Dilettante 38: Grand National car show

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There are millions of ways Californians spend time to alter vehicles. Home of the desert biker movie, this place has suburbs and suburbs filled with gearheads.

As long as the world continues to run on internal combustion engines, hot-rod hounds and houndettes may forever populate events like the Grand National Road Show, the longest-running indoor car show in the world.

And I come from a family of gearheads. My grandfather designed the automatic transmission and put it in a drawer about a decade before automatic transmissions were a thing. He worked on airplanes and helicopters for the Navy, and could build and fix whatever you put in front of him.

I inherited none of this except a musically-oriented appreciation of a good engine rumble.

This article in 1999 was my first gearhead-adjacent piece. I’ve since covered modified vehicles several times on this site:

The Bonneville Salt Flats races, part one and two

The Stinkin Linkin crew at Bonneville, part one and two

DPW and Gate (Burning Man staff) car porn

Cyclecide shows at Bill the Junkman‘s Ace Auto junkyard

where we also had the Power Tool Drag Races

and of course Cyclecide‘s short film The Loaded Warrior

Enjoy the road candy pictures.


Scroll down or click through to read “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on February 16, 1999.

This is the 38th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; Dilettante’s first installment is here.


summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!: Gearheads, grease monkeys, hot rods, and hot pants at the 50th annual Grand National Roadster Show.

by Summer Burkes, 02.16.99


In a simple poem many of us learned in elementary school, aliens visit Earth to study us, but failing to get close enough for an accurate view, they bring home tales of Earthlings’ four rubber “feet” and predilection for traveling on winding paths of gray hardened material, never noticing the specks of flesh inside.

America’s obsesson with cars is as prevalent and tired as VH1 rockumentaries, and hot-rod car construction stands among commemorative-plate collecting and obsessive lawn maintenance as an earmark of American working-class culture and our desire to transform the most mundane possessions into elaborate showpieces.

To the little green people who continue to believe that Earth’s primary life form has chassis and engine rather than skin and bones, last weekend’s 50th annual Grand National Roadster Show must have been celebrated from space as an afternoon’s worth of entertainment courtesy of the automotive Playboy Channel.

Outside the Cow Palace on opening night, a hubcap vendor sits in front of a 40-foot inflatable tire, hawking enough shiny, multispoked rims to make any low-riding vato lose his perpetual cool. Bland good-morning show music blares from the speakers as another vendor gives a seminar on the different methods of waxing a car. (There are methods?)

Directly inside the entrance hall, hot-rod freaks sign up to win one of two old-school Harleys. Excruciatingly detailed show cars and motorcycles take up every available space in both the concourse and the arena.

To my gearhead companion’s trained eye, the machines represent the pinnacle of cosmetic and mechanical vehicular manipulation — a grease monkey’s playground of chrome and fiberglass. To my untrained eye, the cars look like pretty pieces of candy. (Oh well!! Like!! I’m just a girl!!!!)

I friggin loved the ’70s-ness of this paint job so so much

A pack of short-necked jocks gathers in the concourse, giggling and elbowing each other as a full-busted woman in hot pants — a cross between Pamela Anderson Lee and Jessical Rabbit — minces by on nine-inch spiked heels. A sharp contrast to the other middle-aged, flight-suited, stringy-haired, flashlight-holding wives at this testosterone-clouded event. Obvious Spokesmodel is more souped-up than most of the cars here.

My mechanic and I stop not far from the front door, where “Millennium,” the first of many cars that he’ll particularize for me, sits looking like a smooth white shark. Photos detail the creation process: the owner stripped the body of a scrapped ’52 Studebaker down to the frame, “chopped” it (took out a portion of the windshield frame to make the car shorter and the windshield smaller), crafted fiberglass molds, poured and attached the sheets of fiberglass as the new2 body, sanded it until smooth, and painted it with mother-of-pearl dust. For the sake of clean lines there are no door handles, and the seams are minimal. I unconsciously begin to hum the theme to The Jetsons.

This wasn’t it. That other smooth white shark car was too long to fit in a picture

We inspect “Li’l Red Wrecker,” a modified tow truck with glass-encased cab and crushed velvet seats. My mechanic informs me that he had a Li’l Red Wrecker Hot Wheel (and several of the other cars here today) as a kid. Cool.

In roadster culture, some factions emphasize speed, while others go strictly for visual theatrics. Some of the cars at the show have broken speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats (213 mph! Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), and some “exhibition rods” have never even been driven. Categories can overlap, though — besides some of the cherry racing cars that double as show cars, owners have set up displays of matching fire extinguishers and gas, oil, and water cans — sort of a silent “Yeah, look good but I can kick ass, too.”

Things I learned at the Roadster Show:

’32 Fords are considered standard-issue.

Roadster basically means any old convertible, while hot rod means anything that’s been tricked out.

Underneath, some cars have all-chrome parts (sometimes even metal-flaked), and they site on mirrors during shows so peple can see their privates.

Highboy is a term for a custome roadster with a puffed-up trunk, while raked means that the actual back wheels have been jacked up.

Dragster tires are twice as thick as normal ones.

Old racing dragsters (“rail cars”) had the engine in front, but now it’s in the back, since more than one person has had their face blown off in an explosion.

They start ’em young: one exhibit shows the tedious father-son efforts involved in tricking out bicycles, trikes, scooter, golf carts, Radio flyer wagons, and even dustpans.

wholesome american father-child activities!

And most of the cars here are from places like Danville and San Ramon. Why? “The weather,” my mechanic says. “you don’t drive these things in rain and snow. Plus, there’s nothing else to do in the valley anyways.”

As the night winds down, people cluster around “Tim Allens’ Moal Special” — the Home Improvement star is apparently keepin’ it real with his own show car, but he’s upped the hot-rod ante with a fancy steel barrier.

Jessica Rabbit Lee autographs posters in front of a “Prolong Lubricant” sign (ha ha), leaning in her bikini top at an angle that exposes her hideous bolt-on scars. I watch a housewife buy an “I’m the Bitch That Fell Off” T-shirt. I start to rant about this intense, male-dominated create-and-flaunt process being a result of a pseudo-Freudian “pregnancy envy.”

I spot a bad-ass cherry old-school frame-up restoration custom with mag wheels, white-wall tires, and a 350 small-block engine that says “Mod Rod” on the side. It’s pretty. I want it, and that shuts me up.



This is the 38th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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