The Shifters – Part 1

The Shifters – Part 1

I watched the television with full attention – something I rarely do. I sat on the sofa with my elbows on my knees and my hands on my chin to support my head as if my melon was so busy comprehending the action on the TV that it couldn’t possibly hold its own weight. The Rattled Roosters, a Canadian Rockabilly band that I had never heard of, blared on the speaker while the screen showed off a camera angle from the inside of someone’s early coupe. The view over the multiple Stromberg carbs and the sounds of the car creaking, rattling, and rumbling down the street was down right mesmerizing.

I first watched “Desperate Generation” over a decade ago. The gritty documentary by Emily Dutton was really my first peek into the Southern California hot rod scene. Before watching it, I had no idea that there were other young folks into the same thing that I was. I couldn’t believe how far they took the traditional slant and how much of themselves they dedicated to it.

“Wow… This is really a lifestyle to these kids.”

The film was mainly concentrated on a younger group of guys that had decided to start their own car club – The Shifters. Dutton covered the group’s cars and the hot rod footage was certainly there, but she mostly focused on the personalities of the club. She portrayed the Shifters as a group of “lost souls” looking for their identity in generations past. These guys were just kids that liked the idea of pursuing history through all aspects of their life; be it cars, furniture, clothing, music, art, or anything else they used or appreciated on a daily basis.

It wasn’t long after the film was released that the Shifters were featured as a club in Rod & Custom Magazine. A spread featuring a few photos of their cars in a rustic setting were accompanied with an article that told the story of the club. They were young and didn’t have a lot of money, but they loved the traditional side of the car world and were passionate about building cars that they called “Rat Rods.”

A term was born… Of course that term means something very different to most folks today, but in the early days of the traditional renaissance the Shifters built whatever their pocket books and experience level would allow them to. And like most kids, they didn’t have a lot of dough or a lot of hands on experience. They learned about hot rodding and customizing by trial and error and with a strict budget – the traditional way, damnit. In many cases, this method of development lead to a less than perfect car and an owner full of ideas for the next. The rougher cars of the early Shifters weren’t so much a goal as they were a means. These guys were learning a craft.

In any case, awareness of the Shifters continued to grow. By the time Marky Idzardi’s Purple People Eater appeared on the cover of R&C in 2001, the Shifters were easily the most well known (new age) car club in the United States. Their coverage in magazines from all over the world along with their very popular “Viva Las Vegas” car show made certain of the notoriety. The Shifters were it.

And then, it all just kind of died down… quietly… Fellas in the club were still building and driving traditional cars and they continued to learn as they did so, but not as many were being featured in magazines. By most accounts, however, the car show in Vegas really began to lose track. What was once a music festival that just happened to have a car show attached became a scene fest with a really large Rat Rod show attached. The wild creations with no connection to tradition distracted folks from the initial focus of the show. Credibility was lost and the show lost its glow.

Of course, I write this from Texas – a long ways from both California and Vegas. Whether or not the show in Vegas was that bad is really subjective and mostly hearsay, but you know what they say about smoke and there was certainly lots of it. In fact, it got so cloudy at one point that the Shifters and the Viva promoter split ways only to reconcile a few months later. While the car club was just quiet, the show that helped them get so much recognition was on really shaky ground.

Frankly, I was beginning to think that age was catching up with the Shifters. You know the story – a fella gets some time under his belt and priorities tend to change. Things like family, housing, and money become much more important than silly shit like hot rods, car shows, and group status.

“Maybe,” I thought, “the Shifters were just a flash in the pan that helped ignite the rebirth of youngsters in traditional hot rodding, but faded as quickly as they blew.”

If that were in fact the case, the Shifters could still hold their heads high knowing that they left a legacy and a very important mark on the traditional hot rod scene. However, the Shifters as a club seem to be doing something that traditionalist don’t always do – adapting. If you’ve been to a SoCal show as of late, you’ve noticed some of the really well done builds flying the Shifters plaque and if you attended the 2009 edition of the Viva Las Vegas car show, you might have also noticed quite a shift in focus as well. Many that attended have said that it was the best Viva since the early shows with plenty of quality cars sprinkled throughout the field.

Just as quickly as the Shifters began to fade in my mind, they re-ignited and in part 2 (tomorrow), we will sit down with a few of them and see what they have to say for themselves.

See ya then…

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