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  • Writer's pictureTroy Kinney

Of Rat Rods and Reality

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

When I was in 7th grade, there was a cute 8th grade girl who used to stand across the hall with her boyfriend every day. Brazenly they would break the rules embracing and French-kissing, her eyes closed and dreamy. My friends and I were envious. He looked so average and she was so "Heather Locklear". She took no notice of me or my other gawky friends. One day I think that I had been called to the office for something fairly insignificant, pick up my lunch or deliver an item, I don’t remember. On my way back I stepped outside and I saw her coming out of the door to the hall. The wind was just right and her light brown hair blew off her shoulders and she looked at me; looked me right in the eyes, smiled and said, “Hi.” To my seventh-grade sensitivities this was an amazing moment. A beautiful girl noticed me and said hi. I have never forgotten it. I think that sometimes it is the little things, the seemingly insignificant experiences that we don’t plan on happening that stick with us. And some of those experiences change our lives.

I think everyone has these sorts of experiences throughout their life.

As a child, I cannot tell how many times my parents would come in, tell me to get ready and then take me to whatever boring place that they were going. It is the experience of all children. They would drag me to FedMart, I hated FedMart. Maybe because I threw up there while my mom was shopping or was it diarrhea? I don’t recall. But I’m not just talking grocery shopping I’m talking, Model Homes, Antique Stores (don’t touch anything), and Swap Meets. But the thing I remember most vividly were the Car Shows. Car Shows where we would walk around looking at new cars, experimental cars, classic automobiles and, my favorite:

The modified cars, tricked out with glossy paint and chrome accessories; some with steering wheels made out of chain,

tuck and roll leather seats and gear shifts topped with a black eight ball. They reminded me of my Hot Wheels® and Matchbox® cars; but talk about not touching anything. Stanchioned ropes surrounded most of them. Signs posted DO NOT TOUCH! Well I was small back then so I couldn’t always see the cool stuff in the engine compartment or the inside the passenger compartment. It was frustrating. Occasionally, someone would start an engine and rumble the place with loud idling and then the revving of those beastly engines: Wow! It would shake my insides. It was awesome! ​​

I’m sure it was the inspiration for me to modify my Hot Wheels® cars. I would drill out the two rivets holding the hull onto the base and then sand, repaint, lift, and change tires and axles. Then I would reassemble them and use them, playing inside imaginary towns and scenarios on carpet, tile and in the dirt.

I always knew that my dad wanted to build his own hot rod. His own car that he could take to car shows. There were always car parts, engines or transmissions around the backyard and in the garage. He used these to barter for other things. He was gathering the things he needed to build his dream and, once he retired, he did it. He built his dream. Four, two-barreled carburetors mounted on top of a Man-A-Fre Manifold, Chevy small block, riding in the front of a modified, wood-lined, open-carriage 1923 T-bucket. His Rat-Rod! And it rumbles the block when he starts it up! It is the calling card for all the gear-heads in the neighborhood. He loves taking it to car shows.

Let me reassure the reader. His car is cool! Many of these car shows have various awards they give out to the top participants. My dad wins!

He has started a little collection of trophies, plaques and numerous other awards he has won. He enjoys winning, no doubt; however, this is not why he does it.

There was always something that has bugged him about those car shows that he drug my brother and I to. The unwritten, “no-touch” rule! He brazenly and gladly breaks it every time he shows up.

The invitation is for all, young or old, to come and sit in the car. He even brings a flat-cap and steampunk goggles for them to wear and pose. For more fun he has equipped the car with a Klaxon Ahooga Horn which he gets people to push with great reaction.

This machine is meant to touch and sit in. It is meant to experience. It is his great pleasure to see people get in that thing. The problem is that his is practically the only one that allows people to do that. Folks are so hesitant to approach and climb inside, but my dad rarely takes no for an answer. My dad is a salesman and he offers a chance to sit inside his dream for free. When they do… Grandfathers try and act cool but when they enter, they can’t hide the youth they once were, it sneaks out behind their straight lips. Grandmothers grinning faces lift just from sitting in it and posing for pictures. Little boys and girls light up sitting in that car. They can’t believe that they actually get to touch and sit inside one of the coolest cars at the show.

What is my dad doing? He is giving some of these kids an experience that they will never forget. A tactile, auditory, multi-sensory experience that will be with them for the rest of their lives. It is like a beautiful girl looking an awkward skinny boy in the eyes, smiling and saying hi.

This experience, this little adventure, could be the thing that ignites a passion inside a kid and in more than a few adults, if you ask me. To be a mechanic, to be a craftsman, an artist, to pursue a dream or finish a project, who knows?

Seeing the fear and excitement at the turn of that key as the throttle viscerally shakes their insides. Them covering their ears; little faces simultaneously smiling and scared. It goes beyond any expectation, but it isn’t a fantasy. What is the reward for putting a child in front of an awesome hot rod that can be touched, can be sat in, and to press that ahooga horn? The car is not just there, it is there and they can touch it. When he revs it, it touches them. The reward: The car and their dreams become real. -TK

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