My First "Hot Rod"
by Richard Horvath
After high school, I got a job working during the summer months for 97 cents per hour (having worked up from 92 cents) and saved as much money as I could to put toward the purchase of my first automobile. Needless to say, to took some time to save enough to purchase something drivable, but I finally found the world's most fabulous car for only 350 dollars.
Itold my father that I had enough money to buy the car but asked him to check it out and give me his opinion on it. We drove over and took it for a ride. Man, it was the neatest car that anyone would have loved. It was a 1949 Mercury tudor sedan - all black with whitewall tires! Dad thought the car was just fine; it drove great and looked as though it had been well maintained (this was one of the first times that Dad and and I agreed on anything). He gave me permission to buy the car and it was the greatest day of my life. Wow, what a cool car! I could go anywhere that I pleased. Free at last, free at last, oh lord, free at last...
I didn't have the full 350 dollars, but the owner agreed that the car was mine and he would keep it until I produced the final 25 dollars. He gave me the keys, but kept the car in his driveway.
Finally, the big day arrived and I brought my car home to my driveway. It was fabulous! I spent the rest of the day "gunking" down the engine, adding chrome nut covers to the flathead bolts, and painting anything I could see under the hood. I washed and waxed the car, then went inside to clean the car off of myself and prepare to take my first ride, by myself, in my "new" car.
Suddenly, an unexpected stumbling block appeared. When I came down from getting cleaned up, my father stopped me.
"Hey mister, where are you going?"
I thought this was a rather dumb question. He knew I now had a car.
"I'm going to take a long ride in my cool car," I said.
"What about insurance?" he asked.
Unfortunately, I could not drive my car for several weeks until I could come up with enough money to purchase insurance. At that point, I bought enough to drive the car for about 3 months (which is a quite a long time when you're only 16 years old).
During my newfound freedom, I learned much and met a lot of new people. One person, Ed, was in the process of closing down his body shop and needed space to store some of his equipment until it was sold. My cousin and I had a garage that we rented to work on our cars and we allowed Ed to store all of his stuff there if he agreed to work on our cars for us. Before long, I was driving a customized '49 Merc - nosed and decked, shaved door handles (electric doors), rounded hood corners and door corners for a total cost of 50 dollars for lead and sandpaper. Ed was a true artist; he even removed the tail lights, filled the holes and reinstalled the stock lights as low as possible and frenched them in (at the time, I didn't even know what that word meant).
While the body work was being done, I found a new job at a gas station working for a $1.50 per hour (a big raise!). I saved enough money to buy lowering blocks to lower the Merc in back and (not knowing any better) used a torch to lower the front an equal amount. The bodywork was flawless. After I had done enough sanding (supervised by Ed), we repainted the the areas of the car that had been worked on to match the black on the rest of the car.
My first hot rod was a 1949 Mercury tudor sedan with everything customized except for a chopped top. And that is the truth. I learned many lessons with this car. I installed Smitty mufflers and steel packs on my hot rod. The sound was way cool, but unfortunately the local police did not agree. I also learned about towing costs, storage fees, and court costs.
I learned another lesson once while I was washing the car and blasting the radio as loud as possible as I finished my detailed cleaning of the insides of the windows. The electric door locks would not open. I had run the battery down so low that there was not enough power left to unlatch the doors. I spent most of the day inside of the car until a friend stopped over and found me. He was able to jump the battery and generate enough juice to unlock the doors. I believe that I spent about 6 hours in the car that day. Lesson learned: make sure you have mechanical door handles on the inside of any electrically operated doors.
Once, while racing one of my friends, I had the gear shift lever in second gear but the fork inside of the transmission decided to stay between first and second. Or at least, that's what the mechanic at the garage told me as he handed me a bill for $125 (major money at that time of my life). The garage held my hot rod for the better part of the summer until I could pay the bill.
Basically, my first car was more of a "custom" than a "hot rod", but at that time they were all the same - wild teenagers driving too fast for their own good. As a youth, I had one of the most wanted lead sleds in the world in the world but had no idea that someday that car would be worth more than the price of a brand new car. I kept this car and drove it for several years and eventually sold it for $1200 to a young fellow living in the same town. After he bought it, he and his family moved away and I have never seen that car again. Every time I see a customized '49 Merc, I must check it out carefully. One day, just maybe, I will find that car. There are some things that were worked on on the car that I could recognize. When I find it... well, who knows...
The funny things is, today, when I am driving down the road in my '33 coupe, it is as though I have traveled back to that same time. The tape is playing the same sounds that I heard on the radio back then. The time seems to have gone back to that place far far away. I guess this is the main reason that I like street rods and stuff. I don't believe I will ever leave...