Hot Rods Cruise Out of Dreams Into View

Custom-built cars help put the brakes on time

`I ALWAYS had a dream to own one of these things,'' says stockbroker Tony Stella, standing next to his immaculate, low-slung, shiny-black 1933 Ford. ``But in high school I couldn't afford it.'' Today the price tag for his specially built ``street rod'' is a cool $35,000. For Mr. Stella and dozens of other middle-aged men with plenty of nostalgia and money, the place to be on a Friday night is here in a parking lot next to a diner to mingle and show off cars.

Nobody can remember who started the gathering of cars here several years ago: They arrive around 6 p.m., and by 8 p.m. up to 50 cars line the lot. Lynn Houchin, a plumber, sits in his gleaming, yellow l934 Ford with a Corvette engine.

``I had one close to this in high school,'' he says. ``Now I can afford it, so I put one together.''

For over two and a half years, Mr. Houchin lavished uncounted hours of labor on his Ford - and about $30,000. It has four-wheel disc brakes, a Corvette rear end, automatic transmission, custom upholstery, a tilt steering wheel, and a Fiberglass body. Only the grill, hood, headlights, and rumble seats are original.

In southern California, custom-built cars are part of the automotive landscape. But it is not just a California experience. The National Street Rod Association (NSRA), based in Tennessee, claims a membership of 50,000, up from 14,000 in l976. A recent NSRA gathering of street rods in Columbus, Ohio, attracted more than 13,000 car owners and admirers.

The world of transforming old cars started in California shortly after World War II when car-hungry ex-GI's and teenagers bought cheap, pre-war, used cars and stripped them down. They rebuilt the engines for maximum power, introduced cruising almost as a way of life, and eventually raced on the streets as the forerunners of drag-strip racing.

Many of the innovations used in the early hot rods were picked up by Detroit car manufacturers in the late '40s and '50s. Today the hot rods are still transformed to ground-hugging sleekness by using radical methods such as ``channeling'' (reducing the body's height). They are ``frenched'' (headlights are recessed into the body), ``chopped'' (the cab or top of the car is lowered by several inches), and altered in other ways.

``You don't have to be afraid to go somewhere alone in a hot rod,'' says Don Glaze, president of the Street Rods Forever club in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

``Every time you stop you get a friend,'' he says. ``Some guy will walk over and say, `Man, I had a car like that once.'''

Mr. Glaze identifies two kinds of street-rod owners. ``There is the guy who built hot rods in high school and is continuing his interest, and then there is the guy who will pay up to $40,000 to have the car he couldn't afford as a youth.''

Houchin was one of those youths. ``We couldn't afford new pickups when I was in high school,'' he says, comparing his generation with today's teenagers. ``We had to buy old cars and work on them ourselves. Kids have more money these days, but they are missing some of the joys of putting things together themselves. This is an `I want it right now' world.''

Stella, who once owned a Porsche, says there is no comparison between European cars and a hot rod. ``It's the thrill of having something handbuilt underneath you,'' he says. ``When you drive on the streets in a hot rod, everybody gives you the thumbs-up sign.''

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