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When there were far fewer people around, far fewer laws and regulations, when the legal speed limit was 75 mph, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, if you owned a hot machine you could point the grill down an empty road and go!

Old Stuff

The 1952 Speed-O-Rama was the second hot rod show in Portland. It was put on by the newly-formed Columbia Timing Association (CTA), consisting of members from the Road Angels and the Ramblers. As a member of the Road Angels since July, 1951, it was something I was interested in. Although I was still in high school, somehow I managed to spend four days at the Portland Auditorium hanging around the show.

 It was a big enough event that two notable cars came up from California: Earl Evan's Belly Tanker and Fred Carillo's Modified Roadster. Both cars had set records at the third Bonneville meet a couple months earlier. I picked up this poster, which had been propped against the card tire, when they were shutting down.


It wasn't a big show, only about 25 cars, but a big event at the time. The whole event felt brand new -- it was brand new. The concept of a car show, whether someone would pay money to see a car, was a new idea, since the first car show in California was only in 1948.

 Now it's all old stuff, but I still like it.

The Happy Hot Rodder - 29 Ford


Here's a happy hot-rodder showing off his 29 Ford on a 32 frame. The car is a little unusual for the year, probably 1939. It has dual carbs that are set wide apart, AutoPulse electric fuel pump on the firewall -- both modern, and wire wheels -- which is an older touch.

If you look in the background you can see the B&S garage, named for Baldwin & Sommerfelt. They ran it, but the building was owned by a guy named Ike. Later, in the 70's I met with Julian Doty who worked on cars in LA and we walked down the street from his place. To my surprise, I saw the B&S garage was still in operation, although with a different name.

By the way, Doty was the nephew of George DuVall, who invented the DuVall windshield - a boat type windshield for a car, and the DuVall hubcap - the first after-market hubcap that I knew of.  The first one had an S shape that emphasized the movement of the wheels.

In any case, this guy in the photo looks happy to be driving a cool hotrod on a sunny day. Who could want more than that?

This photo and more are in the book Flat Out.

Gasoline Alley

This old Gasoline Alley comic from 1944 is intriguing. I wonder if there was any good old stuff in Uncle Avery's garage? He's got a plan for everything. Those 34 x 3 1/2 inch tires haven't ever come back in style, tho' (click on the picture to see it larger).

Riding Bike - page 78

When putting together a book it's hard to decide what goes in, and what doesn't fit.  In the section "Dealers and Shops" of Riding Bike there's a photo of an interesting looking pickup owned by a Portland motorcycle shop called "American-British Cycle."  Here's part of the story behind that truck that didn't fit in the book.

"This was a pickup truck made from a car.  This car was built years before Ford built the Ranchero and Chevrolet brought out the el Camino. Jack Warner and Fuzzy Ball had a shop called American British Motorcycles and they originally wanted a truck that was useful to haul motorcycles. "

"Rudy Rehbein was a body man from Estacada.  They wanted him to make a flatbed with a piece of plywood behind the driver’s area. He said 'No.' If he was going to do it he was going to make it nicer.
He used the Cadillac sheet metal and blended in the back of a '51 Chev pickup cab and then they had Cadillac rear fenders on there. I don’t remember if it had a tailgate but it would carry three motorcycles."

"The car was so well done it won the Custom car class in the 1952 New Car Dealers Expo show and it was featured in Rod & Custom magazine."

"The American British Motorcycles shop lasted about a year and then the pickup was sold down to California to a motorcycle club."

"I (Drake) wrote an article about it for Old Cars Weekly, and I heard from a friend that Cliff Majhor, the Sandy Bandit, said I had everything wrong. So I called him up to set the record straight.  I had said that there were three bullet holes in the back of the cab when the police shot at it.  He corrected me and said there were four."




Portland Mayor Terry Shrunk on Hot Rodding - 1955


An excerpt from a letter from Portland Mayor Terry Shrunk to the Portland Hot Rod Clubs of 1955. The text reads:
"A special meeting of the representatives of all interested Hot Rod Clubs in the metropolitan area will be held February 1, 1955, at 8 PM in the Classroom of the Uniform Division, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, on the 8th Floor of the Multnomah County Court House. (Those attending meeting please enter on 5th Street Side of the Court House and take Jail Elevator to 8th Floor). Registration (no costs) to start at 7:30 P.M. Your Club is invited to have two or three representatives present at that meeting.
The general purpose of this meeting is threefold:
1. To discuss the development of a drag strip or strips in this general area and to receive a progress report on the proposed Vanport strip.
2. To discuss proposed traffic safety plans in which the various Hot Rod Clubs can compete with each other on competitive basis for a suitable trophy and suitable safety awards.
3. To discuss the problem of public relations programs of the various Hot Rod Clubs in this general area, and to devise means of bringing to the public's attention the fact that most Hot Rod Clubs are made up of responsible young men and women of this community who have built up a good driving record in this community, and further that members of these clubs have developed at considerable expense and a lot of hard work on their part, some fine automobiles and have in fact contributed materially to the automotive industry in the field of safety and mechanical advancement.
It is my personal feeling that there is not enough attention given to our various Hot Rod Clubs and that the general public far too often misunderstands the activities of these organizations and in fact maligns their driving record on our streets and highways. This problem cannot be clarified by the various clubs."

Excerpted from Jacket & Plaque: Portland Rod & Custom Clubs of the 'Fifties

2nd Annual Portland Roadster Show - October 1957

Here's the flier from the 2nd annual Portland Roadster Show,  October 1957.  Admission is only ninety cents.  Sponsored by the Multnomah Hot Rod Council (MHRC) -- same as it still is today!

Biker!

If you were a hot rodder in the early Fifties, it was because you wanted to go fast. And if you wanted to go really fast you bought a bike.

That desire for speed was all that bikers and hot rodders had in common. They were two separate groups, and only a few guys crossed over. That’s funny because it would seem that the two groups had a lot in common.

Hot rodders were outlaws who desired respectability, which resulted in mild schizophrenia. A hot rodder really wanted to drag it out at every stop light, but he had that NHRA decal on the windshield right under his nose, and he could read the motto, “Dedicated to Safety”. He also had his club plaque on the back of his car, and he knew that if he got caught street racing he could be bounced from the club. So he built a full-race engine and drove around town at 35 mph.

Bikers, on the other hand, seemed to know who they were. Society had deemed them outlaws and most seemed to embrace that title. They didn’t try to be respectable. You couldn’t ride a bike through an Oregon rainstorm wearing a suit, so bikers wore Levi’s, leather jackets, boots and greasy caps. They hung out at taverns, drank beer, rode noisy cycles and had a chick on the pillion. They weren’t Hell’s Angels yet, but they were moving in that direction.

My father always had one or two old Harleys around, but he didn’t fit the biker image. The guys I was in awe of hung out at Merhar’s Drive-In. That was the only place where you could get exotic food, like Coney Islands and root beer milkshakes, so anything that happened there seemed mysterious to me. From the safety of the back seat of my parents’ car I saw the row of chromed bikes parked near Merhar’s side door. They were big Harleys and Indians, suicide machines, with an occasional Velocette, Triumph or BSA. The bikers stood by their bikes, drinking beer, saying things I couldn’t hear to the passing car hops. Long after the bikers had ripped out of the parking lot I could hear the angry staccato of their exhausts as the roared up 82nd, and I was certain that they were riding to their fiery deaths.

So, naturally, when I later put my roadster on blocks after three years of using it as a daily driver, I bought a bike. The first one was a 1947 BSA twin, a real dog, a suicide machine, but at least I knew who I was.


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The Dark Side of the Fifties

These days a mention of the dark side of the 1950s conjures up images of the threat of communism, the cold war, the blacklist, the suppression of minorities and, in general, a grayness that permeated daily life. Those ideas come from movies and from pundits, most of whom were born well after that decade. From my observations, as a young guy growing up during the 1950s, communists were few and posed little or no threat. The blacklist, which is the subject of a couple recent movies, was a terrible idea but it affected a really small number of people, eg. The Hollywood Ten, etc. I can’t speak about the discrimination of minorities, because in Portland during that time I didn’t know any of any.

There was, however, a grayness, at least at times, in spite of Hawaiian shirts and chartreuse automobiles. The threat to civilization was, if not grayness, then ennui. I felt it. I worked all day at a blue-collar job. In the winter it was dark when I left work for home, and the darkness and the cold was depressing. My mother fixed dinner, hamburger and fried potatoes, or Polish sausage and sauerkraut, maybe Jell-O for dessert, and while I was always hungry and the food tasted good, the menu had a gray sameness.

In 1954 we got a television set, a boxy floor model, which at first seemed like a modern miracle; to watch a show at home was terribly exciting. But after a while I grew tired of sitting in silence in a darkened front room, watching programs featuring fuzzy images of Adolph Menjou or Ronald Coleman; everything was in black and white, of course, or a permeating grayness.

When I got bored I got in my car and drove toward hubs of people; I saw my car reflected in large store windows, a rolling brightness, blue paint and whitewall tires. But by early evening traffic had diminished, and there were few people out walking. Most good citizens were home watching the gray images on their televisions, or were already in bed, tired from a day at work and escaping into sweet sleep before they had to rise and do it all again, and again, and again, for the rest of their lives.

Seeking color, I’d park at the curb in Lents and enter Mt. Scott Drug Store; I’d walk to the rear, where the magazines were kept, and spend time reading the car magazines; when I’d read the new Road & Track, Motorsport, Cycle, I’d move on to the comic books. If there was time, if the druggist didn’t come over and remind me that this was not a library, maybe I’d glance at a copy of Sunshine and Health, where a healthy American family would be playing tennis in the nude. When the druggist repeated his reminder I’d walk across Foster and enter the Rexall Drug Store, where I’d read more publications until I was tired or was asked to leave. The big clock on the wall might read 8:30 pm.

I’d get in my car and cruise. At this hour there was almost no traffic. I cruised to the Hancock gas station at SE 82nd and Woodstock, where I could always find John McGraw, Paul Stukey, Ratchit Ass Nash, maybe Larry Grant and a couple other guys who hung out there. Every station had a bunch of guys who hung out. Looking back, I can see that they were hopelessly trapped in a web that defined the lower class, guys who had perhaps dropped out of school to take a lousy job that would prepare them for another lousy job. They were the working class, but they were certainly not communists, nor were they repressed minorities.

Then, with movement inspired by desperation, I drove south on 82nd until I got to the Harmony Inn, the street’s terminus; all beyond that was dark except for an occasional headlight. Then I cruised Foster Road until I got to 112th; ahead was the forest primeval. Anxious, I quickly made a U-turn and headed toward civilization, land of lights and color.

It was perhaps 9:30; the evening had cost me nothing, except four bits for gas. I headed for home, where the acetylene light of the television flickered against the window.

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Interview: Riding Bike in the Fifties

"Riding Bike in the Fifties" is a book that took years to put together.  For most of those years he has been writing about hot rods and custom cars.  We asked Al Drake a couple questions why he wanted to write about motorcycles.

Q: Why did you want to write this book?
Drake: In 1971 I wrote a long poem called "Riding Bike."  It was inspired by the TV show “Then Came Bronson” where Michael Parks is riding around the country on his motorcycle and getting into trouble. I did a reading of it with sound effects. After that, I wanted to put that poem together with four essays I’d written and some photographs and some old advertisements from magazines I’d bought years ago. And then it grew, with other people contributing their experiences.

Q: Who’s the audience?
Drake: I don’t know any more. I was interested in it, and I wrote it for myself. But I think there’s an underground – there are cadres of people who are interested in British motorcycles and the 50’s. I’ve never written anything with the idea of the audience in mind… just talking to myself.

Here's a newspaper clipping of Roy Burke showing off his hill climbing trophy. This picture didn't make it in the book, but we wanted to share it with you. There's a great photo of him in his Engineer Boots in "Riding Bike in the Fifties".
Q: If you had to sum it up, what's the theme of Riding Bike?
Drake: It looks back at a time when there were fewer restrictions, so I guess we should celebrate that. You didn’t have to wear a crash helmet, you didn’t have to have insurance, you didn’t have to have a big wad of cash, and there were plenty of places to ride. So I guess I’m looking back at that.

Q: Anything else you'd like to say?
Drake: It was kind of a wild time. There was less traffic, and that’s what saved a lot of people. I guess, I hope that there will always be people who want to know what it was like, riding bike in the fifties.
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Riding Bike in the Fifties

"Sometimes, on certain mornings in early fall, when there is a light fog and the air holds a hint of moisture, I can recall so clearly the sound of a single’s exhaust. The mist put a layer of moisture on the chrome, and I’d wipe dew off the seat with a rag, tickle the carb and mount the bike. Using the compression release, I’d kick the piston through until it was on compression stroke and kick it without the compression release, maybe once, maybe more, until it fired. The exhaust was crisp, sharp, with a bark as I cracked the throttle." 
 Thus begins “Riding Bike in the Fifties,” hot-rod historian Albert Drake's most recent book. It's a journey into memory, back to a time that has to be called the Golden Age of Motorcycles. British bikes--BSA, Triumph, AJS, Matchless, Norton, Velocette--had invaded roads and race tracks previously dominated by Harley-Davidson and Indian. In the open land surrounding cities bikers were blazing trails, making Hare and Hound courses. If there was a rule it was "run what ya brung", never mind about insurance, licenses, headlights, mufflers, crash helmets. There never was a time when so many were so free on two wheels.

“Riding Bike in the Fifties” is jammed with first-hand accounts of riding and racing motorcycles in the 1950s and vintage black and white photographs and illustrations. Topics range from “What We Wore,” “Where We Rode,” to “The Morning Speed Run,” and “Three-Wheeling.”

131 pages, 10 x 7 x 0.3 inches, perfect-bound (September, 2012)
Stone Press; ISBN: 0-936892-27-7; Signed copy...
$19.95 

Order from Flat Out Press,
or directly from the printer.
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The Maps of "One Summer"

The original edition of "One Summer" from 1979 included two hand-drawn maps that I made of the Lents area as I remembered it from the late 40's, and as it appears in the story. This large map shows the general Lents area, including directions to Portland and Gresham. In the 1979 edition it appeared on a fold-out page. In the more current edition the map was printed on two pages.



Here's the legend indicating where key points of "One Summer" occur within that map.



















I also drew a detailed map of Chris' neighborhood, "downtown" Lents. It shows the old Lents grade school, Rexall Drugs, the Oregonian branch, and other features of the landscape that appear in the story.

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"Tilt"

I have a good long essay called "Tilt" in the May issue of the GoodGuys Gazette. It's about Sam Mullen and Bob Knowles, a car crash and the best pinball game ever.  Includes Dorothy McCullough Lee, the first female mayor of Portland (known for her hats), and her attempt to wipe out vice and pinball games.
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The Lents Collection

It seems as if transportation, or failing to travel, has always been entwined in Lents’ fate.  The town was originally founded by Oliver Lent when his oxen-drawn wagon broke an axle, and the family decided to stay put.  Later, the Mount Scott Trolley, aka “The Galloping Goose” hit the end of the line in Lents. In the mid ‘70s it looked like the end of the world had come to Lents in the form of a giant earthen berm, but it was only the construction for the I-205 freeway, severing the neighborhood from the city, while allowing North / South traffic to speed past the area.

Given this history, it’s not surprising that Albert Drake, drawing from his experiences growing up in Lents, decided to pursue writing about cars and the neighborhood he grew up in.  His non-fiction books, such as Street Was Fun in ’51, and Overtures to Motion, document the cars and personalities of the ‘50s.  But some might be surprised that before he decided to try hot rod history, Drake wrote poetry and fiction.  Some of the books have been hard to find, so Flat Out Press is reprinting them in a new edition which we're calling the “Lents Collection.”

Perhaps people have read Beverly Cleary’s books about Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby, and gathered from these an image of Portland in the ‘50s as a clean, safe suburban neighborhood.  Drake’s “One Summer,” however, shows a neighborhood frayed at the edges by wilderness. Things, such as the old Lents school, are cast aside, but the new things aren't quite in place yet. There's an uncertainty and dangerousness to this feeling, but there's also freedom and excitement.

"One Summer" evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Lents through the eyes of an adolescent boy. Drawing from personal experience, as well as historical events of Portland, Drake weaves the story of a teen in the summer of 1948 that is simultaneously nostalgic and honest. Chris and his friends read Real Clue and Detective Comics at the Mt Scott drugstore, hang out at the movies at a time when John Garfield was starring in "They Made Me A Criminal," and listen to "I Love A Mystery" on the radio. Meanwhile, hints of the adult world intrude on Chris' idyll: the responsibility of a paper route, involvement in petty crimes with his friend Mal, and a plane crash on 92nd Street. "One Summer" taps the feeling of being young, looking for adventure, and finding it in the most surprising places.

Interestingly, when Tri-Met published a study on Lents for the feasibility of the light rail project, they used “One Summer” as a reference.

Beyond The Pavement” is an attempt to merge a pulp dime-store paperback with a literary novel, while placing it in the same Lents neighborhood.  Selected as one of the 100 books that best define the state of Oregon and its people, it's an adult novel about hot rodding and changing times.

Mill Sederstrom suddenly returns from college, hoping to build a race car, get a good job, meet someone nice, but experiences only frustration in all of his pursuits.  He’s back living with his parents, cruising 82nd Avenue, and confused about where he’s supposed to go in life.  When this book was first published in 1979 the some of the street names were obscured – “Forster” instead of “Foster”, for example. In this edition the true street names have been restored.  Also, the events in the book include the spring break riots at seaside in 1962.

Of the three books in the Lents Collection, “Tillamook Burn” is the most compelling.  It’s a collection of short stories and poems that capture the mood of growing up in Portland, Oregon during and after World War II. "The Chicken Which Became a Rat" tells the story of a Japanese immigrant living in the neighborhood during the war, and was included in "Best American Short Stories of 1971."  Another story is of a father who needs to replace the U-joint for his '30 Hudson 8 so he can get to the new job on Monday with the Corps of Army Engineers. The first place is too expensive. So Chris and his dad weave through the Lents area looking for a used piece.

The poetry is clear-eyed and honest, too. As one reader has said “There aren't many middle-aged guys who won't understand [the poem] ‘Hearing Marty Robbins Sing White Sport Coat 20 Years Later.’”

All three books, "One Summer," "Beyond the Pavement," and "Tillamook Burn," were previously printed through small presses, and have been out of print and hard to find.  Now they are back in print, in a matching set, the "Lents Collection", available from Flat Out Press.
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Tillamook Burn

Now available as part of the "Lents Collection" of books by Albert Drake, the short stories and poems in "Tillamook Burn" capture the mood of growing up in Portland, Oregon during and after World War II. Highly evocative, they include memories of fathers, the fading Oregon landscapes, and studies of forgotten characters of the period.

"They drove in silence, the shadows already beginning to flatten, and soon the knife disappeared; the Indian sat back and sighed deeply, as if he was exhausted by simply driving. Chris suddenly found himself less worried about their being found murdered beside the road, and more concerned about the rumbling in his stomach. He dreamed of home, the cool shade of his back yard where he could be right now eating peanut butter sandwiches and reading comic books. When he left home, he had thought he would be right back, and how it looked as though he would be in Celilo tonight, hungry, fighting the cold desert wind."

Includes "The Chicken Which Became a Rat," from the collection "Best American Short Stories 1971." 
This book is part of the Lents Collection of fiction by Albert Drake.

Tillamook Burn
84 pages, 8 x 5.2 x 0.2 inches, perfect-bound (December, 2011)
Stone Press; ISBN: 0-936892-26-9; $9.95

Also available as an e-book on Kindle.
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