HOOKED ON HOT-RODDING
The first person to expose me to "hot-rodding" and to the real excitement of working with
automobiles was Howard Fowler. He taught the General Metals course at Hillsborough High,
and was very interested in high-performance cars. His shop was a favorite hang-out for the
guys since he spent a lot of time discussing the tremendous activity underway on the West
He was the first adult I ever heard to defend "hot-rodding," and proved to be sincerely
interested in channeling our growing interest in cars toward something constructive.
In the 1950 issue of the Hillsborean, my high school yearbook, somebody had the idea of
likening each of the graduates to an animal. For some reason or another (I wasn't
consulted on this, and I certainly wasn't known for speed afoot), the comment under my
senior photograph said, "A greyhound: then all I'd need to do was eat, sleep, and chase
rabbits." I had no idea how foretelling that quip would be when someday my entire
existence—including eating and sleeping—would revolve around chasing that elusive,
Because of my good grades in business subjects, I didn't have too much difficulty in
getting a job, following graduation, in the downtown accounting department of Maas
Brothers, one of Tampa's finest department stores.
But it was an utter drag. While it had been acceptable in high school to work with invoices
and receipts and bills of lading for a few hours a day, it didn't take very long for me to see
that I wouldn't be able to exist in the day-in, day-out drudgery of such a job. It wasn't the
working conditions; they were ideal. It was just me.
Just a few weeks had passed since graduation. The family was finished at the dinner
table, sitting around one evening.
"What's the matter, Don?" my step-father Alex asked. He
had detected my growing irritation with the work situation.
"I dunno, Alex," I muttered. There was an uneasy silence
until I finally continued, "It just isn't working out. I can't get
excited about the job."
"Well, if you aren't happy with what you are doing, you'd be
silly to stay with it. You can't do anybody any good in a
job that you don't like."
During the next few minutes the course of my life began
changing. We both agreed that I'd better make a move
while I could still stage a graceful exit from Maas Brothers.
"But what do you want to do?" Alex asked. "What line of work appeals to you?"
"I dunno." I was being honest. "I hadn't really thought about it much."
Alex would have had to be blind not to notice the car magazines and speed equipment
catalogs lying around in my room. He had seen my face while I was puttering around with
the blue `40 Ford.
"It seems to me you ought to take advantage of your mechanical ability," he pointed.
Now that caught my attention: "Hey, you know, I'd love working with cars!"
Alex looked up from stirring his cup of steaming coffee. He spoke as if daydreaming
outloud: "Well, this may be an idea...my brother up in Macon runs a little body shop. He
really likes it. It's hard work, but he says that it's satisfying. You know...an ol' wreck'll come
in and you sort of give it a new lease on life with your own two hands."
Then as an after thought, he added, "...and he makes a pretty good living."
Wow! In my mind I could see myself working on cars all the time—maybe even getting
good enough to chop and channel and "french" headlights and do all that West Coast
customizing stuff. And if I could make a lot of money, there would be no telling what kind of
hot-rodding equipment I could afford!
"That sounds great, Alex!" I exclaimed, getting up from the table. "Maybe I'll just give it a
I get a job at Ferman Chevrolet (the largest Chevrolet dealership in Tampa), and I got to
start at the bottom (I was what they called "unskilled labor" in every sense of the word).
The best part was meeting a mechanic at Ferman's named Grady Pickle. He was the first
genuine, in-the-flesh hot-rodder I'd ever met.
Grady had a hot car and was extremely proud of it. Most of his salary and spare time went
into the most important thing in his life, his little `38 Ford convertible.
The first day I went to work at Ferman's, he and I started
chatting, mainly since we both owned pre-war Fords. For me,
it was like talking to a creature from another planet, and I
ate up all the words and technical terms he used.
Then he walked over with me to his Ford. When he lifted the
hood, my eyes practically popped. There—just like in
Hot Rod Magazine—was a pair of standing Stromberg 97
carburetors and a genuine Edmunds intake manifold!
Seeing my sincere awe, he figured (correctly) that I was a
ripe audience for his boasts.
"She'll run over a hundred any time...ain't no car around
Tampa that'll touch her."
Well, that made him more important to me than President Truman and General
Then he brought me back to earth by pointing at my blue `40 Ford Sedan.
"You oughta bring that lil ol' Ford of yours out and run with us."
That did it. Grady and I were inseparable from that time on. A few days later he took me
out to a buddy's house. I watched as they installed a set of custom exhaust pipes on his
car. I said nothing—just kept my eyes glued on them as they changed tools and welded
pipes. It was the first time I had actually seen guys tampering with stock cars, actually
changing them according to their own desires.
I knew I was hooked on hot-rodding!
"Hot-rodding is nothing to be ashamed of," he said one
day. "It should be a source of pride."
Lightbulbs went off inside me head. The other guys were
taken aback, too.
Another day he held up a copy of a brand new tabloid from
California, Hot Rod Magazine. He flipped through page
after page of channeled and chopped cars.
"This is mechanical ingenuity at its best," he gestured,
"and someday it's going to be the most important pastime
for young men like you all over the country!"
(Little did Mr. Fowler know how prophetic his words would
be, nor could he have known that one of his skinny,
faceless students would be featured numerous times on
the cover of that very magazine.)
I sent away for a catalog of speed equipment from an ad in
the magazine, and I spent hour after hour mulling over the
pages of high-compression pistons and finned aluminum
At that stage of my life, I was perfectly content to just leaf
through my "wish book" and drive my `40 Ford as it was
(foxtail, cut-glass stars, rowdy tailpipes and all!) I wasn't a
hot-rodder yet, but I was green with envy of those
California guys who were.
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