housed in many ways in several places. But a good portion, all older stuff, fills two tall file cabinets in a corner of my garage, 10 filled file drawers in all. So I decided to pick one drawer at random, open it, thumb through the files inside, and select the first one that grabbed my attention and had enough material for this week’s column.
So I chose a drawer that was labeled “Early Shows, Early Drags, Early Color.” Obviously I went for the shows, and the one I pulled out was St. Louis Autorama ’60. It had 30-some 8×10 black-and-white prints in it, shot by Midwest photog Robert Hegge, with terse typed captions attached, plus a brief info paragraph. Maybe not the cream of the archive, but I think this will be interesting and fun.
But first, just to give an idea of what I’ve got, and why it can be challenging to choose one topic, Here’s a quick rundown of what was in that one file drawer. It starts with 22 manila folders of similar B&W prints from shows across America, from British Columbia ’60, to Philly ’62, with Toronto, Cleveland, Atlanta, Buffalo, Indy Nats, Hartford Autorama, and so on, in between. This is followed by early ’50s circle track (“Last Hot Rods at Carrell”), SoCal sports car road races, and then eight envelopes on ’53 drags at Santa Ana, Paradise Mesa, Saugus, and Pomona. Next are thick photo files on the NHRA Nats in ’58, ’59, ’61, and ’62. Then come some newer color car features like the Imperials Lowriders (which I showed you), the Uncertain T, Trendero pickup, Phil Hendrickson ’32 sedan, and similar ’60s rods. Next are feature files on all the existing, preserved front-engine dragsters I could find in the early ’80s: Mooneyes, DragMasters B, Garlits Swamp Rat I, The Greek’s Chizler, Glass Slipper, Magwinder, Bounty Hunter, and a few others. Behind these, stacked left-to-right across the back of the drawer are 98 5×7 envelopes filled with color transparencies (mostly 4×5) of most of the well-known custom cars and hot rods of the early ’50s through early ’60s. Plus the first L.A. Roadster Runs and Roundups. Finally I was surprised to find the 4×5 Kodak box that Eric Rickman dropped on my desk one day, filled with 87 B&W negs he took at the first Oakland Roadster Show, right before he became a Hot Rod staffer. That’s just one drawer. You’ve seen some of this stuff in books and magazines. But there’s lots you haven’t. Like I’m showing today. And that’s why I’ve got to share as much as I can, while I can. So on with the show.
This, surprisingly, was the first St. Louis Autorama, held at the Kiel Auditorium over the weekend of Oct. 28-30, 1960. Over the three days about 15,000 spectators viewed about 100 rods, customs, and drag race cars. While Bob Larivee’s Promotions Inc. (or whatever its name was at the time) promoted the big indoor show, local “host” clubs were the St. Louis Torques and the Coachmen.
This is the Midwest heart of the country, far from the magazines on the coasts. And this is late 1960, the waning of the ’50s rod and custom look. We’ll see medium-wide whitewalls, spinner hubcaps, two-tone upholstery featuring white, not much radical lowering, and non-Ford rods like Jerry Montgomery’s ’32 Plymouth coupe powered by a big Olds V8 with dual-quad carbs. The ’40 Olds bumpers are a nice touch.
Chrome reversed rims were the latest thing on Cliff Elder’s sanitary ’36 Ford 5-window. It also runs an Olds mill with lakes pipes, and there’s plenty of two-tone tuck-and-roll inside and in the rumble seat. Taking first in the “Pre-War” class, it must have been striking since the color is listed as “purple.”
With Lancer caps over medium whitewalls, lakes pipes, and plenty of tasty scallops over a very mildly dechromed body, Dan Baker’s ’55 Ford hardtop was that common blend of street rod and custom of the early ’60s with a bored and balanced mill with ported heads and multi-carbs on an Edmunds intake, plus a nicely-fit ’54 Chevy grille with extra teeth. Note car name on the rear quarter, “The Exotic.”
Richard Burian of Belleville, IL did a lot of custom work on Bob Clark’s St. Louis 5-window Deuce: top chopped three inches, body channeled over frame, louvered hood top, ’40 Ford dropped axle and juice brakes, ’54 Olds engine with ’37 gearbox and 4.11 rearend. But the covered continental spare, Olds bumpers, lakes pipes, and Lincoln(?) wheel covers mix the rod/custom/restored elements. And we haven’t even mentioned angel hair yet.
Primered and even unfinished cars seemed to be no problem at this show. In this case, who could complain, since it’s the host club, “The Torques” display, obviously featuring comp cars, including their just-begun home-built 283 Chevy rail. Doesn’t say who owned the much-chopped ’30 Chevy sedan with a ’49 Cad mill, let alone where all the trophies came from since it’s an unfinished car.
Again, we have an interesting blend of rod and custom. Roy Losito’s ’54 Olds softtop is not only nosed and decked, with handles shaved, headlights frenched, ’60 Chev taillights, ’53 Chevy grille teeth, Cad wheelcovers and full lakers, but what you can’t see under the open hood is a rare Latham supercharger fitted with four early Corvette side-draft carbs and an Isky cam. I can’t figure the darker shadow on the side of some of these cars, but I think it was caused by large, white, square pillars throughout the auditorium reflecting on the cars.
One of the more traditional hot rods in the show was Frank Frumar’s ’28 roadster on ’32 rails, with a filled Deuce grille and full-house ’55 Corvette V8 mill. With the windshield removed, full tonneau cover, and single-groove whitewall slicks, it gives the racy look (other than the Lancer wheelcovers). The weirdest part is his name for it: The Cabbage Cart. Maybe he was referring to how much green stuff it took to build. Note primered 3-W Deuce coupe behind it.
You probably know my taste in ’50s customs leans to the “less is more” style. So my personal choice for nicest mild custom in this show is Allan Dickens’ “Cherrie Pie” ’55 Chevy convert from DeSoto, MO. Given the name, I’d have to guess it was some shade of Cherry Red. The captions say it was owner-built and this was its first show, where it only took 2nd in class, but won a special award for “Workmanship.” Deservedly so. With ’56 Packard lenses molded in the rear, it integrates ’58 Lincoln canted quad headlights with a bar grille attributed to a T-Bird below a lipped hood. Unfortunately, it, too, suffers from strange shadows caused by large white pillars you see in the background. Oh, have I mentioned angel hair yet?
The Olds Rocket 88 seemed to be the engine of choice in the St. Louis area, at least in 1960. Even this ’32 Plymouth competition coupe of Lou Kamp runs one (instead of a Mopar Hemi). From the photos in my folder, it appeared entries were pretty evenly divided between rods, customs, and racers.
I’m a bit surprised the then-new Square Birds didn’t catch on more with the custom crowd. Thing is, they didn’t need much customizing, exemplified by Ron Doll’s ’58 which has been shaved of most nose, deck, and side chrome, painted bright red, then fitted with dummy spots and unusual ’60 Dodge wheelcovers. The white line down the side must be a photo glitch, but check the rear quarter name in quotation marks: “Mr. Chance”. That was a short-lived but fun fad. Yes, we did mention angel hair.
Now here’s something of a treat. By late ’60 Ed Roth was already finishing up his bubble-top Beatnik Bandit, so he sold the Outlaw to show Promoter Bob Larivee, who displayed it as a non-competiton feature car that he could advertise to help draw crowds. For some (good) reason it intrigued photog Hegge, who snapped several close-up detail shots that may show you a few things you never noticed on this futuristic hot rod. First off, you think air bags are the latest suspension trick? Roth used them inside the chrome coil springs on the front of this car. A Schrader valve at the bottom allowed raising or lowering the car with an air hose. The hand-formed ‘glass nose uses a piece of a ’59 Chevy grille with three laminated teardrop dash knobs. Big Daddy also made and sold those unique nerf bars with bullet centers. You’ll note no other cars in the show are “panel painted” like this one. I don’t know if Roth was the first, but he did his own paint–silver panels over white pearl base, fogged around the edges with candy green. Roth also did all the striping. Many don’t notice that the Cad engine is an early ’49, using two hold-down screws in the middle of the no-name valve covers. In fact, his 4-carb Cad is very similar to the one in the Kookie Kar. The Cragar manifold that held the four chromed carbs (with S-P tops) was actually the Horne with the name changed. And the six outside headers, with caps, leading to dual muffler and pipes under the car, are very similar to Grabowski’s. Inside we find narrow-roll Eddie Martinez upholstery, and ’58 Impala wheel with a bullet, S-W gauges, Roth-made pedals on ’40 master cylinders, and that famous antique sword shift handle that gave the car its first name, “Excaliber.” There were various legends about its origins, but the point is it’s clearly visible in this photo. Sometime later, after various owners and restorations, it disappeared. When doing a book on Roth, I asked Larivee if he knew what happened to it. His only reply was a somewhat startled, “It’s gone?”
Here’s another surprise. I knew this bright green Henry J with the set-back Olds engine as St. Louis photographer Wayne Arteaga’s, seen in a small photo with a bright gold, Potvin-blown Olds engine on the March ’62 Hot Rod cover. In the later ’60s Wayne competed in the Gasser Wars with wicked blown Olds Willys coupes. But the caption for the 1960 show says this car, with a 3-carb ’56 Olds mill, belonged to John Ackerman of St. Louis, who I assume was the original builder.
Now this is an interesting photo. The guy with the glasses in the foreground is Stanley Mouse, one of Roth’s first imitators and fiercest competitors in painting “monster shirts” to customers’ specifications or whims, in a booth on the show floor. But that required a booth with an airbrush, compressor, easel, and usually a wall hung with dozens of weirdo shirts. Here he’s at the front stage, with show trophies lined up (including some odd ones with lampshades). You’ll also note the relative age, attire, and gender of the audience, seemingly intent on whatever he’s doing to that one shirt.
With a 4-inch top chop, trimmed rear fenders, and unusual side vents in the cowl, Bob Bushman brought his ’57 dual-quad T-Bird powered Deuce “all the way from Drayton Falls, MI” to cop first in the Modified Street Rod class. It appears to have embellished wheelcovers, and dig the triangulated tuck-and-roll on the seat and rumble.
I’ll bet there are quite a few of you who have never seen Walt Pasternak’s “Commanche” ’29 Ford roadster pickup, and you’re asking, “Whaa?” What you don’t even notice at first is that it has an overhead V8 of some sort, dropped axle, hairpins, nerf bars, and other hot rod appointments. But you’re just not going to get past the full-on tuck-and-roll steer-hyde that covers the whole exterior of the body. What that fluffy stuff is inside, I wouldn’t hazard a guess. It was from Detroit, where there aren’t many ranches or steers, so I’ve never known the rationale of this “rod.” It wasn’t entered in competition, so I assume it got paid to attend as a feature car. It was conspicuous for a couple years…then it was gone.
What’s so special about a primered, pug-nosed, unlettered ’38 Willys coupe that gets it a 1st place trophy in the Comp Coupe class? To start, this was its first car show, so all those trophies were won at drag strips. In fact, 30 wins with a best time of 132 mph in A/Gas running a ’58 Buick engine, unblown as far as we can see. The owner/builder/driver? St. Louis native Mike Kuhl, who soon migrated to the West Coast to set up shop building stout superchargers for Top Dog racers, and won plenty more trophies with his own Kuhl and Olsen Top Fuel rail.
Obviously my show folders are incomplete, having been picked over by others in the dim past before I salvaged what was left. The first example is Starbird’s famous bubble-top Predicta T-Bird that is only seen in the corner of this photo. Also, while there’s a typical pic of Frank Pennington of Independence, MO, holding his People’s Choice trophy on one side of the show queen, well-known customizer Chuck Miller is standing on the other side holding a much larger one for Best In Show for a ’58 Impala called “Mutation,” which I’ve neither heard of nor have a photo to show.
But Pennington’s bright red channeled Model A roadster is the car the crowd liked best. Definitely a slightly earlier 50s-era build, it runs a ’48 Merc flathead, is upholstered in white with buttons, including the continental spare behind chrome nerfs, has the rear fenders raised, bobbed, and molded to the body, and rides on chrome Chrysler wires with medium-wide whitewalls. You might even notice a capped lakes pipe under the moderately channeled and molded body. This car very probably had few miles on the odometer, but plenty of show trophies on the shelf at home already.
So that’s our serendipitous story for this time–Showtime 1960 in America’s Midwest. I probably won’t use the wheel of fortune next time, but right now I have no idea what the subject will be. We’ll soon see. In the meantime, be safe, please be considerate, and let’s kill this pandemic together. Then we can have fun playing with our cars again!