Rod Fellows

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

"The first one I got was a '57 Ford station wagon. Me mum didn't want me to park outside the house 'cause she said it looked like a hearse. But most kids thought they looked like old man cars, but I thought they were cool so I drove around in that sort of shit."

After a relationship went south in 1979, Greenfield sold his three cars (a couple of Fords and an old Vauxhall) and took a trip to America to visit a dying aunt. Three months later, the aunt had died and Greenfield was reluctant to go home. He returned to Manchester with his interest in American culture magnified.

"By the time I was a teenager, I wanted a hot rod. I always wanted a hot rod. I met a guy called John O'Flaugherty in '79 and he had a '32 Ford in England. That thing was just the baddest fucking thing in Manchester. I was already into hot rods by then. But that was the first time I was right in touch with one."

Howard Greenfield on the slick of his dream.
Paolo Vescia
Howard Greenfield on the slick of his dream.
Don Marks' work in progress, a '32 Ford sedan.
Paolo Vescia
Don Marks' work in progress, a '32 Ford sedan.

A third visit to California in 1987 offered permanence. Living in L.A., Greenfield began acquiring cars for resale. He drove a '50s Chevy fastback to Phoenix to visit a relative. A job offer ensued and he quickly developed a dislike for Phoenix.

"Once I got a job [in Phoenix], I couldn't go anywhere else. I was stuck. I just had to pay the rent. I hated it for a while 'cause I didn't know anybody here and I didn't know where to go or anything."

The subterranean Phoenix rockabilly scene lifted Greenfield from the rut. Bands such as Flathead, Kid Pharaoh, Russell Scott and the Red-Hots and Big Sandy left an impression. He hooked up, made friends, and eventually started working at Premier Frame and Body, restoring hot rods and street rods.

"They all used to think that I was a freak over there [in Manchester]. They were all normal guys, ya know? I wasn't normal. Fortunately, over here I found fellow freaks and basically been doing that stuff ever since. But working with Frank Borowitz at Premier afforded me the opportunity to start building my machine. I got the access to the jigs and all the tools and all the stuff. And learned how to weld. That's how I built my hot rod."

When hot rods were born, DJ Alan Freed supplied the soundtrack for legions of American kids who had discretionary cash. With technical magazines serving as blueprints, teens in the 1950s exhausted their evenings and weekends learning to become gearheads, greasers and sheet-metal fabricators, turning junked jalopies into chick magnets.

"It was sorta like American Graffiti," recalls 55-year-old Don Marks, a man who has been building hot rods in Phoenix since his days at North High. Marks spent many nights cruising Central.

In Phoenix during the 1950s and 1960s, rock 'n' roll had heralded the religion of the teenager. It was no different from any other state or what was happening in the U.K. Encoded within its simple language was the unbounding freedom and first-time intensity of the auto, a sense that they could drift, cruise and run wild. Phoenix then had fewer than 500,000 residents. There were plenty of roads to roam.

Kids with cars cruised Central from the Salt River clear to Sunnyslope. Bob's Big Boy, on the corner of Central and Thomas, was a hot rodder's roadstead. At times both lanes on Central in either direction would be a solid sea of teens and teens-at-heart in cars.

"Cruising Central was one of my favorite things," Marks says, "and I'm very annoyed by how that went down later. But it got to where the kids wouldn't police up after themselves; they ruined it for everybody. The cops chased everybody out.

"In the '50s," Marks continues, "my dad and I were down at a place called Royal Auto Parts at about 10th Street and Van Buren, a place that was open until just a few years ago. And sitting here is a T-bucket with a metal body in primer, obviously made at home. I'm sitting there looking at this thing while the old man goes inside and this guy comes out, hops in and leaves. I was just totally hooked, and that was it."

Before he was old enough to drive, Marks had built two hot rods.

"As long as my grades stayed up, my parents didn't seem to care. I started playing with cars and motorcycles doing what I could do, and, of course, I was working with a tree limb and a rock."

Marks builds his own hot rods in a metal-chaotic machine workshop in the backyard of his midtown home. For years, Marks made his living either with his own body shop or building for others. He can still take a rusted hunk of an old car frame into his hideaway chop shop and drive it out as a hell-lickin' hot rod.

With a coarse voice, debilitating sense of humor and biker mien, Marks is a kind of George Carlin with greased fingernails. Asked if he's still building hot rods for a living, he says: "I'm watching my life unfold in a blazing panorama of mediocrity and failed ambition, working as a lift-truck driver.

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