Filed under: Folks
I was living in Norman, Oklahoma when I first caught the traditional hot rod and custom bug. While I still consider Norman to be the capital of this great country, it’s not exactly a hot bed for traditional hot rods and customs. Without inspiration around me, I had to find it on my own… I did so at my local book store. Andy Southard and his photography books became my teacher.
See, Andy was a pioneering photographer that started his career in the mid 1950’s. He toted his trusty camera wherever he went and whenever he saw a car of substance, you can bet that the shutter got to work. His vast archive of his own photography remains one of the most talked about, questioned, and honored heirlooms the traditional hot rod/custom world has today.
To put it short, I’ve dreamed of this interview for a long time. Thankfully, I have pals in high places… Rod Powell, a good friend of Andy’s, was able to set up and run this interview from Salinas. Rod made this happen…
TJJ: I assume the passion for cars came from childhood? What started all of this for you?
I think what started this was the influence of Hot Rod Magazine when it came out on the news stands. Time period was 1949, I had just gotten my driver’s license, and Hot Rod Magazine had been out a year or so. That book along with some school buddies of mine that had cars were really instrumental.
One of those buddies had a ‘39 Merc coupe and the other had a ‘37 Ford humpback tudor sedan. There were many other cars too that had Hot Rod and Custom Car influences… I might also mention, two of these buddies of mine made it into my second book (Hot Rods of the 1950s) – Johnny Clegg and Willie Wilde. I am still in touch with both after all of these years.
My first car was a 1940 Mercury Club Coupe. I bought it for the sum of $250 in 1949. I now another ‘40 Merc. The latest is chopped, Chevy powered, has disc brakes, rack and pinion, and all of the neat refinements of today’s street customs. At my age, 76 years young, this will be the last custom I have.
TJJ: From art school to shooting cars almost exclusively… Was this calculated? I mean, did you recognize this as a need and just go after it?
A close friend of the family had a photo studio and camera store in my hometown of Oceanside, Long Island, New York. In my early years, I use to go down to “Lou Sagendorf’s Camera Shop” and get photo supplies as my dad and family liked to take a lot of travel and family pictures.
In time, Mr. Sagendorf answered all of my intuitive questions about the processing of pictures, etc… And that is where it all started really. I used to take pictures of horses, dogs, bicycles, and all the stuff that a 14 year old is interested in. In the basement of my parents home, I created a dark room. That’s where I developed my film and printed same size contact pictures with the printing box I had. As time went on, I graduated to using a 4″ by 5″ Speed Graphic Press Camera, deep developing tanks, etc…
While in high school, I belonged to two clubs. One was the “Camera Club” and the other was the “Rifle Club.” I loved guns too – Grandpa Snyder in Pennsylvania showed me the way of guns!
Jumping ahead a little… After graduating from Oceanside High School in 1951, my dad always wanted me to go to Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. That’s where he went and he really wanted me to follow. I finally got my way and enrolled in the New York Institute of Photography in New York City – right off famous Broadway by Times Square! I graduated in late 1952 with a diploma of “Professional Photographer,” holding an official press photographers card of NYC.
During these early years in New York, I started to shoot cars, hot rods, and customs. It was quite a task to walk around the big city with my big leather camera bag stuffed with the 4X5 Speed Graphic.
In November of 1952, I took my first trip to California specifically to attend the car show at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. I drove out with a buddy of mine in my 1949 Ford club coupe. It was a four day trip. I took a ton of pictures along with 400 feet of 16mm color home movies which I transfered to DVD not long ago (Editor’s note: Uhhh… WOAH!). I knew after that trip that my dream was to shoot cars.
My first magazine article was titled “Speed at Salinas” and that was in 1956. From that point on, I pursued car photography for the rest of my life.
TJJ: Your one of the relatively few guys that saw the hot rod and custom scene grow from both coasts – east and west. What was your favorite aspect of each scene?
In the beginning, the east coast didn’t have the amount of rods and customs like the west coast enjoyed. I favored roadsters in the beginning and the east coast didn’t have many due to the weather. However on the west coast, I drove my ‘29, both of my ’32s, and my ‘28 touring all year long. Plus, the east coast had very few “hot rod” type shops and aftermarket parts were hard to come by.
I loved the west coast because of the nice weather, the hot rods, and the girls… And not necessarily in that order! LOL! (Editor’s note: Yes, Andy typed ‘LOL.’)
TJJ: You were also around a lot of shops and builders during the 1950’s and 60’s. Thinking back to those experiences, was there one shop that really did it for you? Maybe it was style or craftsmanship or…
This isn’t an easy one to answer. In New York, I had work done by Gary’s Auto Body in Glenn Cove and by Foreign Kustoms in Bethage. I also pin striped for a bit at Foreign Kustoms and then I had a little work shop at H&H Auto Body in Rockville Centre. I stayed at H&H until I finally went back to California for good.
At some point in there, there was a void due to being drafted by Uncle Sam for the Korean war. Luckily, I went to Germany and had excellent duty there for 19 months.
I must say I have had more contact with shops in California that back east. I highly prized Barris Kustoms, Joe Wilhelm in San Jose, Gene Winfield in Stockton, Joe Bailon, and of course, Bill Cushenbery. And I can’t leave out Rod Powell in Salinas or Tom Cutino in Monterey who did all of the custom work on my ‘40 Merc. I have been truly blessed knowing all of these people and being able to photograph what I have. Last count, my archives boasted 55,000 black and white images and over 14,000 color slides. And now I shoot digital and take a lot more photos that I ever did with film.
TJJ: You have to have some favorite cars after all of these years. If you had a two car-garage, which two would you fill it with?
Wow! How can I answer this question? I currently have a four car garage! Let’s see – at one time I had my ‘29 roadster in this garage along with two other family type cars. And I had two 1932 roadsters in this garage – a non-fendered and a full-fendered. The later, incidentally, sold at the Pebble Beach Car Auction in 2008 for a staggering $124,000. If you are wondering why I sold either, well 1977 was a bad year for me – got divorced from my first wife and had to sell both roadsters. Andy Brizio bought the full-fendered car and John Buterra bought the highboy.
It wasn’t until 1992 that I was able to buy my ‘40 Merc coupe as a complete stocker. I’m the fourth owner of the car.
TJJ: Along the same lines, is there a picture that you’ve taken that means more than the rest to ya?
Another tough one. But yes, and it wouldn’t be a picture of a car. My first wife and I knew some movie stars. Sammy McKim, for example, was one of them. He appeared in two Dick Tracy movies and the Lone Ranger. I cherish my 90 minute home video I took when he came to visit us here in Salinas some years ago. He was 79 when he passed away.
Meeting and taking pictures of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Clayton More, Fred Scott and many more was a real thrill.
As far as cars go, the pictures taken of my roadsters, t-birds and other hot rods are prized highly.
TJJ: A lot of us learned about traditional hot rods and customs predominately through your books and photos as we weren’t around then. Did you ever think your photos would be so important to so many?
No, to tell the truth, I never thought my pictures would have the impact they have had. I hear a lot from people who tell me they enjoy my pictures and like my books. Those pictures were taken for my own enjoyment and out of love for hot rods and customs. For years people told me that I should do a book featuring my work, but I just couldn’t afford to do it myself. It was beyond my means to gamble with so much money.
I must give credit to the few that had heard of my archives and approached me to buy pictures for their books or projects. Those, in turn, worked out for me to do five books and two with co-authors. Motobooks made it all happen for me. I can brag and say that Motorbooks did the first hot rod calendar in 1997 and it was mine!
TJJ: Of course, photography isn’t your only talent. When was the last time you striped?
The last time I pin striped was about three years ago. I pin striped a buddy of mine’s ‘32 dash for his ‘29 coupe. It was out of the car and it still took me three hours to do it. Originally, it would have taken me 45 minutes. The arthritis in both hands, fingers, and other parts just won’t let me do what I used to. At least I can say I striped for over 50 years and loved every minute of it.
In 1956, I striped at a New York car shop and just loved the attention. Someone took a picture and it was published in an East Coast Magazine. That helped start me.
I still get asked to stripe every now and then, but I have to turn them down. I just can’t do it. I have other projects to spend time on… One being my video project – I’ve been doing it for fives years now and have done over 5000 discs. It’s huge coverage of stuff like the early Oakland Roadster shows, Monterey Kar Kapades, San Francisco Rod, Custom, & Motorcycle Shows, Rod Powell Picnics, etc…
I also have a facility now to print color pictures from my 35mm colored slides. I must say they are turning out terrific and they are for sale. Contact me for details!
TJJ: What eventually got you out of hot rodding and customizing? Maturity? Growth? Or is it always there?
I never left. I still go to shows and still drive my chopped ‘40 Merc coupe. I don’t do it as much as I used to, but I still love driving down the streets of Salinas. I really want to saver this Merc as it might be my last fixed up car.
TJJ: What are you up to these days? Any more books in the pipeline? What drives ya?
Zak Miller, the top dog at Motorbooks International, has phoned me a few times to another book for them. But after doing almost six straight years of books for them, I needed a break to get caught up on a lot of other things I have going on. And Patty, my wife, won’t let me start another book until I finish the article on Merc for Rod & Custom. I started that article 17 years ago.
That’s how it has been my whole life – never enough time to get everything done!
One last thing, I must thank you and Rod Powell (whom I’ve known since 1958) for allowing me to do this interview and elaborate a little on some of the items. I hope you all enjoy my pictures and my answers.
Andy Southard, Jr.