Larry Oakes's cobbled-together hot rods burn rubber in Spruce Head

He's like a little kid with a big toy

Tue, 12/18/2012 - 11:15am

    Don’t call them hunks of junk — they’re works of art and when Larry Oakes, the owner of Automaster Collision Center in Spruce Head gets behind the wheel of one of his customized “Rad Rods,” you’d better strap in good. He’ll take a quarter inch off the back tires doing a dramatic smokeout before the thing shoots like a bat out of hell down the road.

    Rad Rods are his own term for the international craze of “Rat Rods,” a style of hot rod or custom car, in which the owners assemble vehicles out of old parts, vintage features from the 40s, 50s, and early 60s… and just plain random, off-the-wall additions that make the car totally unique. (Back in October, we did a feature on Jack Churchill’s steampunk motorcycle to see another example of a "Rat Rod.")

    Oakes owns two Rat Rods he built from the frame up, including a third he’s currently working on and he’s like a little kid with a big toy when he gets behind the wheel of one. (See accompanying video that shows what it is like to be a passenger taking off in one!)

    As a kid, his father bought the property in Spruce Head, on which he and his family now live and operate Automaster Collision Center. The business is a family affair with his daughter, Lindsey Simms, heading up the finances.

    'I’m gonna put a sign on the windshield that says: Shut up: it’s done.'

    “I’ve always played with hot rods as a kid, starting with go-carts,” said Oakes, adding he learned everything on his own. “It just came to me. I’ve always been able to see something once and figure it out. I’m lucky that way and I just have fun with it.”

    Oakes’s hot rods were never originally intended to be a collector’s item, the way they are today.

    “Rat Rods originated a ways back when you just built up a car with a bunch of old stuff because you didn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “You didn’t have enough to finish it right, so you just grabbed what you could from this guy or this junk yard and put it all together and made it work.”

    Even though he’s a collector of both motorcycles and what he calls “shiny cars,” his true love is his cobbled together hot rods.

    “Guys who build them are artists, they really are,” he said. “Pretty much you can get away with making it look however you want on the interior as long as the vehicle is safe, has good suspension, and good brakes. It’s got to pass inspection... but,” he added with a smile, “They can’t refuse you for being ugly.”

    Oakes’s custom “Rat Rod” pickup features shotgun stocks and rifle butts as stick shifts and arm rests. “I tow for the local police department and they trust me, so they come to me with guns they’ve confiscated,” he said. “Once they seize a gun, it will not go back to the owner, so they bring them to me, I disarm it. I pull the firing pins and weld the breeches and I put them in my hot rods.”

    Other wacky features of his custom-built pickup, which sits on a Chevy S-10 frame, includes interior door panels made from Oakes’ own collection of cowboy boots.

    “I’ve always been a cowboy boot fan,” he said. “I think I have somewhere around 12 pair in my closet—I just bought four more pair, so I sacrificed some of the boots that were more than 20 years old and cut ‘em up for door panels.”

    Not stopping there, Oakes re-fashioned wrenches to function as the pickup’s gas pedals.

    His second Rad Rod, nicknamed the “Fat Rat,” is a 1948 “all chopped up” Chevy that was built in 30 days for $1,000. A lot of the parts he already had laying around the shop. He put his collection of old wrenches in this vehicle as well, welding them with pieces of rebar to make linkages to open the doors. He used Chevy small block valve covers for arm rests and stop signs and license plates for door panels. A .38 special pistol handle was welded as a handle to manually move the windshield wipers.

    Currently he’s working on a 1941 Studebaker complete with a custom frame, low to the ground.

    “We’re doing a suicide straight axel front end with a ’39 Chevy front grill,” he said. He’s planning on making this one more bare bones, not as quirky, but more “Rat” he says. “We just want to go out and have fun with it.”

    The downside to all this fun is that he can’t go to the convenience store to get a cup of coffee in one of his Rad Rods without it taking two to three hours. That’s because everyone stops him to ask what he’s driving, how it was made and a thousand other questions, which he takes good-naturedly in stride. “The number one question I get  all the time is: ‘When you gonna paint it?’ The patina on the truck is all Mother Nature,” he said.

    “I think I’m gonna put a sign on the windshield that says: Shut up: it’s done.”

    Both of Oakes’s Rad Rods have been featured in Rat Rod Magazine. They can now be seen on display at The Owls Head Transportation Museum for the winter, where Oakes will eventually do a presentation on the construction of the vehicles.

    Asked if he’s been approached to sell them, he admitted, “I’ve had several guys ask about my pickup truck, yes.”  Although he is hesitant to let one go, he said, “Everything is for sale for the right price but…” he said, shaking his head. “They’re like my babies. I might have to let my daughter go before I let one of them go. No, don’t say that,” he laughed. “My daughter won’t like that much.”

    Kay Stephens can be reached at