Discussion: Searching For The</br> Lost Soul Of The Automobile
Wandering The GNRS

The headlines are bleak: war, terror, environmental disaster. The Doomsday clock ticked forward two minutes recently, bringing the world closer to the brink than any time since the height of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the pundits are lamenting the disintegration of community; a modern era where technology promises connectivity, yet, in an age of personal branding, results in a society that lacks togetherness – punctuated by selfies, newsfeeds and the lonely fear of missing out.

It’s enough to drive anyone to nostalgia; a sentimental look backwards to a simpler time when kids ate homemade apple pie and played outside, and people used the phone to, you know, talk to each other. And if cars are a reflection of our culture, then the enduring appeal of vintage and retro machines should come as no surprise.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0785

I was pondering these questions the other day as I walked the halls of the Pomona Fairplex, the home of the Grand National Roadster Show. Now in its 66th year, it’s the oldest continuously running indoor auto show in the world. It’s one of the most important events on the global rod and custom calendar.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0711

Like the cars on display, the GNRS itself is a vestige from another era – a time when hot rods and customs were the center point of teen and young adult life. It could be argued that the hot rod has not been a center point of young adult life since the advent of the muscle car in the early to mid ‘60s. Today, it seems that hardly a day goes by when an auto manufacturer isn’t mourning the loss of that era – even as many companies produce cars that seem little more than a transportation appliance; a means to travel from A to B, stripped of soul and absent of passion.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0766

So what is the point of these old cars then? Are they the embodiment of nostalgia for an older generation seeking a return to lost youth? Or do these machines actually contain far more heart and soul that any new mass-produced car could hope to possess?

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0836

Consider that these rods and customs are part of an alternative lifestyle: a way for car enthusiasts who are feeling they want to experience and express a completely different definition of what a car can and should be. Many of the people who build these cars were not alive back in the ‘40s, ‘50s or even the ‘60s. They don’t remember the glory days. Yet here they are, reimagining and rebuilding old cars as art forms and symbols of personal expression.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0863

In today’s disposable car world, hot rodders and custom culture enthusiasts are participants in an international counter-culture. These are artisans who are crafting their own machines.

It is the opposite of consumer culture. Rather than throwing something away, these artisans are customizing and reinventing. What if we all kept our current cars for the next 30 years and each continued to rebuild and reinvent them every few years?

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3769

In studying this photo, we see that these old machines were indeed incredible statements of design, engineering and aesthetics. Yes, they are reminders of bygone eras. We get a sense of simpler, less complicated times which to look at now, appear both innocent and naive at the same time.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0765

The customs themselves are great symbols of how bullish and powerful Detroit once was. These giant road yachts were at one time symbols of the seeming invincibility of America’s auto manufacturers. And those who customized these cars in the ‘50s went on to influence the actual design of early ‘60s models.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3788

It was the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and the birth of international youth culture as we know it. The future was bright and for a time, people believed that an incredible utopia was but a few years away. Elvis was young, gasoline was cheap and the freeways were new. The future was coming and, when it arrived, we would all drive flying cars and live our perfect nuclear lives.

Right? Wait: it’s 2015. Where’s my jet pack?

But that’s beside the point. These big American machines unto themselves are completely magnificent. These custom lead sleds are now pure expressions of the design and craftsmanship of the rodders who built them.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0802

And when you really examine these machines at the GNRS, you see that very few of them are exact replicas of the machines that roamed the streets of America back in the day. Many feature modern touches and forward-thinking style decisions; they are so much more than just reimaginations of old people’s glory years.

Case in point: Air ride was not used on street machines in the 1950s. Customs were static dropped. Today’s laying frame is a remix of sorts, the automotive equivalent of a hipster in an Edwardian-style mustache or a 1940s pompadour. It’s a nod to the past, while still being fresh. It’s creative cultural sampling that results in something new.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0856

To my eye, this is much more than nostalgia. It’s an alternative vision of what a car can be – the automobile of the artisan, builder and the creative.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0774

Look at this sled, then picture the dystopian morning commute of 2015: lanes of near-identical plastic boxes on wheels. Choose a headlight shape, a logo and the designing’s done; the rest is pretty much the same.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0718

Many details you see on these cars will make their way to other areas of car culture and custom builds in the coming years. Colours, textures, materials – any of these trends start right here in the hot rod and custom scene. This movement has been going on for decades. Metal flake, shaved engine bays, chrome plating, patina and matte paint all started first in the world of hot rods and customs.

Old Vs New
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0732

As I walked the show floor I decided to really start looking at how each of the car’s builders were expressing their individual sampling of the old. Some of the cars on offer were straight-up relics of the past, rescued from a barn or a field and brought back to life while proudly showing off their patinas, cracked surfaces and rotting skins.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0800

These are the grand elders of the GNRS – veteran survivors that car culture fans just have to give respect to. They have lasted for generations, maybe through luck, neglect or perhaps even love. They command our respect and adoration.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3791

This kind of texture and patina simply cannot be manufactured or contrived.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0893

You only get to look like an old warrior, by being an old warrior. No amount of tattooing or testosterone-fueled bodybuilding will replace the bulk and battle scars of a real fighter.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0857

And then I started to wonder to myself: just how many of these textured fighters were indeed real? I have heard of some fiberglass hot rods weathered with faux patinas. Were some of these apparent warriors manufactured and styled to look this way?

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0759

You could start to question the authenticity at these deliberately worn-out logos. Is it just a contrivance, or is it just an aesthetic style decision? We don’t balk at the idea of buying a pre-aged and weathered pair of jeans. Why should we balk at a faux-distressed car?

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0854

And then we have the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster Award candidates. These are pieces of automotive art, which are at the absolute edge of what’s possible with metalwork and craftsmanship. They are living, automotive sculptures.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0822

Are they cars? Can you even consider these to be real street machines? Well not really. Very few will even be driven on the streets. Consider them something like one-off prototype builds that just happen to be hot rod shaped.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0883

Continuing to explore the halls, I also found a collection of lowriders, sitting along side a group of high-riding gassers.

Here we started to jump decades towards the ‘70s. This was an interesting addition, as the majority of the cars at the GNRS reflected more of a ‘50s to early ‘60s feeling. Suddenly, I was faced with a very different vision of auto lifestyle: all angles, shine and paint layers.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0875

These lowrider crews are ground-zero for the scene, the origin itself. However at the GNRS one could almost consider them outsiders to one of the most traditional hot rod events in the world. Yet here they were, preserving cars that would otherwise not be preserved.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0870

The lowrider builders are custodians, sculptors and inventors. They are the creators of alternative worlds and new aesthetics. Much respect.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0889

With my time at the show running out, I took one last look around as the gassers pointed their noses to the skies…

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0713

The customs hugged the ground like never before… …

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0851

And so many machines glinted and gleamed like their lives depended on it.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0791

These old cars are great relics from another era, and it’s very easy to romanticize the past. Was the past a better time than today? Looking at these cars, would you prefer to have been a child of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s? There were some great machines around in these old times but it wasn’t all apple pies and sock hops. In 1953 the fear of nuclear war had the Doomsday clock set at two minutes to midnight – a minute closer than it is today. Kids were being taught to duck and cover in the classroom after walking to school – a trip that was uphill, both ways, to hear my parents tell it.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0910

To me, what’s most interesting about these hot rods and customs is what’s possible right now. The modern remixes point toward what is fast becoming an alternative vision of automotive culture, and the community of car enthusiasts that is keeping these old machines going. This isn’t about mass transportation, it is about permanence and craft. In what has become an industry of conformity and mind-numbing commuter machines, it’s the builders who stand out.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0741

And it is via today’s crazy hyper-connected internet world that we now have international communities coming together to help people build and maintain this vision. And for me, this makes the here and now the best time. By way of these old cars, people are connecting, sharing and making international friendships like never before, and maybe, just maybe, keep a builder-centric, innovation driven vision of car culture going to live another day.

GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0885

This is not about consumption. This is about creation. This is a rebellion. And for me this is highly inspiring.

So what about you? Would you have preferred to have been active in an older car era or are you happy with the present day?

:Rod Chong

Additional photos by Jen Horsey

Cutting Room Floor
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0729
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3785
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3777
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3784
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3798
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0715
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Jen Horsey Speedhunters 2015-3792
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0739
GNRS Grand National Roadster Show Rod Chong Speedhunters 2015-0771
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1

A nice bit of reflective and nostalgic writing, Rod! I spent a whole day at this year's GNRS and my uncle's shop (Double ZZ Hot Rods) had some floor space in the main hall. Having grown up around the hot rod and custom scene in California and being interested in history (enough so to have a BA in the subject) I had a lot to think about while I was there. Most of your observations seem spot on to me, but I'm not so sure that there's need to bring up so much comparison between our era and the bygone days. 
Change is the only constant in the world, as the saying goes... And although some people wax poetic about "being born in the wrong era" it is necessarily true that they would even know that they fit in in a particular time and place if they hadn't had the opportunity to reflect on it from an outsider's perspective? When it comes to trends in the automotive scene, and particularly classic car culture, it seems apparent that today with the amount of communication and research tools at our disposal (i.e. the internet) almost anyone with proper amounts of motivation, cash or skills - pick two - can build a car comparable to almost anything that's been on the streets in the last century, given it's not some ultra-rarity like a vintage Alfa Romeo or Bugatti! It seems like a blessing in disguise to me. We can't be in the past, but we can create a present that brings our most vivid notions of the past to life through passionate questing. That goes for anything from living in the hills like a medieval hermit to racing down the streets in a Model A coupe with "She's real fine, my 409" blasting nearly as loud as the exhaust pipes. Great times, without the threat of bubonic plagues or nuclear wars!

Cheers.

-Gregory

2

the rose-tinted glasses, man. they're nice, but don't let them get you too down about the present.
that kafkaesque nightmare of gridlocked appliances is the same nightmare we've always had, we just don't remember the boring shitboxes that used to fill up the roads, 'cause nobody bothered to preserve them. look at the new Mustangs and Camaros, the Hellcats, the GTR, the FR-S, the Ford STs, even things like the Juke and CrossCabriolet. carmakers are putting out powerful, fun, weird, and silly cars just like they always have. we'll always have cars to remember.
sure, car culture is changing. but it has always been. as car enthusiasts, it's too easy to see ourselves as victims, or living in some period of decline. the exact opposite is the truth. we're living in a golden era of the automobile, and i promise you that we will keep, build, and enjoy the cars we have now just as much as the hot-rodders of the past.

3

That was the most beautiful thing I've ever read. Bravo.

4

Great Post indeed some deep words.
 Quote from @Gliebau (the amount of communication and research tools at our disposal (i.e. the internet) almost anyone with proper amounts of motivation, cash or skills - pick two - can build a car comparable to almost anything that's been on the streets in the last century)
You are absolutely right. In theory every body can. But the problem is that they aren't cause there motivation is elsewhere. It seems that the current generations of young lads (boys & girls) are more interested in checking and liking what idiotic thing kim (karbitch) ahh sorry that was the autoprediction I mean kardashian is up to or watching the bachelor, honey boo boo or any of the nonsense reality tv or they are to busy desparate trying to becoming the next twitter, face book, instagram, youtube trending topic...and they don't even care about cars or even learning they joy & freedom of driving cause they are playing Call of Duty and that is more fun they said. Some times I wish that there where none of the social media crap...because instead of making humanity closer...it has made us more apart. When was the las time that we saw a group of friends or family eating together at lest say a restaurant and they where engaging in Normal Oldfashion Human interaction (meaning a conversation without cellphones or tablets of any kind.? Today's Kids don't buy the Lamborghini poster and hang it in the bedroom wall, they just go to Fb and hit Like and move on and is a Shame.

5

Then we have the Polar Bear...so they cars are becoming more environment friendly...and that is good in way. I don't wan Mr. Polar Bear to loose his home and move up with me...but the bad thing is that I feel they are slowly killing the soul of cars and the freedom and personalization with the so call future battery power cars and self driving autonomus tech the flappy paddle gearbox killing manual trans...they just keep making stuff to make humans more lazy. And because they know that young people are not digging the car culture like the older generations they are offering more and more interior tech...like bluetooth, gps, pandora, and all sorts of apps and connectivity's even Wifi.... what ever happen to the fun of getting lost and discovering and exploring new places? In the process manufactures are forgetting about proper stuff like performance and other aspect of cars.
Please send me back in the Hot Tub Time Machine.

6

"It is the opposite of consumer culture. Rather than throwing something
away, these artisans are customizing and reinventing. What if we all
kept our current cars for the next 30 years and each continued to
rebuild and reinvent them every few years?"
It's what I'm trying to achieve, 9 years under the belt so far, and 21 to go.

Very well article by the way. Thanks Speedhunters.

7

This is why I'm more disappointed that Mitsubishi and Lancia aren't quite alive anymore. Especially Lancia. Thay can bank on an impressive rallying track record and produce the Delta, Beta, and Stratos that can be tougher than Toyotas yet can beat just about every single supercar by going where no supercar dare go (like snow or mud), for a price that'd put Day One gadget lines to shame. But look at their lineup. It's good as dead.

But it isn't as much as the cars running out of passion as the people. Non-enthusiasts see cars as sources of apocalyptic pollution rather than blissful fun, at worst, and as appliances at best, and would scoff at performance numbers because "you can't use them anywhere" thanks to speed limits and other restricting laws. In truth, it's the world the cars are in, not the cars themselves, that is to blame. It's why car makers, no matter how wild they are before, are making the cars for the relatively senile, overly safe world, not in spite of the world.

No wonder most car nuts fawn the days gone past. Because cars were made with minimal regard to anything else, putting emphasis on putting smile on your face and more beats in your heart for every press of the pedals and click of the gearbox.

For me, the world is restricting the good to combat evil. It's a concept that's bound to produce results, but it isn't what one who applies it wants to see. It's not a good plan. It's why hypercars, with all the love and inherent passion that they have within every cylinder and body line, cannot growl the way they want to. It's why hot hatches aren't that well appreciated outside of the car fan circle. Because the people have no more drive to enjoy a car. No money to buy it, no reason to drive it given the appalling traffic, no more time, no proper and famous racing idol to look up to, and too much pop culture floodlighting and Endtimes predictions getting in the way.

8

Today, cars that interest me never come from car companies, their cars are too bland but also too expensive for me to buy as anything but second or third hand to use as a daily driver. The cars that do interest me and that I love reading about are created by interesting persons. Thank you Speedhunters for finding those persons for me.

9

Myself I think we are luckier in some ways to have the car culture we have today as far as the differing styles go, yet when it comes to parts on some of the older cars we may be losing out, mainly due to the cost of some items. What I would like to see is a show along the same lines as speedhunters that includes all the cars both restored classics and modern hatches, which some shows are doing but not really to a big extent. I find the mixed shows more interesting simply due to the fact that variety keeps interest more than rows upon row of the same car, but my taste in cars goes from restored dellahey's to tuned hondas. I also prefer the shows that don't have marque specific area's as the contrast between a 32 ford hot rod parked next to a 70's van or modern VW golf is good to see. It shows how far forward the car scene has come while also possibly inspiring people to look outside their own box which can only be good for all of us that have an interest in cars. Not keen on hybrids or electrics myself but even saying that there have been some that have touch's on them that would work on other cars.

10
overfenderedhatchback

Excellent article. Thanks.

11

"You could start to question the authenticity at these deliberately
worn-out logos. Is it just a contrivance, or is it just an aesthetic
style decision? We don’t balk at the idea of buying a pre-aged and
weathered pair of jeans. Why should we balk at a faux-distressed car?"
Some of us do balk at said jeans. I like to age my own clothing by wearing it rather than pay for someone else to do it; and anyway they're always worn in the wrong places and the tears and rips never look "right".

Same applies to cars - patina should be earnt.
Besides this -  lovely post Rod. More longhand please. And the show looks amazing in any case. A far cry from the UK scene right now anyway.

12

Car culture has come a long way and to be honest I like its state now were its at manly because I was not alive till 1999. Looking back to the books though and car culture history I definitely agree that car culture was better in the old days with suped up hondas and all those low cash builds (FAST AND THE furios  ERA. Now though I think the car culture still is awesome in its own way. For example now we have wide f kits bigger hp numbers new motors such as 4 rotors, lsx, ls1, and hell even the synergy V8. I feel like car culture because of this will continue to live on because of this even if the manufactures don't exactly support this in their line ups. Thanks for a awesome article Rod

13

I'm so bloody tired of the whole "the old days were better" crap. This is is the best time ever to be a car enthusiast. Full stop. Not only do we have access to 100+ years of cars, we're able to buy new cars that are extremely reliable, efficient, and fast all at the same time. Plus, we also have access to the internet, which makes finding parts, cars, and advice super quick and easy.

Now, the whole "soul" argument is equally as ridiculous. What is soul? I like to think it's evidence of human interaction. Pretty much all old cars were assembled by hand, so they had imperfections and quirks, which many people take to mean "soul". Any car can have soul. Even the most beige, bland Corolla can have soul. The thing is, with newer cars, that soul develops over the car's life. As the owner drives the car, maybe modifies it, and lives their life in it, the soul starts to develop, because there is now evidence of human interaction with the car. 

Stop closing your mind to things that aren't scruffy and old, and stop acting like we're living in this bleak, barren wasteland of automotive culture. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is the best time ever to be into cars, so just shut up and enjoy it.

14

@Jake Laird Continuing with jake's first point on the internet; now is probably one of the greatest times to be a car dude because we're now able to make more connections easier than ever, and further out across the globe.  And being able to share with each other everyone's progress and inspirations and get excited and inspired with them and not be limited to just the folks in your backyard makes doing what you want to do so much more...  freeing?(there's probably a better word for this feeling).  Especially with social media.  Sure the carguy scene was alive and well on forums back 10+ years ago, but it was super niche and everyone from the forums I browsed then were so much more exclusive (snobby).  But now with socmedia with being easier to share and get involved with car stuff, more folks want to get involved (the more the merrier!).

15

But in terms of not being around when prev fads were the thing doesn't mean much to me.  Sure it would've been cool to have been around the heyday of drifting in the early 90's in Japan, but Im just fine taking on those inspirations from those before me and making them my own.  And if I happen to inspire others, that's just the icing to the cake.

16

I HAVE A QUESTION... WHAT ENGINE IS IN THE BLACK FORD? (11/41)

besides that... i think we have the best time ever to be a car enthusiast... whyt? because we can choose... there's so many kinds today! ther is imports, hotrods, customs, lowriders, muscle cars, vip's, euro, jdms... etc etc etc etc etc... with the internet we now can see whats happening in another country... rather than in the past... im a fan of the vintage scene, and im glad to know that Japan is making AWESOME customs and hotrod's... who would imagine!!

thanks Rod for the nice reading!

17

MikeYee  These points, all valid. For me, it's about the story that comes with the car, now new cars don't come with a story, they have to be made, and that's where the adventure begins. Rightly so there won't be as many tall tales of driving the car back using shoelaces and blutack, but you'll be telling stories of how impressed you were with how it coped under extreme conditions where any older car would fail.

My own Golf mk2 came to me by luck, I had seen it years before in a city I used to live, 200 miles away from where I live now and I adored it, everything about it in fact. The colour was right, the engine was right, the amount of doors was right, the wheels were right, the condition was right. Fast forward 5 years, the exact car appears for sale locally and cheaply, almost like it was meant to be, I had just sold my volvo and had the means to get it home, the stars had aligned shall we say.

To the point I have a photograph of the golf with my classic car in the background, taken by the previous owner before we even knew each other existed.

Things like that just don't happen. So I bought it on the spot when I realised it was "the" golf I had been lusting after for years.

18

MikeYee  it goes to show, a cars soul, is created by its owner. To others, my car is just a golf. To me, its the best golf ever made.

19

I wish it was 2014 so my motor wouldn't be the grenade it's exploded to be in 2015.
Bisi is right... F da K.

Glad to see you out of retirement Rod!  Ha ha ha ha - now go build that Porsche up!
*Customize everything - even your push lawnmower.

20

mnchk1987 I think the engine is an original ford 4cylinder that came in those cars, but obviously modified a bit.

21

Original patina please.  A car should be good enough in it's own right without needing contrived patina added. Still, if that's what owners want, why not. Their car, their time & effort.

22

I'll get on that!

23

Glad you like the article!

24

Good points!

25

Great story

26

I love how connected we all are these days.

27

Aha there was one of you who prefers to patina your own jeans!

28

Thanks for reading!

29

Some interesting thoughts here. Tx for sharing!

30

Cheers!

31

That's the era we live in. At least the remaining car enthusiasts can all be connected though.

32

Thank you!

33

Sounds good to me!

34

Great article Rod, and good to see you back for a moment. Hope that Porsche is treating you well :)

35

Still working out what to do with it!

36

Great read Rod! Thoroughly enjoyed the opinion you put forward surrounding our car culture. To me it seems that today is not the best or worst period in automotive culture it is simply what it is. Today we have our own youth experimenting with cars with different influences and technologies to toy around with. The old cultures or should I say cultures that have stood the test of time will forever be cherished by both enthusiasts and those who have little interest in cars. For example my mother has no interest in cars but will still admire a hotrod or muscle car. The youth today have access to any car culture via the internet which will create a new 'cool' which will become a new culture and the cycle will continue, new generation new style.
Any ideas/opinions are welcome as I enjoy discussion!

Lachy

37
DOPEBOY BIG_T FLEXIN

ma granma use2 have dat buick 98 wit da turbo on dat bitch smoke all of these bitch bitchass rustbuckets g

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