The Kustom Kar Show
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.