The Christmas Present

by Rick Kopec (12/10/09)

It may not have been the best Christmas present I ever received, but it’s the one I remember most vividly. I was 15 and my uncle (the car guy) gave me a subscription to Hot Rod magazine. The first issue arrived near the end of January, and I read it cover to cover. That was 1962.

I read every page of that issue, and practically memorized the photographs. The cover was in colors so vivid that they practically dripped off of the page. Everything else inside was black and white, except the feature articles that had a greenish tone to them. I never knew why and only recently discovered that the lighter tinted ink allowed them to use cheaper paper for those photo pages.

I must have read that issue three or four times before the next issue arrived a month later. A lot of the same names in the hot rodding world appeared over and over. Guys like Ed Roth, Dean Jefferies, Tony Nancy, George Barris, Mickey Thompson and Dean Moon. While not exactly household names, they were names I began to recognize. Southern California was about as far away from Connecticut as you could get, not only geographically but also culturally. Everyone who had a television was able to peek in on the southern California lifestyle, thanks to entertainers like Art Linkletter, Johnny Carson and Steve Allen. Although very few people in the rest of the country had ever been to Hollywood and Vine, Beverly Hills, Disneyland, Redondo Beach, Sunset Strip or taken the Slauson Cutoff, thanks to television they felt as if they had.

Southern California wasn’t only the center of the television universe but it was also where most of the movies were made. In the 1960s there were a slew of “beach blanket” films aimed at teenagers. The Beach Boys sang about surfing and hot rods and fostered a parade of sound-alikes, all plugging into the southern California youth culture and spreading it to every corner of this country. Not every teenager was susceptible, but for a couple of years—before the British invasion—a lot of them heard the southern California siren song.

Hot Rod magazine continued to tutor me in the hot rod and custom car culture. While there was no glossary that made understanding the terms simple, they came up frequently enough that you could determine the definitions by the context in which they were used. Things like chopped and channeled, a “Z-ed” frame, nosed and decked, rolled pan, frenched headlights and taillights, a suicide front end, Tijuana tuck-and-roll, a Carson top, a T-bucket and an A-bone all suddenly had real meanings. A bump-stick, slugs, quads, milled heads, slush box, three jugs, a puffer, Posi, and three on the tree were no longer an impenetrable code. Sitting at an old, hand-me-down desk in the corner of my bedroom, surrounded by stacks of dog-eared car magazines and shelves of 1/25 scale model cars, most with drag slicks, spinner hubcaps, lakes pipes and flames, I finally began to get it.

In 1962—and this will be hard for anyone under 30 to believe—all t-shirts were white and carried no logos or pictures. At least, this was the case where I was living. But if you looked closely in Hot Rod at the pictures of car shows and drag races in California, you saw guys wearing white t-shirts with speed equipment logos silk-screened on them. These weren’t just the crewmembers of racecars—they were spectators! In some cases, kids like me. It might have started as a west coast thing but it spread to the rest of the country. I may have even helped. I sent away for a Moon t-shirt (I simply dropped two singles into the envelope) and I really was, as the say, the first one on my block…

The JC Whitney catalog was another valuable teaching aid. I was still a couple of years away from owning a car but that didn’t stop me from getting my hands on one of their inch-thick “wish books,” printed on paper so thin that you could read one page through the previous one. There were no photographs—only simple line drawings. Thousands of them. Virtually every individual part was illustrated, and the detail was mostly pretty accurate. Whitney’s catalog was viewed by the “real” grease-under-the-finger-nails hot rodders, the guys who scoured wrecking yards, pounded metal and welded pieces together to create one-of-a-kind things, as something of a sacrilege. You didn’t buy stuff that you could make yourself. But the rest of us, the dreamers, scoured the catalog picturing what ‘59 Cadillac bullet taillights would look like on a ‘53 Ford, or how adding an extra set of flippers on Dodge Lancer hubcaps would transform a ‘58 Chevy. I wondered how every car would look if it was lowered, with a set of chrome lakes pipes snaking out from behind the front wheels, running down the rocker panels and turning out just ahead of the rear wheels. And, of course, they ended with two-bolt louvered caps that made them non-functional. (If you have to ask “Why,” you’ll never understand.)

JC Whitney was a mail order company out of Chicago’s South Side. It had been started in 1915 by a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Warshawsky, who purchased failed auto manufacturer’s inventories and resold the parts one at a time. He eventually began adding new parts to his inventory, growing even through the great depression. In 1934, son Roy joined his father after graduating from the University of Chicago. It was Roy’s idea to expand beyond the Chicago area with a catalog that was advertised in an issue of Popular Mechanics. The catalog cost a quarter, and the ad attracted thousands of catalog buyers from all over the country. Things spooled upwards from there. Roy’s dad died in 1943 and the company continued to grow exponentially. By the time Roy retired in 1991, JC Whitney was a legend in the automotive world.

I began to notice that drag racers and dry lakes racers displayed a few strategically placed speed decals that advertised what kind of camshaft they were using. Or pistons. Or motor oil. Or any of a hundred other go-fast items. (This was before the present day NASCAR ritual of plastering almost every square inch of a car’s body surface with decals representing every conceivable sponsor.) The more these logos appeared on the sides of racecars, the better known the product became. This was Basic Advertising 101. An individual company, like Ed Iskenderian’s cam grinding business, was quick to “sponsor” some racers—giving them a reduced price or, in some cases, not charging them at all—if they had established winning ways. Successful cars using their product were good for business.

Whether the car was using the actual product or not was incidental. Not every hot rod or custom car was raced, but many owners liked the competition look and wanted their car to mimic the cars that were raced. It’s hard to explain, but if a particular speed decal appealed to you, putting it on your vent window or rear side window made a statement. It really didn’t matter if your car was using that part. If you liked the look of the Jahns piston decal, that was usually all it took for you to put one on your car. Or on your father’s car. And the old man rarely got it, so the decal only lasted a matter of minutes.

The grand daddy of all speed decals was the famous “Moon Eyes” logo. Dean Moon was an early hot rodder who made the jump from hobbyist to businessman after creating a handful of products for drag and dry lakes cars which became extremely popular in the 1950s; things like multi-carb fuel blocks, aluminum gas tanks, a foot-shaped throttle pedal and plain spun aluminum hubcaps which, when used on Bonneville land speed racers, were said to add 7 mph to speeds over 190 mph. They proved so popular with hot rodders that in the 1950s, Moon sold over 10,000 in a single month.

Dean Moon’s most popular item, by far, was his famous “Moon-eyes” decal. Almost cartoonish, it was rumored that he made more money selling decals and t-shirts with the ubiquitous eyes on them than anything else in his catalog. They became the first icon of hot rodding. Moon was a peerless promoter and was best at promoting himself and his business. Every car he built was painted “Moon Yellow” and he had a policy of paying for a tattoo if it was his “Moon equipped” logo.

Even though I didn’t have a car to put them on, I was attracted to speed decals. One day I decided to write to one of the advertisers in Hot Rod and get one of their decals that had captured my imagination. I sent them a quarter to cover the cost of the decal plus postage and within two weeks a business envelope with the company’s logo on it appeared in my mailbox. The return address was the same one in their ad, which I had been seeing in issue after issue of Hot Rod. Inside was the colorful decal. Thus rewarded, I began a campaign of writing to every advertiser in the magazine, sending each one a quarter and asking for one of their decals. Before long my folks’ mailbox was overflowing with all sorts of mail from southern California. Some envelopes contained only one decal. Others had several. Iskenderian sent about two dozen—each one a different shape or size. A lot of the envelopes were large and contained catalogs along with the decal. I read everything, including long lists of part numbers that meant absolutely nothing to me.

I didn’t have a car to put any of these decals on, as much as I wished I did. The old man never threw anything away, and when our cabinet model television in the living room finally gave up the ghost, he came home with a new one. He took the old one out to the garage, where he gutted the fancy burl wood cabinet and turned it into a nice storage bureau that went upstairs in my bedroom. One night I couldn’t wait any longer. I had fondled my stack of speed decals so many times that I was overcome with the urge to put them on something. Before I knew it, the cabinet’s doors, inside and out, looked like the side of a AA/Fuel Gasser.

Now, here’s the kicker. When I finally made my first trip to southern California in 1966, when we went out to Riverside Raceway for the ARRC (and every time I’ve been there since), when I passed some of the freeway exits I had a weird feeling that I had been there before. When I saw North Inglewood Ave. in Inglewood, I thought, “Iskenderian Racing Cams.” When I passed Riverside Drive in North Hollywood, I thought, “George Barris.” South Norwalk Blvd. in Santa Fe Springs was the Moon Equipment Company. Ventura Canyon in Van Nuys was B&M Automotive. Maywood was Ed Roth. In Los Angeles, it was like a rapid fire word-association test: Cahuenga Blvd. was Dean Jefferies; South Normandie Ave. was Ansen Automotive; San Fernando Rd. was Wieand; Alhambra Ave. was Offenhauser; West Jefferson Blvd. was Edelbrock; West Vernon St. was Joe Hunt. When I saw 12th Street in Santa Monica, I thought, “Engle Cams.”

I still feel an affinity to southern California. I never owned a street rod, although while I was in high school I became friends with several guys who did. One of these days I’ll tell you about my next door neighbor, 2 years older than me, who’s father was much more understanding than my old man. He bought a Morris Minor with a blown engine. We struggled to install an Austin engine but before it was ever running he ran out of patience, interest and money and he sold it. The $75 bucks went toward a ‘50 Ford which soon received a 283 Chevy transplant in place of its flathead. It probably had 100,000 miles on it but that hardly mattered because it sported a pair of aluminum Corvette valve covers. Therefore, it was a Corvette engine. Before it was running, he traded the car for a ’40 Ford convertible with a Buick nailhead V8 backed by a LaSalle 3-speed. That one was running but it was a real hack-job. The rear end had been installed off-center so the inside of one tire rubbed against the frame. That thing could burn two hundred feet of rubber without working hard, most of it on the road out in front of his house. But that’s another story for another day.

Happy Holidays from SAAC!

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