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The Kustom Kar Show

The art of custom-designed hot rods is taking off fast and furious

Hot Rod, Drag race

3rd Annual Hot Rod Magazine Championship Drag Races - Riverside, California, June 20th, 1966

Randy Holt/The Enthusiast Network/Getty

Miss Tee,” “Golden Lady,” “Passionate Apricot” and “Snatchattack,” kandy-colored kustom kars and chrome-plated cyles, nested in soft beds of platinum blonde angel hair, on carpets of red velvet and leopard spots, steely, aseptic sensual, and over-done, like Vargas girls.

The Great American Love Affair with sleek cars and high-speed choppers is often a subliminal thing, but it was all up front in the Long Beach Sports Arena at the ninth annual Custom Auto-Rama, Boat & Hot Rod Show October 18-20.

I visited Southern California (“where the Brancusis of hot-rod custom car design are concentrated,” to quote Dwight Macdonald paraphrasing Tom Wolfe) to view the hot-rod in its natural habitat after being turned on by an exhibition called “The Hot Rod Esthetic” at the San Francisco Art Institute earlier last month.

Organized by the gallery’s director, Philip Linhares, himself a one-time rod builder, painter and driver, the show contained a prize-winning street-rod, three motorcycles and a select assortment of painted helmets, gastanks and fenders, presented as examples of “Contemporary Folk Art.”

One might dispute whether the rods and cycles really constituted “folk art”; they are, after all, products of sophisticated technology, big money, sometimes big names, and where have all the “folk” gone, anyhow? The show, however, made a beautiful case for the hot-rod as art, with its closest relationship the more advanced trends in modern sculpture.

Like the finest examples of new sculpture. the machines are sleek abstractions of thrust and flight, in rich, glowing, Industrial-Age colors, the ultra-refined product of America’s long love affair with streamlining and functional form. The cycles especially retain a strongly organic basis, rearing up on radically extended front forks with the heroic grandeur of a bucking stallion, or more attenuated, with the airy, lithe grace of a leaping gazelle.

Even the most inert objects — the helmets and gas tanks, tumescent and streamlined, under deep glazes of metal-flake and murano paints — take the quality of contemporary icons, inspiring reverence and awe for the attributes they represent: Speed, power and — as one female spectator put it, “they’re the sexiest things I’ve seen in years.”

Fifty years ago, the Italian Futurists glorified the machine, its power and speed, in paintings and sculpture that primitively tried to reproduce the effect of movement in a movie-like sequence of successive views of the same object. In the Sixties, found objects are a commonplace in art. Art, industry and life overlap at countless points, and machines themselves now take their rightful place as superb works of kinetic sculpture.

In the context of a Southern California car (or “kar”) show, one gets not exactly a different impression, but a vast collage of impressions in which the hot rod as art forms only one, often minor, ingredient.

There is first, of course, the inevitable sense of synthetic life generated by ersatz sex that seems so basic a part of the Southern California landscape itself. Even at a safe remove from the Hollywood celluloid and video-tape commodity, there is always the industrial-scape of surreal Chirico-like buildings and massive towers rising above vast deserted wastelands, of technological processes functioning according to a life cycle and drives of their own.

Above the Long Beach harbor rise huge derricks and cranes, their tentacles groping against the horizon line like those of a giant insect come to inherit the earth. Thousands of recent arrived Volkswagens fill a vast parking lot like so many rows of eggs in a hatchery; a short distance away, massive mounds of junked cars stand near a machine that lifts, mauls, shreds and grinds them into tiny pellets, an industrial slaughterhouse.

Everywhere, there are the oil pumps, pumping constantly up and down in an eternal gang-bang on an impassive Mother Earth who never reaches climax, the smell of their sweat filling the air, producing the perpetual tunk-thunk of an amplified heart beat which curiously makes one think not of life, but death. As if in recognition of this, pumps and towers on the artificial islands off the city’s beach are surrounded by large panels cut in abstract designs and painted in pastel colors, modestly concealing them from view of the posh beach front hotels.

In this Frankenstein monster world of synthetic birth, death, and standardization, new concepts of beauty evolve — if there is going to be anything beautiful at all. The Custom Auto-Rama becomes a beauty pageant of the show girls, the painted ladies, the fashion plates, the blondes who have more fun and the girls who dare to be different.

Not all the rods and cycles have strictly feminine attributes; they are not only responsive, gratifying objects, but also extensions of the builders and drivers, nowhere more so than the low-slung racers in which the driver’s seat straddles the grinding differential while the car tapers to a pencil thin front-end of gleaming tie-rods and Honda-sized wheels; “it makes you feel twenty feet tall,” said one driver.

But whether sleekly feminine, made up in the colors of frosted lipsticks, ultra-masculine, or some hermaphroditic mixture of both, the hot rod and its offspring are the Technological Age’s Super-Swingers, its playgirls and playboys: extravagantly endowed, often brief-flowering, and, whether they have it or not, at least creating the image that they are built for comfort or built for speed.

The other main impression is extravagance, completely unfettered, anything goes. The Hot Rod esthetic represents a certain reaction against industrialized conformity and assembly-line standardization, but apart from a small element of traditional backyard craftsmanship and hobbyism, it is a reaction not of revolt, alienation or dropping out, but of oneupmanship.

Like the Jet Set and Hollywood syndromes, or the Rackets, the aim is not to change the system or withdraw from it, but to beat it at its own game, or to screw it, and ostentation and extravagance are the chief weapons. If speed is the name of the game, the custom cars will be faster; if it’s flashy paint jobs, they will be flashier. One sees only a small handful of Black builders and drivers; the Establishment status symbol is still the GTO. But the hot-rodding impulse is to go GTO one better.

There is extravagant beauty, itself often a by-product of larger extravagance — “30 gallons of orange flake paint,” says the sign, “40 coats of pink pearl under strato glass with fuschia flake and black panels.” There are candy apple reds, tangeries and apricots, chrome-plated everything. There is “The Golden Lady,” a cycle covered with $1,000 in 24-karat gold plate, all the way down to its exhausts and drive chain; the product of four years of part-time work by two partners in the antique business.

There is extravagant attention to detail in the individual displays — beds of spun glass, white pebbles and tree bark, snatches of Angel Hair carefully falling out a cycle’s exhausts, even a cover of actual grass carefully brought into the arena in sections and, of course, labeled “Yep, it’s real grass.” Extravagant good looks are accompanied by extravagant camp or sub-sophomoric corn: Cars are framed by pedestals bearing fake marble, pseudo-classic statuary, and artificial flowers; surrounded by potted palms. Or they stand on a floor littered with political posters and Coors beer cans, or they contain little diorama displays — the rear-window of one modified Volkswagen conspicuously framed a backseat still-life of Zig Zag papers, a waterpipe and roach.

There are extravagant trophies; every participant is awarded a “participation trophy,” a silvery lady with wings standing atop a globby ball; this is duplicated in escalating sizes for first, second and third awards in each of some thirty-five classes of competition, plus half a dozen special awards for upholstery, floral, lighting and over-all-display; the show’s chief promoter owns a trophy company. Most of the displays include a pile of such trophies from previous shows, perhaps more meaningful, perhaps not.

There is a bewildering combination of extravagant good taste and extravagant bad taste — the same hand that produces a 40-coat paint job can proceed to turn the whole thing into a blatant, mobile billboard with gaudy lettering promoting some custom paint shop.

There are extravagant gimmicks not readily apparent to the naked eye; most of the floor-huggers slung to an illegally low level are equipped with hydraulic lifts that can raise them automatically when a cop is spotted: some are wired all over with burglar alarms. The posh, deep lined interiors house custom stereos, TV’s and, in at leaest one case, a plug-in light show. And there are the “funny cars,” with stock bodies concealing huge, powerhouse racing engines.

The entire show is extravagantly eclectic, a crowded jumble of customs, rods, sports, classics, dune buggies, pick-ups, boats, trailers, two and three wheeler cylces, plus commercial booths housing upholstery displays, an “Afrodesia Boutique of teen fashions”; also for the teenagers, model cars and the new “Schwinn choppers,” bicycles that follow the latest trends in high air foil, extended front-end motorcycle design.

It combines elements of a beauty pageant, fashion show, trade fair and garden club display, and on top of it all is an extravaganza of continuous entertainment: “The Wick Lightworks, Valletta the Hypnotist, Hickey Thompson’s latest and fastest Chevy Powered Indy Car, race movies,” says a press release, in a breathless, soul-station DJ style which catches the extravagant flavor almost as well as Tom Wolfe; “Featuring the premier of Roth’s 1969 Radical Candy Wagon…Worth over three million dollars, all under one roof…Don’t miss this show as Standel celebrates its 15th year in music by presenting the most revolutionary solid state musical instrument and public address equipment available…All these and the Off-Road Vehicle show which will feature Dean Jefferies “KYOTE” dune buggy which was used in the movie “Changes” starring the “Monkees.” … All these and many more attractions are turning this show into the biggest show ever at the Long Beach Sports Arena. Just added attractions include the ModelRama Model Car Show, the Beauty Contest and the Custom Bicycle Show in which everyone can enter their (sic) bicycle.”

For all this, the hot rod esthetic is not strictly show biz, nor art, nor fashion, but a uniquely resilient aspect of Americana, rampantly eclectic and diverse, and at the same time relatively isolated from and oblivious to current cannons of taste and fashion. Its foundation is reflected in the language of the builders and drivers. a tongue devoted with unbelievable singleness of purpose to talk of fuel injection systems, magnetos, compression rations.

The Hot Rod subculture has had a tengential, off-on relationship with music subcultures — Elvis, Soul, Blue Grass; the Long Beach show included rock groups and a light show; yet the music is incidental, like the car radio. A few bell-bottoms and pin-stripes wandered about the arena, and paisleys and bareback frocks, but mostly it remains a T-shirt and slacks subculture, six-packs and Trojans, warm nights between drive-in parking lots.

Over the years, Hot Rods and Customs have profoundly influenced Detroit (dig the new Corvettes) and women’s cosmetics (frosted lipsticks) and there is a growing influence on more prestigious forms of art. Yet the Hot Rod Esthetic has flourished primarily without establishment attention: in the past twenty-five years, it has evolved from a do-it-yourself assemblage operation into a big money-making business and has created its own forms and institutions in a world of relative isolation and self-sufficiency, as impervious to the Establishment as the Establishment has been to it.

The Brancusis have been grease monkeys and body painters with names like Jesse Lopez, Bob Gonzales, Dean Lanza, Tommy the Greek and even Hells Angels King, Charley Barger. Its art capitals have been the outland towns east of Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay, obscure towns in the Sacramento Valley, Scottsdale, Arizona — place of vacant lots, hot weather and flat, straight roads. Its history is documented in back issues of such magazines as Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding and Modern Cycle; the “galleries” have been garages and shops, drag strips, the main streets of little towns on Friday nights, plus the big show places like the annual Oakland Grand National and its various imitators.

The Hot Rod Esthetic could survive and grow in relative independence and self-sufficiency mainly because it has always been a highly functional esthetic. It is totally inseparable from mechanics and engineering; no matter how far out their forms, rods, roadsters and cycles must function as rods, roadsters and cycles, and they loose show-points if they don’t. Most of the forms have been governed by speed, or at least the appearance of speed.

It is also totally inseparable from highly functional elements of personal psychology. The machine is an extension of the body, and of the ego; its various adornments, like the personal adornment among primitive people, flow from a concern for both beauty and staetus — and, therefore, also for fashion. Basically, of course, the Hot Rod Esthetic is an expression of sex; it erupted, grew and flourished because it had to. Like Rock music, the Hot Rod Esthetic is about fucking.

Hot rod building has already passed through at least two distinct historical phases, and is perhaps near the end of a third. It was launched with the stripped down jalopies that sprung up after World War II, largely around Los Angeles, when GI’s were coming back home and old model cars and car bodies were still common and cheap.

In many ways, it paralleled the assemblage process of junk sculpture; you found an old Model A or T body in one junk yard, a ’32 Ford frame in another, installed a Cadillac grille, a ’39 transmission, a ’41 rear end and a new V-8 motor. You modified to suit your taste, lowering the rear end, molding the fenders, putting special louvres in the hood. There were rods channeled onto the frame and high boys that sat above it. Often, the forms followed those of the big racing cars; they were painted in glossy purple or black laquers.

The development of the Hot Rod Esthetic has been governed largely by changes in technology. By the early Fifties, old jalopies were no longer easy to find at a reasonable price; many had come to an early demise in short-lived racting careers. Detroit, meanwhile, had introduced a new look in its models, the streamlined fishback and other design features, themselves influenced, at least in part, by racing cars.

Thus, builders began customizing the newer model cars, chopping down tops, restyling interiors, stripping off chrome and producing the “lead sleds” which, beneath a coating of new metallic paints and Candy Apple, trundled around with several hundred pounds of lead filling up their seams. The art of striping became popular–stars were painted on fuel tank lids, organic designs and flames streaked down the sides lapping at the Buick holes. The squared-off, angular, masculine look of the old jalopies gave way to a sleek, feminine appearance. And customizing and building began growing out of the backyard into a lucrative, commercial enterprise, headed by names like George and Sam Barris in Los Angeles.

The third revolution came with the development of plastic and fiberglass. Builders were no longer limited to variations on themes out of Detroit; entire bodies could be cast in almost any form from a single piece of lightweight fiberglass; the heavy lead seams were replaced by plastic putties. There were new kinds of paints–by the late Fifties, metal-flaking, and in the Sixties, muranos, which achieve a depth and richness comparable to enamelling.

At present, the Hot Rod Esthetic stands perhaps at the end of one era and the brink of another. On one hand, in the Sixties, big business elements have become a predominant force in Hot Rod building. Bodies are pre-fabricated, and you simply supply your own frame, motor and rear-end. There are still enough different styles, and combinations of elements, to ensure that no two rods look alike, and you do what you like with painting and decorating; still, there is a quality of sameness about many of the current rods, a hermaphroditic look combining elements of the old jalopy and the customized models of the Fifties.

The car business has also become show business under the aegis of such builders as Big Daddy Roth, providing custom jobs for movie stars, street rods that rarely get outside of showrooms, and yielding a whole sub-crop of teen-age exploitation industries — model cars, sweatshirts, motorcycle movies.

On the other hand, a new generation of builders is coming up, working largely in the independent tradition of the old backyard builders, but with a high degree of sophistication and all kinds of new materials. One of the major figures among these is Art Himsl, whose car took first award among Street-Rod Phaetons in this year’s 20th annual Oakland Grand National Roaster Show and was the one car included in the San Francisco Art Institute’s show.

It uses a 1916 Dodge touring body which Himsl, in the old tradition, found himself, “lying in a bunch of weeds near the Oregon border.” But it sits atop an all aluminum frame, contains a Chevrolet Corvette 327 engine and is gloriously covered with metalflake paint, a flame motif in seven colors.

At Long Beach, the most noticeable trend was a revival of customizing, of course with newer model stocks. The show had its share of plexi-glass replicas of T’s and other classics, along with a few brilliantly painted originals. Big Daddy Roth’s new show model was in the Pop Monster tradition, a three-wheeled adaptation of a former Police cycle, with a gleaming smooth paint job of stucco-like stipling, its handlebarbase painted with grotesque teeth and two blood-shot eyes; it pulls a two-seat trailer, filled with pennycandies and lollipops.

The major trend, however, was a kind of “minimal” direction — “mild custom,” as the classification sheet puts it, only slightly modified new stock cars with the emphasis on paint jobs and plush upholstering. Flames and stripes were largely Out; so was spiderwebbing; In were silhouetted doilie patterns spray-painted through stencils of old lace table-cloth.

There is something a little precious about this bit, and the show’s really most impressive cars were the mildly customized new stocks in rich, solid colors — or nearly solid, as the best of them contain subtle shadowing — purple or blue — or are formed of layer-on-layer of pearlescent paint–“made from ground-up ablone and clam shells,” said one owner; anyway, they reflect all of a sea shell’s fine nuances of shading and light.

Accompanying all this were depressing reminders of increasing big biz specialization. One still sees the before-and-after polaroid snapshots depicting the transformation of a junked jalopy into the mint-condition rod in front of you; but mostly there are signs with movie-like lists of credits: “Paint by Junior’s House of Color,” “Interior by House of David,” and on down to the chrome plating on the wheels.

Ultimately, the whole trip gets to be a bit much, and the functional simplicity of the dune buggies becomes a refreshing contrast, like walking out of a club loaded with bottomless dancers and topless waitresses to see an attractive, simply dressed chick walking down the street. Even more refreshing was a group of restored old Vincent motorcycles on display in a back corridor, representing, no doubt, a conservative trend, but somehow a welcome purity and integrity.

Discontinued several years ago by a British firm now in the business of making airplanes, the Vincent is basically an old-fashioned cycle, with the design of a more graceful Harley. The restored jobs, uniformly painted in baked black enamel, have a look of honest efficiency and backyard craftsmanship. The display also included a weird rare model, imported from Barbados, called “The Black Knight.” Big, looming and covered with black plating like a huge armadillo, it is supposed to be “the fastest and quickest of all drag bikes”; it would be the scariest sight imaginable to meet on the road.

Ultimately, you also conclude that kustom kars and choppers come off best in small, select doses, like those on display at the San Francisco Art Institute. The strength of this show was not in paint jobs and headliners, but in formal innovations, particularly among the cycles. The trend toward choppers is itself a relatively recent development; like everyone else, many hard core rodsters have discovered that cycles are more fun to ride, and are one of the few remaining forms of transportation which — like the horse — still offers some direct relationship to your environment.

The cycle has undergone a phase of development similar to that of the car, from the heavy-duty, expolice machines of the Hell’s Angels and Gypsy Jokers into super-crafted, flawless choppers. A custom built 1959 Harley Sportster by Bob Westbrook was one of the Institute show’s most beautifully heroic specimens, in yellow muranox pearlescent paint and lime green flames, rearing up on extended front forks. Mike Cooper’s custom cycle approached pure sculpture. Significantly, Cooper is a kinetic sculptor, and his cycle is part of the personal collection of Fletcher Benton, one of the major kinetic sculptors in the country.

Linhares emphasized that hotrodders and artists have been influencing one another in subtle, sometimes incalculable ways, for several years. “New paints and plastics, developed by hot-rod builders, are now used by painters and sculptors. And the builders are being recognized as artists by the same young painters and sculptors.”

He enumerated a surprising number of artists on the Institute’s faculty who have had some kind of hot-rodding background; in the light of this, it is possible to detect some fascinating influences — the influence of hot-rod striping, for example, in the painting of Norman Stiegelmeier. And Linhares noted that Art Himsl is presently giving informal lessons to one or two faculty artists in advanced techniques of hot-rod style painting — sprayed stencils, sipderwebbing, and other techniques that have transformed helmets, gas tanks and fenders into marvels of painted sculpture.

Shows at the San Francisco Art Institute are usually highly influential. This one might mark a turning point in the relationship of hot-rodding and fine art; Himsl remarked it was the first time he had seen one of his cars properly displayed. A strong sense of art would be a healthy antidote to the commercial and show-biz aspects which dominated at Long Beach.

One hopes that if rods and choppers develop into something more consciously sculptural, they will not neglect the chrome-plated powerhouses that create the deafening roar as the machines roar out of an arena on a show’s last day. But after talking with the builders and the drivers, these would seem little danger at that.

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