The Ben Thomas Affair
Lately I’ve gotten a lot of questions about who the new guy is in the background of some of my build thread shots. As such, I thought it was high time to introduce Ben Thomas to ya’ll. You probably know the name – he’s a long time HAMBer and was featured in The Jalopy Journal #2. He moved to Austin a few months back to court his bride and he’s now pretty much a verified Texan. He’s also an accomplished hot rod builder.
Anyway, he’s been helping out Keith at Rex Rods for a couple of weeks now. I imagine he’ll stick around long enough until he has a shop of his own to work from. Until then though, it’s pretty amazing to have both Keith Tardel and Ben Thomas working a few feet from me everyday. The talent oozes over…
But given the circumstances, I thought it would be cool to rerun the feature we did on Ben for The Jalopy Journal #2. Here it is in all its glory:
The host city for the 1956 Summer Olympics was Melbourne, Australia. It was a big win for the Victorian city, but it came at a cost. Leading up to the event, Australian politicians bickered so violently that the International Olympic Committee briefly considered pulling the event. Predictably, the debate revolved around the financials of hosting an Olympiad. Righteous citizens wanted the spotlight and felt like their bloated tax rate was more than enough to fund it, but the government resisted…
Eventually, a compromise was reached. The politicians agreed to fund Olympic projects, but only if they had shelf lives past the date of the event. One such project was the Olympic Village which was constructed in a suburb of Melbourne called Heidelberg West. After the Olympics, the village was converted into public housing – a decision that would doom the area forever.
Today, Heidelberg is one of Melbourne’s worst slums. Take a walk down Oriel Road and you are bound to rub elbows with raunchy whores, down and out dopers, brutes, and other miscreants of all kinds. It’s a place where people go to fall out and where the unsuspecting fall down.
I know, because I was in “the shit” while embedded with Ben Thomas – the torch bearer for Melbourne’s traditional hot rod scene. But I’m getting a head of myself, so let’s reset a bit.
My attorney and I flew to Melbourne for the first annual River City Coupe & Roadster Club Reliability Run in January of 2012. We came in expecting to see cars that merely represented the Australian version of a “real” traditional hot rod. Instead, we were taken aback by gorgeous cars with authentic soul and genuine histories. Despite the strict road laws of the Australian government and the hideous rats of a local street rod group, these fellas had somehow managed to field a run featuring real quality – stackable against anything we have in the states.
One of the cars fielded was the ‘32 roadster you see before you on these pages. It was built and driven by Ben Thomas. Ben is one of those guys that is quite literally locked into some kind of a time capsule. By dress, you would guess him to live sometime in the Industrial Revolution. By personality, you’d guess he was in the Age Of Promise.
Typically, I shrug off fellas that lean so far to one side. Fashion, I’ve always felt, has no place in hot rodding where function 72 beats form every time. With Ben, however, it’s different. He pulls it off and I’m not quite sure, even now, how he does it.
I’m beginning to think that what Ben has isn’t a keen fashion sense, but simply style. It’s part of him. It’s part of his life, his wardrobe, his shop, his cars… Ben can pull off the extreme period “lifestyle” simply because that’s who he is. He’s a natural.
After meeting Ben and seeing his roadster in the flesh, I instantly knew I wanted to do this feature and quickly scheduled a photo shoot for the Monday after the reliability run. My attorney, Blake, would be the photographer and the venue would be Rancho Deluxe – the charming space Ben works out of. We agreed to a 7pm meeting time.
What Blake and I failed to realize, however, was that the sun doesn’t go down in Melbourne until well after 9pm and the light at 7pm is actually quite harsh. As a result, we had over two hours to kill before we could get any productive photography done. Two hours that could easily be killed if only we had a little beer on hand. So, Ben and I hopped in his roadster, roared out of the industrial complex that houses his shop, and straight into the underbelly of Heidelberg West.
After a little poking, we found a bottle shop just outside the original Olympic Village built in 1956. It was the kind of joint you would expect to find in just about any slum in the modern world – light on the essentials, heavy on the vices. We grabbed a few and headed for the counter where we were greeted by an asian man staring at a black-and-white closed circuit TV. On the screen was Ben’s roadster parked right in front of the door. Surrounding the car, were four shirtless thugs.
“See those men,” the clerk said with a smirk and a giggle. “They are going to steel your wheels!”
Before my mind could register my surroundings, the men were no longer on screen and were, instead, standing between us and the front door. It was my first opportunity to observe an honest-to-goodness Australian street thug and I was rather impressed. Each featured low slung shorts, shower shoes, and the kind of tattoos you can only get when locked up next to someone only mildly talented with a make-shift ink machine.
The biggest of the four and the assumed leader of this band of brothers looked at Ben and slurred, “I can tell by your hat. That’s your car in the park. Is that some kind of t-bucket?”
Ben, without looking up from the counter, replied, “No mate. It’s a ‘32 Ford Roadster.” And then he turned and headed for the door with me close behind, hands clenched, and ready for whatever was to come. When Ben got to the thugs, they didn’t part ways to make room for our exit. Instead, they held their ground and stared at us silently like we were rats stuck in a maze. With a calm and graceful side step, Ben was able to fit between two of the men. I tried to follow, but was holding a case of Sunset Beer and, as such, my silhouette couldn’t quite make the squeeze.
And so we came to a defining moment of sorts – Would Ben make a mad dash for the roadster and leave me to fend for myself against these four brutes? Or, would he turn unexpectedly and mad dog the men with arms flailing and no regard for self or health?
What happened next will stay between me, Ben, and the four stooges, but it’s like I said – Ben is a man’s man of another generation.
The trip back to Rancho Deluxe was a short one. The roadster roared down side streets, up alley ways, and into the industrial complex in no time at all. Before any of us knew it, the photo shoot was over, the sun was down, and we were all good and liquored up. At some point, my attorney was taking long exposures while the rest of us ran around like hoons with torches in an attempt to “paint” the scene with light. The desired effect was something subtle and creative. The end result is a bit more than that, but the journey was the reward more than anything else.
I guess that’s the moral of this story too. What was planned as a simple photo shoot followed by a nice dinner turned into a night of cheap beer (by Australian standards anyhow), street food, and childish escapades. And maybe this feature suffered as a result, but not in my eyes. And if it did, it was well worth the cost.
Looking back, that night was a rare combination of sociology and stone craziness, laced with hot rods on a level that is rarely encountered. And to think, it never would have been possible if not for the 1956 Summer Olympics.
For the book, my attorney (Blake Burwell Esq.) shot Ben’s roadster. However, I got in his way with my own camera and the following shots are the result… Me shooting the set as Blake shoots the car.
If you dig this kind of story, why don’t check out the book this feature was originally published in? You can do so here!
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