Moving On, In A Small Way

Moving On, In A Small Way

Last week, I stood in my parents’ basement staring at my old workbench. I went down there to carry out a simple task, yet there I was, standing where I always stood doing what I always did. I was mocking up model car bodies on frames, wheels on axles—you know, day dreaming about hot rods in 1/25th scale. Even though I was on a mission to clean that stuff up once and for all, I just couldn’t help myself.

The project started with a long-distance phone call. My dad asked if that, upon returning to their house in Michigan, I go through the last of my possessions that had been taking up space in a corner of their basement for the better part of four years. “That should be no problem at all,” I assured him, not thinking much of it. It was a simple enough chore, right? Sort through some old clothes, shred some old paperwork, and finally let go of all those model cars that I hadn’t done anything with since high school.

On the day after Thanksgiving, my Mom and I made our way downstairs. We quickly worked through the clothes, pictures and miscellaneous this and that, but by the time we got to the models, she had gone upstairs. All of a sudden, I was alone. I looked around the room—at the orange walls we had painted one spring break back in middle school, at the black and white checkered tile floor we had laid down to cover the bare cement, and then finally at the pile of plastic parts on the bench. I took a deep breath and smelled the mix of paint, dust and whatever else has always been in that old basement air—a smell I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world.

What I saw on that workbench were pieces of my past in 1/25th scale. Bob Rothenberg’s ’32 Ford three-window, Randy Dubb’s bright yellow Willys Gasser, and Dickie Flippen’s mid-engined ’32 Chevy sat in a three-level plastic case sourced from an old toy store. An altered-wheelbase Barracuda rested atop a repurposed nut and bolt case, while everything from blown Hemis and Corvair sixes to superchargers and Moon tanks filled fishing bobber trays. On one side of the workbench, there was a plastic tub marked “Wheels, tires and axles”—complete with an illustrated wheel—that was undoubtedly my mom’s handiwork from days gone by.

Rothenberg’s ’32 and a similarly styled Deuce three-window, 2008

A quick look underneath the bench revealed bins full of bodies and pieces of projects past. As I opened each one, the memories spilled out like an overturned bottle of Testors enamel. There was the 1946 Ford Woody I built for an early H.A.M.B. model contest. It was a tribute to Jeff Courtie’s “Nitro Woody,” complete with a blown 392 Hemi, straight axle, hand-painted wood and plenty of Bare Metal Foil trim. It didn’t win, so the parts were scavenged for a longnose Firebird S/FX Funny Car. So it goes.

The Nitro Woody under construction, 2009

Then there was the ’55 Lincoln Continental promo kit that was smashed beyond repair when I got it from a fellow back in the mid-2000s. It got the Don Garlits “Dart 2” treatment with a Fueler chassis, full tonneau cover and altered wheelbase. Originally white, I blended the paint to make it look like a barnfind of sorts. Injectors poked through and the driver sat in the trunk area, just in front of the spare tire.

In that same bin, I found remnants of the “Sizzler” ’65 Mustang. It too started as a Ford promo kit, which I wasted no time turning into a rocket-powered match racer during my Turbonique-obsession period. For full effect, I strapped a bottle rocket to the rear axle and subsequently melted the coupe’s right rear corner, making it all-the-more authentic. (Side note: during its one and only “run,” the rocket launched out from underneath and skipped right over to the edge of the neighbors’ garage. Even though he’s a firefighter, I’m glad he wasn’t home).

As I picked up each of these little cars, I realized I was doing exactly what I promised myself I wouldn’t do—I was getting nostalgic. This was supposed to be a routine “merge and purge” in a now rarely used corner of my folks’ basement, not a trip down memory lane. Seeing that I was only home for the weekend, I sure as hell didn’t have time to bumble around. The conventional side of me told myself to just toss the whole lot and move on, but I knew the answer wasn’t that simple.

It didn’t take much thinking to realize there was only one thing I could do—and that was find someone who would appreciate this stuff for what it truly was. My thoughts immediately skipped back to the H.A.M.B. “Wait a second,” I said. “What about Martyn?”

Martyn, better known as @Captain Scarlet, lives just across town. Way back when, he had given me a ’57 Chevy Cameo pickup kit that I used as the basis for yet another model contest. Soon after receiving the truck, I altered the wheelbase (sense a theme here?), dropped in a blown 421 Pontiac and raised the front end a scale “foot” in the air. With blue and gold candy paint and every ’60s touch from pinstriping to parachute, it still sits on my old bedroom shelf in a place of pride.

My ’57 Chevy Pickup, ready for C/Altered action, 2009

I reached out figuring that if he doesn’t want this stuff, he’ll know someone who will. So, late Saturday afternoon, my Mom and I loaded up her car and drove 0.7 miles to Martyn’s under a slate gray sky. A cold rain fell, and it wasn’t showing any signs of letting up.

With the car idling in the driveway, I walked up to the house, rang the doorbell and waited. Nobody answered. I didn’t blame him; I was a little late. I opened the storm door and knocked. My heart began to race. What felt like an hour later, I heard a voice on the other side. “Dad, I think it’s for you,” it said. The door opened and there was Martyn. After catching up for a minute, he directed me to his garage. The door lifted and his full fendered Deuce three-window came into view. I remembered it from my previous visit. Not one to sit idle, he had it out the day before, running errands around town.

Bin by bin, my Mom and I brought the models into the two-car garage. The rain continued. Within a matter of minutes, the tubs were on his workbench and next to the coupe. He told me his friend’s 10-year-old son had just built his first model, and he knew he was going to love all this. I couldn’t help but smile.

Me and Martyn’s coupe, 2018


There was once a time in my life where model cars were a critical part of my identity. They were my sole link to the world of hot rods and customs. I read the magazines, went to shows and drew in my notebooks, always dreaming of the next kit going under the knife. Those little pieces of injection-molded styrene were traditional in and of themselves, and they were an outlet for me to build whatever I wanted, however I wanted. Through these kits, I learned about everything from straight axle geometry to proper paint prep. They allowed me to stay up late into the night, cutting, building and making progress towards the final creation—just like the “real” shops were doing with full-size cars all across the country. As I grew older, my focus shifted to bigger motorized things and my whole model car fascination got sidelined. That’s life, I suppose.

Two final points here. First, looking through these old kits brought about a tinge of sadness because, back then, I felt like it was all so possible. Get the parts. Build the cars. Enjoy them. That’s how you build a model, so it’s only natural that that’s how you build a hot rod, right? Depending on how you see things, that’s a case of ignorance/bliss or youthful imagination. But it’s a feeling I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Second, it’s no secret that our hobby is getting older. Whenever I walk around any fairgrounds at any major “destination” show, there aren’t many people my age. Yes, there are parents who dragged their young kids there, kids who dragged their parents there and countless combinations thereof. I can only postulate that the reason for this is that most of the 20-somethings are like me, in that middle ground between models and full-sized hot rods, trying to save as much money as they can as the price for everything from vintage tin to valve springs rises at a rapid rate.

Not a week goes by where I don’t hear someone complaining about kids not getting involved. I’m just as guilty as the rest, because on most days I feel that I have little to contribute to future gearheads. I have no cars, no real fabrication skills and no insider secrets or wisdom. But I did have a few plastic tubs filled with my life’s worth of model car projects that, with any luck, will ignite the spark for a future hot rodder. I sure hope so.

Joey Ukrop

Bill Bierman’s “Suicide King” c.2008

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