The pros and cons of finishing a hot rod.
While walking through the car show area at Steve Gibbs’ Nitro Revival 3 (which we will cover next issue), I had an interesting conversation with Sean Mcdougall, who built the bare-metal, Hemi-powered Model A coupe we featured in Nov. 2016, both on our cover and in the story “Malarkey.” I didn’t see the car at the show. Sean said it was back at his shop, apart, the victim of a spun rod brought on by some “spirited driving.” Something about oil starvation during high-speed cornering. That’s not usually an issue for a buggy-sprung hot rod, but since the suspension under Sean’s coupe mixes traditional and race-car parts, he can pull higher g loads around a corner than most Model As.
With the car apart, Sean was considering making some changes. “I’ve got a ’32 frame, and I’m thinking about taking the coilovers out of it, putting in some real seats [inside the car now are aluminum panels with bead-rolled “pleats”], and maybe even painting it.”
Then he dropped something of a bomb when he asked me, “Should I?”
He had his reasons. “I’d like to make it more comfortable to drive. I’d like to drive to Bonneville someday. I can do two-hour trips, like I could have brought it here [to Irwindale from his home near Bakersfield]. But I couldn’t do the 11 or 12 hours to Bonneville.”
The Model A “was my vision when I was 28,” Sean told me. “I’m 46 now, and driving it is just beating me up.”
The simple answer, of course, is do what you want. Change the car. If it’s not enjoyable to drive, chances are good you’ll drive it less and less, and it may wind up wasting away in the corner of a garage or shop.
“But it’s a magazine cover car,” Sean countered. “That’s no small thing. So should I leave it that way, or change it?” Hmm.
Any hot rod or custom car—that is, a car modified in appearance and/or performance, as opposed to a restored car—exists at the intersection of fashion, technological achievement, and personal taste. Fashion comes and goes; we can discern the stylistic differences between a hot rod from the 1940s versus the 1960s or the 1980s. Technological achievement rides along with fashion: A hot rod built in the 1940s (or to emulate one) is subject to the technology available at the time. It wouldn’t have a small-block Chevy or a Mustang II front suspension, for example.
Unless it evolved into those more advanced components because of the personal taste of the owner. That’s the beauty of a hot rod or custom versus a restoration: The owner is free to follow very personal choices to create the car of his or her dreams. That car may not be to your taste, or to mine, but who’s to rain on anyone else’s parade?
Magazine cars, however, introduce a fourth element, posterity. Do the math: In its 70 year history, HOT ROD has had more than 800 cover cars, give or take those issues with multiple cars on the cover or those with repeat subjects. That many cool cars would make a great show, but the total pales in comparison to the number of hot rods and customs that were built in those 70 years. For our little late-comer magazine, with just six issues a year since 2008, cover cars number in the dozens, not the hundreds. So maybe posterity tips the argument in favor of preservation, not evolution.
Except posterity is not created equal. That’s an awkward way of saying that, rare though they may be, not all magazine cars are outstanding, or memorable, or deserving of being essentially placed in amber for eternity.
Just a few feet away from where Sean and I were talking sat Gray Baskerville’s ’32 roadster, looking (to my eye, anyway) exactly like it did when Gray took me for my first ride in it in the mid 1990s. That’s a great example of a car with provenance that (to my eye, anyway) should be left as-is in memory of our ol’ Dad.
Then again, had Norm Grabowski left his Lightning Bug just as it appeared on HRM’S Oct. 1955 cover, would Norm have been the Norm he became without a Kookie version for Life magazine or 77 Sunset Strip?
I don’t mean to say Sean’s coupe rises to the same level as those cars. It can take a long time for a car to make enough of an imprint on rodding culture to qualify for preservation. What is an owner supposed to do in the meantime, sit around and wait for an honor that may never come?
We all know of cars that have been “ruined” by what, in hindsight, were misguided changes to its form or function. But
hot rodding is about freedom, the freedom to accomplish what you can see in your mind’s eye and build with your two hands. Sean’s eye for style, his sense of proportion, and his craftsmanship are first-rate. If anyone could do justice to his tidy little coupe by transforming it into something more drivable, he could.
Ultimately my advice to him, for what it’s worth, was change it if you want. It’s your car. If time proves the first version was a landmark, someone will build a tribute. And between now and then you’ll have a hot rod you can enjoy on those trips to the salt.
> Darel Dieringer gets the checkered flag at the 1963 Golden State 400, NASCAR’S season-ending race at Riverside Raceway. A simmering feud between NASCAR and USAC boiled over just prior to the event, forcing several USAC stars to drop out, fearing they would be banned from future USAC races, including the plum Indy 500. Riverside superstar Dan Gurney was one of the dropouts, as were Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, and Roger Penske. Still, HOT ROD’S Ray Brock said the 400 was “one of the most exciting races ever staged in stock car racing.” A close-fought duel in the final laps between Dieringer and “Southern California sports car sensation” Dave Macdonald ended when the transmission in Macdonald’s car became “locked in Third gear all the way around the track,” Brock wrote. Dieringer’s Strop pe-prepped Mercury finished more than a full lap ahead of Macdonald’s ailing Ford.