Pat Ganahl observes American culture through a chopped windshield. He’s a writer and journalist by nature, but his soul gets revved by souped-up engines and meticulously detailed bodies and interiors.
“I’ve never owned a new car,” he says. “I’ve never owned a non-modified car.” Ganahl ’69, M.A. ’73 is a self-described hot rod archaeologist, traveling the country looking for automotive remnants of past glories and telling the stories behind them. Ganahl drove his grandfather’s 1948 Chevy sedan, a beige and brown surf wagon/hot rod, to college beginning in 1965. He was known around campus for waxing that car every weekend to protect it from the ocean air.
Today, the gem of his collection is a ’32 Ford Roadster. He built the whole car, every bolt. “It was a basket case” when he got it, Ganahl says. On the original Henry Ford frame and body, it sports a 1951 Cadillac engine, 331 cubic inches with two carburetors; a 1940 Ford column-shift transmission; 1950 Pontiac taillights — real ones, not ready-made replicas; a 1932 Auburn-style dashboard; and all-white tuck and roll upholstery. An expert helped him get the original deep purple body color, which he painted himself. It has a chopped windshield. No top.
To Ganahl’s eye, hot rods embody the American impulse to express individualism. They showcase the resourceful, can-do attitude that turns scrap heaps into moving artwork. And hot rods satisfy the urge to take to the road and go far and fast.
“There’s nothing more American than hot rodding; it’s a Horatio Alger pursuit, in a way,” he says. “It’s wanting to personalize the vehicles, make them better: That’s the American culture. ‘Let’s make our own statement, let’s make our own art.’ ”
Hot rodding started during the Depression, Ganahl says. “It was a way for young kids to make something out of junk that could be a sporty, fast little car. … [T]hey could get a cheap Model-T and build their car.” The lightweight bodies of the ’30s and ’40s roadsters made them ideal for modifications.
Each hot rodder adds that personal touch: reworking the engine to add power and noise (loud is an important component); a paint job that will impress from a distance; detailing, including designs and symbols that amaze on close scrutiny; interiors that cause an observer to quietly whistle their admiration.
Ganahl’s major projects these days are how-to books on building hot rods and the culture-focused volumes “Lost Hot Rods” and “Lost Hot Rods II,” which chronicle in photographs and stories the automotive treasures that he’s found, through rumor and journalistic detective work, in barns, fields and garages across the country. A former editor of Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, and Street Rodder magazines, he’s now the primary writer for the quarterly Rodder’s Journal.
Still, he finds time for the ’32 Roadster, for his bright yellow 1956 Ford F100 pickup, which he’s owned for 30 years, and for his iridescent gold 1950 Ford sedan. Just a few weeks ago, he finished an orange and black vintage dragster, a car he remembered from a 1950 issue of Hot Rod Magazine and hunted down.
Ganahl sees a future for hot rodding, and not just in the rusting husks of abandoned cars. “Today, you can make any kind of hot rod you want from any era,” Ganahl says. “You can do a high-tech car that’s got rocket ship parts on it, or you could do a ’40s- or ’50s-style car and build it out of new pieces. Or, like I’ve done, restore old, famous hot rods.”
This story was published at LMU Magazine Online in May 2013.