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Street Rod & Custom Showtime by Rodger Attaway
Rodger Attaway is the author of a new book Street Rod & Custom Showtime which tells the story of Britain's indoor custom shows from 1963 to 1982. The 312 pages and 872 photos take the reader back to an era when drag racing and hot rods were displayed side by side. From humble beginnings of an engineering company's workshops to its height in 1980 when 18 shows were held and general public attendees topped 85,000, the shows quickly became a phenomenon in their own right. Rodger, with his wife Corrine and Graham and Brenda Kelsey, managed the show at Belle Vue in Manchester from 1976 to 1982 and the book includes many interviews from others involved in shows around the country.
Click on any picture for a large image.
Eurodragster.com: How long had you wanted to write the book for and what was the inspiration behind putting pen to paper?
Rodger Attaway: It all started about 13 years ago, when various friends suggested I write a book about the Belle Vue Rod & Custom Shows. I'm not a very self promoting sort of person, however, I kept on mulling the idea over. It wasn't enough to take my memories of the Manchester Belle Vue Show and write about it. Manchester wasn't Oakland, and Oakland is the only show that deserves a standalone book and it's got that already.
I did a bit of research over a couple of years. I then realised that the period of development of the shows in the UK and the heyday of the indoor shows had never been documented, other than by magazine articles at the time, and there was nothing permanent. So I thought 'we'll have a go'. Because I was still working full time, it was a case of finding and contacting people because I knew the history could not be written by just one person. I had to get information from various sources.
Eurodragster.com: It must have been a huge job to contact people to get the information. Did you contact those you already knew or did you have to make new contacts?
Rodger Attaway: The whole process of gathering information before writing the book took about seven years. I knew what format I wanted for the book but had to do the research, particularly on other shows. Once I started writing, that took about four years.
Eurodragster.com: What you have documented brilliantly is the roots in the US, how it grew up particularly the first show in 1948 put on by the SCTA partially to counter moves which would have prohibited modifying street cars, a fascinating motivation for putting a show on.
Rodger Attaway: I wanted to find out how it all started to put everything into context, which meant going back to square one. In the early days the whole scene was classed in the same way as rock n' roll and motorcycle gangs, the parents didn't like it and society didn't like it.
And the Dills Bill would have killed two out of the three and what would California have been like if it had gone through: No vehicle would have been allowed to have a power output different from the manufacturer's original specification for it. A whole massive industry would not have existed if it had become law.
Eurodragster.com: You document the spread of shows through the US and the founding of many shows around the country, then the influence on the UK. When we get to the early Custom Car shows at Crystal Palace in the early 1970s, they were the first shows that mixed drag racing and hot rods. Custom Car was a driving force for the shows at the start of the 70s but how would you characterise their involvement throughout the period covered by the book and did you find them becoming more of a hindrance than a help?
Rodger Attaway: It's a very interesting question. To begin with, Mike Hill [the first editor of Custom Car] talks about founding Custom Car magazine. They had a great title but didn't know much about the vehicles, where to find them and who to contact. We had Drag Racing '69 that had a couple of customs in, but the first Crystal Palace show started to change the balance in that before they were a lot more racing orientated but the number of hot rods increased.
When Santa Pod decided to do the show at Crystal Palace they invited Custom Car along to help promote it which would have helped both parties. That was not an easy relationship, particularly after the three day week when Santa Pod effectively had to rewire the Bristol hall because otherwise there would have been no lights in the show at all. Over the key years, Custom Car was an interesting magazine in that it eyed a growing market and helped it grow considerably, but once they got their National show at Olympia, there was a lot of ego involved and they started to believe the industry was spawned by them, not the other way round. It was a fine example of people believing their own PR.
When the ISCA wanted to get involved with the UK shows, I think that Custom Car ran scared which is understandable as the Link House owned title always felt threatened by things it didn’t understand. Even so it was a great shame because we could have had a reasonable indoor show circuit in the UK that was connected to the American circuit and it was great to take Richard Wale's car and John Reed's bike to the US and have them in the Grande Finale.
Eurodragster.com: That was a high point definitely, but in the 70s as the show scene expanded, Custom Car supported many of the shows. As the number of shows increased you point to the scene never seeming to be a true circuit and refer to the lack of a consistent judging system and promoters not seeing eye to eye. Did that last factor hold up the development of the shows or contribute to the demise of indoor shows?
Rodger Attaway: There are two answers to that. The first part, the promoters not necessarily seeing eye to eye did slow the growth of a show circuit in the UK. The UK scene was a small version of what happened in the US in the 1950s and into the early 1960s. Using experience from the US, we could with more time have developed a circuit in this country.
As to the demise of the shows, that was down to the economic changes the country was going through. Mrs Thatcher was in power by the early '80s and everything seemed to change to be being driven by the bottom line. A lot of the halls we had used in earlier years were pretty shabby. It didn't matter for most other exhibitions because they had professional stand builders or the background displays because they were trying to sell things. The hot rod and custom shows weren't trying to sell things, they were a pure shows and the people wanted to be entertained when they visited.
The economics of putting an indoor custom show on didn't allow for professional stand builders, you had to make the best of the hall. When the new halls, the GMex, NEC or Plymouth super complexes came into existence, they took the old halls that we were all using out of commission. And the rents for the new ones were not viable. The Plymouth guys were welcomed by the Council when they used airdomes, but as soon as the proper exhibition building was built the guys in the club simply couldn't afford the rent, let alone the other expenses. The expenses remained the same and the rent became the killer.
Eurodragster.com: The fact the shows were held in venues that were past their best then contributed to their success. They were cheaper to hire as you were paying exhibitors to show their vehicles but there were relatively few traders who were prepared to pay to sell things. So was it always difficult to balance the books?
Rodger Attaway: The balance between the number of exhibitors and traders changed over time in relation to the Custom Car shows. They became a commercial exercise so they needed the traders to pay so that limited the space for exhibitors. At our shows we limited the number of trade stands because we wanted the traders who supported us to make money. At the Custom Car shows there were several companies selling the same thing. We didn't want a situation when they were all struggling to make a profit for attending the show. It wasn't just the cost of renting the space it was the other overheads such as travel, extra wages had to be taken into account. A lot of the companies were based around London so it was more realistic to look at London shows having more trade stands. But it did change the balance. You got a situation where the latter Custom Car shows there seemed to be more traders than exhibits. From their point of view it was a commercial exercise from the majority of the rest of the shows they wanted to show the people what hot rodding was about. A lot of the other shows were more like rod runs.
Eurodragster.com: They were fantastically popular at their peak with crowd numbers getting up to 70-80,000 and a fantastic range of vehicles. You took the Belle Vue show after it had run for a couple of years and developed it into something that was extremely successful and seemed to have a greater sense of fun than a lot of shows. What are the contributory factors to that?
Rodger Attaway: When Custom Car held the Belle Vue show they didn't take all the halls, they divided the halls, gave plenty of space to exhibits and the show was successful. Because Graham Kelsey, my then partner, had been an exhibitor, and I had been attending shows from 1970. We just asked how would we like to be treated as exhibitors and put it together on that basis.
Taking your vehicle to a show in an unfamiliar city after working all the hours to get your car or bike ready, you arrive at the show and set your vehicle up. Where are you going to stay? Where is it and how are you going to get there because your wheels are now in the show? The number of times over the years I’d heard people say 'You should have been with us last night, what a great time we had, we were at so-and-so'. And you'd spent the evening with just a couple of mates because you didn't know what was going on where. And it struck us that you needed to make the whole thing into a party for people to really enjoy themselves. So we thought, let's take over a hotel.
Eurodragster.com: You took the brilliant strategy if quite high risk financially of booking out the entire Post House hotel in Manchester.
Rodger Attaway: It worked, those parties became quite legendary and it became a logical step because everyone was under one roof and there were no worries for the exhibitors. It was a bit of a gamble but it was worth it.
Eurodragster.com: When the new magazines started coming along like Street Machine and Hot Rod and Custom UK, did that cause the scene to expand and what impact did they have?
Rodger Attaway: Hot Rod and Custom UK was a superb magazine as it had a hot rodder as editor which was great. You still see lots of references to it on the forums. It took the sport seriously and had some humour whereas by that time (late 1970s) Custom Car was getting to be a bit of an in-joke and half of what they wrote didn't mean anything. Just after Street Machine was launched it was selling in the region of 120,000 copies a month which is major for a specialist magazine. Most specialist magazines are happy if they are hitting 30,000. To be four times that size is a measure of how much the genre had caught the imagination of the motoring world. There were also so many adverts that ran and had custom cars and hot rods in them including a lot of the in-car entertainment companies - the cars attracted the eye to the advert because every one was individual.
Eurodragster.com: The quantity of the exhibits expanded massively over the period and the photos are a tribute to the quality of the build. Various legendary people are mentioned and one of the strengths of the book is that you catalogue the custom vehicles without it being a list. You describe the makers of the cars over time. Did it get to the stage where you had to turn away a high proportion of the exhibitor applicants?
Rodger Attaway: During the time we ran Belle Vue it was always over-subscribed from year two onwards. It caught peoples' imagination and over time it was one acceptance in three applications. It was an interesting process. We would have to make the decision based on the application form and we would spend more time on deciding what was going to be in the show than on any other aspect.
We spent hours discussing a vehicle which was not painted maybe in primer and the cameras weren't that good in those days so you would have a fuzzy photo and a description and you would have to assess 'is this guy gong to finish the car in the way he says?' There were about four cars over the years that were in the show and perhaps shouldn't have been, which I don't think is a bad record.
Eurodragster.com: Were there makers who made the vehicles right the way through the period? It is hard to go into individual examples but people such as Richard Wale and John Reed were taken to the US.
Rodger Attaway: Richard and John were the first championship winners of the embryonic ISCA British Division. We asked the judges in Vegas to give his position if Richard Wale had been in open competition and he would have been third. When you consider what was there and that we didn't have a display which was taken into account in the judging system and the car was basically an immaculately prepared Herald with a flip-up body that exposed everything. For all the amount of effort and money the Americans put into their cars, that Triumph just looked amazing sat in that Grande Finale and it really did do us proud.
We've got some great builders in this country and the standards are very high as borne out by Richard. And also you've got people like Nick Butler and John Baldacchino's vehicles. The Americans were impressed and I don't think I would have had the support for the book that I have had from American quarters if they had not been impressed. In 1981 Graham and I were presented with a trophy from the International Auto Show Producers' Association for our efforts trying to expand the ISCA in the UK. It was the change in the economic climate and the politics at the time that did not help the expansion or creation of a proper show circuit.
Eurodragster.com: You made the best of a fantastic situation and the time was right. It's timely to bring out a history when many of the people involved are reaching retirement and they want to reflect on it. During the time to create the book what did you do to obtain a publisher?
Rodger Attaway: Once I got a chapter plan and synopsis, the usual stuff that publishing houses want, we started talking to various publishing houses in the UK and a couple of European and American ones. Without fail if they bothered to reply the response was 'yes but only if it was 40,000 words and 250 pictures'. Which was not what I wanted. So we sat down and Mr Mc is a composite of the initial of the first names of the four people involved, one financed it, one designed it, there's me and my wife Corinne.
In a lot of ways it's down to the designer Mark Bates, we worked over the years together on magazines and he is the art director and a contributor. We both knew what we wanted and had a good understanding between us and he put his design talent into it and I think he's done a fantastic job. When we talked to printers and repro houses we knew exactly what we wanted from them which does make the job easier for them to achieve. We spent a lot of time looking for the right printer and I think we've found them because the quality is fantastic.
Eurodragster.com: What you put into the narrative, the number of pictures and the range of interviews make it a comprehensive account because you've got lots of different viewpoints. Were any characters not as supportive as you would like in creating the book?
Rodger Attaway: The organiser of the Midland show didn't want to be reminded of those times. He played a big part but made a personal choice not to be involved. You get the other side when over the years people have done a big or little show at various levels of involvement and it was an opportunity for them to express what they felt about what they had done, and those opportunities don't come that often. But since printing it I've had a number of emails from various people saying it's reminded them of things that went on at that time. People who get into custom cars, bikes, hot rods and drag racing find it's a very committed hobby with great longevity and they have an interest in other aspects of the hobby too.
It's been a fascinating project, the whole process of finding people to talk to and there's a natural scepticism with quite a few people and you've got to get over that and get them to come on side. The input of the contributors, whether it's photographic or written, adds a fantastic dimension to the book. I always knew it was a book that couldn't have been written by one person - it had to have wider input and the breadth of that makes a difference to what it is. I would not have been satisfied otherwise.
Eurodragster.com: Many thanks for your time Rodger, and best of luck with the publication of Street Rod & Custom Showtime.
Feature ©Simon Groves and Eurodragster.com
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