Hot rodding is often considered an American cultural phenomenon, though the actual concept of making one’s personal transport go faster or look cooler is universal. However, when young guys started building their own contraptions from stripped down, cast-off pre-war cars during the late 1940s and early 1950s, it created a movement that soon spread far beyond its roots in Southern California and across the US and Canada. But as much as we usually concern ourselves with rodding in this part of the world, it isn’t the only place where our favorite pastime has taken hold.
Across the Atlantic in Great Britain – a place most often associated with MG sports roadsters and small, sedate sedans – there is a thriving hot rod movement. The Brits even have their own National Street Rod Association, along with numerous clubs and organized events that take place throughout the year. Much like this side of the pond, they include drag racing, cruising, social gatherings and generally having fun. The kind of cars available to aspiring hot rodders in Britain has led to some familiar and some not-so-familiar creations.
Recently, Kustoms & Hot Rods traveled across the ocean and got together with a group of hard core British rodders for a fun day out. It was fascinating listening to the history of rodding in the UK, what it’s like to own a rod or custom in that part of the world, and the similarities and differences between the hot rodding scenes in Britain compared and the US.
Our point of contact was Nick Brooke-Langham. Nick lives in the town of Newport-Pagnell, spiritual home of Aston Martin Lagonda, Ltd., and is a long-time rodder. He’s been into it since the 1970s and currently owns a one-of-a-kind 1948 Austin Devon, which he colorfully describes as Britain’s slowest gasser. “I drive it to and from the track,” he says. Nick was gracious enough to organize a photoshoot for us, including friends Chris Allen, Jim Rutter, Paul Liquorish and Nick Barnett. And what more appropriate location could we have found than the old abandoned Aston factory, smack in the middle of N-P, surrounded by Mock Tudor buildings – it doesn’t get more English than that!
Although members of the NSRA, (Nick Brooke-Langham is the editor of the club magazine, Street Gasser), these guys are also part of their own affiliated club, the Nervous Surgeons, named quite simply “because we’ve always been apprehensive about cutting up cars to start our next hot rod project,” laughs Nick. The Nervous Surgeons was formed in 2004 by Nick and Chris, long time friends and business partners. Jim Rutter was member number three. Today, the Nervous Surgeons are 13 strong. “Our latest member joined us just last week,” says Nick, “and we all have nicknames.”
But how – in a country with high fuel prices, vehicle taxation, strict regulations and a traditionally European-focused classic car movement – can rodding thrive the way it has? “I think it has to do with the fact that you always want what you can’t have,” says Nick.
“Back in the 1960s, when rodding was huge in the US, we got drip fed. We’d get magazines and read stories about guys like Stone Woods and Cook, ‘Big’ John Mazmanian, ‘Ohio’ George Montgomery and other famous drag racers, as well as clubs like the LA Roadsters and cars from the workshops of Sam and George Barris. For us, living in austere Britain (we still had rationing for many years after World War II), the glamorous car culture in America seemed like it was from a different planet. In those days, it wasn’t easy to hop on a plane, so we absorbed what we could from the rodding scene via magazines and other memorabilia.”
Making things somewhat more accessible was the large US Air Force presence in Southern and Eastern England at the time. “In East Anglia, there were a lot of bases back then,” says Nick. “And a lot of the guys stationed there were allowed to have their cars shipped over for free, so quite a few brought over things like 1932-34 Fords and shoebox Chevys. The flat landscape and many abandoned airfields were almost an ideal environment to go and play with them. Most Americans in the service were stationed in Britain for three years, but at the end of their tour, if they wanted their cars shipped home, they had to pay for them, so a lot were left behind.”
Salvage yards like Yaxham, which had a contract to clear the nearby bases of unwanted vehicles, soon became full of cast-off American cars, which, besides being larger and far flashier than British offerings of the time, usually had prized V-8 engines under the hood. “We used to go on raiding parties and get parts, sometimes complete cars,” relates Nick. “We also had some of the Americans come over and race their cars, like ‘Ohio’ George Montgomery and his 1933 Willys. It showed us how well-built and fast some of the stateside hot rods and drag cars really were.”
By the late 1960s, there was a fledgling hot rod movement in the UK, but it wasn’t until 1972 that an actual association dedicated to it was formed. The NSRA grew out of the National Drag Racing Club Roadster register and had its first meeting at a pub on the Reigate Road in Surrey, south of London, in February of that year. At that first meeting, it was asked how many attendees actually owned a hot rod. Nobody answered, though a few said they had cars that were either in progress or near completion. “They jokingly called it the National Garaged Rod Association,” chuckles Nick. “The first actual show took place at a campsite called Billing Aquadrome, just off the M1 Motorway in 1973. There were five rods and 35 ‘other’ vehicles – ‘other’ being used to describe embarrassing custom cars of questionable workmanship and origin.”
However, rodding in the UK was starting to grow rapidly. “By the end of 1973, the NSRA had 250 members. Two years later, it had reached 500. But the criteria for joining was that you had to have a hot rod. I tried in 1978 but was initially refused because I didn’t have a car of my own, but they soon relaxed the rules, stating that enthusiasm was essential, but ownership wasn’t.”
By the late 1970s, such American influences as drag racing and cruising were starting to filter into the British car scene. “Our main dragstrip was at an old airfield near the village of Poddington, which was renamed Santa Pod to give it a more American flavor. At events like the Chelsea cruise in London, you had a lot of American cars and customs, mixed in with British stuff.” Magazines like Custom Car, Hot Car and Street Machine came to prominence during the late 1970s and early 1980s, featuring all kinds of interesting homegrown hot rods, as well as American imports.
“Although we aspired to follow our American counterparts,” says Nick, “rodding in Britain has always been slightly different. We didn’t have access to the same kinds of cars or parts and had to make do with substitutes of our own, but it did result in some interesting cars.” For British fans, the old lightweight Ford Populars and Fordson vans (Anglia and Thames in the US) and the late 1940s Austin Devons were a great starting point. They were really cheap, basic and lightweight. The pre-war vintage “Pop,” as it was known, seemingly lasted forever – it was manufactured up until 1959 by Ford’s British subsidiary, and by the 1970s, the survivors were very cheap to buy. “These cars had been sold Stateside as ‘captive imports,’ and when the NHRA and IHRA changed the rules to allow short wheelbase cars, the Anglias and Austins became very popular as gassers. In the UK, because our parts situation was different, we tended to use homegrown engines, gearboxes, rear ends and suspensions. A very popular option was to build one of these Pops or Austins into a hot rod using a Rover 3.5-liter V-8, Jaguar rear end and Vauxhall Viva front suspension. It got to a point that we wondered whether any Jaguars were left on the roads in Britain, because every rod seemed to sport a Jag rear underneath it,” says Nick.
Both Brooke-Langham’s 1948 Austin Devon and Paul Liquorish’s 1959 Pop are classic examples of British style rods, which are still seen at many rod runs and drag events to this day.
Although the Austins and Pops became the favorite foundation for building hot rods in Britain, it wasn’t long before other cars were being transformed, including 1950s Morris Minors, Vauxhall PA Crestas and British Fords like the Prefect, Consul and Zephyr, which featured transatlantic styling. Although fairly small in stature by North American standards, they also had engine bays big enough to shoehorn a V-8 in. Chris Allen’s 1956 Zephyr Zodiac, shown in this article, is a prime example. “This car was one of several converted by the famed Ron Harris & Sons of HPE motorsport,” says Chris. With a US small-block 302 V-8 motor and C4 automatic ’box (as the Brits call transmissions), it’s a very nice car to drive, and most people on the street are completely unsuspecting. It’s also an interesting piece of British hot rod history.
Although British cars with hot engines and upgrades naturally form a major part of the UK hot rodding scene, US-style iron is also very popular – perhaps even more so today, given far greater access to parts and cars than was possible for British rodders in the 1960s and 1970s. Not surprisingly, among the most popular US hot rods across the pond are 1930s Fords and Tri-five Chevys. At our gathering, the “American” side was represented by Jim Rutter’s traditional 1932 Ford highboy roadster and Nick Barnett’s pickup. Like Nick Brooke-Langham, Rutter is a long-time rodder and also the son of a US airman. “My dad was stationed in the UK where he met my mother, and I was born here, says Jim. “Growing up, I lived in the States for a while but then moved back to the UK. By that stage, I was already hooked on hot rods.”
Jim joined the NSRA back in the 1970s and has a very low membership number. After cutting his teeth on Populars, Jim switched his allegiance to American Fords. His steel-bodied Deuce highboy roadster exemplifies the traditional style rods that are very popular on this side of the Atlantic. It sports a flathead with dual carbs, drilled I-beam front end, 1940 Ford drum brakes, steelies, wide whites and hubcaps – it could almost be straight out of California circa 1957. As with a traditional, American-style rod, it’s also left-hand drive. “Even though we drive on the left side of the road in Britain, for North American cars, left-hookers are often preferred,” says Jim. “It’s more authentic.” In Britain, a flathead Deuce like this turns more heads than a Lamborghini or Porsche.
The final member of our quintet is the all-steel Model B Ford pickup, which belongs to Nick Barnett. Nick is just 25 years old, but is already a seasoned rodder, having learned the craft from his father Merv. For our photoshoot, Nick drove the pickup all the way up from the port city of Bristol, in the West of England, a total journey of about 115 miles. It might not seem much to us, but in UK terms it’s quite a distance, especially when fuel costs you around $9.00 a gallon and you’re running a supercharged V-8. Like Jim’s Roadster, Nick’s pickup is also left-hand drive, but has a few concessions to make it somewhat more practical. “I’ve got disc brakes up front,” he says, “and the V-8 is a baby Hemi, a 2.5-liter Daimler engine, found in SPP 250 sports cars and Daimler saloons [an upmarket Jaguar sedan], linked to a Volvo 122 series four-speed manual gearbox.”
Nick built the pickup himself, and its level of workmanship is testament to his skills as a hot rodder. Says Nick Brooke-Langham. “I’ve known young Nick and his dad for a number of years. They are some of the best hot rod builders I know in England.” It’s perhaps interesting, but the city of Bristol, which has strong links to famed 19th century engineer and industrial pioneer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is also nerve central for the UK’s hot rodding movement. “The guys from Bristol are prolific builders,” says Brooke-Langham. “There’s probably at least 30 hot rods I know of that are based there, and the guys I know from Bristol probably build some of the finest hot rods I’ve ever seen. Must be that sea air,” he says jokingly.
Special thanks to: Nick Brooke-Langham, Chris Allen, Jim Rutter, Paul Liquorish and Nick Barnett.
For more information on British Hot Rodding visit:
National Association of Street Clubs
Nick Brooke-Langham, aka Nervous Nick, is a long-time British hot rodder, having cut his teeth in the late 1970s. He’s the current editor of Street Gasser, the NSRA UK’s bi-monthly magazine, and founder of the Nervous Surgeons car club. Nick’s current ride is this 1948 Austin Devon Gasser, called Nogbad the Bad, after a 1970s cartoon character.
Nick’s car sports a 289 Ford V-8 and is often described as “Britain’s slowest gasser,” because Nick drives it to and from the dragstrip, emphasizing streetability over all-out speed.
In Britain, indigenous 1950s cars like the Ford Zephyr have long been popular platforms for hot rodding, helped by transatlantic styling and engine bays wide enough to accommodate V-8 engines.
Chris “Slingshot” Allen is a long-time friend of Nick’s, and the pair of them have owned many different cars over the years, some of which they’ve swapped, including a Camaro and Model A. Chris’s current car is this very clean, Harris V-8 converted Mk I Ford Zephyr Zodiac.
Like other British market cars, Chris’s Zodiac is right-hand drive, though it sports a front bench seat, giving it a decidedly transatlantic feel.
When the Harris-installed Ford V-8 went south, Chris got his hands on a replacement crate motor. It features popular dress-up and performance items familiar on this side of the Atlantic, including Edelbrock valve covers and an MSD ignition control box.
In Britain, all cars are required to have a tax disc displayed in the windshield to be legal for use on public roads. Pre-1973 cars have special historic status, in which road licensing is free.
“Just” Jim Rutter, is another long-time rodder and good friend of Nick and Chris. Although born in the UK, having an American father meant that Jim spent some time in the US growing up, where he became addicted to hot rods.
Jim currently owns this gorgeous, traditional style 1932 Deuce – a steel-bodied car with a flathead V-8 that he finished in 2007.
Like many genuine American cars in Britain, Jim’s 1932 roadster sports left-hand drive.
“Paranoid” Paul Liquorish gets his name because “he checks the weather report before bringing his car out,” laughs Nick. Paul owns this immaculate Ford Popular. The “Pop,” as it’s affectionately known, is as much a staple of UK hot rodding as 1932-34 Fords are in the US. If you recognize this car, it’s because they were imported to North America as Anglias and became a popular basis for gassers during the 1960s.
Although essentially a pre-war car, the Popular was sold until 1959 in Britain and exemplified cheap, no-frills motoring. Decades later, those same qualities endeared it to aspiring hot rodders.
Inside, Paul’s car features Sport Comp gauges, an 8-point rollcage and a Mooneyes steering wheel. Like Chris and Nick’s cars, it’s also right-hand drive.
Nick “Barnetto” Barnett may only be 25 years old, but he’s already an experienced hot rodder. His current ride is this all-steel 1932 Ford pickup, which he drove more than 100 miles to attend our photoshoot.
Insurance is a factor for Nick because of his age, so his truck runs a junior Hemi V-8, a British Daimler 2.5-liter unit. However, Nick wasn’t going to let small displacement stop his fun, so he bolted on a supercharger.
Owning a hot rod in Britain has its own set of challenges, like high fuel costs and unique legislative issues, but the sheer fun factor and attention-grabbing status more than make up for it. Just look at how Jim’s 1932 Roadster stands out against this typical British background.
Like any proper car club, besides nicknames, the Nervous Surgeons have appropriate apparel. From left to right “Paranoid Paul,” “Nervous Nick,” “Slingshot” and “Just Jim” sport the club’s infamous logo. “We got the name, not because we’re doctors, but because we’ve always been apprehensive about cutting up cars,” says Nick Brooke-Langham.