Rod Fellows

Fifties sensibilities and styles fuel the passions of latter-day gearheads

Howard Greenfield is hunkered down in the casket-like coupe, hurtling forth at 110 miles per hour in a hot rod whose suspension was made the same year Boris Karloff's Frankenstein gave alternative horror to Depression food-line gloom.

This scene could easily morph into a last-rites processional.

Like some heroic machine bravely affronting its own incessant clatters and clacks, the hot rod takes a hard line on Interstate 17, heading south toward Indian School Road. Beads of sweat well up on Greenfield's forehead and disappear into the furnace slipstream of the June afternoon. Burnt-oil-tinged air stings eyes, singes skin and throws hair. From the shear kick of the 500-cubic-inch alfresco Cadillac V-8 motor, its alarming neck-snapping acceleration, and the dubious perch on 15-inch 1949 Mercury front wheels, we rattle joyously in its cage.

Eric Robbins and his fire-trimmed Galaxie 500.
Paolo Vescia
Eric Robbins and his fire-trimmed Galaxie 500.

Polished Hondas and SUVs with cruise control are left in the dust like roadside billboards. Air-conditioned faces sealed in cars of churchgoers regard Greenfield's coal-black and sinister hot rod with mouths agape. The machine is diabolical; too fast, too crude and, in some ways, too lovely.

Indian School appears and is gone as quickly. Phoenix at this velocity looks bearable, even enjoyable.

Greenfield's gritty countenance matches his machine; maladjusted, demented even, but with a detectable sense of humor. His grip on the wheel produces bloodless knuckles -- to drive this car, one must employ a bit of bullying.

His is a machine of pure self-expression; a handmade hulk built from parts of ancient autos, smooth metal sheets, plumbing scraps, rusted junkyard wares, artistry and, most important, faith. It's a machine borne of an American dream in the head of a boy from the gray of northwest England. Here's a man/boy driving his dream. A grown-up roaring down I-17 at 110 mph.

He spent four years building this five-window '31 Ford Model A -- four long years of chopping, channeling, raking, bending, whacking, babying, all on evenings and Saturdays when other work wasn't pressing. The other work being the maintenance or building of additional hot rods or street rods.

The vehicle slows to a reasonable speed. It eases off on the next exit in the direction of downtown. Greenfield turns with moist eyebrows raised and shouts, "Now that's a fookin' hot rod!"

England in the middle 1970s was suffering a failing Labor government, massive unemployment, backlash to immigration and death of the hippie utopian dream. Lots of people wanted to leave. It saw the rise of punk rock. Hardly the place for a guy with well-developed Yankee vision: the allure of rockabilly, American Graffiti, big American car culture.

Howard Greenfield was raised in Manchester and was exposed early on to cutting-edge musical texts, the vanguard manifestos. At the precise moment punk rock was in full bloom, he remained stubbornly and unfashionably adherent to roots-rock sensibilities.

"I thought that [the punk movement] was the biggest load of shit I've heard in a long time," he says, shrugging. "I still do."

Greenfield was an anomaly, all right; he dug the old guys, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, while many of his friends became trendy punks. Visually, he maintained a pomade-slicked coiffure, pointy creepers, spiked sideburns and American bowling shirts. He drove cars with fins from which he blasted Chuck Berry. His sister would accompany him to pubs that had rockabilly nights in the back room; pubs that were full of aging, drunken Teddy Boys.

Teddy Boys were working-class Brit youths in the 1950s. Fueled by rock 'n' roll, they were often accused of parroting Edwardian dandies, and of being nihilists for refusing to bow to class status.

Over a beer and mediocre lasagna, Greenfield levels his fascination with America and his hometown outcast status: "Whenever me mum bought me toy cars, I always had tough American ones. When I was a kid, I could name every car on the street. By the time I was old enough to drive, most teenagers in England were driving around in old Ford Cortinas and Escorts and little English cars with loads of spotlights on them. Hideous fucking things. I had big, finny '50s cars instead."

He stops and takes a slug from a bottle of Miller.

"So they all thought I was a weirdo."

Up front, Greenfield's a bit disarming, as English humor is often mistaken for arrogance; he's expressive, amusing, if not a smart-ass. Celtic strains of his Manchester slang put emphasis on a charming side. Since he won't divulge his age -- "I can't 'ave the chicks finding out, can I?" -- math puts his birth sometime in the late 1950s. He's dressed as he usually is, what would result if you crossed a Teddy Boy with a workshop junkie; tat-revealing wife beater, jeans and boots. Days building and repairing jalopies under Arizona rays have given his face a leathery outline. He looks like a guy who should be driving a car Herman Munster once drove.

"A lot of the old Teds still drove old cars and old English motorcycles," he remembers. "I couldn't afford American cars yet but I got '50s English cars at the time. So I just carried on with that stuff. But I still wanted American ones, so as soon as I got into a position where I could start using American cars, I started.

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