From: A 1950s Rod & Custom Builder's

Dream Book

By Albert Drake

I doubt that anyone ever read the L. L. Bean outdoor equipment catalog or the FAO Schwartz toy catalog with the level of excitement that I felt reading the ads in early rod magazines from a copy of the Eastern Auto catalog. Even today, thirty years later, I can experience a tinge of that old excitement when I peruse a thumb-worn copy of a 1948 Hot Rod.
First, it was all new to me. I didn't know anything about cars, and so I read the ads not to buy so much as to learn. I learned lots of little things, like the difference between a 1940 and a 1941 Ford dash, or a Stromberg and a Chandler-Groves carburetor. The ads couldn't teach me how to rebuild a carburetor, but they told me the names, and learning the name of anything is the first big step in becoming knowledgeable. Primitive tribes believed that something didn't exist unless it had a name, and that if you knew its name you could call it into existence; therefore, a hunter would invoke the name of the animal he hoped to kill so that it would appear before him to be killed. That process was certainly true for me, a fifteen-year old kid yearning and dreaming about cars and wanting more than anything to name one, to call it into existence.

Second, I had the feeling that not only was hot rodding new to me, it was new to most people. Rodding was thriving in Southern California, but just getting started in my area-- or so I thought. At any rate, as a sport it wasn't established, the rules hadn't been written; it was like a baby taking its first steps, and that moment is terribly exciting.

There was the freedom of the new, and yet almost from the start I felt that there were certain things that one did and did not do. For example, one did put solid side panels on a rod, but one did not mount chrome horns on the hood! How did I know? Well, from reading the same magazines that those ads appeared in. The feature stories showed me the desirable, the acceptable way to build a car and, by contrast, showed me what to avoid. If I saw a '38 Ford coupe with venetian blinds in the back window I'd ask myself whether I had ever seen that done in a car in a magazine. Of course I: hadn't! Would Bob Pierson or Jack Calori run venetian blinds in their '36 Ford three-window coupes? Heck no! That's like asking whether the Lone Ranger would use lead bullets!

Little by little I accumulated knowledge through the ads until I knew what I wanted: a '32 Ford grille, a pair of '39 Ford taillights, a cute little chrome license plate light. The sport was new, but already certain things had established themselves as traditional.

Finally, I enjoyed reading the ads because I liked the shapes and textures of the items pictured. The chrome dash knobs, the sleek curve of an aluminum velocity stack, the beehive shape of a Mack Hellings air cleaner. I loved to study the cars in the ads and see what the company was selling: solid side panels, skirts, grille panels, spotlights. There were flowing exhaust headers, Edmunds cast aluminum oil bath air cleaners, lightweight flywheels, floating bar grilles sleek as flying wings, fiberglass-packed mufflers, and a full line of Stewart-Warner gauges. Shell often ran full-page ads packed with things I needed, from dropped axles to adjustable tappets to stroker kits. He also sold used parts and speed equipment ranging from new '32 Ford center crossmembers to a '32 roadster body (only $50) complete two port Riley OHV engine ($175).

Looking back, I find the prices incredibly low. I put a 1940 Ford dash in my roadster so I bought a to a to a chrome plated instrument panel to replace the plastic panel; it cost $6.50, From F. E. Zimmer I ordered forty-eight chrome head nuts--these were chrome plated brass, not tinny slip-on covers-for only ten cents each. Zimmer also sold complete column shift installation kits, which included everything but the transmission, for only $23. Dropped axles were $15. A one-eighth stroker crank- shaft was $15 exchange. I was working in a theater for only fifty cents an hour, but these prices did not seem excessive

Our local auto supply stores had some of these items, but I preferred whenever possible to buy through the mail. Those sellers were in places like Los Angeles and Encino, and when I bought from them I felt as though I bad my finger on the pulse of the hot rod industry. And I was a real sucker for their rhetoric: "Beautiful glistening chrome be9u- ties of solid brass. Replace worn-out, drab-looking plastic knobs on radio, choke, throttle, etc." I looked at the dash knob on my father's 1942 Lincoln Zephyr and was dissatisfied by their drabness, I looked at the photo of Jack Calori's '36 Ford coupe's interior and saw nothing drab there: the rich Cohyde rolled and pleated seats and doors, the six Stewart-Warner gauges, the white deluxe '49 Ford steering wheel, and the row of chrome-plated custom dash knobs, exactly like the ones shown in the ad! That was what my father's car needed, I thought, and what he needed to spice up his drab life. Chrome knobs! I immediately sent for six (and I think I still have them).

I bought what I could afford, wished I: could afford more, but never felt resentful that I couldn't. There was a great sense of pleasure in looking at the ads. Even the names had a power, and demanded to be chanted: Edelbrock, Navarro, Cyclone, Belond, Tattersfield, Apple- ton, Thickstun, Iskendarian, Sharp, Evans, Harman and Collins, Edmunds, Offenhauser. That's poetry! I'11 try it one more time, naming the names, and perhaps I'11 be able to invoke the actual, pulling back through time the equipment those names represent. Listen. ...

c Albert Drake, 1985
ISBN 0-926892-13-7
All rights reserved. With the exception of quoting passages for the purpose of reviews, no part of this publication may be reproduced without prior written permission of the publisher.

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