A dirt bike riding, retired Snap-on Tools selling, serial hot rod building OG – Original Gearhead – reflects on over 40 years of turning his own wrenches and racing all kinds of muscle. What setbacks did he overcome? Why did he get out of it? And how does he build such inexpensive machines? The further we look into the past, the further we can maybe see into the future.
[bd: This magazine began with me interviewing people I knew. Over time, I started introducing myself to more and more “strangers,” often joining a forum just to send a PM asking for an interview. But every once in a while, someone steps up and introduces me to one of their gearhead buddies. This is just such a story. Special thanks to Tom Mackie for making this one possible. ]
[tom] Let’s start with with a little background on how you got your start in hot rodding – first car, how the modifications began. Maybe talk about some of the various jobs you’ve had (and the responsibilities of them) which might have been related to the auto industry?
[tony] All my hot rodding stuff started at the Richfield/Arco service station and garage. First, I took a ‘57 Ford and put a 390 [ci/6.4L] in it I got out of a ‘62 T-Bird. Then I put a straight axle under it, then dual quads, then bored it out to 406 [ci/6.7L], then a friend needed money so I bought his ‘57 Chevy Nomad and sold the Ford.
I loved that Nomad. I put a solid lifter 301 [ci/5.0L] (bored out 283 [ci/4.6L]) with Tri-Power carbs and 4-speed with 4.56 Posi. I ran mid 12s at San Fernando drag strip. About that time my younger brother got killed in Viet Nam and, before he was drafted, he financed a ‘67 Ford Fairlane GT 390 in my dads name because he didn’t have established credit yet. So my dad, who was not rolling in the dough, couldn’t afford to make the payment.
I sold the Nomad and took over payments on the Fairlane. Of course I had to add a Sig Earson cam, headers and a 3.91 Posi rear end. I loved that car too. I trophied in class a Irwindale twice and won the money class at San Fernando twice. It ran consistent 13.5s and was solid as a rock. Even though the Nomad was faster, it broke all the time. I broke two axles, one drive shaft, scattered the clutch once, and once my alternator pulley fins started coming off and made it look like someone was shooting a gun under my hood with dings in a perfect straight row.
And then it all came to a halt in 1970. I got married and had a kid by 1971. I started getting more serious about the future. First I decided I needed to make more money. That’s when I got into Snap-on Tools. I was still able to continue dirt bike riding, though. In fact, from 1970 to 1985, I was pretty competitive in AMA District 37 Enduro competition. I still ride, but only 4-5 times a year. Back then it was every other weekend.
HOT ROD GENES
My hot rod genes started coming back about 1995. My son was old enough to drive. His two older sisters also drove, and I had provided each with a sensible car, but my son, now that was different. Let’s get him into something a little more exciting. I bought an ‘84 Mustang 302 fixer upper – the 5.0. it had headers, 4-speed, Posi, and a Holley 4-barrel, but needed some body and engine work so I was thinking he and I would fix it up together.
Wrong. He showed little interest. So I got it up to speed myself. That damn thing was faster than my ‘86 Vette. Anyway, the only time the tires smoked is when I drove it. He drove it to school his junior and senior years. After high school he got a job and bought a small Chevy SUV. I also tried to get his interest in building an old Chevy ‘51 sedan delivery thinking he would like that for the stereo systems he seemed interested in at the time. The sedan delivery would house a lot of big speakers, but he wasn’t enthused about that either.
The sedan/delivery became my first project when I retired from Snap-on. I put a 454 [ci/7.4L] with a Turbo 400 [transmission] in it, got a Mustang ll as a donor car and used the Ford 8″ rear and the front rack and pinion. It’s a nice driver.
Then I did a ‘64 El Camino; put a small block 400 [ci/6.5L] with a Turbo 400 trans in it and it’s now a daily driver. Next I picked up a 4 door ‘55 Chevy I’ve turned into my Bonneville beater. Put a 350/ Turbo 400 in it. And now I’m doing the ‘23 Buick. It keeps me busy during my retirement years.
I do all the work myself except painting. I have welders, body tools, engine and trans overhaul tools, a 12,000lb [5,400kg] lift in my shop. I have done frame-off on all my projects except the ‘55. Yes. I can still overhaul automatic transmissions, as long as they are pre-computer.
[bd: For those who, like me, aren’t immediately familiar with the guy mentioned below, Clare Sanders drove the Jungle Jim funny car, as well did some driving for Ramchargers, another pivotal (and perhaps the first factory sponsored) team in the drag racing movement of the 60s and 70s, before joining and advancing to the executive level at Snap-on Tools.]
[tom] I really don’t know, but assume you met Clare through Snap-on Tools, yes?
[tony] Yes, I first met Clare when he and I were field managers with Snap-on. Truthfully, I had seen Jungle Jim race and never knew Clare was part of the Top Fuel Car team until we became friends. Our paths took similar direction with Snap-on. We were field managers at the same time – he in Santa Clara and me in LA. We were sales managers at the same time – I was in Anaheim and he was in Seattle. And we were both branch managers in Texas – I was in San Antonio and he was in Houston.
“The picture with me sitting with a couple friends was taken at the Winternationals a few years ago. The guy sitting next to me is Ed Downes. He was the mechanic on Kenny Safford’s top fuel funny car back in the 60s when Coca Cola was sponsoring the Cavalcade of Stars. There were six funny cars that toured the US. Kenny, Don Prudhomme, Tom McCuen and three other guys. The other picture is me standing next to Clare Sanders in front of the JUNGLE JIM funny car he won the ’69 Winternationals in.”
[tom] So, I’m thinking with the trips and tools, you’ve met others in the race/custom industry?
[tony] Yes, over the years Snap-on was more involved with racing than they are today. When I was the sales manager in Anaheim, Snap-on supported Penske Racing who’s man at the time was Rick Mears. When the Long Beach Grand Prix came to town, I was responsible for the Snap-on hospitality tent. My wife and I spent an afternoon with Rick in our hospitality tent.
Turns out we had a little in common. I too lived in Bakersfield once! (laughs) We were also sponsoring a drag racer named Doug Herbert who I became friends with over the years and we exchange emails and Facebook stuff from time to time. And we can’t leave out NASCAR. Snap-on supported Richard Childress Racing and we got to tour Childress’s facility in Welcome, North Carolina, and personally got to meet Dale and Dale junior.
[bd] I especially like how you go into why you jumped from one project to the next. Let’s shift gears a bit, Tony. You’ve always played with hotrods. Let’s dig deeper into why you’ve spent so much time and money putzing with cars, never going all-out on any particular one. (Keeping in mind you say you do frame-off restos on all of them, yet also say all your work is rat rod quality.) What’s the appeal of rat rods vs show cars?
[tony] I believe I’ve spent more time than money. I like my stuff to be mechanically sound – like a daily driver would be. Taking an old body off an old frame allows you to clean it up real good and stop all the rust and replace all rusty nuts and bolts. That involves a lot of work, but not much money.
When I have it all stripped down, I rent a house sand blasting machine from United Rentals for $200 for the whole weekend, which includes the air compressor. 20 bags of silica sand costs $80 and the rest is all my labor.
Putting Hirsch Auto Miracle paint on the frame and suspension parts cost $130 for 4 quarts, which does the job and, again, the rest is my labor. I’m 70 years old and didn’t start frame-off stuff until I retired at 62. I couldn’t do this type of work if I didn’t have a lift, big air compressor, lots of Snap-on tools, welders, presses, metal brakes, and lots of shop equipment like vises, floor jack, trans jacks, drill press, etc..
I do good mechanical work but when it comes to fine detail, I suck. Partly because of my budget. I have kept each car project under $5000. I’m not interested in doing Boyd Coddington or Foose work.
I don’t buy brand new stuff. I shop Craigslist and other avenues for good, used stuff. If the car needs new chrome, it doesn’t get it. The bumpers were so bad on the ‘51 sedan delivery, I had the painter paint them black with the rest of the lower half of the car. Also, the guy in Carson City, Joe the Chrome Guy, had just died and the only place to get chrome done was 200 miles away.
I put a 454/Turbo 400 in this car. I got the motor and trans free. The engine had a piston out and the trans had a broken bell housing. I had the bell housing heli-arched by a friend and I overhauled the engine for $300.
When I restored the ‘64 El Camino, I had to take the body off the frame. The passenger side only floor pan was rusted through so I replaced it. It cost $100 at Summit Racing and is a son of a bitch to replace. I know this because I did myself. I put a 400 small block in it. I got the motor from a redneck junk yard for $300 and I bought three Turbo 400 transmissions from him for $200. I made two good transmissions out of the three. One went in the El Camino and the other went in my ‘55 Chevy. I also bought most of my engine parts from Doug Herbert, including a Chet Herbert cam that sounds real nice in the El Camino.
Incidentally, at Nevada’s 150th statehood anniversary – Nevada Day – recently, celebrated in Carson City, every year there is a parade, rain or shine. And the car club I’m in, The Karson Kruzers, always has 10 cars in the parade. This year, two of the cars were mine – the Chevy ‘51 sedan delivery and ‘64 El Camino. My cars have never won anything at car shows – and at least 10 guys in our club have won with their cars – but if it’s supposed to rain, maybe snow, those candy ass low lifes won’t bring their cars – but I’ll bring mine.
[tom] You may call your work ‘rat,’ but I think it’s above that – a sort of ‘in completed ‘in progress’ style of projects. The final product is more than the sum of its parts. Let’s call it character. A lot of people associate frame-off restorations with show quality, yet that’s not how you roll. In short, I think you sell yourself a bit short, brother.
[tony] I’ve always been mechanical and able to fix almost anything. Working in the Richfield station/garage is what planted my love for working on cars and hot rods. There were two other guys working there who shared the same passion. We’d work in the station all day and then half the night we’d work on our own cars. Cams, headers, different transmissions, exhaust systems – what ever we could come up with for cooler sounds and more speed with whatever money we could scrape together.
We all had dirt bikes too, so between working on cars and riding dirt bikes almost every weekend, we were busy and having fun. No thought for the future. No savings account. No college. Just living for the moment. Then I met a girl. Damn, fell in love, got married, already had a kid on the way, and suddenly the future became more serious. I was 24 at the time. This is when I joined Snap-on and then worked my ass off for the next 35 years. I made a good living, had three kids, and didn’t have a lot of time left to work on any hot rod projects.
Work weeks were 50-70 hours with lots of traveling, however, when I was a field manager, I was working with a one of my dealers in Hollywood one day. We stopped at a service station on Hollywood Boulevard. In the back room, covered with an old tarp, was a hot rod of some kind. I asked the shop owner what it was. He said an old 32 Ford. “Do you want to see it?” Hell yes! He uncovers this flat black ‘32 Ford, channelled 4″ over the frame with an Olds engine sporting 6 Stromberg 97 carbs with a 4-speed hydro and headers outside the frame. I asked if it ran. He said, “Let me find a battery and I’ll fire her up.”
I bought it for $2500 and drove it home to Glendale (about 20 miles) the next day. Scared the shit out of me. The steering only worked half the time (later I put a Vega steering box in it to fix that problem). This car looked a lot like the yellow ‘32 in American Graffiti except the movie wasn’t out yet. I spent some time fixing this car up and made two huge mistakes I would like to have back.
One, I took the engine and trans out and traded them for an old, worn out Chevy station wagon that had a 427/ Turbo 400 in it, and then I overhauled the engine and trans and put them in my ‘73 Chevy 3/4 ton pick up, swapping the 350/350 Turbo out of the truck into the ‘32. Sure, I now had a truck that hauled ass pulling my travel trailer and I had a ‘32 Ford with a 350 Dual Quad motor in it that hauled ass too – but I no longer had an original, 50’s era hot rod – and that thought never occurred to me until I went to Bonneville 20 years later.
My second mistake, I sold the ‘32 when I took the Texas branch manager promotion. I sold it because I didn’t think I’d have much time to mess around with it. From buying it, to switching engines, and selling it spanned just six years.
[tom] What aspect of playing with cars has the most significant impact on your life?
In a sense, that’s really the one big question. We all know our lives are better because we play with cars – we meet cool people, have good experiences, etc. – but it’s important to get more gearheads reflecting on this as more than just a hobby.
[tony] At this time in my life, I still ride a dirt bike. Not very much – and if it didn’t have an electric start I wouldn’t be riding at all. I ride a KTM 525 EXC, which is one hell of a dirt bike and street legal.
If I had owned this rocket when I was younger, I’d probably be dead today. But between hot rods and getting paid $200 a week I didn’t have enough money back then to buy a really good dirt bike.
Today, I ride about five times a year and the rest of the time I spend in my shop. I don’t have any other hobbies. I don’t golf. I like going to NHRA and NASCAR events, but because of where I live, none are close so I only go about once a year. Each year I love going to Bonneville, for racing and hot rod/rat rod car shows, and seeing old friends. Bonneville is the least expensive spectator sport in the world. Camping is free and it cost $50 for the whole week entry fee.
So my hobby is working on one of my car projects, or helping my son in law and his nephews overhaul VW motors, or servicing my wife’s cars or my daughters’ cars, and my little shop keeps me as busy as I want to be. It’s way better than sitting around in a chair, eating potato chips and watching TV. I have arthritis, neuropathy, a bad back, eyesight is getting weaker, can’t get an erection. Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I stay busy in my little shop.
Oh, and the main reason I don’t spend more money on my car projects is because I moved so many time for Snap-on Tools, I never finished buying a house, so the house I’m in runs me US$3K a month and I still have a year to go on it. After that, I should have a few more bucks to spend to do a nicer job on my vehicles.
. . .
[bd] How’s THAT for a story? 40+ years ago, Tony was spending all his money on fast cars and good times. Then real life caught up with him and he had to settle down, focusing on his career and family. You’ll notice he went to work for one of the most recognized names in professional shops around the world, too. Not bad.
I know some of us – with far less seat time than Tony – are starting to run into those “real life” challenges. Kids are expensive, and this guy had three! All the while – and even when his son apparently wasn’t interested in hot rods at all – he still found ways, even to this day, to use his gearhead skills in support of his family. If you ask me, that’s real character; character perhaps embodied in the results of Tony’s many hot rod projects over the years.
Let’s hope we’re all as happy and wise as Tony when we’re 70. (And still allowed to drive old cars!)