Cars, music and kitsch move a hobby into the mainstream
By Michael A. Stusser
It's a thing of beauty from another era: jet black with orange flames smoking on the hood, and, underneath, a finely tuned engine. This 1941 Chevy two-door might have started its life as gradpa's ride, but after being fully restored and revamped by Scott Morgan of Scott's Shop-a restoration shop in Preston-it's better than new. Although we've come a long way since Happy Days, hot-rod culture is back-and with it, a wave of nostalgia for vintage cars, rockabilly music and kitschy '50s memorabilia. But this movement does have a distinctive 21st-century twist. According to Morgan, custom rods looked great in the old days-but they didn't necessarily work. "Anyone who was mechanically inclined would look at those trailer queens and say, 'Where's the fuel line?' Today we can actually have the cool cars and make 'em drive." Comfort is also key for hot-rod enthusiasts, who are adding features such as air conditioning, heat, eclectic windows, plush-lined trunks, power steering and even fuel-injection systems. When they've done, these suckers turn heads and haul ass. Scott Barron, owner of Speed Merchant, a hot-rod shop in Sultan, sees a turnaround in hot-rod culture from an underground hobby to a mainstream movement. "We used to run around in black primered cars and do some street racing. Now there are shows on the Discovery Channel, and mags catering toward the guy who wants to build a hot rod and look dangerous-for only 10 grand."
It's not just about chrome, of course. Car enthusiasts want to party like it's...well, 1955. The Goodguys hot-rod event at the Puyallup Fairgrounds each July attracts more than 2,000 classic-car owners for music, rod-gazing and hanging out. And classic-car owners for music, rod-gazing and hanging out. And don't be surprised if you spot some James Dean and Marylin Monroe look-alikes-attendees like to dress the part.
Music is an important part of this culture, with styles such as twang, psycho-billy and California surf-a wild mix that's part alt-country, and part Stray Cats. In Seattle's hot-rod circles, one name you might hear is D.A. Sebasstian, who owns local record label and TV-and film-production studio Go-Kustom. In addition to playing with Kill Switch...Klick, a rockabilly band*, Sebasstian is directing a 2005 black and white B-budget movie, Hot Rod Girls Save the World, a melange of music ( most of the actors are Seattle musicians), horror flicks, dames and camp. Seattle bands DragStrip Riot and the Dirty Birds, who combine their love of hot rods with '50s-style tunes, are featured on the soundtrack; both bands jam regularly at local taverns such as the Tractor and the Sunset. (For more on this style of music, tune in to KEXP's Shake the Shack show, 6 to 9pm. on Fridays at 90.3 FM.)
Almost as quintessential as the music are the girls: Bettie Page pinups and Alberto Vargas' "Vargas girls," which have adorned the walls of car shops, army barracks and adolescent bedrooms for decades. "You can put up a pinup picture on your wall," notes Sebasstian, "and your wife or girlfriend won't beat you. The pinup is more reserved. She doesn't give it all away."
You can find those pin-up paintings and other hot rod kitsch and retro cocktail-culture-inspired works at Belltown's Roq La Rue Gallery. Recent exhibits have included The Pin Up Show, which featured scantily-clad portraits from Lisa Petrucci and Miles Thompson, and Monsters A Go-Go, a show devoted to kooky, campy monsters of yesteryear that displayed the work of nationally known artists such as Shag, Pooch and Joe Vaux. "Flaming, chopping, pinstriping, car imagery-it all sprang from the '50s and '60s hot-rod movement," says gallery owner Kirsten Anderson. "There's a total fetishization of cultural icons at work: dice, cars, martinis, wrenches, skulls, flames."
Oh, and if the nostalgia doesn't grab you, think about this: In 1955, a classic-but-clunky cherry Chevy sold for $2,200. Today, the old gal will fetch a cool $60,000. As the Fonz used to say, "Aaaaayhh!" (Thumbs up...)
Reprinted from Seattle Magazine
©2005 Seattle Magazine
*Rockabilly Band? Should read Post-Punk or Industrial Electronica Band.