The year 2010 marks the first time the National Street Rod Association has allowed muscle cars through the gates at the Kentucky Exhibition Center in Louisville, Kentucky. The Street Rod Nationals went down the first week of August, and you'll get to read all about it next month. Not having ever worked in an official capacity for a street rod magazine, I never had the need to attend, but this year was different. While the 8,000 cars in attendance were mighty impressive, what really struck me was the vendor exhibition area in the main hall.
I'd heard rumors that the vendor hall was really big, but I pretty much wrote it off as a fish tale. How big could it be? I'd been to the SEMA and PRI shows like a hundred times. I mentally planned out my visit to the Nats, giving the car show the lion's share of my time, and the vendor area maybe a half day at most. When I got there, that changed. I was blown away at the endless rows of vendors showing off their cool stuff. It was like having our December Holiday Gift Guide-times a factor of 1,000-all under one roof! If it's made for a street rod or a muscle car, you can find it at the Nats, and not being a trade show, you don't have to be a card-carrying vendor or a buyer to see it. Imagine a typical indoor mall in a midsized city completely filled with hot rod parts, and you've got the idea.
These days, you can build a completely new car from the ground up without having to find a starter car, or crawl through the junkyard for parts. Most people don't build an all-new hot rod, but they could, and that's a huge concept to wrap your mind around. Purists may shrink from the idea, but we all need to get used to it, because it's here to stay. The thing about the Nats that sets it apart from a trade show is that the end users are there face-to-face with the manufacturers, asking the hard questions, wheeling and dealing, and buying parts with hard-earned cash.
Historically, a hot rod is a homebuilt contraption. Decades ago, a magazine like PHR would run stories on how to identify and modify parts found in junkyards, how to swap parts from other cars, and how to fabricate your own junk. The idea of bolt-on parts was a pretty new idea in the early '60s when PHR started, but now it's the common mode of operation. The relentless introduction of new technology is urging the "bolt-on" trend forward, and existing parts-camshafts for instance-continue to be improved. Most of this is introduced by the OEMs in new cars, then carried forward by aftermarket manufacturers. I suppose to traditional hot rodders, bolt-on parts are a dirty word, but without them, we couldn't see the quality of homebuilt cars people are now building in their own garages.
Bob Bertelsen's '72 Trans Am on our cover is a great example of what bolt-on parts can do, and of how far we've come. Bertelsen's T/A has a state-of-the-art DSE suspension under it, Baer six-piston brakes, a Mast-built fuel-injected LS engine, a Bowler 4L80E automatic overdrive trans with paddle shifters, air conditioning, and even GPS, for criminy sakes. This is current OEM technology or better, and one guy integrated all of it into a 38-year-old car in his two-car garage. But like so many other hot rodders today, Bertelsen had a lot of help. I don't think any solitary person can tackle a task like that without guidance from the global village-in fact, that's one of the main reasons magazines like PHR exist.
Nevertheless, Bertelsen's Trans Am isn't your typical bolt-together F-body. There are plenty of custom touches that you can't find in a blister pack. The bodywork in particular is a one-man tour de force, proving that even in the age of prepackaged bolt-ons, there is still plenty of room for individuality and good ol' fashioned ingenuity. The same can be said about Chris Bethel's '66 Mustang and Jerod Kirk's '71 Ventura. Yeah, they're on a slightly different budget, but even in a world of big-box mail-order speed stores, individuality stills reigns.
In the end, professionally engineered parts-"bolt-ons"-allow us to more easily achieve our hot rodding vision. And while there is still the potential pitfall of building another me-too car, I've found that most people choose not to, because bolt-on parts are merely the means to an end. After all, what's the point of building a hot rod if they're all going to end up alike?
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