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Hot Rod History


The Biggest Names in Hot Rodding Were Young Guns Once


There are a bunch of people in the hot rodding and custom car hobby and industry who have become so well-known that we start to think they've been around forever. However, as you're about to see, that is hardly the case. Even big-name builders and collectors had to start somewhere. We wanted to find out where, so we got on the telephone to some of these prominent guys and invited them to do the same thing we've been inviting all of our readers to do--send us some photographs of their car projects from the "old days." What kind of cars were hot rodding's big guns building and driving when they were young guns, before they started drawing the attention of the rest of the world? Here are some of the responses we received. We had so much fun with this that we may decide to get more pros involved in the future.

Darryl Starbird
Since the '50s, Darryl Starbird has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most innovative builders in rodding. Some of his best known custom creations include the Big T, the Big Deuce, the Electra, and his masterpiece, the Predicta bubbletop T-bird. He now keeps the heritage of this hobby alive at his National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum in Afton, Oklahoma.

Darryl didn't wait long to get into customizing. "I built my first custom during my junior year of high school in 1950," he told us. The car was a '42 Ford convertible, and Darryl smoothed out the lines by filling in the seams and hood moldings. Other custom touches included a '49 bullet in the middle of the grille, as well as a '48 Chrysler rear bumper and a Continental kit. "Keep in mind that the motorboat look was big at that time," he reminded us, and the theme was prevalent on the car.

Darryl's first full custom buildup was this '47 Cadillac fastback, which he started in 1953. The hood, trunk, and fender seams were filled, and he modified the grille by removing the large stock parking lights and installing a grille bar to clean up the look. Stock headlights were replaced by '53 Caddy lamps with '55 Chevy rims (an unusual choice in the day, he says), and frenched '50 Oldsmobile taillights were added to the rear. On the inside, the seats were upholstered in black and white rolls and pleats, and a handmade console was built to fit below the padded dash. Wire wheels came from a later-model Eldorado, and the car was finished with 20 coats of hand-rubbed black lacquer.

Darryl was driving the '47 when he first opened his shop in 1954. It was also the first of his cars to appear in a national magazine, which it did in August 1957, in the pages of ROD & CUSTOM. Remarkably, he still has the car, which is now in the process of being rebuilt in the shop at his Hall of Fame Museum in Afton.

Bill Smith
By the time "Speedy Bill" Smith (founder of Speedway Motors in Lincoln, NE) was 25 years old, he'd owned more than 100 cars. His first was a '17 Model T, which he bought when he was 14. When this photo was taken, in 1950, Bill was 21 and had already started earning a reputation for speed, especially with this '40 Ford Standard, aka "the fastest car in town."

He'd purchased the car used from a dealer a year earlier. The green '40 was a single-owner car that had been traded on a new vehicle and had only 8,000 or 9,000 miles on it. Bill swapped the factory flathead for a Cadillac OHV mill, using an adapter to run it against the stock Ford transmission and rearend. He also added a set of headers and dual Smithy mufflers, "zipped up" the carb, and advanced the timing. The result was a pretty quick car. Bill remembers taking the '40 out for some occasional exercise on the streets of Lincoln against some of the other local iron, and says he didn't lose often.

At the time of this photo, Bill was a student at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where he was studying to become an industrial arts teacher. He was also dating his girlfriend Joyce then. The shop teacher thing never worked out for Bill, but Joyce became his wife and still is. Together they run one of the most successful aftermarket performance parts shops on the planet.

As for the fastest car in Lincoln, Bill sold the '40 in 1952. The guy who bought it eventually sold the car to someone else who restored it back to its original condition. Where is it now? Who knows?

Dave Lane
Dave Lane is one of the fastest rising pro builders out there. His cars include George Poteet's '32 roadster and '32 five-window coupe, the FastLane '59 Chevy Stratocruiser wagon, and many more (check 'em out at His cars have won a bunch of trophies, including Goodguys Street Rod of the Year (for the coupe), and he's earned a stack of builder awards. Dave grew up in the '80s, but young as he is, he was even younger when he started building cars. Like a lot of young guys in the '80s, Dave was into '60s-era musclecars, and his rides included Trans Ams, Novas, Chevelles, and a '64 Corvette. Believe it or not, it was MTV that got him interested in early hot rods. He saw Billy Gibbons' Eliminator '33 Ford coupe on a ZZ Top video and that was it for teenage Dave.

He headed for the '83 Hot Rod Super Nationals in search of early iron and ended up selling his Corvette to pay for this '28 Pontiac four-door--his first early car and the first car he ever built. The all-original Pontiac was completely apart when he trailered it home (that's Dave on the left, scratching his head), but every part was there. All he had to do was put it together--with no tools or experience.

"All I had to build the car was a bucket of handtools and no knowledge of what I was doing...but sometimes ignorance is bliss," Dave said. The bliss lasted three years. During the course of that buildup, he boxed the frame, added a Mustang II frontend and a four-bar rear with coilovers, and dropped in the Pontiac 400ci mill. This photo of the finished car and its owner was taken in 1987, when Dave was 23 years old. Three months after the car was finished, he and his wife Nancy decided to move to Germany, so he sold the Pontiac.

When Dave finished building the Pontiac, he told his family, friends, and anyone who would listen, "Whatever you do, don't ever let me build another car again!"

George Barris
The list of customs built by George Barris goes on forever, from the early 'sleds he worked on with his brother Sam at Barris Kustom Shop (including the Hirohata Merc and the R&C Dream Truck) to countless cars for TV shows and movies (including last year's Starsky & Hutch Torino). George's first car, and the first car he customized, was a '25 Buick sedan, handed down from his father. With lots of imagination, but not much money, George managed to fabricate custom parts from ordinary household items, like pots and pans, which served as custom hubcaps. "I took the knobs from our drawers and cabinets and put them into the grille to make it look a little more beautiful," George recalled. "Of course, later on, I was in big trouble because nobody could open up those cabinets."

The car in this photograph is one of George's first more-elaborate customs, and the one that started to get him noticed as a customizer. This Carson-topped '41 Buick featured a 4-inch chop, channel, '42 Cadillac grille, bullnose, and frenched headlights. The Buick was displayed at the '48 Los Angeles Armory Show, promoted by Robert Petersen, who went on to start Hot Rod Magazine.

Elmer Howard's Body, Fender & Top Shop in Sacramento was one of the shops George worked at before starting his own business. "It's one of the first places where I learned how to weld and pound fenders," he said. In 1947, George returned to the shop with the Buick and posed for this photo with some of his old friends. From left to right are, Jack Odberg, Barris, Buddy Ohanesian, Bruce Glenn, Norm Milne, and Mel Falconer.

George Poteet
When it comes to beautiful hot rods and customs, builder/collector/racer George Poteet has the Midas touch. Everything he owns is absolutely golden. His diverse taste includes everything from rods to musclecars, from immaculate show cars to rough and tough drivers like his green '48 Ford pickup. His green, flamed '32 was a Power Tour participant and the first winner of the R&C Asphalt Ego-Rama (go to for a full inventory). The only similarity between all of the cars in his collection is excellence.

As a typical 16-year-old high school kid in 1964, he already had a passion for cars. He was driving a '53 Dodge at the time. "No, it didn't have a Hemi," he says. That year, "something came out of Detroit that would forever change my life." He is referring to the Mustang. From the moment he saw one it was his dream to own one someday.

George was driving a '63 VW in 1968, when his son was born. The Bug was way too small for a family, so he sold it, borrowed $1,200, and bought a black '66 Mustang fastback. "It was pretty much beat up all over," he recalled. During the next four years, the Mustang was transformed into a Springtime Yellow GT, which served as the Poteet family car for ten years--which brings us to this photo, from 1983.

"The skinny kid in the picture just turned 15 years old and is ready for his first car." By now the old Mustang was "pretty well worn out," so George turned it into a father-and-son rebuild project with George Jr. "I bought every Shelby piece that I could buy and made it into a GT350R. The term clone did not exist back then; it was just a cool car for a 15 year old to drive." As a homebuilt Shelby, the Mustang saw daily driver duty for another five years. In 1988, it was sold for a new 5.0L Mustang.

George has this advice to any young gun: "Set your goals and keep the passion burning, and you will get where you want to be. For you see, someday you will be an old, fat, gray-haired man who will still have that burning inside you. Today my goal is to live another 10 years because there is now a 6-year-old George who will need a first car and there is a '70 Mach 1 in the barn ready to be built in the summer of 2014."

1953 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
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