Reinventing The Wheel: The Art Of Tradition

Copy Edit - Tradition

tra•di’tion n. The handing down of customs, doctrines, etc.; something so handed down.

When it comes to any build style with roots going back a couple of generations, there’s always discussion about “tradition.” What’s traditional and what’s not? Where do you draw the line? Is there a even a line to begin with? There are several schools of thought when it comes to tradition, but for brevity’s sake, we’re going to focus on three specific topics.

Old School

There are some who adhere to the way it was, no matter what. If we’re talking 40’s, 50’s and 60’s hot rods and customs, or 60’s, 70’s and 80’s lowriders, the “Old School” takes their heritage very seriously.

trad_hotrod2_3These styles have been around for decades now, so most people who build these kinds of cars are generally pretty well versed in each of their illustrious histories. They’ve listened to the old timers and veteranos in rapt attention, taking mental notes of this heritage because they know that they’re losing veritable goldmines of information every time one of these guys pass away.

Some have read every scrap of literature they can get their grubby mitts on, absorbing every nuance and detail. They have amassed vast libraries of books, magazines, flyers, stories, etc. and collected many rare vintage parts having an intimate knowledge of damn near every piece in their collection. They strive to re-create the styles that they love and revere.

A solid example of this school, are the Choppers of Burbank. These guys and others like them build period correct and sometimes period perfect hot rods and customs that look like they just drove off the little pages from a vintage issue of Rod & Custom or Rodding & Re-styling. There have also been some period correct lowriders built in recent years that are simply mind blowing.

All of these builds are truly amazing to see, whether your eye is trained or not – the painstaking attention to detail is apparent either way. There is almost no intentional interpreting or blending of styles for this school; for the most part, it’s very black and white. They’ve chosen a style, a period and sometimes even a specific region that they are paying homage to and they stick to it through every painstaking detail. They build the closest things to time machines this side of a flux capacitor.


Above are a couple of builds that specifically adhere to the traditional style of hot rod, custom and lowrider culture.

Ol’ Skool

rat_rod2_big wheelsThen you’ve got people who pay little to no attention to the history books. They have, at best, a cursory knowledge of the history involved. That being the case, you see a lot of what many in the Old School consider “confused” builds, with styling cues and design choices that are really at odds with one another. These vehicles are definitely rooted in tradition, but generally, not much of the build has been done “traditionally.” And some throw caution to the wind all together to create something uniquely different, sometimes good – and sometimes bad.

For instance, when viewing the more extreme examples of rat rods, typically nothing flows, nothing jives. Sometimes these vehicles appear to have been built simply to shock the observer (which in most cases is the goal or intention). Or sometimes the purpose is to simply use all sorts of leftover parts to cobble something together in a “budget” fashion.

To the true old school crowds, builds like these appear to be nothing but a mish-mash of mercurial decisions and passing fancies. A pile of parts thrown together with no real thought or “build philosophy” to guide the execution. We’ll refer to these builds falling into this group as the “Ol’ Skool.”


Rat rods are a mechanical menagerie of parts to some, and to others the rat rod represents the spirit of ingenuity and resourcefulness, but to others it’s blasphemy.

New School

The final school we’re visiting is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch. This group has majored in the Old School and minored in almost every other automotive school there is. If it’s car related, they store that info away. Because what this group does is interpret and blend styles in a way that most of the Old School never would and most of the Ol’ Skool never could. To be honest, I don’t think most of the hard-line Old Schoolers could pull it off either.

The intimate knowledge of automotive history and eye for aesthetics that these “Nouveau-Traditionalists” possess allow them to find the common ground between seemingly incongruous styles and periods, building something brand new out of old traditions and vintage styling cues. If you want to see some prime examples of these builds, we need to look to our hot rod and custom friends in Japan. Some of the best executed and refreshingly unique hot rods, customs, and lowriders are being built in the land of the rising sun. While they have their fair share of Old School and Ol’ Skool as well, it’s their truly exceptional brand of “New School” that has grabbed the attention of gearheads all over the globe.

japan_fastbackAdmittedly, we’re generalizing each of these schools for the sake of brevity. But, love them or hate them, each of these build styles have their devoted followers and rabid detractors. We here on Rod Authority tend not to believe in absolutes, as we know that there are always going to be grey areas. Meaning that there are cars in every build style that you will love, hate, or simply ignore. We feel that when it comes to anything, people should not dislike something for what it isn’t, but rather like it or appreciate it for what it is. We’ll be honest in saying that sometimes we don’t care for certain cars built in the “Ol’ Skool” way, if there is a complete lack of style, substance and/or downright poor execution.

That being said, as a fan of art and culture in general, we realize that the visceral reaction we have towards some of these cars probably also means that they have done their job. Think about it: they evoked a reaction, they make you feel something, and that’s what it’s all about, right? Isn’t that the true nature and purpose of art – emotion manifested into something physical, aural, etc.! Ol’ Skool might not be your school, but different strokes for different folks is what it’s all about in the custom world. Expression, style, tradition, form, function, shock – every “school of thought” has their proper place in car culture history.japan_strongers2As we should all be well aware by now, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, some people have almost no prior knowledge of historic styles and their cars still look killer because style is instinctual to them. It’s in their genes. Transversely, we’ve seen enough builds by people with a ton of knowledge about tradition and their cars sucked because of a complete and utter lack of passion. That’s right, we said it.

junichi_2Notes from the Author: So what school do I attend? For most of my life, when it came to customs, I was a strict traditionalist. As I’ve grown older the internet has opened up the world for me as it has for so many others. I’ve come to understand that with the proper execution there is, in fact, plenty of room for interpretation. Going back to Japan for a minute, their builds have especially done a good job at blurring boundaries and blending genre.

Junichi Shimodaira of the Paradise Road shop in Nagoya, Japan is a builder who personifies the Nouveau-Traditional build philosophy to the tee. Take even a casual glance at his personal cars and have your mind blown. Are they hot rods, customs, or lowriders? The answer is YES! While they all have their roots firmly planted in tradition, they take “period possible” to a whole other level.


Japanese car culture seamlessly combines the aesthetics of lowriders, customs, and hot rods. They are the forerunners of the new school tradition pushing boundaries and blurring lines.

Cross-Cultural Influences

vip_nissan_01Recently, we’ve noticed a lot of this cross-pollination in other parts of the automotive world. Taking a peek into the world of Import cars reveals some interesting insights, especially while focusing upon “stanced” and VIP styled rides. For those wondering what the hell we’re talking about, as we see them, a VIP car is typically a full-size sports/luxury sedan slammed over a ridiculously amazing set of wheels, with very subtle body mods (if any) and usually a very subdued, but extremely well executed paint job. While a “Stanced” car is done in the same vein, i.e. very low, nice wheels and a killer stance, except they tend to be built from the lower-end models of cars.


A Toyota Century with a VIP Mod style. The key modifications in import culture closely reflect the sentiments of lowriders.

Stance and VIP guys, please feel free to correct us, as we’re fairly new to these styles so please bear with us to see where we’re going with this… But when we look at a VIP ride or the “Stanced” cars that have all but taken over the Import scene, we see a common heritage with the original customs and lowriders of the ’60s. You get a car, any car really, clean it up and detail the hell out of it and then get it impossibly low over the nicest set of rollers you can possibly afford.

Scraping down the streets in style really is the true essence of Lowriding. Everything comes full circle in the end. Yes, we realize that connecting lowriding and imports in any way may not be the most popular theory to some, but the evidence is in the execution and build philosophy. Does that mean that these imports are lowriders? I suppose that’s arguable, but that’s a whole other article for a different time.

The Nature Of Tradition


The main point of the article you’re now reading is this: No matter which school of automotive styling you attend, there is always common ground, even if it’s just the blacktop you’re rolling on. While we may not always like some builds or even whole styles, there’s a reason why so many other people love it. In the end, tradition is subjective, dependent of many varying factors. Perhaps some of the more overlooked of these factors is time and place, which is ironic considering the topic of discussion.

Allow us to explain using an example that is near and dear: In the early to mid-60’s, almost every major automotive publication all but stopped covering custom cars. Wild show cars were still being documented from time to time, but mild customs might as well have vanished from existence. Some of us know that this is not the case.


The mild custom scene flourished on the boulevards of Southern California, eventually giving birth to Lowriders as we know them today. From 1964 to 1974, these low, crazy painted, wild wheeled rides scraped their way down and around the greater Los Angeles region on Bellflower Blvd, Van Nuys Blvd, Whittier Blvd, Laurel Canyon Blvd and many other streets across So Cal.

Despite these areas being within a 60 mile radius of each other, certain trends could be particularly regional. Talk to a few guys today who are now in their 60’s; one from Van Nuys, one from Long Beach, and one from Whittier and they could all describe different styles that were more or less unique to their respective cruising grounds. Add to that many years in between then and now and you have a prime example of subjective tradition. We find proof of this theory in the relatively recent surfacing of photo collections of people like Howard Gribble.


Howard was one of the only people properly documenting these mild customs at the time. 

When perusing his pictures it’s easy to see that the area he documented (primarily car shows in the South Bay area of So Cal) and the relatively short period of time that he covered these cars (1966 to 1976) illustrate just how wildly trends and styles varied and how quickly they came and went.

Before Howard decided to scan his collection and share them on the internet, there was very little visual reference about this time in Southern California. When his photos started making the digital rounds, it was like a revelation. It was as if a 40 year media blackout had finally been lifted on a style that was so well loved and remembered by a dedicated few.

He then unearthed and shared his now famous 8mm footage of Alan Duke’s ’64 Impala (pictured below). When I showed the video to my Dad, he was near tears at seeing what for him might as well have been a window back in time. A time long forgotten or ignored by a majority of automotive enthusiasts and unknown to the rest.


Final Thoughts

stanced_bmwFrom Author: I used to think tradition was something that was handed down and could not be changed. But after many long hours of debate and discussion with good friends Eryk Frias, Harry Kapsalis, Mark Kawano, Matt Clute and others, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not the case.

Tradition is subjective, the interpretation that happens when it is handed down is in itself change. Whether looking at old photos or listening to an old timer’s stories, something happens during “translation.” Not loss of information, but perhaps more of a re-imagining due to an individual’s unique tastes and perspective.

I hate the argument that “nothing is new” as this implies that we are simply continuing to re-hash old ideas. I feel that this is a cop-out, because while we may draw heavily from tradition, our subjective views on what constitutes this tradition make it something new and unique, even if not entirely so.

Special thanks go out to Howard Gribble, Brooke Guerrero, Mark Kawano, Yudai Okuda and Eryk Frias for their help with this article and the talks on “tradition” and its meaning and to Takuya Odachan Oda, Toshi Shimizu & Local Hero, Junichi Shimodaira & Paradise Road, Strongers Kar Klub and my Dad and everyone for their ongoing support.

(Editor’s Note: This story was written and compiled by Bob Helfrich, member of Los Boulevardos. Special thanks goes out to Bob-O for putting together yet another great history piece and working with a great team to provide some deep insight. Stay tuned as Bob-O continues to delve into the past, present, and future of hot rodding and customs, right here on Rod Authority!)

trad_hotrod3_stock roof height

About the author

Bob Helfrich

I'm in love with all things mechanical and have been for as long as I can remember. I love writing about these machines as much as I love wrenching on them.
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