The Artist At Large ’50

The Artist At Large ’50

The environment of my dorm at the University Of Oklahoma was not all that unlike that of the Delta Tau Chi Fraternity house as captured by John Ladis’ Animal House in 1978. The level of pure pandemonium that existed is hard to expound upon without getting incredibly inappropriate. One of the more virginal examples I can give went down at 3AM – the morning of my first ever College final exam.

The knock on the door was answered immediately. See, my roommates never slept and were always ready for action of one kind of another. So when the scholarship wrestler handed over an empty water bottle and offered a bag of weed to anyone willing to cleanly piss in it, he had plenty of takers in room 314. By the time the fellas figured out the bartered bag was actually full of Marigold stems instead of the sticky icky, I was already getting dressed for class. And just as they were plotting their revenge, I was walking out the door.

Adams Hall Dormitory at the University of Oklahoma.

Similar shit went down on the daily. I was constantly surrounded by a blur of activity – both illegal and barely – while I sat silently behind my computer and plotted just how my life and times would eventually read. By age 18, I had been in enough trouble to gauge the annoyance of the repercussions. I replaced my thrill seeking with an absolute obsession for learning. By day, I inhaled anything a professor threw my way. By night, I chewed up every Dean Batchelor and Don Montgomery book I could find.

Eventually, these worlds collided and my HTML class lead way to the birth of The Jalopy Journal. Combining the two fascinations of technology and hot rodding was almost more than I could physically handle. I spent hundreds of hours learning to design and code the site and just as much on content – leaving little time for anything else.

I say all of this to sort of paint you a picture. Imagine, if you will, a young me sitting behind a computer and obsessing over fresh Jalopy Journal code. I’m surrounded by roommates trying on their togas or pissing in a bottle and yet, I can’t see any of it through the glare of my monitor. That’s the environment my current world and life was founded in.

Typing this now makes it seem like a lonely existence. It wasn’t… I had plenty of pals to chase girls with  and plenty of buddies willing to discover trouble. But, I didn’t know a single, solitary person into traditional hot rodding at the time. In fact, it would be years before I did.

That’s when Dennis McPhail sent me a random invite to a car show. Everything changed from that point forward. Dennis became my professor and through him, I learned what “cool” was. Not only that, but he introduced me to a social circle of like minds, principles, and ideas. I had plenty of hot rodding book smarts, but it was through this group of people that I gained real, practical experience with it.

A few hours after doing my first/only tattoo, Dennis was surrounded by Satan’s cheerleaders…

Keep in mind that Dennis and I couldn’t have been any more different. I was this clean cut college kid while Dennis favored more of a scumbag biker look. We’d stop for gas on a roadtrip and I’d get looks from people worried about my safety. And when Dennis would introduce me to his fellow Beatniks, he’d often get looks back that made me wonder about the same.

It didn’t bother me and I guess it didn’t bother him either. We quickly became close and his family became mine. I got Dennis’ first tattoo… which, by the way, was also my first and only. And I can remember asking him whether or not he thought I should propose to Marcie. A few months later, he walked my mother-in-law down the aisle at the wedding.

During this period of our lives, I was building my ’38 coupe while Dennis (along with the late/great Jeff Myers) was building, re-building, and re-fining his now famous ’52 Chevrolet. I spent countless hours behind him on the highway fighting off the sounds from his raspy straight-6 as we headed to one car show or another. Over time, that purple Chevy just became a part of who Dennis was. I didn’t even see it as a custom anymore. It was just Dennis.

Dennis’ old ’52 and my highway mate for many miles…

When he finished and sold the Chevrolet, it was as if he cut off his right arm and put it on eBay. I just couldn’t understand how it was possible. Dennis had always owned and toyed with other projects, but I thought the Chevy was unmarketable. I’m still not over it.

Don’t get me wrong – he followed the Chevy with a host of other radical full customs. There was his super clean ’60 Ford, his amazing ’56 Chevrolet, and plenty more. But to me, they were less a part of who Dennis was and more like works of art that were destined for other owners. In my minds eye, they never replaced the ’52 and became a part of Dennis’ identity.

Then, a few years ago, I gotta text:

I sort of felt like a child that had suffered through his parents divorce only to see them get back together once again. And what was left to come was brighter still.

Dennis’ street rod came with 17″ wheels, a crate motor, auto trans and other remnants of the lawn chair era. Alleviation came quickly and without remorse of any kind. The SBC was dumped in favor of a 250-inch straight six built up by Bruce Serene at Hillsboro Racing. It’s backed by a Tremec five speed and a 10-bolt Camaro rear.

The suspension features a Fatman front with a super low crossmember and a Murray’s designed airbag setup out back complete with notches. Disc brakes up front and drums in the rear. Rolling stock consists of 205/75 Diamondbacks mounted to 15″ steel wheels sporting Buick caps. That gets changed pretty regularly.

As for the body… well, there’s a whole host of shit going on here and there. First things first, everything that needed to be shaved was shaved. The headlights were then frenched using rings from Jeff Spence and the side trim was dropped a few inches to accentuate the lines. As a sort of nod to Watson’s Grapevine, ’51 Buick taillights were utilized on the rear pan. It’s all bookended by a stock bumper up front and a junkyard sourced ’51 Pontiac unit out back.

Final body work and paint is yet to come. Until then, purple tinted primer will suffice so long as it’s blessed by flames painted with some left over Ed Roth sourced paint.

The interior has yet to really be messed with. Dennis did paint the dash with some more of that old stock Roth paint (choosing “Beatnik Purple Flake” for the color), but there is still much to come. He does his customs in the same vein as our forefathers – in stages and when the wind doesn’t call too loudly. His buddy, Jason Reed, has been helping him with much of the work and Dennis is quick to give him all the credit.

“I say we did this… and we did that… But really, I just hand Jason tools and watch him do his thing.”

Whatever be the case and much like all of Dennis’ past efforts, this car gets driven. It’s been to California multiple times, New York, Austin, and well… just about anywhere you could imagine. I saw it last at the Lonestar Round Up where I had Tom Davison shoot it for this feature.

I hadn’t seen Dennis in more than a year, but it was as if we hung out yesterday and no less awkward. We just have one of those family relationships with zero maintenance and less guilt. Unconditional. Just really fuckin’ easy man…


It felt weird to write this without mentioning some of the folks in the social group that Dennis introduced me to so many years ago. They are still my pals. First and foremost though, there’s Bunny (Dennis’ wife). I’ve loved her since the moment I met her… and Marcie and I still look up to her and the way she handles the family. Golden woman.

But there’s also guys like Sancho, Sprout, Jeff (RIP), Mark, VooDoo Jim, Rob, Jimmy, Russell, Mitch and so many others… These are the guys that made me and I owe em all.

Anyway, enjoy the photos Tom took. With any luck, we will do it all again once Dennis and Jason finish the next stage of the build.

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