Kensington: Hot Rod City
By Harry Hallman
Kensington had a lot of hot rods, and in fact the whole country was crazy for hot rods in the ’50s and ’60s. Movies such as Rebel Without a Cause, Thunder Road, and many others not only reflected America’s love of fast cars, but also promoted the idea. What guy didn’t want to be Robert Mitchum outrunning the police to deliver his stash of moonshine?
My older brother Bill was, and still is, an excellent example of Kensington hot rod craziness. He learned how to fix-up beaters back in the day, and that desire to be a hot rodder served him well in his career. He even became the Vice President of Sales for Caterpillar products after starting as a mechanic. Bill would race at Langhorn, and once he took me to see the drag races. The smoke coming from the spinning tires and the two hot rods racing for victory were exhilarating to see.
Bill’s pride and joy was his 1953 Chevy he named Yogi after the cartoon Yogi the Bear. I believe he had a Corvette engine. A 409, I think. It was fast and it was beautiful. Later he bought a ’30s-something Ford. It looked like the cars they drove in those old mob movies. I liked that car. We called it Boo Boo who was Yogi’s pal. Bill still owns a classic car and often works on it. He goes to car shows and has fixed and sold his share of classics. He has maintained his Kensington hot rodder obsessions.
It was common to see teenagers speeding down streets lined with cars parked on each side and any car driving down those streets barely had any room on the sides. That was the point. It was a coming-of-age thing, I guess, as it was dangerous and took some skill. Now, you have to remember that virtually no kid driver had insurance in those days, so any nicks and bumps went unreported. I’m proud to say I never hit any cars.
There was a fair amount of street racing going on, and while there were some designated illegal spots to race, such as Delaware avenue, most of the racing started at traffic lights. Some guy would come up next to you and rev his engine, and the race was on. If you won, you were cool. If you lost, you tried again. If the police saw you, it was ticket time or worse if they pulled your seats out looking for booze. Drugs weren’t the thing back then, but underage drinking was.
My first car was a black 1950 Ford that cost me $50. All I can say is that it ran and had an electric heater, which I thought was pretty neat. It served me well, but it wasn’t the coolest of cars. I talked my brother into selling me a 1955 Pontiac. He told me that I shouldn’t buy it, but I persisted. Now that was a cool car. I took the air filter off to make the car sound like a hot rod, and I would pretend to shift gears even though the car was an automatic. My friends and I had this ill-conceived idea that the noisier the car, the more it attracted girls. After all, as you passed them with your mufflers sending out high decibel sound waves, it made them look at you. Of course, that look was one of disgust, not admiration. It didn’t matter; at least we were noticed.
A few days after I took the air filter off the carburetor, the car caught on fire. I extinguished it, but it caused a large burn spot on my hood. Eventually, I blew the engine and sold it for $50. However, I wasn’t over my obsession yet. I bought an old 1952 Buick, but it was the Buick Dynaflow transmission. That’s a kind of old fashion automatic. Anyway, I decided to make it a stick shift. After all, what self-respecting hot rod had an automatic transmission? It took three months and a lot of help from friends. I found out that I had none of the mechanical talents my brother had. It was evident that I wasn’t destined to be a hot rodder.
Not long after I got it to work as a stick shift, I decided to join the Air Force. I left the car with a friend and never saw it again. My military experience, or maybe the fact that I got older, cured me of my hot rod envy and cars became a means of transportation, not a symbol of coolness. That was true until my son leased a when I was in my early ’60s and had me drive it for the last year of the lease. In 1997, I had bought a BMW convertible, and driving that and the Porche satisfied my late-life car envy. Now I infrequently drive a 2006 Mercedes C280.
Occasionally, when I inadvertently put the old Mercedes automatic transmission into first gear and drive off, it reminds me of the glory days of hot rods in Kensington.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.