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The Road Devil's Car Club

NY Times

From the New York times Oct 1st, 2006

No Tangerine Flake, Baby: Hot Rods Go Back to Basic Black

Skulls have long been popular in hot rod culture.

By PHIL PATTON Published: October 1, 2006

LIKE many of those who created it in 1950's and 60's garages, the postwar hot rod culture has grown mature, rich and rather respectable. In place of personalized jalopies cobbled together with cannibalized parts, many modern hot rods flaunt the latest electronic toys, custom fiberglass bodywork and nearly fluorescent paint. High-end customizers like Boyd Coddington are television celebrities, building costly cars on camera for wealthy collectors.


Steve Gill, a Road Devils member from Clifton, N.J., with his '29 Ford Model A.

 

In counterpoint, like Goths amid the temples of Rome, a growing movement of hot rodders is taking the hobby back to its greasy, barebones basics. Their rough and ragged cars, often called rat rods, wear matte black and gray primer and roll out on steel wheels wearing wide whitewall tires.

Clubs of rat rodders are flourishing, and shows of these old-style, do-it-yourself cars — part of a growing movement for traditional hot rods and Kustom Kulture — are finding large new audiences.

Rat rods could also be called roots rods, since they often feature the stripped-down, hoodless and fender-free look of cars that were popular among early hot rodders.

As the previous generation of enthusiasts has aged — look around at events like the annual Oakland roadster show in California — the hobby had seemed in danger of eventually dying out. But goth-inspired rat rods bring a younger crowd drawn to the hobby's unpretentious beginnings.

They also reflect a reaction to the extreme commercialization of customization that began in the 1990's, as collectors snapped up finely wrought cars created by Mr. Coddington, Chip Foose and others.

“Some take the name rat rod as an insult, but we are proud of it,” said Jeff Mrozak, president of the New Jersey branch of the Road Devils Car Club. “We are poor-boy rodders with attitude. All of our cars are true hot rods. They may not be bright and shiny, but they go.”

On a recent lovely Sunday afternoon, Mr. Mrozak and some of the group's nine members were hanging out at the Devils' clubhouse, a three-bay garage in West Orange, N.J. A black 1954 Chevy sat beside a 1948 Ford F1 pickup undergoing work. With burbling engine noise, two other members rolled up in battered prewar Fords, one with trumpet horn exhausts projecting from its naked V-8, the other with rust holes in its rear deck and spider-web paint accents.

The New Jersey rodders are one of several branches of the Road Devils. The group was founded in 1946 in Southern California by returning veterans, then fell into decline before being revived in Ohio in 1997. Now there are branches in Europe. Many other hot rod clubs show a similar pattern of decline and revival.

“We are big on creating true customs with our cars,” said Mr. Mrozak, whose own 1949 Ford was lowered three inches and wears a 1955 De Soto grille and a louvered hood. He plans to swap the Ford's flathead engine for a more powerful motor.

The clubs usually include both pure hot rods, stripped-down vehicles with an emphasis on power and speed, and “kool kustoms,” which are modified production models that stress appearance and style. The K's are meaningfully flip, suggesting the patina of irony that suffuses the movement. Some cars fit both categories.

For rat rodders, billet aluminum has become a symbol and something to avoid. Essentially a large chunk of aluminum, it is milled on computer-driven machines to produce parts and wheels for the gleaming new hot rods that these traditionalists perceive as effete. Traditional rods, in contrast, are all about steel that can be hand-cut, bent and welded by the owner. These cars are free of aluminum and the modern technology that comes with it, and thus billetproof.

On the same weekend that the Road Devils gathered in New Jersey, one of the largest shows of rat rods and similar cars took place in Antioch, Calif., about 40 miles east of San Francisco. The first Billetproof show, in 1997, attracted 26 cars. It has since outgrown several sites, and this year included more than 800 vehicles.

Billetproof was founded by Kirk Jones, a graphic designer, and Jay Ward, who later joined Pixar and was in charge of creating characters for “Cars,” the studio's recent animated film.

The traditionalists at Billetproof emphasize the hands-on side of hot rodding. They deride the expensive cars created in recent years as “trailer queens” and “midlife crisis fluffmobiles” and disdain digital gauges and fiberglass parts.

At Billetproof show, a '23 Ford in plain 40's hot rod style.

Mr. Ward and Jones began the show with a self-deprecating air — Billetproof calls itself “the world's least important car show” — but its ideals are firmly held. The award categories include Body Basher, for innovative body modifications; Odd Rod, for the best car from an extinct automaker; and Jive Bomber, for the most ragged entry.

Billetproof admits only cars from before 1964, and the Road Devils limit members to pre-1960 models. For many clubs and shows, the dividing line is 1964, the year the Ford Mustang went on sale. From the pony car craze a new muscle car scene arose — a culture very different from this one.

Hot rodding was burned into pop culture by the music of the Beach Boys and the 1973 film “American Graffiti.” The quintessential hot rod platform is probably the 1932 Ford coupe, the “little deuce coupe” of the Beach Boys song.

Hot rod culture was also recognized as early as 1968 as an American folk art, at least on the West Coast, in several museum shows curated by Phil Linares of the Oakland Museum of California. For younger drivers, hot rodding is history waiting to be rediscovered and revived.

The Road Devils sometimes attend shows in Las Vegas or California, like Billetproof. They hold two gatherings of their own each year, one in June and one around Halloween.

Hanging around the Road Devils or another club of rat rodders is like stepping into a black-and-white world. Not only are most of the cars monochrome, save for the occasional accent of painted flames, but their owners tend to dress in black T-shirts, black Dickies pants and black work boots. White socks can pass, akin to the wide whitewalls common on rat rods. (Even some contemporary photos on club Web sites were shot in back and white.)

Rat rodders favor hairdos as sculptured as their fenders, suggesting early Johnny Cash or characters from “In Cold Blood.” They listen to rockabilly music — the garage was filled with the sounds of Gene Vincent and Johnny Burnette — from an iPod, one of the few nonblack objects in the place.

The names of the clubs sound like biker gangs and rock bands. Many hot rod clubs support specific bands, who appear at their gatherings. The Road Devils, for instance, are friends with the Turbo A.C.'s and the Tombstone Brawlers, two psychobilly bands. (Psychobilly is rockabilly music infused with doses of punk and grunge.)

The club's elaborate Web site ( roaddevilsnj.com ) includes images of members' tattoos, many showing the club's devil-face logo. Most members have tattoos, but the Road Devils do not require them, Mr. Mrozak said, as some clubs do. The Web site also offers links to a sort of women's auxiliary of pinup girls in Betty Page style.

Most club members are men, though there are exceptions like the Piston Packin' Mamas, an all-women group in Seattle.

In August, the Road Devils joined another club, the Rumblers, for a parking-lot show called Kustom Kills and Hot Rod Thrills, under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Williamsburg. The Rumblers have seven chapters across the country and two in Europe. The Brooklyn gathering began in 2001 and includes Betty Page lookalikes drinking in a nearby bar called Union Pool.

Rat rodders tend to be in their 20's or 30's, and many work in media or the visual arts; Mr. Mrozak runs an art gallery and store. With names like the Stranglers and Beatniks, and logos formed of elements like skulls and crossed wrenches, or dice and cards, the clubs display varying degrees of attitude and a strong feel for graphics. But the social side is the bedrock of the movement. “We spend all our time hanging out,” Mr. Mrozak said. “We are family.”

For all the grit and grease, the Road Devils are surprisingly systematic in operation and organization. The club's members greet one another with elaborate handshakes and hugs. New prospects must audition for three months before the club votes on their admission. Mr. Mzorak printed up a full agenda for the Sunday club meeting, complete with an outline (divided by Roman numerals) that would impress a middle school English teacher. One important item on the schedule: Halloween Havoc, set for the Clash bar in Clifton, N. J., on Oct. 28.

Many rat rodders were inspired by spending time as children with fathers who had hot rods. Mr. Ward grew up watching his father race cars in Kansas City, Mo. He was inspired to create Billetproof to reassert the importance of cheap, hands-on hot rodding, but he stepped down from running the show in 2002 because, he said, it had grown too large and he no longer had time for it.

As a member of a group called the Vultures he is now involved with Asphalt Unlimited, a show in which participation is by invitation only. Mr. Ward even created a hot rod character for “Cars” — a '32 Ford named Josephine — that was cut from the final version. If there is a “Cars 2,” Josephine may return.

Some clubs have father-and-son members. For Mr. Mzorak, the relationship was different. He was inspired in part by his mother, who raced for pinks — winner takes title to the losing car — when he was growing up in the Ironbound section of Newark.


 

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