Under the Lights
“What’s going on here?!” The bartender shouted as I walked out into the empty street.
“Oh, I just wanted to get a shot of your sign,” I replied, pointing to the mass of blue, pink and green neon towering above the sidewalk. It read: THE WAGON WHEEL – LOUNGE – BILLIARDS – PARK IN REAR, with a swarm of yellow bulbs forming an arrow down the outer edge.
“That’s the only one in town, you know,” she said, matter-of-factly. “It was grandfathered in due to its age. If it ever needs to be repaired, at least one piece of it has to stay in place. If not, it’s gone for good.”
That was close to 10 years ago, but the historic sign has stayed put. As far as I can tell, it’s the only neon left in my hometown of Northville, Michigan. The electric glow of the Wagon Wheel is the first neon I can remember seeing, and, with any luck, it’ll stay in place for decades to come.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, but it seems as if hot rodding, customizing and neon signs are closely linked. Maybe it’s their history, their shape, or their mechanics—or maybe it’s because both cars and signs tend to be made of old metal and bring us back to a bygone era. A number of my hot rod friends have ties to the sign world, whether they’re currently working in it, retired or just enthusiasts. Whenever I travel, I look for neon wherever I go; you never know what kind of history you’ll dig up.
Don’t you just love it when your interests intersect? It’s hard to narrow them down, but I would have to say one of my favorite neon sign/custom car photos came straight from the pages of The Rodder’s Journal, issue #23. The car? Aaron Lobato’s ’53 Chevy, shot by Steve Coonan in a pool of light in front of the Paso Robles Inn. Using some secret photography techniques, Steve was able to make the Metalflake pop, bringing out the color of every twist and turn in the Waton-esque paintwork. I’ve seen other photos of that car and seen other cars shot at that location, but that image does it for me. Simple as that.
I know I’m not alone in thinking that old cars and neon signs are a classic combo. If you have any shots of H.A.M.B. friendly rides and neon, let’s see ’em!
Note: My ever-so-close second favorite custom/neon shoot involves a shoebox Ford in front of a really tall sign. It’s a color photo from the ’50s, and I think the place is called the Sahara or Sands Motel. I wasn’t able to locate it in time…but I know one of you knows exactly the shot I’m talking about. If you do, I’d love to see it.