Two shows highlight retro car culture in Charm City

Jimmy Moss drove a customized 1929 Model A Ford up to Baltimore from Fredericksburg, Va. With a greased-up pompadour, dark shades, and retro-greaser clothes, he looks right in place surrounded by the hundreds of other classic cars entered into the Mobtown Greaseball Car Show.

"I rebuilt it from the ground up," he says. It is a beautiful old machine, the sort of mean-looking thing once favored by serious hot rodders. "I just love the lines," he says. "It's never done. Always a work in progress. My friend who did all the pinstriping,"-he points at an elaborate series of pinstripes detailing the high-finish paint job- "next week he's going to go diarrhea with the pinstripes all over the inside of it. Pinstripes everywhere."

Tim Sneed, the president of the Karb Kings and one of the judges and organizers of the show for the last 15 years, walks up wearing a black beret and his club patch. He stops to evaluate the Model A, looks in the window, and quickly moves on, perhaps noticing some detail that disqualifies the car in his mind.

Sneed, who also owns Mobtown Cycle, is a strict judge (though he won't allow us to reveal his exacting criteria) and the aesthetic stakes are high in what might be one of the best art shows in Baltimore this year-if you think of the Mobtown Greaseball like that.

Neither the art world nor the greaseballs in attendance tend to think of this custom car show in the parking lot of the Dundalk Moose Lodge as an art show, but in terms of the number of artists, the attention to detail, the amount of time and money spent, the overall visual effect, and the expression of aesthetic vision, Mobtown Greaseball is far more ambitious than most gallery or museum shows in the city. And the subculture whose aesthetic vision it expresses is growing more popular in Baltimore: About 600 people entered cars in Mobtown Greaseball this year. Hundreds of others came to look, shop at merchandise booths, and dance to the music. And this weekend there is an even bigger car show, sponsored by Rodder's Journal magazine, at Pimlico race track that will host cars from as far away as California.

"If you look at any car from the custom era, from '35 or '36 through the mid-'60s, design was a big element," says Curt Iseli, a Baltimore transplant and an editor of Rodder's Journal. "The custom guys took what the factory did and improved the lines, stripping down the excess trim, making it as clean as possible, getting rid of the hiccups, lowering them-the lacquer paints you could dive into." Iseli says they took on an "almost sinister" look.

The cars at the Greaseball fit this description perfectly, displaying the thousands of tweaks an individual can make to improve the lines of a classic car. Take Jim Dennis' 1953 Ford Sunliner. "I've been working on it since 1990," he explains. "It was all original stock, but I went to a junkyard and cut the ass end off of two '56 Packards, to extend the car a foot." He lists a number of other modifications, including the tips on the fenders and turquoise paint with pink-pearl details taken from a 1957 Chevy. It looks "like a Barris car back in the '50s," he says, referring to George Barris, one of the great automobile artists of the classic period. A middle-aged man, Dennis seems to be holding on to a part of his youth. "I'm a '50s guy into '50s cars," he says.

Even those too young to remember it have experienced '50s car culture in classic films like American Graffiti (which is being shown Friday night as part of the Rodder's Journal Vintage Speed and Custom Car Revival at the Fells Point Pier). In the '50s and '60s, car culture was all about teenagers producing a new sense of style. Now it is something quite different. Among the older people at Greaseball, most have been into cars since their youths, and among the younger crowd one phrase was common: "I was born in the wrong era" is how Jimmy Moss, the guy with the Model A puts it. "You get into one of the cars and see the world through those big old windshields. . . . the world was better, the women were pure. The '50s were the shit."

Many of the women at the show-some of whom are entered into the Miss Mobtown Greaseball pinup contest-express similar sentiments. "Men were men, ladies were ladies, and cars were metal," says Margaret Dubil, co-owner of Viva Charm City, a pop-up retro-lifestyle shop.

"I'm totally not supposed to be in this era," says Miss Mobtown Greaseball 2011, Lori Lou. "I feel our time is the wrong time."

Tim Sneed is aware of the strangeness this retro nostalgia produces. "You must have heard this a thousand times, but I feel like I was born in the wrong time," he says in his garage, full of custom-built motorcycles. In fact, the Karb Kings is a resurrection of the car club of the same name that Sneed's father ran in the early '60s. "When you ask my dad how the clubs are different, he said that back then, when he was president in '61, he drove a brand-new car," he says, laughing. "A lot of guys get into the music and the fashion and they've never turned a wrench in their life. They want to join the club and think I'll work on their car for free. But when they see I won't, they usually drop out."

Re-enacting the '50s will never be the same as living in the period. Members of some communities-African Americans, gay and lesbians, environmentalists-tend not to have such a rosy view of the '50s.

But for the hardcore Greaseballs, the greaser fashion and rockabilly music are incidental; it is really all about the cars. And for the truly hardcore, it is not only about building them but about driving them-for long distances, at high speeds, or both.

"These young bucks talk the talk but don't walk the walk," says Dan Hawkins, a grizzly, older-looking man with a wild beard who drove from Pennsylvania in the pre-war Ford hot rod that his own father passed down to him. "I drive this out to Viva Las Vegas every year. The young guys don't like to do that," he says. "You have to have the rules of a land pirate."

For Iseli and Steve Coonan, the publisher of Rodder's Journal and organizer of the Revival, it is also important to see the cars at the show in motion. "We wanted to create a show where it's not just go and park, but where there are opportunities to drive the car," Iseli says. So they arranged to have the show at Pimlico, where cars will be able to drive on tracks in the infield during the actual show. "There's something cool about seeing one buzzing down the road," Iseli says. "The way the light bounces off of them as they move."

The Rodder's Journal Vintage Speed and Custom Car Revival is Thursday, Sept. 27-Sunday, Sept. 30. For more information visit roddersjournal.com

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