Standing at the Gates of the West: So-Cal Hot Rodding and the WarS

To Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the Gates of the West may have been New York City. Or Saint Louis. Or San Francisco, where they holed up to record overdubs and vocal tracks for Give 'Em Enough Rope with Sandy "More Cowbell" Pearlman. But for many returning soldiers at the end of World War II, the Gates of the West were the breakwaters of San Pedro Bay, at the dangling, southwesterly tip of Los Angeles. Last night, Kasey Dubspeed and I did a runner from the coast up to Cole Coonce's place in Eagle Rock (or "Buzzard Boulder," as Cole perennially refers to it) for his annual Memorial Day barbeque. Cole's backyard is somehow an odd nexus of Los Angeles culture of the city's Golden Age. I spent much of the evening chatting with fashion-and-film-industry people, but at Cole's, one may just as likely end up in a conversation with a Top Fuel driver, a cycling fanatic or a random person who saw the Germs like 48 times and lived to tell the tale. The Second War, as Mike Watt refers to it, gave the world Los Angeles — a diverse, wonderful, maddening, depressing, stunning, sick megalopolis. The GIs who stepped off the boat here after the cessation of hostilities gave us hot rodding.

As I've stated before, hot rods were one of the first things that captured my imagination as a child. T-Buckets were common in Sacramento in those days, and I grew up a mile from what was the largest speed shop in Northern California: Tognotti's Auto World. Now and then, my dad would go up there to pick up a mundane part for our Belvedere or Catalina and I'd stare at the Weiand blowers on the wall and wished he was buying one of those; that it'd stick through the hood of the oxidized Pontiac that his students in the ghetto referred to as "Mr. Johnson's rustproof car."

The girl down the street, my first kiss, had a couple of older brothers who bought, crashed and sold musclecars like it was nothing. Years after they left home, there was still an Edelbrock sticker in her mom's garage window. Spun your SS396 Chevelle into a light pole? No problem. You could pick up a GTO next week for under a grand, and living at home with mom as a teenager, it was no problem. The guys who'd picked them up ten years before had wives. They'd become sensible.

But it was the same thing with the rodders after the war. They came home. Got off the boat in San Pedro. Bought homes in Burbank, Bellflower and Long Beach. Everyone had a used car. And in '47, when automotive production began again, 1930s cars were being offloaded; the new now thing was required immediately. And even with that, Ford was on the verge of coming apart at the seams until '49, when they dropped the archetypical shoebox, one of the most important cars in the company's history. But the mechanics who came home from the airfields in Okinawa, Truk, Tarawa and England gravitated here, flush with skills honed working on Merlins and Wasp Majors, some of the most powerful reciprocating engines ever built. They directly benefited from being up close and personal with the bleeding edge of accelerated powertrain technology, with access to plenty of war-surplus scrap. Drop tanks that hadn't been jettisoned when a Focke-Wulf 190 came into view became raw fodder for the construction of Land Speed Record vehicles.

For a lot of guys who came home, it was something to do. They'd gone out and been part of something impossible; the subjugation of two aggressors who'd had a flaming head start on us. And they pulled it off in less time than we've been in Iraq. Asses kicked; names taken. Is it any wonder that they came back and started wondering how they could apply both their bravado and skills to their cars?

The Big Three actually picked up on this pretty early on, and speed companies like Iskenderian did a lot of backdoor development work for the major automakers. For the small cam-grinders and manifold manufacturers of the world, who were in with the guys on the lakes and the dragstrips, it was a boon, as they got access to the latest engines from Detroit. Detroit, however, got something far more valuable — bona-fide ears to the street that served them well a decade-and-a-half later at the beginning of the musclecar era.

My uncle is in his 70s now, and his days in retirement are spent hanging out, wrenching on a couple of Deuces and a Model A panel. When I saw him over Easter, he said to me, "Dave, do you think the hot rod thing is falling off? Because it seems like it to me."

Very few people into rods are under 30 these days. Inexpensive, serviceable used iron is too scarce, and good-quality aftermarket stuff is too pricey. Hot rods were anachronisms when they first happened. But for guys my age and older, they were always around. Now, they are anachronisms, full-stop. They're not so much a shared cultural touchstone, but rather a touchstone of a bygone era.

That said, limiting the hot-rod spirit to pre-'49 cars seems silly these days. I was talking to Richard Rawlings last week. He picked up an old Auburn and is mechanically restoring it and modifying it, but basically leaving the body as is. He wants to take it to Pebble Beach just to fuck with people's perceptions (knowing full-well it'd never end up on the green at the Concours). I told him that he should put a Ford dash in it. Rawlings got the joke, but I realized that these days, there are fewer and fewer people who would. Installing an Auburn dash in a '30s Ford was a common modification for guys who wanted to add a little class to their rides. It's a funny in-joke between two guys of a dwindling number.

Nevertheless, those soldiers who stepped off the boat in Southern California after the war, or the men and women who came down here seeking work at the plants from El Segundo to San Diego; who picked up an after-school job at a neighborhood machine shop that supplied those plants as a way to buy his first car? We have those guys to thank for the spirit of hot rodding.

I have little use for the blanket-propagandist term, "The Greatest Generation." I absolutely hate it when I get one of those, "If you can speak English, thank a veteran" mass e-mails. It smacks of grotesque, ignorant jingoism. If I'm giving thanks to people for the language that allows me to make my living, I thank the Indo-Europeans, Noah Webster, generations of OED staffers, William Shakespeare, various Anglo-Saxons, Saxon and my mom and dad. Plus, although it's rusty now, I suppose I should thank Otto von Bismarck for spearheading the standardization of the German language; a codification that allowed a spastic Austrian with funny facial hair to rally a nation to a sinister end through propaganda and terror.

However, geopolitics, thumbs in the eyes of those who venerate our current administration and rah-rah Americanism aside, if you're driving a modified car today, thank a veteran.

"Fast as a Shark" is a weekly electronic broadside aimed at what has been historically right and terribly wrong with the autmotive industry and culture. And yeah, we're pretty sure Udo Dirkschneider never flew an Me 163. Rocket Flea Skyward!

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