Editor’s note: Mike Bishop doesn’t really need an introduction around here. He’s an original H.A.M.B. guy and has been preaching the gospel of traditional hot rods since before most of us were smart enough to listen. He’s also the pen behind one of the most influential books ever written about traditional hot rods – How To Build A Traditional Ford Hot Rod.
Through my years of hot rodding, I’ve witnessed first hand how the book has changed lives and built cars. You can literally stroll from small garage to small garage all across this country and find a lonely builder sitting on his shop stool with Mike’s book in one hand and his own plan in the other. And when the “bible” is followed the outcome is almost always predictable – a perfectly appointed model-a with all of the right details.
Recently, the subject of Mike’s book (a Washington blue roadster) re-surfaced from a fairly long dormant period. The timing was just right and the next think we knew, we had Mike Bishop writing about his car again and good ole Mike Chase snapping some photos of the roadster that started so many dreams. I hope you enjoy the outcome as much as I have…
You Can Go Home Again… And Again. (Text by Mike Bishop. Studio photos by Mike Chase.)
When Vern Tardel and I set out to create my AV8 roadster 12 years ago the plan would accomplish two things; First, I’d be able to finish the roadster I’d started 43 years earlier, as an unskilled but nonetheless enthusiastic 15-year-old embryonic gearhead. Second, Vern and I would have the opportunity to put something back into hot rodding, a pastime that had given us so much pleasure and excitement for so many years. We’d do this by documenting the entire build of the roadster, start to finish, and sharing it with other gearheads as a detailed how-to book.
In all honesty, we wouldn’t finish the actual roadster I’d been building in 1953. That lovingly gathered collection of old Ford parts had long since passed on to other youthful hands when my dad was transferred from the “sticks” where I had a portion of our five-acre horse pasture for my personal automotive projects, to SoCal where all our worldly possessions had to fit onto a 70-by-140 foot suburban lot in the San Fernando Valley. Add to this situation a new three-and-a-den two-bath house and swimming pool shoe-horned into the same plot and it was apparent to even my young eyes that there simply was no room to spare for a hot-rod work-in-progress.
Vern Tardel was similarly blessed to grow up on a five-acre family spread on the opposite side of the Sierra, in coastal Sonoma County where he, too, was permitted to accumulate interesting hot-rod building materials. The big difference was that Vern’s family stayed put, and in time he was able to complete his projects, one after another, acquiring considerable skill and knowledge related to old-Ford hot rods along the way.
I met Vern soon after I moved to Santa Rosa in 1991. His work on old-Ford hot rods and the treasures in his Sonoma County shop were grist for my motor-journalist’s mill. I was writing a half-dozen features each month for the old American Rodder magazine which even then was honoring hot rodding’s golden age of the ‘40s and ‘50s, a time when the aftermarket consisted of a handful of speed-equipment manufacturers, and hot rods were built from bits and pieces scrounged from automotive boneyards.
Vern’s work was popular with American Rodder readers, with nuts-and-bolts how-tos the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the early days of Hot Rod Magazine. Right along with my readers I was learning lessons I’d missed when I was that eager but largely inexperienced ‘teen tyro marshalling the essential elements for my roadster in the family pasture. At some point toward the end of the first year of stories from the ‘Prune Orchard,’ as I’d dubbed Vern’s shop because of its rural setting, I began thinking about the historical importance of the work I was chronicling and how it might be pulled together in a single package. I needed to look no farther than those missed lessons and my original uncompleted roadster.
I wrote a simple proposal, including a ‘mission statement’ explaining why I felt it was important to codify the old ways and work, along with an outline of what I deemed would be a reasonable book to take an interested reader through all the steps and stages to successfully build an old-style Ford-based hot rod roadster. Vern’s initial reaction was not encouraging. While he didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand he did question its value in the overall scheme of life. He’d give it some thought, however, he promised, and I back-burnered the idea for the time being.
A month or so later Vern called me saying that he’d been thinking about my book idea and wanted to get together for lunch and talk about it. The heavily marked up outline I’d given him indicated he’d given the idea more than just a little thought. Vern saw the work involved and the resulting book as a way to put something back into the hobby/pastime/movement that had been pretty good to him. A few more meetings resulted in an evolving outline and a substantial wish-list of most of the pieces – large and small – that would be needed, including when they would be needed. This ‘just-in-time’ inventory scheme was based as much on traditional schoolboy hot-rod financial necessity as it was storage constraints of the ton-plus pile of hardware that would be have to be accommodated among with the seam-bursting inventory in Vern’s working shop.
We developed a schedule, allocating several evenings a week to our combined work, plus Saturdays when convenient, and I shoehorned in weekday work at the shop as my magazine writing chores allowed. Vern’s full-time body and paint guy, Bill Grainger, contributed increasingly more time, much of it uncompensated, as the work dictated, and over the near-two year project other folks provided their time and special skills, all very old-school in spirit.
The parts search was painless and affordable, thanks to Vern’s many contacts in the Ford restoration hobby as well as hot rodding. Hot rod fixings were reasonably valued at the time, a situation that the book was soon to change, somewhat to our regret. Unknown to us at the time we had embarked on a journey with unintended consequences as previously languishing old-Ford hardware became increasingly difficult to find and pricier when located.
We finished the roadster in early January 1996, just days before that year’s Grand National Roadster Show – Oakland. The car was far enough along earlier, in September, that I could provide some appealing photos along with my application, and within a few weeks I received a letter confirming the acceptance of the car by the show’s promoters. It was cause for celebration, but only briefly; there was still much to be done to the roadster before its debut.
We knew at the beginning of the project that we were ‘swinging ahead of the curve’ with a strictly traditional roadster, in both style and content, the type of hot rod that had succumbed decades ago to what hot rodding is all about – searching for and incorporating the next-best-thing, the latest trick, the competitive edge – the hammer.
The roadster was a hit with many show-goers, a bona fide smile-maker. Still, the significance of the car was largely lost on the Boomer generation. The extremes of the hobby, old timers and young guys, got what we’d done, and that was gratifying. The old guys, like Tommy ‘the Greek’ Hrones, appreciated the authenticity. “Somebody still knows how to build a hot rod,” he said after his careful inspection of the car on setup day, accurately identifying the old-Ford bits and pieces we’d purposely selected as he inspected our work. Tommy spent more time than did the show judges, one of whom commented in the ‘remarks’ section of his judging sheet “A nicely restored Model A with a later engine.” The youngsters saw something simple and affordable, a form of hot rod that would allow them to participate in a pastime that was rapidly growing out of the reach of schoolboys and recent entrants into the workforce.
We didn’t have a prayer for seriously competing for the coveted AMBR trophy with our budget-built hot rod. In 1996 the ante for a serious contender for the title of ‘America’s Most Beautiful Roadster’ had already crossed the quarter-million-dollar threshold, and with less than 10 percent of that expenditure we were just happy to be there, to be accepted for what was still the granddaddy of hot-rod and custom car shows.
Winter of ‘95-’96 was an especially wet one in NorCal and several months would pass before we began to get the roadster sorted out on the road. There’s a naive conceit shared by most inexperienced hot-rod builders that assumes once it’s all bolted together it’s ready to hit the road to anywhere. Veteran builders like Tardel long ago came to realize that was not so. Even a simple hot rod is made up of hundreds of parts selected from several manufacturing generations. Knowing which ones work well together comes from experience, and massaging them into a comfortable, strong, competent hot rod . . . well that’s a product of the experience backed up with patient empirical tweaking and tuning of the entire car until it’s so sweet ‘. . . you’d let your mother drive it,’ as one long-time builder once told me, summarizing what a good hot rod is all about.
The book, titled “How to Build a Traditional Ford Hot Rod”, lagged several months after the completion of the roadster, owing more to my occasional bouts of sloth rather than to any neat plan to complete the sort-out before publication. In the end, however, it was beneficially serendipitous timing of the intertwined projects of car and book in which the inevitable teething problems, along with their corrections, were trotted out into the sunlight, warts and all.
From my own long-time experience in publishing I knew that self-published books with limited marketing resources could be disastrous, but still I felt that this could be that one book in ten thousand that would be a success. Just prior to making the commitment, I broke faith with myself and submitted a proposal to Motor Books International and received not so much as a courteous turn-down – nothing but un-returned ‘phone calls and otherwise silence.*
With some financial backing of a couple of old friends I stepped into the book-publishing pool, if not at the deep end certainly at a level where I’d better be prepared to tread water for an extended period of time. Initial book sales were good, thanks in part to me being able to tout it to the readers of American Rodder magazine, with some pulled in from a couple of reviews that appeared in other rodding monthlies. I stepped up for a booth at the LA Roadsters fathers’ day show in Pomona in 1996 and the brisk sales seemed to indicate success. The reality was that the initial mail-order sales were the result of the pump-priming in the magazines and being on hand at a major hot-rod get-together. Continued advertising and promotion would be needed to keep the machine rolling, and this required money, more money than I was prepared to spend.
To the slowdown in sales add substantial production and printing bills that were coming due and the flaw in my wishful thinking became obvious. There was nothing to do but put the roadster on the block. I’d realized my youthful dream in far greater style and quality that I could have achieved with the original roadster, and that was a good thing. I had the better part of two years to enjoy it and log twenty-thousand-plus miles on the odometer, and now it was time to deal with the reality of the situation.
The roadster sold quickly to a veteran hot rodder and racer in the northwest. It went to a good home, to someone who understood and appreciated its authenticity. As a hedge against forever giving it up, I asked for and received first right of refusal should he one day decide to sell it. The buyer also graciously agreed to postponing delivery of the car so it could be included in a special month-long retrospective exhibit of hot rods and custom cars at the Trans-America tower in San Francisco, followed by a second stint in the Grand National Roadster Show, for the 50th anniversary of the event. Then it was over, the roadster was in an enclosed trailer on its way to Washington State.
I stayed in touch with the new owner and saw the roadster once more when he drove it to Pomona so I could have it in a booth for fathers’ day weekend and peddle some more books. I’d see him at Bonneville during Speed Week each year, but the roadster remained in his garage. Then, last year, I received a ‘phone call from the fellow’s sister. He had died and she was acting as executrix of his estate. She said she knew of the first right of refusal agreement and asked if I was interested in buying the car back. Of course I was, and within a month I’d received a package containing two independent professional appraisals and a buy-back price that was the average of the two. The price was fair but still more than I could muster when up stepped a sponsor, an entrepreneur and collector of traditional-style hot rods. We struck an agreement which would put the car back in my hands for long enough to reintroduce it to the hot-rodding community; it had spent most of the past six years garaged and rarely seen. It’s good to have it home again, to get reacquainted with this car that is so special to me even if it is for a finite time. And just in case, I think I’ll ask for first right of refusal.
*MBI did eventually buy the book from me, including the remaining initial inventory. MBI Senior Editor Steve Hendrickson and I massaged the book into an even handsomer package and one that better suited MBI’s production needs. Unfortunately, the roadster was no longer mine at that point. The book has been well promoted in MBI’s hands, and continues to sell well, nearly ten years along.