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Spoil the Rod : O.C. Owners Are Spending Small Fortunes on These Babies


LAKE FOREST — It's hard to be sure whether that rapid, throaty whapping sound is coming from a blown Chevy engine or from the fibrillating heart of some horrified automotive purist who just got a look at the car that engine is stuffed into.

You can hear it a couple of blocks away, a kind of primal rumble, like distant thunder. Then down El Toro Road it comes, snapping heads and rattling chests with the kind of gut-level thrumming that used to be the trademark for SenSurround.

And as it eases, backward, into a parking slot in front of Fuddrucker's restaurant, heads around the parking lot nod in appreciation, and at least one visitor is bound to wonder if that pile of pure automotive muscle could have once actually looked anything like a 1932 Ford.

But that's what it is. Or, rather, was. Tonight, it, and a couple dozen of its brethren, are a manifestation of true, true love, Southern California style. Tonight is cruise night at Fuddrucker's, and the South County hot rod crowd is in its glory.

It's a ritual that happens several nights each week in and around Orange County: Garages open and legions of gleaming, roaring, startlingly pristine vintage hot rods ease into traffic and head for the local pizza or burger joint, where they . . . park. And then the owners and their spouses and friends ogle each other's handiwork, talk technical talk, sip iced tea and generally bask in the reflected glow of the sorts of machines that they used to dream about, and that they now own.

There are a handful of car clubs in Orange County devoted exclusively to the elusive kind of car that has come to be known as the hot rod. Ed Beckman, the president of Saddleback Rods, the only club in the South County, said there are probably 400 hot-rod owners in Orange County, but not all of them are affiliated with clubs. They get together regularly at such places as Fuddrucker's, and occasionally at larger spots, such as shopping center parking lots and fairgrounds, where the number of rods on display can run into the hundreds.

"The great thing about Southern California is that there's something like this going on all the time," Kenny Watkins said happily as he surveyed the now-gleaming parking lot at Fuddrucker's.

Watkins, 49, a mechanic from El Toro, is a newcomer to the local hot-rod world. He's currently slapping together his very first rod, a 1933 Ford Victoria (call it a "Vicky"), but he doesn't want to miss a cruise night, even though the car isn't finished yet.

"I just decided I wanted to build a hot rod," he said, echoing a kind of serendipity that isn't unusual among the car owners. "I never had any money to do it when I wanted one when I was younger, so . . ."

Mike Miller, 40, is another enthusiast who, like so many other current hot-rod owners, barely missed owning one during his younger days.

"I was going to build a '23 Model T when I was 18," said Miller, who lives in Trabuco Canyon and is putting the finishing touches on a 1932 Ford 2-door Model B sedan. "But I bought a brand-new Monte Carlo instead."

The need for speed (and for a really flashy set of wheels) kept gnawing at him, though, and when Miller and his wife bought a house about five years ago, "I stipulated that it had to have a three-car garage so I could build a hot rod."

And he did, piece by piece. A painting contractor, Miller said he "didn't know a thing about cars" and learned as he went along, reading technical manuals and buying individual parts when he could afford them. Now, the formerly sedate sedan carves up the road courtesy of a 400-cubic-inch turbocharged Chevy engine that Miller fitted under the hood.

"It's definitely a runner," he said, "and women like it because it's the only baby-blue hot rod around."

Miller figures he's sunk about $25,000 into his baby-blue bomb but estimates that when it's finished it'll be worth around $35,000 to $40,000.

"You don't lose any money on 'em," said Bob Lakin 51, a computer electronics designer from Mission Viejo who has built and sold several rods.

For instance, Lakin said, he bought his '34 Ford convertible for $800 originally (remember, this is stock, and probably not in wonderful shape). Today, after tricking it out with a new, sleek interior and a 350-cubic-inch Corvette V-8 engine and a spotless chassis, Lakin said he thinks he can sell it for $65,000.

But don't call it a restoration job. These cars are about as close to original factory specs as an F-18 is to a unicycle. Hot rods typically are either built from scratch, using original bodies and chassis, or from Fiberglas kits (for the body) and custom chassis and engines. But they are not restoration jobs. When a hot-rod builder sees, say, a stock '34 Ford three-window coupe, he doesn't see an object of pristine automotive reverence. He sees raw materials, materials to be chopped, channeled, raked, lowered, modified, adorned, souped up and buffed to a shine that GM can only dream about.

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