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HOT ROD HEAVEN : In What May Be the World Custom Car Capital, Builders Cater to People Who Know Just What They Want--and Can Afford It

November 06, 1987|PATRICK MOTT | For The Times

C andy apple red . . . . There's lust in that color. Flushing, pulsing, roaring teen - age lust, haloed in the gleam of a squeaky fifth coat of hi-gloss wax and the chrome intake ports of a four-banger so clean you could run your fingers over it and never touch oil.

For thousands of would-be high school top eliminators, candy apple red--or flaming orange or lemon yellow or metallic royal blue--was the color of that car, THE car, the one that could make your mouth go dry and cause you to forget completely about Mary Lou. Hello, '32 Ford. Goodby, heart.

Now, the 17-year-old street demons of old, who in their youth may never have slid behind the wheel of their fantasy car, never closed their fingers lovingly around the shift knob of their one, ultimate hot rod, never quite gotten a grip on that apparition quivering in a dream haze of burning rubber . . . now those would-be speed merchants are in their middle years. And they have money.

And in Orange County, which may be the hot rod capital of the universe, they know exactly how they want to spend it.

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It was no accident that the Beach Boys in the 1960s found an enthusiastic audience in Southern California for songs such as "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Fun, Fun, Fun." For nearly 15 years, Southern California had been crazy for cars that were chopped, channeled, lowered, jacked up, tricked out, modified, blown, supercharged or that could just go like hell. On weekends, garages in neighborhoods all over the map hummed with the sound of hundreds of amateur builders lovingly slapping together their own personal cruising machines.

Then, within a decade, they were all but gone.

The late '60s ushered in the era of the "muscle car"--mass-produced, high-performance models built by Detroit automakers eager to tap into the market of buyers who wanted power, speed, sleek lines and relative affordability.

But, said Geoff Carter, editor and associate publisher of Anaheim-based Street Rodder magazine, just as the high cost of parts began driving the vintage hot rods into obscurity in the '60s, high insurance premiums eventually doomed the muscle cars by the early 1970s.

Then, Carter said, with the establishment of the National Street Rod Assn. in 1970, along with the advancing maturity and fattening bank accounts of many of the old hot rod fans of the '50s and early '60s, hot rodding slowly began to re-emerge under the skilled hands of professional builders who would provide the former "bench racers" with their dream machines.

And many of these pilgrims came--and are still coming--to Orange County.

"The businesses and the people who have taken street rod building to a professional level are largely here on the West Coast," Carter said. "It's been that way since the Second World War. But today the balance seems to have shifted from L.A. to Orange County as far as the concentration of the number of car owners and car builders."

The man who is probably the best known of these latter-day hot rod builders is Boyd Coddington. His business, Hot Rods by Boyd, has been operating out of a backwater industrial park in Stanton for the last three years. Today, he and his staff of 26 may be "working on 20 cars at any one time," he said.

The garage and workshop areas are filled with engines, chassis, wheels, bodies and entire cars in various stages of construction. When the hot rods are completed, they will sell for $25,000 to $100,000. Some will go even higher. All the work has been commissioned, Coddington said. The customers will have no trouble paying for it.

"We do a terrific amount of business with the oil people in Texas," he said. "They can be people who may have had (a street rod) when they were younger or maybe couldn't afford one then but always wanted one. Now they can have one, but they don't have the time to work on it themselves. But they still want it, so they come to us."

Coddington said he always wanted one.

"My first car was a T bucket (a modified Model T) when I was 13. I read Hot Rod magazine since I was old enough to read, and in about 1968 or '69 I was building a car a year."

Turning 1932 Ford roadsters from scrap into gleaming showpieces is something of a specialty with Coddington, who said that particular car "will always be popular" with hot rod fans.

In another part of the shop, two late-model Ferraris were also undergoing modifications. Coddington made it plain that such effete autos are no favorites of his.

"Usually, the people who drive the exotic sports cars are the Newport Beach crowd, the guys with all the gold chains around their necks," he said. "But they're popular. Ferrari can't make enough of them."

Such Italianate frills are not for Mike McKeown, either. McKeown, 43, a painting contractor from Las Vegas, is a typical Coddington customer.

"I grew up in Huntington Beach," he said, "and I had a real hot '55 Chevy years ago. Since I've been real successful in business, I've gotten back into the cars, but I can't work on them. I just don't have time."

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