Great Balls Of Fire

Every year under the sunny skies of a June weekend, the Minnesota Street Rod Association stages its dazzling annual hot-rod show, “Back to the Fifties,” at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. With the fifties receding further and further into history, however, it takes a greater effort with every passing year to heave yourself out of the recliner to get back to them. Fortunately, and not a moment too soon, the collapsible canvas chair with integrated beer-can holder and footrest has now reached such an advanced stage of development that today you can carry one of these around in a bag slung over your shoulder, open it up, and instantly recline just about anywhere. There must have been thirty thousand of these chairs at the fairgrounds this year, where the sudden, amazing convergence of ten thousand street-legal hot rods makes for a show second in size only to the Street Rod Nationals held each year in Louisville, Kentucky. At least two or three chairs were deployed around every car, many with their slings being put to the test by people who’ve porked up a little since 1959. Aside from the chairs, the other must-have accessory at the show was the foam-rubber beer cozy insulating the can of pop or beer in everybody’s mitts.

Let’s take a second to think about what the term “hot rod” means.

Okay. Now let’s go see some.

All day long, and on into the dusk as the street lights flutter to life, an endless conga line of custom cars snakes and winds slowly through the fairgrounds, the streets and intersections lined three deep with people raucously cheering from their distended canvas pouches. The parade creeps and lurches along at about three miles per hour, engines snorting and growling. Whenever anybody yells “Let’s hear it!” or “Show us your tits!” a driver obliges by revving his engine loud enough to crack the pavement. At one halt in the proceedings, a pickup truck that with the press of a button can tilt up sidewise as though letting a fart, does just that, to the great amusement of the crowd.

Not every rodder is a lout, however, nor were all the cars in the show traditional street rods. In fact, any car from the epoch of tail fins or earlier—that is, with a body manufactured before 1964—is eligible for display (this eliminates monster trucks, the imbecile spawn of wankers in windowless basements. It also excludes the new, elaborately tricked-out, million-dollar custom show and concept cars seen rotating like layer cakes on lazy Susans at auto shows.) Included are classic cars that have been restored with scrupulous concern for the authenticity of original details: stately old Packard Phaetons, vintage Oldsmobiles, Al Capone getaway cars, Chrysler Airstreams, Bugatti roadsters, vanished Cords and Tuckers, and all kinds of ancient trucks.

The understated elegance of the restorations next to the screaming paint jobs of the bad-boy street rods gives you some idea of the range of aesthetic preoccupations exhibitors bring to the show. The vintage cars are more about motoring the countryside in style. A classic hot rod, meanwhile, is built to rip from zero to Mach 1 without stopping to take in the sights. To gulp enough air to cool things down, a hot rod has a louvered hood or no hood at all, and its immaculate, supercharged engine and chromed manifold pipes are all left exposed. Add in the bitchin’ paint-job—essentially the street rod’s “D.A.” (duck’s-ass haircut)—and you have the look that everyone’s after: It’s all about the strut and command of the street.

Regal or raunchy, it makes no difference. The workmanship on the cars in the show is often exquisite. What draws me to hot-rod shows is not the noise or the chance to rub shoulders with a lot of yahoos, but the outrageously inventive, radical, and personal intensity of this world of design, where for more than fifty years ordinary people—auto mechanics, body-shop guys, electricians, engineers—have been scavenging junkyards for the raw material of creation. Detroit proposes, but Man disposes. The first church of the hot rod—a garage in the alley—is where people (mostly working-class guys, but also, in recent years, yuppie dilettantes) seize on the tools and rusting relics of industrial wage slavery for their own artistic purposes. Most of these guys don’t give a rat’s ass for what the art world calls art, but their cars—in their own way and on their own terms—are highly impassioned works of art, kinetic sculptures richly coded and layered with technical, functional, and aesthetic meaning, their every detail saturated with decision and significance to those familiar with the language of the tribe.

The paint jobs hit you right between the eyes. The colors are lustrous and incredibly deep—pure retinal candy. You want to go over and lick them. No segment of the spectrum is left uninvestigated. A lot of the action is in the realm of rapidly vibrating yellows, from the canary of Yellow Cabs to the colors of egg-yolk, banana, flower pollen, and the yellow of crime-scene tape. Not much lemon, because who needs to drive a lemon? Then the reds: ripe-tomato red, fire-engine red, Mao Tse-Tung red, candy-apple red, on through a hundred shades of lipstick. Next are sweltering oranges and scalding, acid lime greens; lurid, grape-juice purples; nocturnal cobalts and deep midnight navy blues, often combined in two-tone restorations with elegant shades of cream. There are pale mints, soft pearlescent whites, and cars done in sinister flat black primer, and finally, there are pinks, ranging from the delicate pink of panties to a bubble-gum pink so nauseating it can bring up your lunch just to look at it. The pinks and fuchsias and magentas suggest the hidden hand of women, or of brave men indeed.

Half the cars on the fairgrounds are painted to look like they’re on fire from the untamed ferocity of their engines. A custom flame job is like a tattoo; it announces that a meteorically sizzling street rod has just entered the atmosphere and is headed straight to hell, tearing through space with such blazing speed that its engine has burst into flames and the driver’s pants have caught fire. The hot-rod tribe has a whole iconography of fire, with different schools and styles concerning the shape of flickering tongues of flames. The classic flame job starts out molten white-hot at the nose of the car, the hissing airbrush then pushing the color from yellow through orange to red as the thing cools. But these are chemically uncertain times and there is much experimentation with toxic variations: sulfuric green flames slithering over metallic blue or orange bodies; or blue gas flames lapping at the skirts of a ’49 Merc painted that queasy pink. Flame is cool; it is to hot-rodders what camo is to survivalists. It seems to be plastered over everything sold at the show—shirts, pants, hats, bras, sneakers, codpieces, kiddies’ pajamas.

Certain classics like the archetypal ’32 Ford three-window coupe, generally considered the mother of all hot rods, are often treated in a more formal manner, and modified in ways particularly respectful of tradition. The whole outlaw thing aside, strict conventions—orthodoxies—exist in the world of hot rods just as they do in the hidebound world of antiques. They hover over anything you might think to do, so if you happen to find the hulk of a ’32 Ford overgrown with weeds in some field, you don’t just have at it and trick it out any old way. You feel the weight of history. You do not mess with the look of that squared-off bustle at the back, and you keep the roof nice and flat even if you chop it, and you make sure the graceful outlines of the grill and fenders remain recognizable as those of the classic. If you’ve got a ’32 Ford coupe, the issue (for some, at least) isn’t so much one of asserting a defiant originality; it’s the discipline and knowledge you bring to your own rendition of a classic. It makes for a strange creative tension between conformity and invention, between restraint and that ol
d desire to kick out the jams.

There are competing creation myths, but one has it that the hot-rod culture began in southern California with men trained in the military returning from World War II. Racing on the dry flat lakebeds east of L.A., welders, motor-pool mechanics, electricians, pipefitters, and steel- and sheet-metal workers started looking for ways to reduce aerodynamic drag. They souped up engines for greater power and quicker acceleration, stripped down bodies and chopped the roofs to reduce weight, giving the dragster its raked profile: low in the front, high on the haunches powering it from the back. They got their cars from junkyards. Their approach was based on the indelible experience of the Depression: Throw nothing away, make do with what you’ve got. What you had after the war were old Fords from the twenties and early thirties. These became the chassis and bodies of the first dragsters, the ones built in the late forties through the fifties, the heyday of the art, before the hobby grew explosively and customizing cars got to be big business and decadence set in.

Today, of course, there’s no reason to bust your knuckles, no need to get down and mine the ore, smelt the steel, hammer the thing out at the forge. You can just go out and buy a hot rod, just like you can buy yourself the look of hard-won experience: Drop a couple of hundred bucks on pre-torn jeans and a distressed leather jacket and you’re all set. “Back to the Fifties” has a street-rod auction, and cars are being bought and sold all over the fairgrounds throughout the run of the show; it’s as much a hot-rod marketplace as it is an exhibition.

Not that there aren’t still plenty of restless and ingenious men building street rods from scratch in grubby garages behind the house, but now a lot of the cars at the show are built or worked on by professional speed shops. It’s the Age of Specialization; even if you’ve done the work on the body and engine yourself (and a lot of these guys still have the skill to do it in spades), most of the paint jobs are now farmed out to airbrush virtuosos, some of whose names are legend. (In 2002, Von Dutch, a renowned pinstriper of cars and motorcycles in the fifties, was given a posthumous retrospective at two university art galleries in California.)

Next to the dented old jalopies the whole thing started with, the modern street rod is a deliriously baroque confection—a motorized Fabergé egg—but I have to admit, when I see a pack of them cruising low to the ground down University Avenue on a summer night, those tiny teal or purple lights under their chassis reflecting off the pavement, each one gliding on its own mysterious lagoon of light, they look pretty damned cool.

Glenn Gordon is a writer, sculptor, and photographer.