There was a time when I swore that if I ever heard the Beach Boys’ 409 played at 80 decibels again, I’d have killed myself. You see, I was a product of the 1980’s car show revival scene. My parents were REALLY into cars, and if there was a show, we were there… in my younger days as a spectator, and as participants later on. I’ve seen more wide whites and fuzzy dice than I can count with all of the fingers and toes that I have available in my immediate family, neighborhood and the surrounding towns. That’s a lot of damned dice and tires. Consider, then, just how many folks interpret that era through those items, and you begin to see a pattern in the custom and classic car communities. There’s obviously a lot more to it than simply “well, those are the only available accessories for anyone to use on an era-specific car”. And man, I think I figured it out.
Oddly, it’s taken me twenty-some odd years to arrive at this conclusion, not because I’m slow (I hope not, anyway), but simply because I’ve never really taken the time to figure it all out.
Or perhaps… I just wasn’t mature enough to do it before.
I’m banking on the latter, and gratefully so.
I’ve been into cars since, quite possibly, conception. My father is a car guy through and through. He’s been in the industry since his teen years, and is the one responsible for my automotive affliction. And witnessing his tastes in cars, and learning from them as a young lad, I formed some opinions on stance, style, colors and more from our time together. Naturally, as a teenager, I threw in my rebellion, opting for some styles that weren’t his idea of “cool” (or “intelligent”, “responsible”, and so-on), but the foundation he laid in my brain was always there, waiting for the next version of my Temple of Automotive Style to be built upon the ashes of youth and stupidity.
It hit me while going through some boxes in the Studio recently. I found the materials I’d been collecting for a book project, took a break, and looked through some of the photos. This turned out to be some of the best time I’ve spent in a long time in that lair of automotive art. I not only found a historical reference for a current project, but took a moment to rest my brain… And in that moment, it all made sense to me. I understood why people cling to nostalgia.
Now, I’m not talking about the “Traditional Hot Rod Police”, or the guys who are such complete sticklers on how your car should be built or enjoyed. Those guys need to take a break, and get over it. I’m thinking along the lines of the couple who, after raising the kids, paying off the house, and having slaved in the workforce for years, are looking at some free time, and are getting back to knowing one another as they once had in younger years. Perhaps they’ve decided to pursue some hobbies or interests that took a back seat for decades at a time. For car people, this means building a car to enjoy… maybe even finishing off a project, whatever. Either way, they’re going to do it for the fun.
I talk with a number of these folks each year, and just enjoy sketching up mild versions of their cars, and they always ask for items that, to me, anyway, seemed cliche’. Looking back, I’ve been ignorant.
Granted, I’ve already expressed my youthful feelings on wide whites and whatnot, but never gave thought to why anyone would use what I had thought of so long as the same old stuff. Putting myself in their shoes, I began to ponder what I’d build in twenty years, realistically. And you know what? To someone who shared a similar time frame in their teen years, parts on my dream ride seem pretty cliche’. You know why? Because the car is based upon my lifelong visions of the coolest cars I’d ever seen during my most formative years! The very same cars that a contemporary of mine would have seen and been influenced by.
Consider that, in the 1950’s and ’60’s, the major feature cars all had some similar traits. They followed certain trends, with the stand-outs re-interpreting those standards in some unique way… but the basics were in place: Wide whitewalls (for status), pinstriping, a cleansing of visual barbs, and an attempt to make the whole car look more sleek and modern. If every cool car you ever saw during your formative years had that stuff, by golly, so would your dream car.
It’s not about using the same old stuff. It’s about chasing that dream.
And that’s where the car thing really becomes so cool. It’s not just a physical form of transportation… it’s a freakin’ temporal transportation device. A literal time machine if ever there was one. Think about it: you fire that bad-boy up, head out for a cruise, and instantly, you’re transported back in time. The memories seem just a little more recent and real, and, in a lot of ways (budget permitting), you’re able to get a re-do with that car! You’ve done things to the car that perhaps you couldn’t back then. I can’t think of too many other things in life that you can say that about, and arrive at the same exact conclusion, or grant yourself that feeling of accomplishment and happiness. Try that by going back and playing High School football at age 50. It’s not going to happen.
It’s in that “re-do” that so many folks choose to really play it up. As I’ve learned, it’s their moment. They’ve re-captured something lost. It’s a lot like collecting movie memorabilia or tikis or antiques. Sure, you’ve collected the items you were after, but there’s always that extra little something that catches your eye, or that one trinket that just brings one more element of fun into it all. It might be that shot glass from Trader Vic’s, or that R2D2 keychain… or those fuzzy dice.
And, as the name of this game is “personalization”, who cares if you have organ pipe speaker grilles or fuzzy dice or a fake drive-in speaker or tray of plastic food on your door or your high school sweetheart’s name on the quarter panel? Hell, you could have mannequins of the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens holding plane tickets in your back seat for all I care (that would be sublime and totally irreverent). The point is that it’s your choice, and you’ve chosen to accessorize your car in your way. And if you’re having fun, more power to you. However, if your whole reason for doing any of this is to have the biggest pompadour or the best starch job on your jeans, because you’re the most traditional guy on the fairgrounds, then you’ve missed the point, Squiggy.
I think that there’s a flip-side to all of this, as well. I like to call it the “Revisionist Historical Build Style”, and I can see this catching on. Hell, in some ways, it’s been going on for years.
Next time you’re at a cruise night, a car show, whatever, take a look at the cars present, and make a mental list of the build styles. You’ll see restored cars, hot rods, street machines, pro-touring and so-on. But there are a few that really bend and tweak the styles they fall into. Perhaps it’s a sled with big, modern billet wheels, or a restored musclecar with modern running gear. Either way, there’s mixing and matching going on, borrowing parts normally reserved for street rods on kustoms, street machine parts under classics, it’s all fair game!
I’d like to take it a step further, and imagine a car built as though the owner, within a few years of the car’s original production date, had access to time travel. That he could jump ahead in time, and bring back with him the parts and pieces to create a radically futuristic car. I did this some time back in Rod & Custom with the ’53 Ford pictured above as a Dream Car of the Month. I imagined that this ‘shine runner had brought back a host of goodies, and developed the ultimate booze hauler. (this also inspired a graphic novel I’ve been working on, but much more on that…in the FUTURE! sorry. couldn’t resist.)
You’d be sure to have a car that mixed “futuristic” (for our temporal-twisting pal’s natural time, anyway) build styles and techniques, with some over-the-top performance. How cool would it be to even set these “future goodies” into the car, and utilize era-specific solutions to make things tie in or function? Modern seating frames with vintage materials, HID’s in stock housings and so-on… Imagine Mary Sue Creamcheese riding shotgun, and feeling the seat heaters kick in? Or explaining how the iPod works. We’re already there with some of this stuff, so a lot of the hard work is already done for you. It just needs the right integration!
Now, let’s take this a few thousand steps further, and, once we’ve built this car, imagine that it had been safely tucked away. Years later, it’s stumbled upon (we all love a barn-find story, right?), and behold… this old car sports wonderful patina, a great combination of styling and obviously high-quality bodywork… but yet… something’s amiss. It has a modern drivetrain, but the fittings and hoses and components all look as though they’ve been there for years. Now we’re on to something.
Lately, there are a ton of patina’d trucks and rods (and the occasional musclecar, too… those are cool!) at shows, sporting modern running gear. While I love the juxtaposed look of old and new, the contrast of fresh powder coating and old rust… I just think it lacks a bit of creativity. Make it ALL look old! Work to create those little details that just make things look at home. Imagine building a relay panel that looks like it has glass fuses in it… something that presents the feeling of our time-traveling friend having to make things work, versus simply opening a catalog. “Why wouldn’t he just go back and buy the right parts,” you ask? Perhaps he ran into himself. Maybe someone caught on to his use of vintage funds… perhaps Biff is still angry over the manure incident. Who cares? Play it up, and again, HAVE FUN! Build it as though you’ve never seen such cool, efficient and powerful modern stuff, but with the sense of utilitarianism that someone from an earlier time might have. With companies like Classic Instruments, you could even detail the gauges to perfection, and warp time there, too. And that’s just one suggestion. Interpret amongst yourselves.
Moving Forward… In Reverse
All of that said, I now look at everything with a fresh attitude, and look forward to talking more with folks about why they added the little things they did to their car. And whether it was to have that important re-do, or simply because their granddaughter gave them the fuzzy dice for Christmas, what’s important is that these things are there, adding that little extra to someone’s dream ride, and hopefully transporting them to a place that’s cool.
Thanks for cruising along.