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When cars are this sensuous, you have to call them hot rods

Wednesday, Jan 14 2004
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The phone lines near the Cow Palace are strung with crows, big black birds with deep, raspy voices wholly unlike the vague coos of the pigeons that spread out across my neighborhood in befuddled clouds. The crows' yellow-eyed gazes carefully track the passers-by below, as if sizing up a potential mark, and when the creatures take wing, their movements are swift and deliberate, as silent and inevitable as a shadow.

"It's like comparing a Honda to a Hudson," says a large, heavily tattooed man named Chuey. He raises his hand in the air and closes one eye as he slowly traces the curves of the '57 Chevy hardtop like a sculptor familiarizing himself with a new model without ever touching her.

"Oh, yeah, she's a beauty," concludes Chuey.

"It doesn't look like any '57 Chevy I've ever seen," says Chuey's pragmatic companion.

"No," agrees Chuey, stooping to examine her more intimate details: a mauve interior as creamy as a lavender pastille; intricate curlicues etched along the window; careful detailing on the gas and brake pedals; plum-hued flames along the edge of the hood, so subtle as to seem a trick of light; her deep, nearly black, purple burnish; and the thin line of yolk yellow running along the bottom of her body. The real beauty of this car, though, is in her form and flow, the soft, seductive curves of the headlights that slowly draw the eye up along the broad, satin-finished hood, over the hardtop, into the soft valley of the rear end where you are propelled up and out into the stratosphere along smooth, broad fins.

I'm aware even as I linger too long near this custom Chevy that the analogy between sex and cars is hackneyed, yet there is no denying the visual impact of the machine. It is unmistakably feminine, supple, velvety, and alluring. Certainly, the artistry of her creators is manifest in the balance, precision, elevation, and drama executed in her lines, but the impact is too visceral and perhaps too plebeian to be viewed as art; it's more like sex. And not every hot rod has it. Out of hundreds of cars, trucks, and motorcycles at the San Francisco Rod, Custom, and Motorcycle Show, there are maybe a dozen that raise my heart rate, but when they do, it's all I can do to keep myself from crawling inside, running my hands over every inch. My reaction is reflected again and again in the thousands of faces around me, the slack mouths and wide eyes, the lingering glances and breathy murmurs of approval, even in the hypergregariousness of some of the younger attendees.

"This is fucking hot!" says 24-year-old Greg North, a gearhead-style hipster with classic custom red and black stars tattooed on his neck.

Of course, what is hot and what is not is entirely a matter of preference. For North, it's a black '37 Ford roadster with flames; for me a shimmering, sunset-orange '56 Ford hardtop created by Bill Cushenbery for Bud Millard of Milbrae, with pinpoint turn signals topping fins that ornament fins, and an off-center ridge shooting from the front grill to the windshield complementing the quirky futurism of the Jetsons-style swooshes that curve over the front wheel wells and extend into the doors. Or the "Limelighter," Millard's '58 Chevy, with its sea-foam upholstery, gemstone gearshift, and a dashboard that has been cut so far down as to become a piece of shimmering green sculpture. Or Andre Carey's breathtaking 1960 Ford, with its midnight-blue front end and silver-gray sides that seem to float above the ground like dragonfly wings. Or Tom Compton's candy-apple red 1946 Buick convertible.

"Candy-apple red was a revelation," says 67-year-old Deron Wolfe, who customized his first car in Louisiana when he was a "toothy teen with holes in the knees."

"Girls went crazy for the candy-apple red," says Wolfe, waiting in line to meet 81-year-old Joe Bailon, creator of the custom shade. "It didn't matter how the car ran so long as it was candy-apple red."

"It's the color of a taillight," says Bailon, a sweet-talking gent with thick, silver hair and a black satin letterman's jacket. "I thought about it for almost 10 years, then one day threw some gold powder on the bench, mixed it with Sherman-Williams extra-brilliant maroon and clear lacquer, and there it was at last."

Bailon's crowd smiles appreciatively.

"I owe this man my wife," says Wolfe.


After several hours in the main arenas, feeling overwhelmed by all the gold flake and flash, I make my way outside and into the lower hall where the rat rods are on display.

"Smells like cow shit," comments a young man with a shaved head and large earplugs as he enters the hall where animals are kept during livestock shows.

"But it sure beats all those trailer queens," says Shannon Clay, making reference to custom automobiles too precious to drive on the street. "This is the real deal."

And, indeed, while these cars appear less elegant and overtly sexy, they speak more to my heart: a rescued '26 Buick, rusted out and ravaged, but with a strong engine and a marble gearshift; a flat black '37 Lincoln riding so close to the ground a toothpick would drag; a '29 Ford with an exposed engine and teeth painted on its side; and the leader of the pack, Guido Brenner's "Von Zipper," a Studebaker/Dodge Frankenstein with a Chrysler engine, designed to look like Mattel's "Big Red Baron" model car, down to the giant silver helmet that acts as a roof and the side-mounted machine gun.

"This is my favorite," I announce.

"Yeah, that figures," says my companion. "The flash might turn your head, but when all is said and done, you're a rat rod kind of girl."


"We don't even pretend to be fancy down here," says "Lo Fi" Mike Ritchey, the principal owner of Lo-Fi Customs, a small shop on Mission at 14th Street that creates rat bikes and custom choppers (of the two-wheeled, pedal-powered variety) and "kustom" clothes and art of all varieties. The aesthetic and driving principle behind Lo-Fi might be summarized by any one of the numerous stickers, magnets, and decals Ritchey prints by hand in a shop around the corner on Stevenson: "Hang Up and Live," "Powered by Beer," "Ride It Like You Stole It," and "Lo-Fi Way of Life."

"We were all bike messengers at one point or another, all from blue-collar backgrounds ... and we all had sketchbooks filled with great ideas, so I started printing up T-shirts on a homemade silk-screening rig."

The "we" is "Curious" George Webber, Danny Boy Smith, Derek "D-Rock" Carmean, and Ritchey's girlfriend, Tracy Vincent, who is responsible for adding pink, red, and smaller sizes to the sea of large black T-shirts that might have otherwise been Lo-Fi's clothing line. There is also an ever-revolving cast of characters that drops by to help out and shoot the shit. While we're talking, a neighborhood handyman offers up a box of hardware he found on the street. It's not an uncommon occurrence.

"I thought Lo-Fi might be able to do something with stuff," says the man.

Ritchey holds up a universal thermal coupler and chuckles, accepting the box with gratitude.

"That's how we get most of our stuff," says Ritchey. "All our glass cases were donated. The shelves were salvaged. The clothing racks were made from chopped bike frames. The pinball machine we got before it was tossed off [the roof of] a squat on Shotwell."

Free games of Hyperball, like the Nintendo and the friendly conversation, are always readily available.

"We wanted this to be a place where people hang out," says Ritchey. To that end, every inch of free wall space is dedicated to rotating art shows by local artists. This month, the white-trash exploitation glitter art of Rene Garcia Jr. beams lasciviously from the walls. It's a perfect complement to the custom clocks fabricated by Webber, the artful lunchboxes redesigned by Carmean, and, of course, the bikes -- long, graceful, tall, goofy, insane, all full-service and seemingly indestructible.

"We try to keep 10 bikes in the window at all times, but it's not always possible," says Ritchey. "We get frames where and when we can. Cheap. 'Cause people in this neighborhood can't afford a thousand-dollar custom bike. We can't, anyway. So we try to do it cheap."

Ritchey's dogged lack of pretense is rare in the custom world, rat or otherwise, which is one of the many reasons Lo-Fi has become a Mission haunt for people with or without cruisers.

"If you need something printed, we'll print it," says Ritchey. "If you need something spot-welded, we'll do it. It doesn't matter if it's a bike or a table leg. Just come by the shop."

What's the cost to spot-weld a table leg to a bicycle?

"Whatever you think is fair," says Ritchey in all sincerity. "I don't know. A six-pack of beer?"

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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