“Grumpy” is George Duren, and they build hot rods there.
Duren and Ron Morgan are the central figures in a fluid cast of characters who come and go, drawn by their common interest – cars – and common background – coming of age in the golden age of the American automobile industry, the 1950s.
Most of them are in or approaching their 70s, from the generation just before the Baby Boomers. Most, including Duren and Morgan, are retired: Duren from Arkema in Calvert City, Morgan from a career as a history teacher at Marshall County High School.
They have issues they never imagined, never mind worried about, when they were younger – arthritis, hypertension, diabetes. On the other hand, they have more disposable income than they did when they were 17 or 18, and they have invaluable experience gained from all their endeavors over the years.
And every bit as much as when they were teen-agers, cars are their passion.
Not just any car, but a particular type of car – the hot rod.
Grumpy’s present ride is a 1929 Ford Model A roadster pickup. It is the hot rod he would have built as a teen-ager, if he had the money and the knowledge and the wherewithal to do it.
It’s a classic machine as he remembers the 1950s and the urge that many young American kids had to take something that, some years ago, rolled off a factory assembly line, and lend their own personal touch to it.
Make it something more than utilitarian, something more than transportation. Cleaner. More functional. More elemental.
rumpy’s ’29 is all of that, in what he recalls as true, traditional, 1950s style.
There are no fenders. The side panels of the hood are gone, leaving the 324-cubic-inch Oldsmobile Rocket 88 V8 engine clearly visible, with six two-barrel carburetors shining brightly on top and no-nonsense headers to route the exhaust out of the combustion chambers, down and behind.
The interior, never what anyone would call lavish, is even more Spartan now. The seats are aluminum buckets like the ones Army Air Corps pilots and co-pilots used in World War II-era bombers, complete with military surplus seat belts.
It’s open-air ride.
It’s a hot rod.
That’s an ambiguous term, meaning different things to different people.
“A hot rod, to me, is just an old car that’s been re-worked,” Duren says. “Engine re-worked, driveline re-worked, better tires, and such as that, to make the car faster. That’s what it was all about, making the cars faster.”
“A traditional, older car, preferably before ’49 model, that’s been rebuilt, for safety’ sake, for speed’s sake, as opposed to a street rod, which is a shinier car, more showy than the hot rods,” Morgan says, making a reference to the present debate among automobile aficionados.
There has always been a debate, from the early 1950s when “hot rodder” became a derisive term, a reference to a juvenile delinquent hoodlum who was a menace to society with leather jacket, ducktail haircut and wheels.
Much of the debate nowadays focuses on the antique vehicles and what should be done with them. On one side are the purists, who decry the practice of taking vintage cars and parts and modifying them in any way, even to the point of cleaning them up – removing the patina. It’s only original once, they insist.
On the other side are those who, like the teen-aged rodders of the 1950s, have a different vision of what the original could have (should have) been.
Then there is the age-old question of “show” versus “go.”
Early on, in the 1950s, there were those who looked down on some of the early hot rods as crude and unprofessional. The rodders with grease under their fingernails, on the other hand, had contempt for some of the dazzling show cars of the time, many of which did not even have the internal components in their for-looks-only chrome-laden engines.
That conflict still exists, with hard-core types such as Grumpy who build these cars to drive and counterparts who haul their custom cars to auto shows in enclosed trailers, so they don’t get dirty.
“If you can’t drive it, I don’t want it,” Grumpy says emphatically.
Mick Winans makes an important point in the discussion of what defines a hot rod.
“A hot rod comes out of the old days where people didn’t pick up a catalog and call an 800 number and buy their parts,” he says. “They went to salvage yards and they bought parts that were more modern and more high-performance than what they had, and there was no spit and polish, so to speak.”
Grumpy, Morgan and these guys don’t buy their hot rods. They build them, combining their resources and their specific skills, sharing specialty equipment.
They recognize and acknowledge each other’s talents. Duren, a paint-body-fabrication specialist, credits Charlie Roberts, particular, for the work he did on the frame of the Modle A roadster pickup.
The cars are unique and varied. Some examples:
Winans has a 1929 Ford Tudor sedan with a modern 302-cubic-inch Ford V8 engine.
Morgan has a 1938 Chevrolet sedan with up-to-date Chevy 350 V8 and is building a 1930 Ford coupe, which will have a vintage (1932-53) Ford flathead V8 engine.
Ben Griffy has a 1949 Oldsmobile, the original Rocket 88.
Mitch Donaldson and his son, Jared, are accumulating a collection of vehicles at their Scale Road Hot Rod Shop, a few miles southwest of Grumpy’s Garage. Some examples: a 1960 Rambler American with 350 Chevy power and a 1956 Chevy sedan, both with straight-axle front ends like those used on “gasser” drag racing cars, plus a 1965 Chevelle El Camino, a 1960 Studebaker Lark station wagon.
The cars come and go. Griffy acquired the Rocket 88 from Grumpy, who bought it in Florida several years ago.
Grumpy shrugs when asked how many cars he has owned.
“I’ve owned 16 Corvettes,” he says.
Like many of the others, he has had other interests over the years – bass fishing, a gun-bluing business. But it always comes back to cars.
And the cars are like the average citizen’s home improvement project – the work never ends.
The ’29 roadster pickup is being partially disassembled for replacement of the contemporary five-speed transmission with an old-school three-speed from a 1937 LaSalle.
But it’s not work, really. It provides a satisfaction, and a connection with an earlier time.
A time of limited resources, but unlimited possibilities.