CALL Tom Gale a rebel with a cause.
A thousand cheering fans line Main Street at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds as Mr. Gale rolls by in his Plymouth Prowler. Parked in a place of honor, surrounded by '32 Deuce Coupes, '50 Flame Mercs, and '57 Chevies, the Prowler is the highlight at one of the nation's biggest hot rod rallies. But the gleaming, burgundy red convertible is merely a pretender to the throne.
Under its antique highboy hood, the mechanisms are modern, including a 3.5 liter V6 engine borrowed from the Chrysler Corporation's Dodge Intrepid sedan.
"You have to break the rules ... to break through all the clutter," explains Gale, Chrysler's vice president of design. "You just can't come out with `me too' designs."
To that, Chrysler can plead "not guilty." The Prowler looks like it was driven off the set of "American Graffiti." And the response has been overwhelming. Since the two-seat coupe's debut at the Detroit auto show in January, Chrysler has been inundated with fan letters - and checks.
Now, Gale has come here to see if there really is a market for a car that breaks all the rules.
"It's a gorgeous automobile. I'd jump into it now and take it home," says Noel Blanc, with an admiring shake of his head.
Mr. Blanc is the son of the legendary Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and countless other cartoon characters. And like his father, Blanc has a love of cars.
His collection of 20 classics includes a number of Corvettes and Ferraris, but on any given day, you're more than likely to find Blanc driving a customized '51 "Flame Merc" Mercury distinguished by the hand-painted flames scorching the fenders.
Blanc is one of many collectors who are trading in their exotic sports cars. But hot rods are both distinctly American and uniquely egalitarian.
"You can get into hot rodding for $150,000," says Eric Geisert, associate editor of Hot Rod magazine, "or spend $6,000."
Hot rodding was born on the blacktop roads and dry lake beds of Los Angeles back in the '40s and '50s. Today, the phenomenon reaches across the country. As many as 15,000 rodders will gather in Columbus, Ohio, in July for the hot rod nationals.
"It's crossing from cult to mainstream," says Gary Medders, founder of the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association, sponsors of the Pomona meet.
For hot rodders like Jim Chilchutt of Ventura, Calif., it's a way to relive his wild youth: "One of the most popular movies when I grew up was `Rebel Without a Cause.' And street rodders are rebels. We have no rules."
Mr. Medders suggests the boom in hot rodding may be a backlash to all the rules and regulations that have so homogenized today's automobiles.
"If you buy a new car, there's very little you can do to it," he says. "But with an older car, you can. You can personalize the car exactly the way you want it."
There's a big difference between an antique car and a hot rod. Antique collectors go to incredible lengths to assure the authenticity of their automobiles.
"Some of these, it's hard to tell what they started out as," laughs Medders, pointing to what was once a 1940 Ford delivery van.
What's left has been chopped and channeled, its fenders and doors "smoothed off," and a big block Chevrolet V8 engine crammed under the hood.
In fact, more than half the cars at this meet aren't that old. Most Deuce Coupes and Woodies long ago rusted away or were crushed and recycled. So most rodders turn to the more than 200 companies selling fiberglass replicas and maybe five times as many marketing customized parts.
"You find companies building Fords that Ford never made," Mr. Geisert says. "They're called `phantom bodies.' "
But Chrysler would be the first Detroit manufacturer to get into the hot rod "repro" market. It will take the rest of the year to make a decision, Gale says. The goal would be to produce about 5,000 Prowlers a year at around $25,000 apiece.