Historical hot rods on display at Art of the Car Concours

Doane Spencer’s roadster has become a shining example of traditional hot rod form.
Doane Spencer’s roadster has become a shining example of traditional hot rod form. Tom Strongman

Hot rods are a uniquely American form of automotive innovation and they have come to be recognized as an important part of our four-wheeled history. To celebrate their significance in the automotive landscape, Sunday’s Art of the Car Concours classic car show at the Kansas City Art Institute will have a special display of historical hot rods.

A Meet the Legends panel discussion on the history of hot rods will be at 2 p.m. Saturday in Room 351 in the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Information is available at Tickets are $25 and will be available at the door.

Guest speakers include author and historian Ken Gross; Pete Chapouris, president of the So-Cal Speed Shop and co-founder of Pete and Jake’s Hot Rod Parts, now owned by Jerry Slover of Peculiar, and Tom McIntyre, noted hot rod collector.

Hot rod roots reach back to the 1920s and dry lakes racing in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. In those days, racers stripped down cars, hopped up the engines and roared across the desert at top speed. Fenders, bumpers, windshields and mufflers were removed in the search for speed. Crude attempts at streamlining began to surface, and it wasn’t long before streamlined lakes racers appeared as well.

Modifying a car for more speed and style may have started in Southern California, but after World War II hot rods began showing up all across the country. Car enthusiasts used their ingenuity to make their cars faster. They often turned to multiple carburetors, hot cams and special exhaust systems, and that gave rise to the speed shop business. A few of the most successful innovators, such as Chapouris, Vic Edelbrock or the late Speedy Bill Smith of Lincoln, Neb., built businesses that are still going today.

Many of the first races were impromptu affairs that took place on streets and highways, but safety concerns pushed racing to drag strips, many of which were made out of little-used air fields. Wally Parks formed the National Hot Rod Association in 1951. Parks was born in Oklahoma and moved to California in the early 1920s. The NHRA’s first Nationals drag race took place at the Sunflower Rod & Custom Association drag strip in Great Bend, Kan.

Some hot rods have become legend, and one is the Doane Spencer roadster now owned by Bruce Meyer of California. Spencer bought the car in 1944, removed the fenders and installed a 1946 Mercury flathead with twin carbs. It was chosen the Best Appearing Roadster at the Pasadena Roadster Club’s 1947 Reliability Run. After the car passed through two owners, Meyer bought it in 1995 and had it restored by Chapouris and the So-Cal Speed Shop. The Spencer car will be on display at the concours.

A few local cars of note include:

Don Armacost, Jr., will show his dark green, flamed 1932 Ford Cabriolet and a 1934 Ford three-window coupe. The two-seater is a cabriolet with a folding top rather than a roadster and it was state-of-the-art when it was built 16 years ago. It has power windows, hidden air-conditioning, six-way power seats and an all-leather interior. Chapouris and Alex Xydias of the So-Cal Speed Shop gave it an award at its very first show in 1998.

Charles Little’s pale green ’29 is patterned after the kind of track roadster that raced on dirt tracks in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Its handmade nose resembles the Boyle Special, a Maserati racer 8CTF driven to victory by Wilbur Shaw in the Indianapolis 500 in 1939 and 1940.

John Swander’s 1932 Ford five-window coupe is an original, all-steel car that has been modified by Ken Schmidt, owner of Rolling Bones, a New York shop that specializes in creating vintage rods. Schmidt’s shop built a new frame, installed period-correct hydraulic front shocks, an original ’32 Ford front axle and lengthened the hood about an inch. The engine is a small-block Chevrolet V-8 with three two-barrel carbs.

Other noteworthy hot rods at the show include Norm Grabowski’s Kookie II, Roger Morrison’s Tommy Fitzgerald ’32 Ford, the Neal East roadster, Jerry Slover’s California Kid, Ray Brown’s roadster from the Petersen Museum and Jake’s Coupe from Jerry Slover.

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