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Rod Fellows

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...
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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.

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.

"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."

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.

"When I had no tools and not a whole lot of ability, [I had] a lot of ambition. It's funny. Now I have some money, a lot of ability and tools, and no ambition."

Marks has owned the same '32 Ford Roadster for more than 30 years, a hot rod well known in these circles.

His personal "works in progress" include three roadster pickups, a two-door '32 sedan, a '56 panel truck, a '36 Phantom roadster, a '23 T-bucket and a '34 sprint car he's building from scratch off a blueprint from a 1934 magazine.

Does he partake in street drag racing?

"About a month and a half ago I was in a street race," he says, laughing, "but that doesn't really count. It was with some late-model car, I don't know if it was BMW or what the hell it was. A couple Latinos in it. I still had the blower [supercharger] on my car at that point. My old car is noisy and it's loud and it's tired. They got their music loud and they are kind of jacking with me a little bit and I just stood on it and I never saw them again. I don't know what happened to them.

"When I was a kid, there was a lot of drag race guys and went to Beeline or out to an old strip on the other side of Sun City. It's just a whole different deal. When the muscle cars started coming out, suddenly the street rods started disappearing. They were fast, faster than most of the home-built hot rods of the time.

"I'm not going to say I never did any street racing."

The DIY spirit and inventiveness of hot rods is what gives them intrinsic value, a personality; or, as any builder would say, "a soul." A true hot rod, they'll tell you, is homemade, not ordered and assembled from some ready-made kit or an 800 number. Each car owns a bit of its builder's character. They are raw, unkempt, brassy and obnoxious.

Hence the contrarieties between hot rods and street rods.

"Street rods are too soulless, too clean, too finished, too pussified," says Howard Greenfield. "Street rod guys have gone and cut the balls off hot rodding. In my opinion, street rodding is the socially acceptable face of hot rodding. Our cars are raw. It's like when you look at a couple of chicks. One of them is really pretty, and the other one ain't so pretty but she's got all that shit going on that you just want to get on her. She's got the "umph,' right?

"And we call 'em 1-800 cars," continues Greenfield. "Because basically most of the stuff on them street rods is new, and all they do is send for the stuff and pay for it with their credit cards and assemble it. It's like a big fucking kit."

Greenfield and Marks use their hot rods for transportation.

Greenfield: "None of my other cars are even up and running. I take this to the grocery store."

Marks: "I was a charter member of an Arizona street car association that started here in the early '70s. But I'm not really much on herd mentality . . . car clubs are kinda weird. I'd go down there and pretty soon they had the women -- and I don't want to get all the women pissed off -- voting, and pretty soon every club meeting was about whether we should get a typewriter, and I'm going, 'Christ, let's go get a pizza and a beer and drive our car somewhere.'

"I love those clubs that don't take it so seriously. And it's basically how I remember it. The hair, their clothing, the cars, everything. With exception to all the tattoos, which I have no problem with either."

A core still exists who subscribe to a recklessness of rebellion and defiance and associate it with hot rods. Car "clubs" in Phoenix like the Invaders, the Cheqs and the Rattlers share the DIY ethos. Local shows at places like the Rhythm Room and the Emerald Lounge see all-day rockabilly fests with pinup beauty contests and Mercs, Fords and Chevys on display. Betty Crockers in poodle skirts with tattoos on their shoulders. Greasers, posturing drag-strip beats, sheet-metal fabricators.

Hot rodders share a sense of childlike displacement. Like they've found an auspicious place to remain an adolescent for the remainder of their days. A chop-shop Never-Never Land. Many consider themselves pariahs -- no kids, failed marriages and bitchin' jalopies.

The flier reads, "Hot Rods, Hot Dogs and Cold Beer. Free show and hot rods at the Emerald Lounge . . ."

Al Foul and the Shakes throw charisma to all corners of the Emerald. Foul is one of those rare singers able to whip the devil's music to such heights, in an aura of sex, menace and goonies, that you forget any talk of pinup hussies or fire-spitting Chevys. You just want to watch and laugh and salute. Foul gets it, in spades. Tonight he is girdled with copulating shouts, breaking glass and women offering ass for spanks -- all sure signs of greatness.

Eric Robbins is a 25-year-old programmer/student whose apparent obsession with personal grooming sees him turned out in style. His fire-trimmed, black '64 Galaxie runs a close cosmetic second.

"I've always been DIY," he says, gazing at the burgeoning underground hot rod scene.

"I am actually starting my own car club to go hand in hand with my Web page. I would like to build it up and get more camaraderie around here. It's kinda cool to bring back the underground. I'm more into the old underground kinda thing. I was looking at Howard's [hot rod] and the mere fact that you could see plumbing pipe on his exhaust is so cool."

Outside the crowded Emerald Lounge, clusters of hot rod buffs stand around old Chevy pickups, polished wagons and roadsters, spilling laughter, teasing and insults into the dusty twilight.

Greenfield's Manchester caw rises above the noise. In one hand he's holding a half-full bottle of Miller High Life, and under either arm two rockabilly nymphets are poised: Rik Grouth, a lovely brunette with cushy Mansfield curves, and Lisa Marie, resembling Doris Day's naughty twin in yellow crinoline and smeared lips. Using Greenfield's hot rod as backdrop, the trio poses for a photo. Smiles all around.

There's a photo that would make a Christmas card fit for Greenfield's old mates back in Manchester.

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