The Blastolene Story
A perspective on artist built cars

Or a creative odyssey in the realm of automotive art

1965 - Student - Chouinard Art Institute – Downtown Los Angeles – In the process of fulfilling a homework assignment of obtaining the so-called ‘junk’, that would transform our classroom into an “environment” that would eventually creep out into the hallways, we found the “supreme ultimate junkyard of all time”. It was out on south Peck road. in Monrovia. They had a huge multi acre spread of salvage that spanned decades with an assortment of goodies that ran the gamut from entire period sheet metal gas stations and lamppost standards via early Pasadena to surplus giant cranes and Fire trucks. That’s where I first saw her.

We kept going back to that junk yard years after that class was over, a great abstract environment for a photo shoot or, need an oak desk,,” yep, but we only got about three or four hundred left, there over the other side of that stack of gas stations in those railroad box cars”, or,,Hey,,,, how about an antique gas pump or a dozen or so. Well each time I visited Tony Ortiz and his parallel universe I would check her out and one visit I threw out a feeler, ‘whatchew want for that Seagraves hook n’ ladder tractor’ Tony???,,,,,,,,,, (I had a strange obsession with that truck - and years later it was revealed that I had been imprinted at a tender early age) . For $250. she was mine all mine (fiendish cackling while rubbing hands together) I was permitted to work in the junk yard. All I had to do was locate and replace the salvaged axels and get her running (she had sat for perhaps 20 years) and drive her to her new home in the mountains of Santa Cruz. Ca.  where I had settled and co-founded the Bonny Doon Art Glass co. with my old L.A. friend John Forbesowitz .

John accompanied me as we headed up the coast with a 75-gallon fuel tank strapped to the frame behind the fifth wheel (3 miles to the gallon was all she would yield with the fire engine gearing). Grinding Up old 101,  “El Camino Real”, past the old missions and army bases and power plants she powered away humming that old V-12 hummm . We were exhausted but satisfied returning back to the clan with our bagged game.

It was not hard to imagine all kinds of possibilities with the absence of a body on the back of the fire truck tractor. I sold the truck with a package deal to transform her into a boatail roadster.

The original fire-truck fenders were retained and on the rears a fender extension/splash apron that connected the two rear fenders across the back was fabricated. A hood from a 49 Studebaker pick up truck turned around backwards became the top section of the boatail. The stock windshield went away (way too tall) and a British style sports car cowl was fashioned. The 120 Jag windshield posts were made to fit the new cowl contour and the side posts shortened with new tops to create an ‘aviation’ look to the ‘Duval’ style windshield.  The stock doors were cut down to go along with the new cowl and (in keeping with the ‘factory’ specs) 16 ga. cold rolled sheet metal continued back to form the bottom of the boatail.  The framework inside the new body was .125 wall 1”x1” square steel tubing. We weren’t afraid of the weight, the tractor was originally made to pull an 85’ ariel ladder rig.

The suspension and driveline were left pretty-much stock at this time, but the air brake system needed upgrading to current standards and the final drive ratio definitely had to go. With a little research I located a rear end with a 2:44 gear set, the highest ratio I’ve ever heard of for a 10-ton semi truck. The pitiful $5000.  ( parts+labor ) budget for the first pass evaporated quickly ( I wanted to do the job !) and the vehicle was handed over to its new owner.

With a funny twist of fate I re-acquired the truck, which was stored in the 1847 historic ‘Enterprise Iron Works’ building which I purchased from the man I had sold the truck to (they made picks and shovels for the California gold rush in this building). She had been stripped down to the frame by a fellow who left town right after he had successfully pitched the idea to convert her to all independent 4 - wheel drive ten ton chassis. ( I really wanted to see that ! ). And there she sat, taking up ‘valuable space’ - actually broke through the floor where she was being stored.  I sold her to a fireman in Portola Valley where the stack of parts sat on the trailer she was picked up on for thirteen years - untouched. Every few years I’d get a call informing me that ‘she was-a-goin’ an if I wants ‘er better speak up’. Well,, $100 dollars per year storage fee + the $800 he paid me for it and she was ‘mine all mine’ (again). I had been around some by this time and I realized that even though it was completely disassembled it still had the most awesome potential of any project that I could think of. The fenders had been scrapped when Mr. 4-wheel drive did his stuff so the plan was to get her on the road as an open wheel car.  All the spring mounts had been torched off the frame as well as the rear section of the frame itself, so there was an opportunity to lengthen the wheelbase at this point. The stock springs were reduced to just a few leafs but the ride was still stiff, if you jumped up and down on the rear suspension, it was like jumping on the sidewalk - totally solid man!.  I enlisted the help of veteran British sports car mechanic Andrew Rowland . We built a new rear frame section, re-mounted the axels, installed an Air-o-matic (air actuated) power steering system, some wiring and ‘viola’ Bertha was ‘on the road again’.

She was driven as an open wheel car for a few years when the ‘modify’ urge took control once again. I was never really happy with the ’49 Studebaker boatail so I reached for the sawzall,,,,,,,,. ‘remove the negative - accentuate the positive’.

I had been to Harrah’s automobile collection in Reno in the mid-70’s to photograph and study a Mercedes SSK100 for a series of mammoth stained glass panels for Sly McFly’s re-fueling station on Cannery Row Ca. and saw a dual cowl SJ Dusenberg roadster and, I believe, the Blougne-Hispano, the tulip wood bodied  Hispano Suiesa  that won the Targa Florio race in  1921. These vehicles approached the scale of my project and fueled my vision. Forbes was working on a scale-model automotive sculpture project at that time that inspired me most of all. It didn’t have to work, it was ART!! Without the constraints of practicality it could be as wild as one wanted. Forbes’ sculpture embodied the essence of the 30’s deco style. An image of elegance, moving so fast that it became distorted and stretched beyond belief – but in reality, it was static, it was standing still. My vehicle did run, but it was also ART. ‘Think outside of the box’. How radical can we make this and still have it function. O.K. , lets make the front fenders as stretched out and distorted as possible, yeah, all the way back to the rear fenders, ‘whoa’, it’s going 100, no, 200 miles per hour ( it’s really standing still).

 The front fenders evolved from following the bottom radius on the fantastic cast aluminum grill shell with the idea to stretch it out as far as possible to compliment the art deco styling and create the feeling of movement, they ended up measuring over 11 ft. long. I brought some of the industrial design components of the original truck design into play by incorporating mostly single plane curves into the design reserving the mysterious ‘compound’ curves for only a small percentage of the fenders acreage. The wooden fender bucks were built right on the car so that everything would connect and align to existing components. The wheel well radius’ were especially critical and by building on the car it was possible to achieve perfect concentricity with the wheel and tire. Fender bucks were loaded into ‘Liza’, my ‘29 model ‘A’ work truck I’ve been driving for 28 years and drive’m down to Donny Houseman of Mercury metal Fabricating in Watsonville Ca.. Donny is an automotive enthusiast with a penchant for fire-trucks and vintage race cars.  Donny’s daughter even helped while on her summer break. He’d come in extra early each day and get a few licks in, I’d show up when I could and under his direction help move things along, even so the front fenders took 1½ years to complete.

O.K., so,,, what about the boat-tail and rear fenders ? About this time I was introduced to glass artist Randy Grubb through our mutual friend and representative Lawrence Selman  of the L.H.Selman glass gallery in Santa Cruz. Randy is one of the top ‘encased lampwork’ artists in the country. It also happens that he is a out-of-control-over-the-top-friggin’ hot rod freak. I had been mocking-up the boat-tail and rear fenders in an attempt to come up with a pleasing design that could be easily executed. “My god, Randy” I said “I’ve waited one and one-half years to get the blinkin’ front fenders, I want to drive the thing”. Randy calmly explained that I must strive for the highest ground, the final execution cannot be compromised, I must come up with the best design possible and if that meant setting out upon the path of learning the arcane art of automotive coachwork building, then, that’s what must be. With these words of wisdom ringing in my head I fired up the big band saw and with randy helping started building the wooden forms. It took almost a complete year just to build the bucks, but I was happy. I had conceived the design without compromise and was finally ready to get my hands on the metal. Randy, it so happens, had been apprenticing with legendary coachwork builder Al Trumbly in both thier home town of Grants pass Or. Al was an old codger who recently had knee operated surgery and Randy was steppin’ an’ fetchin’ for the guy while he got back on his feet. An introduction was set up and before long I was on my way up to Grants Pass in Liza loaded down with the bucks. Up to this time metal forming had been somewhat of a mystery to me. Al was grouchy and persnikkity, procedures had to be done just so. Randy spent the time with me in the shop interceding and gently finessing the situation. Things moved along slowly owing to Al’s temperament and recovery. But alas, I had some sections of the fenders in my hand and I returned home with confidence, I had gotten my feet upon the path and ‘get-out-of-the-way-cause-here-we-go’.   

The incubation period must have run its course and symptoms of the mutant roadster desease surfaced in my friend. He had to have one. He first tried to buy or trade me his 6-71 blown Willys for my project, but that wasn’t an option. So we headed down to southern California searching for a large displacement V12 powered fire truck chassis for Randy. We ended up out near Palm Springs at, what we like to call, ‘the fire truck planet’. This guy Huey ( he and his wife are both fire fighters ) has a fire truck collection to beat the band. It was bizarre walking over the acres of dunes strune with antique fire fighting apparatus lying helter skelter in varrying degrees of decomposition. Skunked !  No luck. Randy wanted a runner, none to be found. We returned home empty handed but still determined !. The following week I received a phone call, it was Randy, “guess what I got ?” came this smug voice over the line, “ AN M47 PATTON TANK ENGINE” he screamed-talking so fast I could barely understand him, “1800 all aluminum air cooled overhead camshaft with individual finned aluminum cylinders 1200 horsepower with 1500 ft.lbs. of torque-o-my-god it’s so bitchin your not going to believe it”! Actually it was two engines procured from an ex-marine military vehicle collector in Coos Bay who shortly after this transaction ran himself over with a half-track or something-or-other and kilt hisself. These were extra engines that went to a tank that he had sold and the new owner did not want. Shortly thereafter I was up at Randys priming the 2 huge four barrel carburetors. STAND BACK ! the magnetos were out of time and we over primed the motor. A gut shaking roar and Thirty foot flames shot into the cool calm of a Grants Pass twilight.  The motor ran, neighbors from a mile radius showed up cringing and holding their ears, Randy stood there with the biggest ear-to-ear shit eating grin I think I ever saw. We sat around Randys garage late into the night brainstorming and sketching ideas of what his car might look like. It was fun building en massive scale. We were building hot rods, but out of ten ton semi truck parts. It was as if we were in un-chartered territory, we felt like we were creating a whole new category of street rods. It was on this night that the Blastolene Brotherhood was born. The idea was of a brotherhood of autonomous individual artists and craftsmen who encourage each others creativity. Our projects, it seemed, embodied an essence and sprit of free creative exchange and helping each other along their paths.

We  were ‘stoked’; we agreed that we would show our ART at the Goodguys West Coast Nationals in Pleasonton 2002. I had been given essentially a 29-year handicap. Was it conceivable that Randy could build his project in slightly less than one year ???

Back in my shop I had gathered some of the essential tools necessary to continue, an English wheel, a portable air plannishing hammer, an edge shrinker, assorted hammers and dollies and a giant roll of paper that would be used for patterns as well as ‘getting down’ on the shop floor to put the initial rolls into the panels. Al likes to use 19 or 20 gauge cold rolled steel to form his panels. He don’t like that aluma-kilned stuff, “bubble gum” he snorts, “too soft-no tension-no good). I used18-gauge cold rolled steel “good ‘nuf’ says Al. I made each half of the boatail out of one piece of metal. The panels were taller than I was. My thought was to eliminate as much of the welding as possible by initially making the panels as big as possible. Clamping the sheet to the bucks and cutting darts where the compound curves would be, I folded the metal and tech-screwed it together. Then cutting through both layers at the same time with the sawzall gave me the perfect ‘kerf’ or spacing  between the metal edges. I’d cut about six inches then tig tack @ 1” intervals then cut s’more and so on. Let me be clear on the fact that I had a lot more enthusiasium than so-called knowledge at this time. (this is not the way Al would do it !) and  besides, you might just come up with something new tryin’ it out your own way. Tig welding is the prescribed way to join the panels together. I used the oxy-acetelene torch simply because I’m a devil with it. “Go with whatchew know”. After tacking I welded first the outside and then the inside of all the panels. Sure they warped, but a few minutes (OK, a few hours) with a hammer and dollie and they were right there. All the welds needed to be hammered anyway to take the temper out, so there you go. I’m not about to go into all I learned about panel forming now, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to finish this article, however, I will say this,‘control your edges’, otherwise you’re ‘lost in space, dude’.

During this period I was somehow able to arrange my life so I could spend all my available time working on Bertha, which meant about sixty to eighty hours per week. I was pumped, the upcoming event and Randys project added fuel to the fire, and my task demanded it. Automotive coachwork building is an arcane, endless, thankless task, especially when you are learning it for the first time. Overall it took over seven years to build the fenders and new boat-tail. Every part of each component seemingly (and actually) takes forever. I was resigned to be present in the moment, to be content to perform each task in its turn, over and over sometimes, until each part in the process was complete. It was a meditation of sorts. My shop became a refuge, a rarified space where I felt I was where I was supposed to be in the universe, despite the demands upon my endurance and concentration.  I’d complete a fender and fit it to the boat-tail, wrong!  O.K., move the fender edge flange which might take another week, and it still might not fit, so, try it again, and so it went. It seemed like I was floating in a raft out somewhere in the pacific between two continents, happy to be there just bobbing over the waves. My philosophy’s been; to be content being involved in the process, if it weren’t for my friend Randy I’d probably still be considering different options for the boat-tail and as it is I’m still apprehensive about getting the project into final paint, because, my relationship will change at that point, I will then become a maintenance person and not a creator and besides my shop and lifestyle aren’t set up to keep an object (especially of this size) out of harms way. Well, there was this new diametrical influence in my life now, Randy, and the deadline for the car show.

Randy, concurrently, was kickin’ some booty up in Grants Pass. After hand building the frame out of 2”x8” rectangular steel tubing, He obtained an Allison automatic transmission out of a Greyhound bus that could take the massive 1500 ft. pounds of torque that the tank engine generated. The bell-housing was machined from way large diameter steel tubing on a friends milling machine and engine and transmission were solid mounted onto the frame. We went to Specialty truck parts in San Jose and prowled around massive piles of used semi parts. We imagined ourselves back in time, scrounging relatively cheap components that would be treasures in the context of our new creations. “just like what they used to do in the olden golden days of hot-rodding eh?”. The search yielded a beautiful ‘I’ beam axel with disc brakes for the front end and an Eaton rear axle with a 3.08 ratio and mechanical locker with disc brakes for the rear,,, all rebuilt from Specialty at a cost of under $3000. Randy fabricated the oversized four bar system (that’s 2” O.D. tubing) each individual radius rod weighs over 100 pounds. Air bag suspension was used on the rear and quarter elliptical spring suspension with old-timey friction type shocks for the front. The rolling chassis was towed over to Al Trumblys shop and the coachwork began. The wooden buck for the body was fitted into position on the chassis. The body sections were fabricated from aluminum which, unlike steel, takes a very light touch, you can trash a panel in an instant, oops,,well, start over. A floor pan of 1/8’’was bent up and riveted together. When the body panels were done they were tig welded together. I made a quick trip up to Oregon to help Randy fine tune and scale the radiator shell and help design the louvered top section for the engine bonnet. Cool air is drawn in from the sides of the motor through the individual finned aluminum cylinders by two massive gear driven fans atop the motor that blows the air straight up and out the top of the engine compartment. (The engine was completely shrouded and set up so it would run under water in the original application in the tank). The center windshield post came off an unknown speed-boat and the side brackets were fabricated from a pair of extra wind wings from Randy’s Willys pickup truck. Dash – steering wheel – gauges – upholstery - etc. Talk w/ randy

Back at the ranch I was closing in on getting the fenders and components fitting together properly. I was considering going for ‘metal finish’ and asked our mutual friend Ron Covell, “Dr. Hammer” to stop by and take a look. Ron allowed that it would take as long as I had spent so far to then take the project to metal finish, “what is your ultimate goal?” That I had done ‘an absolutely amazing job for a first time project’, and his suggestion was that I should spray on a catalyzed filler/sealer, block-sand and consider it part of the paint job,,,hmmm,,, seven years?,,,O.K., I’ll metal finish the next one.

Our Blastolene brothers Tom Fieber and Tony 'The Man' jumped in and powered on the priming chores while I tackled the cockpit edging. I had considered edging the cockpits in walnut as I have a lot of expertise working in wood, Wood would look great, but would need to be refinished every 20 years or so and would look pretty shabby in about a hundred years if let go. The other option was metal, preferably something soft like brass or copper. Copper would blend in nicely with the engine trim, low maintenance and last practically for-ever,,,hmmm,,, nice soft and ductile copper sheet,,,say,,,copper refrigeration tubing is available in a large diameter, thick wall, soft, readily available and cheap, BINGO! I scored a fifty foot roll of 1 ½ “ in a scrap pile at the local plumbing supply house. 1 ½ “ diameter will yield almost 4 ½ “ when opened up. I first shaped the tube to the contour of the openings and then split it open with a trashed carbide blade on the table saw (don’t try this at home!). I tried splitting before forming and it was unmanageable due to the lack of torsional strength. I spread it open with a wedge and then hammered it into submission right onto the cockpit opening. The process went relatively quickly, when the copper became work hardened in spots, I hit it with the torch to red and then quenched it and it became soft again. It was shaped into a few sections that I was able to tig together using strips of the copper scraps for my filler rod. It welded beautifully and easily and after grinding it’s almost impossible to tell where the joins are. Metal finishing the copper is relatively easy and ‘fun’ compared to working steel. You get a feeling of getting a lot accomplished in a short period of time.

A set of seat blanks were cut up and sent out for a ‘utility’ set of hides, I consider the upholstery part of Berthas jewelry, depending on the venue, she might be wearing skirts (all four wheels ?)  while getting ‘down’ (‘pop a cap on your air bags-bitch’) an cruisin’ wif de bad boyz or standin’ proud at a classic Concours, with Connelly-hides and ‘Royce style wheel covers or makin’ the hot rod scene, cruisin’ for burgers while blowin’ minds. Even fostering a fantasy of some classic shots out on the salt flats with salt spray speckling, (we do wonder what she’d do flat out). The ‘Big Cars’ evoke a response quite over and above anything we had expected. When we take them out on the street people come unglued. They wave, honk, scream, and literally dance little jigs on the sidewalk. We partially owe this to their colossal scale, when standing near it’s kind-of like when you were little an your folks came home with this ‘big-new car’, I think brings some of the child to the surface in some folks, and perhaps a little to the nature of an ‘outrageous’ vision realized, people have no problem extrapolating some kind of ‘future fantasy’ of some kind for the ‘Big Cars’, or even a fantasy for themselves. A lot of times folks will go away muttering about the project they thought was ‘over the line’ but in the light of what they’ve just seen are heading back to the shop to get started.

 Randy and I were closing in on our objectives, it looked like we were going to pull it off. Things got intense as we neared our debut date, we were in constant communication, counseling and helping each other brainstorm through the myriad of creative challenges before us. There was a special kind of intimacy born of these times, the free spirit of exchange of energy and resources. The morning of the Goodguys Westcoast Nationals ’02,  we fired Bertha up and pulled her out onto the street in her new metamorphosis. A stop at the fueling depot to fill her two 35 gallon propane tanks, (that’s right, Bertha is a clean air Vehicle!), and ‘putty-putty’ over Highway 17 through Los Gatos, San Jose, past all the endless strip malls and condos that used to be some of the most beautiful orchards in the world, humming that old V12 humm,,, all the way to the show.

 “keep the creative spirit alive”

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