TWENTY-odd years ago, I stumbled home from a late night on the turps and flicked on the TV to the sight of a pair of 1950s hot rods pounding their front suspensions with a bout of kerb racing. My interest was immediately sparked, and even more so when I realised that the deuce roadsters in question looked to be the famous McGee/Scritchfield ’32 and Pete Henderson ’32. This immediately sobering sight saw me glued to the telly for the rest of the film, with the fog lifting even further when I spotted the Barris-built ‘Ala Kart’ roadster pick-up.
By the end, I’d learnt that this flick was dubbed Hot Rod Gang, but it was to be a number of years before I was able to acquaint myself with the 10 or so opening minutes that I’d missed.
Its late-1950s production time dropped this film smack-bang into the teen market looking to absorb anything featuring hot rods, drag racing, rock ’n’ roll music and punch-ups, bolstered by a cast of cool guys and hot chicks. This movie ticks all of these boxes, and is lassoed together by the story of John Abernathy III (Ashley), a young bloke from the upper class who leads an often-complicated double life.
John is heir to the family fortune, and his spinster aunts – played dizzily but superbly by Spring and Neumann – expect him to live by a stern set of rules. However, his secret passions are for building hot rods and making music with his friends at their hot rod gang clubhouse.
When a wayward street race causes trouble with local killjoy Dryden Philpot (Dorr), it is the tight-lipped actions of new arrival Lois (Fair) that keeps John out of trouble. A romance blossoms between the pair, but it isn’t long before trouble again comes knocking.
It seems the hot rod gang is heavily in arrears with the clubhouse rent, and their shady landlord, Al Berrywhiff (Taylor), is looking to move them on.
With John unable to touch his substantial inheritance just yet, it is Lois again to the rescue. She engages the help of real-life rock ’n’ roll legend Gene Vincent to create an incognito persona, Jackson Dalrymple, for John so he can record and release some fresh music.
With the glue barely dry on his fake beard, John’s tunes head straight to the top of the charts, saving the clubhouse and leaving nearly enough in the coffers to finish the build of a new dragster. The downside is that John’s double life is now out of the bag, but his aunties warm to his musical stylings and love of hot rods and offer to lend a hand to raise the last of the needed cash by helping with the club’s hop fundraiser.
But as they say, trouble comes in threes, and it seems that John’s arch-enemy, the seedy Mark (Drexel), hasn’t taken kindly to John’s luck with the chicks and regular floggings by him on both the street and with his fists, so he frames John for a stolen car parts racket. However, John is able to clear his name in a high-speed hot rod showdown, and the gang lives happily ever after.
I’M NOT really sure whether to class Hot Rod Gang as a comedy or a musical (the latter genre generally makes me cringe). Either way, everything pales in comparison to the damn cool hot rods that feature throughout. This film is an era-perfect snapshot of the real cars that inspired the whole ‘traditional’ hot rodding movement of more recent decades, and is a fun reminder of far simpler times. Keep an eye out for pioneer actress Claire Du Brey, who plays the Abernathys’ loose live-in housekeeper, Agatha. She adds some comedic spunk to this movie, which, at the ripe old age of 66 at the time of filming, is pretty impressive.
- 1932 McGee/Scritchfield Ford roadster
- 1932 Henderson Ford roadster
- Barris ‘Ala Kart’ Ford Model A roadster pick-up
- 1958 Ford Custom 300
- 1958 Lincoln Premiere
- Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide
- 1954 Arnolt-Bristol Bolide
- John Ashley
- Jody Fair
- Gene Vincent
- Dub Taylor
- Helen Spring
- Dorothy Neumann
- Steve Drexel
- Claire Du Brey
- Lester Dorr
Old-timey hot rod street racing with a backdrop of awesome period cars in 1950s Santa Monica and Hollywood
A young heir to his late grandfather’s fortune juggles a double life to pursue both his hot rod and musical dreams while not blowing the terms of his inheritance
COOL FLICK FACT:
This movie features the famous Barris Kustom Industries ‘Ala Kart’ Model A roadster pick-up, which won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster trophy at the Grand National Roadster Show in both 1958 and 1959.