The little blue bar on the label of Coors Light was fading as slowly as the supreme pizza from Costco was cooling on the tool bench. I was poised precariously on the highest rung of a folding step stool trying to grab a wide shot of another cram-packed corner of the cavernous shop, all the while hot rodders of several generations mingled, swapping tales of the “old days,” one-upping each other’s stories of street racing, and generally bench racing.
Doug, a friend of mine, invited me to the underground weekly get-together at hot rod legend Art Chrisman’s custom ‘rod shop. The weekly meet is no well-kept secret to the locals, but might surprise those not in the know. Either cough up some cash for the pie or bring a six-pack of beer is the only cost of admission, and while the one or two pizzas go quickly, the ‘fridge is usually always well-stocked.
This old school racer is housing two - count 'em two - straight-eights, totaling sixteen cylinders mated through a custom bell housing into a modern gearbox.
Inside this metalshop, almost anything is possible. Bits of memorabilia hang on the walls from over 50 years of racing history.
This '57 Ford Thunderbird was one of the most impressive customs we've seen in ages. A true blue 427 Cammer FE Ford motor rests beneath the hood - replete with authentic SOHC tags. Look closely and you'll see no square inch has been left alone on this roadster.
It goes without saying, I was in humbling company. While icon of hot rodding was at home recuperating from being under the weather, Art’s son, Mike Chrisman was on hand, strolling around the polished automotive artwork and works-in-progress. Everywhere I ventured through Chrisman’s Auto Rod Specialties (spelling the cutesy acronym “C.A.R.S.”), a picked up snippets of conversations, “Once we got it to run 300mph…,” “Yeah, I had ’bout $50,ooo in the paint and bodywork alone…,” and “…that was the third time I’ve ever been in ‘cuffs.”
Art Chrisman, of course, requires very little introduction. The perennial hero of the hobby holds more “firsts” than anybody else. Besides a catalog of world records, Chrisman represents the core values of the hot rodding movement in its entirety; innovation, passion, know-how, and autonomy; and his shop exhibits those same tenets.
The hammers, English wheels, stretchers, shrinkers and sheers can take a flat piece of steel and turn it into a work of art. In fact, creativity and artisanship is found everywhere at C.A.R.S. including with wild 'tiki' themed hand-pinstripped and airbrushed refrigerator. And you're looking at a Tremec mated to a flathead Ford. You don't see those everyday.
History is not a forgotten thing here, but is alive and well.
Growing up in my father’s fabrication shop in Long Beach, California, I immediately recognized the Bridgeport in the back corner, the English Wheels and the pair of ERCO metal shrinkers and stretchers. Chrisman’s can be an island, a self-sustaining one-stop-shop where a frame is designed, fabricated and skinned with a custom body, completely unique to your desires.
Next, a one-of-none drivetrain can be mocked up, assembled, plumbed and dyno tested. The only things I wasn’t too sure about was paint and interior, but then again, I didn’t get to snoop around the entire complex…
The work poured into each of these cars is not restricted to just the sheetmetal, but even the engines themselves. Every surface is smoothed and polished, and receives the same level of attention during the painting process as the body of the car.
No car is off limits, be it a classic truck with a wickedly blown 392 HEMI or a classic Cadillac LaSalle with a built 454.
The legend and his son, Mike, founded Chrisman Auto Rod Specialties nearly a quarter-century ago, building and restoring hot rods, lakesters, and dragsters. Of course, C.A.R.S. famously restored Chrisman’s Hustler I to 1962 vintage specs back in the mid-’80s, and was recently part of the “Cacklefest” at the 2001 Winternationals.
Chrisman explained, “I originally restored it for the 20th Anniversary March Meet at Bakersfield. The track people there thought it would be good if the original winner could come back and make a pass. In a nutshell, that’s what we did.”
Not to be outdone, Mike built his own Hustler, dubbed Hustler III, and won a handful of Jr. Fuel titles with a Chrisman-built engine.
Wedged between a '65 El Camino and a 40's Cadillac was this burgundy '32 highboy. The injected plant is more than meets the eye, with canted-valve, poly-spherical heads designed for road course racing.
Interested in going over 330 miles per hour? This Chevrolet Cobalt - again, you read right - is aiming for next year's Speedweek at Bonneville to do exactly that.
History will most likely remember Art Chrisman for a being one of the five charter members of the Bonneville 200mph Club after driving Chet Herbert’s streamliner to 235mph in 1952; his famous #25 dragster which, of course, was the first drag racer to exceed 140mph, going on to be the first winner at the Bakersfield US Fuel & Gas Championships in 1959, as well as the first car to make a pass at the 1955 Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., NHRA’s first national event.
But most of all, Chrisman’s legacy will always be tied to one slingshot dragster, the aforementioned Hustler I. Powered by a blown 392cui Chrysler Fire Power HEMI stroked to 454 cubes, Hustler I appeared on the cover of the January 1959 issue of Hot Rod Magazine, recorded the sport’s first 180mph run with a 181.81 at Riverside Raceway, and won the Best Engineered Car award at the 1958 Nationals.
Friends and car enthusiasts alike, from all ages, generations and preferences, are invited; old boys who'd been around since the beginning, or modern rat rodders covered in tattoos, it's all good.
Flatheads, Cammers and HEMIs. If you're a fan of unconventional powerplants, then you're in good company.
Today, the property where C.A.R.S. is shared with Squeak’s, the comprehensive metal shop which houses more classic tin-shaping tools than I had seen in years. At the entrance were a six-foot-high stack of ’32 Ford frames. Beside the tower of rails was a fiberglass Anglia body, resting face-down on its firewall, its contoured tail jutting into the air.
Center stage was a ’57 Thunderbird unlike I, or likely anybody else alive, had ever seen before. Low slung, reshaped, elongated, chopped, and meticulously massaged, the roadster looked menacing in its naked skin, a solitary brazen T-bird emblem on one fender reading the letters “SOHC.”A 427 Cammer – a particular specialty of Chrisman’s – lies beneath the snorkeled hood.
“Those are factory,” Doug proclaimed, over my shoulder. “Art found those a while ago, he swears they’re original pieces.”
Louvers, louvers, and more louvers. This '32 is guaranteed to be well ventilated.
Do-it-yourself has been Art Chrisman's philosophy and so far it's never lead him astray. A wall of yellowing pictures, some disheveled papers on a desk or some old fabrication equipment don't begin to tell the story of the man and his legacy.
The Thunderbird is well on its way to surpassing the national average for a 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom home. Building something like this isn’t for the budget-minded guy, that’s for sure. The hours spent in smoothing every flat surface of the engine block and heads – yeah, you read that right – is enough to dwarf all the money I have into Killer Kong, Street Muscle’s project ’69 Charger R/T.
Building a car at C.A.R.S. is a lot more than just getting Chrismans name on your ride. Observing the array of rods and engines, I realized that this place is a car guy’s dream factory. If you can think it up, its not only likely that Chrisman can make it happen, he’s probably done it before.