What happened to the '50s crowd? They're all building street rods

Remember the movie ''American Graffiti''? Ever wondered what happened to that generation who cruised the main streets of America in their jalopies, roadsters, ''tubs,'' hot rods, and dragsters trying to pick up girls?

Now they're all grown up - well, some of them anyway - and they're still cruising, in their ''street rods.'' And today's rodding is ''family fun'': Rodders are the clean-cut urban cowboys on wheels.

A ''street rod,'' according to the National Street Rod Association, is an automobile of 1948 or earlier which has undergone some type of modernization and refinement. Street Scene (the rodders news monthly) says, ''A street rod is a means of self-expression for its creator.'' The creator is the rodder.

''A lot of people in our age group were addicted to cars when they were small ,'' said Vernon Walker, president of the National Street Rod Association. ''I had a love affair with a car from the time I was three years old. It went on for the rest of my life.''

''I don't think you'll find anyone out there who has ever grown up,'' said Jerry Gaskill, Mid-Coast representative of the National Street Rod Association.

''Out there'' is where the rodders are gathering in their coupes, ''Vickies'' (Victoria, a sedan with a unique rear-end ''bustle'' treatment of the late 1920s and early '30s), roadsters with soft convertible tops, T-buckets (the first street rods, usually fenderless), sedans, Hiboys (early '30s coupes or roadsters with fenders and running boards removed), phaetons (early '30s four-door convertibles), trucks, and pickups.

''Out there'' is also Merced, Calif., 150 miles south of San Francisco, where one of the rituals of summer takes place each August - a three-day rodders' ''meet.''

''Welcome to Merced, Rodders,'' say the banners fluttering above Main Street, Merced.

''Street Is Neat,'' say the rodders' T-shirts, badges, number plates, and other paraphernalia. The chili and jumbo dogs are basking above the racks of relish, mustard, and ketchup, and the cotton candy is spinning.

It's about 110 degrees F. The rumble of mufflers sears the air as more than 7 ,000 rods, bearing an average of three rodders in each rod, purr into the Merced fairgrounds.

''It started at nine years of age for me,'' says Fat Jack, easing his 300 -pound bulk around his 1932 three-window Ford coupe.

''It's a work of art. The motor ran in an 'Indy' (Indianapolis) 500 in 1969. The rod's got air conditioning, all-electric winding windows, Ricaro seats, and all the heads are carved out of one solid block of aluminum. She'll do 170 m.p.h. flat out,'' Jack said.

''It would take $100,000 to move her,'' he added, saying he'd just been offered $80,000.

Rods incorporate all the creature comforts - stereos, power steering (or tilt 'n telly, a movable steering column), power brakes, automatic transmission, and cruise control (automatic acceleration at a set speed operated by a dashboard lever or button).

With their sheared velvet upholstery, crystal vases mounted on the columns between the windows, and sumptuous wood panel dashboards, rods are often extensions of the owner's living rooms.

Fenders and bodies of rods can be embellished with ''ghost flames'' (paintwork in flame-shaped designs) and bright metal flake colors (which look like glitter). Above all, rods must have fuzzy dice dangling from the rear-vision mirror. This is a hangover from the 1950s, when a rodder's girl knitted or crocheted her claim to the front passenger seat by making the crowning knickknack.

Jack Bonin's 1929 ''candy apple'' red Ford Hiboy shimmers in the heat. It's parked alongside a 1932 Chevy that belongs to his 21-year-old son, Danny.

Jack and Danny go cruising together.

''Sometimes we just drive around town. But on the big runs we go for hundreds of miles,'' he said.

Jack's Hiboy weighs around 1,700 pounds and easily outstrips his son's heavier Chevy, which weighs about 2,900 pounds and has a top speed of 120 m.p.h.

''He can't keep up with his old man,'' says Jack with a laugh.

With its classic protruding taillights (characterized by the blue dot in the center), lack of fenders, chromed exhausts, automatic boo opener, and 327 engine with clip-off bonnet lid, Jack's rod is a familiar sight at the meets.

''It was on the cover of Street Scene and Rod Action (another rodder magazine) and has won numerous awards,'' said Jack with modest pride.

The rodders are converging on the day's final events, ''Picks of the Meet,'' when the top street rods of the nation receive their honors. A Chevy V-6, a Chrysler V-8, and a Buick V-6 take prizes. Accolades include ''Best Paint,'' ''Best Interior,'' ''Best Truck,'' ''Long-Distance Winner,'' ''Best Commercial Vehicle,'' and ''Best Antique.''

But what makes a rodder a rodder?

''It takes about a year and a half working every night to build a rod,'' said Jerry Gaskill. ''You're reliving your dreams and you're having a good time while you're doing it.''

Some rodders, however, confess to a pecuniary interest.

''You can have your cake and eat it too. It might be worth $5,000 or $10,000 now. But in another five years it'll be worth up to $30,000, and you've had your toy to play with all that time,'' said Vernon Walker.

On the far side of the fairground the buying, selling, trading, bargaining, and socializing are almost over.

Soon the rodders will be slipping down the freeways in their old-time machines, another National Street Rod meet under their fan belts.

From beneath the gull wings of a nearby 1948 customized Ford pickup, Chuck Pentmecky's AM-FM stereo cassette boogies into action:

''... rock-a-beatin' boogie, rock, rock....''

''Bill Haley and His Comets'' and 1950s rock-and-roll are alive, well, and born again in every rodder's heart this morning in Merced.

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