This devilish hot rod has the cougars prowling and the young bucks swooning, writes The Wheel Deal
WHEN it comes to subcultures, the state of California has seen them all. Hippies. Surfers. Skateboarders. Motorcycle gangs with an appetite for destruction. Take a trip through Google and you will discover that the place is a wormhole to everything alternative.
Hot rodding is another Golden State institution. Birthed in the ’30s, this pastime blew up after World War Two when bands of American soldiers returned home with service pay and mechanical know-how. Dressed in Levi’s and leather, they bought old cars and modded them to the nines. It didn’t matter if it was a Ford Model B or Chevrolet Master: weight was shed, roofs chopped and engines tuned to deliver enough power to go drag racing on the everyday mean streets, or across the dry lakebeds near LA. Cobbled together with relatively little money, the hot rod became a two-fingered salute to the establishment: an icon of youthful rebellion that raged against the machine right up until the muscle and pony cars rolled out of Detroit in the early ’60s. Then they drifted into obscurity.
If you look hard enough, you can still find these pioneers rumbling through the ether. Analogue relics in a digital age, they appeal to a special breed of petrolhead. Modern-day greasers like 30-something Leroy “Black” Tulip.
“I always dreamt about owning a dragster. I had a dinky Hot Wheels model of one when I was a kid,” the consumer insight specialist tells me over black coffee and an apple waffle. This is old-school fare. But then Mr Tulip is a retro kind of guy. He still believes in barbers with straight blades. He is often spotted at some of our city’s last surviving roadhouses. Right now he is stripping off a Dickies work jacket and exposing a set of heavily tattooed arms. “And the only way for me to get a street-legal dragster with those big rear tyres and skinny front wheels was to go down the hot rod route.”
Between gulps and mouthfuls he tells me how he went about acquiring the matte black beast sweating outside. “I came across a group of guys who had started building this rod. They were rich kids who had obviously seen one on TV. Anyway, I knew they would fall out of love with it. And when they did, I bought the car off them.” What followed was a year-long mission to get it finished. Mechanically minded people tied up the loose ends before Tulip took it through its roadworthy. Yep, this machine is as legal as your mom’s shiny new Corolla.
“Dude, unlike a lot of other rodders out there, I drive mine everywhere,” says Tulip. “I get this feeling from driving her around. It feels like I’ve committed a crime and I’m on the run; a squadron of blue lights flashing behind me. I feel like an outlaw.”
And it isn’t hard to see why. An original 1940 Ford Pickup cab bolted onto a custom-made chassis, Lucy, as Tulip calls her, was inspired by Rockabilly culture and Mexican lowriders. He decked her out with whitewall tyres, a bespoke load bin, plus a pair of headlights stolen from a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. There’s also chrome. Lots of it.
“I’ve always said that God gave us chrome because he loves us,” says Tulip, gesturing at his rod’s gleaming American heart: a mirror-shaming lump of 351 V8 muscle that herds 200 horses. Enough to give the 800kg Lucy enough shove to trounce many a sports car. Unfortunately, equipped with a tiny 40-litre fuel tank, this gas-sucking performance means Tulip can drive only about 200km between fill-ups. But this doesn’t stop him doing long distances. Just the other day he rumbled up to Kimberley for a biennial hot rod gathering known as the SA Streetrod Nationals: a four-day party where vintage-loving cats from across the country can show off their customised creations.
“It was cool,” says Tulip. “But the local hot rod scene isn’t aspirational for me. It still has an unsophisticated stigma attached to it. There’s no vibe. The Rockabilly culture, for example, is missing. I’d like more of the rich American culture injected into it.”
For now, Tulip is growing his classic-car restoration management business — and soaking up the attention that Lucy earns him. Especially the female attention. “Girls really like hot rods,” he says, a wry smile curling up from beneath his beard. “I think they just dig the way these machines look. And because hot rodding is so classic, even the old ladies — I call them the purple-rinse brigade — are appreciative. Sometimes they sidle up to the car to take a closer look and I offer them a ride.I get more grannies interested in the rod than the young ones. It’s a cougar magnet.”
In the parking lot, a couple of young bucks have fallen prey to the rod’s sinister proportions. Shielding their eyes from the chromium reflections and pointing at the shotgun-esque exhaust pipes, they’re tracing its silhouette with their camera phones. Sliding on his Daddy-O shades, Tulip swaggers up like some ’50s rock star. I can see why he loves this car, this culture, so much.
In an age cursed by cookie-cutter design and conformity, hot rodding is perhaps the ultimate form of vehicular self-expression. It’s a licence to adopt an outrageous alter ego; to be as loud, as obtuse and as leftfield as you wish. For me, though, it serves to reinforce that when it comes to cars, the past remains infinitely cooler than the present.