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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!

Peter Sukalac: Photo Journalist

 

Peter “Pete” Sukalac was a professional photographer who made a career of photographing machines: hot rods, custom cars, race cars, boats, go karts. He appreciated style and craftsmanship. His photos appeared in the pages and on the covers of the slick magazines of the day: Hot Rod Magazine, Rod & Custom, Boating, and Auto Mechanics. He eventually founded, financed and contributed to his own publication, Northwest Rods.

There was such an abundance of material during the 1950s and 1960s, and Pete sought out the best, the cream of the crop. In doing so, he put Northwest builders and machines on display, and they measured up to the best from California, the Mecca of hot rodding and racing.
“If Sukalac had not documented cars and people in the Northwest, it might seem as if nothing had happened in this area.”

Excerpt from Peter Sukalac: Photo Journalist

Portland has always bred a lot of genius thinking. Carry that all the way back a step before 1940, during the 1930s where Beaverton Gateway Mall now stands was an airport. It functioned up until the 1960s, until they built the mall. That was the hotbed for the development of home-built aircraft in the entire United States. Wisconsin is now, with the EAA. But at that time, there were more aircraft out here than you can imagine. So Oregon has always had some unusual minds. Engineering, engines, mechanics and so on. It’s a state where there’s been a lot of mavericks.

 I truly started running around with Bob when I became sales manager for what was then the Northwest Light Car Company. Owned by J. Kendall Hockensmith, sounds great, but he was just a Kansas farm boy. It was in Portland, across from the stadium on 18th, and we had Jags, Austins, MGs, Crosleys, Simcas, you name it. Bob Hegge hung around mostly because I could buy him a meal. He was virtually starving, trying to freelance. Then one day he met Tom Story and did a feature on his car. He must have had four magazine covers and I don’t know how many features he did on it. Got him really going, plus it got him in trouble because he sold the same story at the same time to four different national magazines. He had Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science, Road and Track, Motor Trend.


Peter Sukalac: Photo Journalist collects interviews, essays and a showcase of Sukalac's photos into a fascinating snapshot of one photographer's career. Highlights include

  • Photographer for Hot Rod, Car Craft, Rod and Custom, Street Rod and more!
  • Publisher of Northwest Rods
  • Previously unpublished photos from the 50s & 60s
  • Bios & anecdotes
  • 1950s Nostalgia

132 pages, 103 b/w & color photos, $24.95 + $5 shipping (in the US).
Order from Flat Out Press, 

or order from Amazon.



 


The First Drags

The ’32 flathead with the
McCullogh blower in Bob’s coupe.
This is from Al Drake's book Reflections in a Spinner Hubcap, available from Flat Out Press.

The first legal drag races in the Portland, Oregon area were held on the last Sunday in May, 1952. I was there.

Everything was new and wonderful. My father and I had driven my A-V8 roadster 120 miles south, to Eugene, the previous summer to watch the drag races. The clubs in the Northwest Timing Association (NWTA) had been holding drag races for a little over a year. In fact, there was not even the words “drag races” or they weren’t being used; in a newspaper article they were called “sprint contests”. Of course the term had been used in California where, as Wally Parks wrote, a guy would pull into a drive-in, find a competitor, and challenge him to “drag it out”. He also told me that he had planned to have quarter-mile acceleration races at Muroc, but WW II intervened. So the first legal drag race was in 1949 at the blimp base at Santa Ana.

In July, 1951 I joined a car club, the road Angels; the next month it joined forces with another club, the Ramblers, to form the Columbia Timing Association (CTA), whose purpose was to promote a drag strip closer to Portland. By May, 1952 it had acquired permission to use the Scappoose airport on certain Sundays during the summer. This was exciting news! I was truly car crazy. I thought about hot rods all the time and fantasized about building a variety of them. It determined who my friends would be, what I would spend the little money I had on and it interfered with my school work. Hot rods mattered!

On that Sunday in May, 1952, my A-V8 was apart. My father was sick and I had skipped many days of school to work in his gas station in Oswego. I was driving a dull gray 1936 Buick sedan; I put a buck’s worth of gas in the tank and headed toward Scappoose, 30 miles distant. I drove, and fantasized about building a four carb intake for the Buick, and a header system; those changes would make it go. Or removing the entire body and running it as a chassis, such as Dick Kraft’s “Thing” which I’d seen in magazines.

I got to Scappoose and found the airport. There were only a few cars in sight. I knew the gate man and he let me in free. I parked in the spectator area and walked across the air strip to the pits, where one car was rapping its pipes. By noon there were perhaps 30 cars in the pits, and a short row of spectators’ cars on the other side of the track. Norm Cahill, one of the organizers, told me years later that the lawyer they met with to fill out the incorporation papers scoffed at the notion that anyone would pay a quarter to watch an old Ford go the quarter mile. And now, Norm said, look what drag racing has become.

I talked with several Road Angels and checked out their cars. Jim Beauvais had a ’40 Ford coupe with a newly-rebuilt 276 CID flathead. Danny Hanna had a primered ’36 roadster with a hopped-up flathead; he drove it hard, not worrying about breaking an axle so far from home. Thom Charters had a nearly-new Chev convertible, with lots of custom body work but a stock engine. Norm Cahill had his primered ’40 Merc convertible with a hopped-up and fully chromed flathead, and a set of wild duals using Rayjax mufflers.

There were other cars, street roadsters and chair cars. Most cars went between 80 and 90 mph, so that an early roadster and a new Olds 88 were turning the same speeds; no one got near the magic 100 mph mark. But it was exciting to see various cars peel out, wind up, hit second gear, the rear dropping and the nose up, heading toward the clocks. This was what guys had been doing on 82nd Ave., the long road between Oswego and Oregon City, and on the unfinished Banfield Freeway. The big difference was if you were street racing you could get a hefty fine or even lose your license; on the airstrip it was legal. And that was a big difference.

Another Road Angel, Bob Simonis, had a ’32 Ford 3-window in the pits and a bunch of club members were huddled around the engine. The coupe had been stripped and channeled; it still had the ’32 V-8 mill, a 21 stud flathead, apparently stock except for the McCullough supercharger, which was really impressive. The engine would start, run, then backfire and flutter to a stop. Club members offered their opinions. One thought it was that old ignition, another thought there was a vacuum line flaw, another suggested new spark plugs. Finally the consensus was that it was starved for gas. Bob was trying to figure out what to do so he could at least get back to Portland. I mentioned that my ’36 Buick had a bigger carb, a Stromberg EE, and we could take that off and bolt it on because it had the same 3-bolt pattern. Bob looked doubtful, and then another club member offered to tow the coupe back to Portland at the end of a rope, and Bob accepted.

Much later I thought what if I had switched carbs and stripped a fitting or something. I was out in the country, miles from home, alone, and I had no money. I was glad Bob hadn’t taken me up on my offer. But I did what I could; I had my camera and I took a photo of the engine.

Excerpted from Reflections in a Spinner Hubcap, available from Flat Out Press.


A Quick History of Hot Rodding Milestones

Overview of Speed cycles of 1951 show. Photo by Bob Hegge

In my books and in conversation I have tried to straighten out the timeline of rodding events, especially in the Pacific Northwest. And yet, people make errors on dates and events such as saying that they were at the first Portland Roadster Show in 1954 or 1962, obviously confusing the PRS with some other show.

While it would require a good deal of space to cite every event, I want to list the major events, again primarily in the Northwest.

  • 1920s-1930s: Hot rodding began in California and accelerated before WWII. See my definitive book Flat Out (1930 – 1950)
  • 1945: Post WWII hot rodding thrived in the Northwest and across the US. See my book Hot Rodder! From Lakes to Street.
  • 1945 – 54: Oregon track roadster racing becomes popular. These years are covered in Northwest Oldtimers.
  • 1948: The first Hot Rod Exposition Show held in Los Angeles. Probably the first commercial hot rod show held anywhere.
  • 1949: First legal drag races held at Santa Ana, California blimp base. First legal drag races (called “sprint contests”) in Oregon are at the Eugene Mahlon-Sweet airport.
  • 1950: First Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland, California.
  • 1951: Portland “Speed Cycles” show held in March in the Armory.
  • 1951: May, National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) formed by Wally Parks.
  • 1951: September, first 1-mile timed runs at Madras, Oregon.
  • Rodding was booming. See Street Was Fun in ’51.
  • 1952: March, “Speed-O-Rama” show held in the Portland Auditorium.
  • 1952: March, 2 weeks later, the big Motor Show was held in the Portland Expo Center. New cars, rods, etc.
  • 1952: May, the first Portland area drag races are held at the Scappoose airport under the newly-formed Columbia Timing Association (CTA).
  • 1953 – 55: Portland “Rods and Customs” show at the Armory.
  • 1954: Formation of the Multnomah Hot Rod Council which included 28 Portland area hot rod clubs. See my definitive book, Jacket & Plaque: Portland Rod & Custom Clubs of the 'Fifties.
  • 1955: February, 2nd is an important meeting in the old Portland courthouse with Terry Schrunk, mayor of Portland and 44 area hot rod clubs.
  • 1956: November, first Portland Roadster Show, held in the Armory.
  • 1954 – 58: The golden age of hot rodding. The height of rods, customs, clubs, car shows, drags, speed shops, etc. See Portland Pictorial: The 1950s – focusing on 1950s rods & customs.
  • Circa 1960s: car clubs became less popular. Big decline in custom cars and street rods. More interest in Corvettes, muscle cars, go-karts, motorcycles and boats. See my two books on the history of the Pontiac GTO: The Big ‘Little GTO’ Book (out of print) and Herding Goats: An oral history of the Pontiac GTO.

Of course there is some overlap. For example, HotRodder! From Lakes to Street covers decades, and includes customs, track roadsters and dry lakes. Northwest Oldtimers covers circle track racing, old hot rodders, and some who were active in the 1950s and 1960s.

My most recent book Reflections in a Spinner Hubcap covers 40 years of hot rod essays including rods, customs, circle track racers, the Madras runs, and of course car shows such as “Speed Cycles” and the “Speed-O-Rama.”