Say goodbye to Boyd Coddington
Mar 5, ‘08
Story by Richard Parks, photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
Everyone seems to know the name Boyd Coddington, but fewer people actually know who he really was. I visited Boyd’s old shop in Stanton once, but he wasn’t there. Since he was younger than me, I figured that there would be more opportunities to interview Coddington and so I penciled him down on my calendar for a visit in the future. I waited too long as Boyd passed away at what most of us would call a young 63. Hot rodders tend to put off important things like that. Roger and I went to Boyd’s reception on March 5, 2008, at his new shop in La Habra, California, for one last chance to do the story on one of hot rodding’s greatest car designer and builder. I gleaned very little from the 500 or more guests who were in attendance. Coddington was a very public man who kept his personal life as private as possible. He grew up in Rupert, Idaho, on a tributary flowing into the Snake River, just northeast of Burley. They call this the Banana Belt of Idaho, probably in jest, but it is the potato growing heart of America. Burley is famous, if you can call it fame, for the hydroplane racing along the Snake River. Boyd’s interest was more into cars and he traded a shotgun for a Model-A Ford when he was twelve years old and reputedly ran a gas station in Utah at the age of thirteen. A decade or so later, Coddington was in California working as a maintenance man at Disneyland in Anaheim. By the early ‘80’s he had developed a reputation as one of the best car designers and builders in the nation. Many people call him the best, but designing, building and restoration is a very subjective field. Men like George Barris, Chip Foose, Steve Moal, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth and many more have their fans who will argue the point. Everyone seemed to know the name of Boyd Coddington, even non-hot rodders. He had an easy way of drawing attention to himself and his creations. Boyd had a natural ability to showcase his art and his personae. Everything that he did seemed to be greater and more splendid and some will argue that it was natural, while others will say that he planned and organized everything in detail.
I missed seeing him at the LA Roadster Show one year. There were just too many things to cover. I went over to my favorite haunt, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, for a break from the heat and to view the museum racecars. Sheri Watson told me that Boyd had just been there. “He’s offering a reward,” she told me. I asked, “For what?” It seems that Boyd was carrying a large sum of cash in a bag and he left it in the restroom at the show. I asked her, “How large was it?” “He said it was $130,000,” she said. I couldn’t believe that anyone would do that, especially Boyd. Over the years I’ve witnessed many such transactions. I saw one man open a valise totaling eighty thousand dollars in an effort to buy an old Bonneville streamliner. The brown lunch bag filled with bills is one of those urban legends that we have heard about so often. Perhaps Boyd did lose all that cash, or maybe he didn’t, but it added to his legend and to his reputation. Then there is the story of his run-in with the government over issuing ownership documents to the cars that he has built. Hot rodders from the beginning of the automotive age have been taking someone else’s junk and making a new and improved car out of it. I remember a story that my mother told me. George Putnam, the famous Los Angeles radio and TV reporter, had interviewed my father, shortly after Dad had founded the NHRA. Dad needed to sell his hot rod to raise some money for rent and expenses and George offered to buy it for $350, which was a lot of money in the early 1950’s. It was a racy little roadster, painted fire station red, with tan leather seats and chopped down. It was the car used for the NHRA logo. George came to the house and my mother answered the door. “I’ve got the money for the roadster,” Putnam told her. “Do you have the keys and the registration,” he added. My mother just roared with laughter at the startled TV star. “It’s a roadster,” she laughed. “It’s doesn’t have any registration, its put together from a dozen other cars,” she managed to add. Putnam never bought the car.
Whether Coddington was guilty or innocent is open to question. A lot of hot rodders vigorously take Boyd’s side and accuse the government of trying to enforce a code of laws that don’t apply to hot rodders. The government feels that Boyd and many other builders and hot rodders are trying to defraud the government out of their fair share of taxes. To some, Coddington is a hero against a bullying government that has been trying to outlaw our sport since the Dills Bills of the 1940’s. To others, Boyd was trying to walk a line that left the straight and narrow and headed into the unlawful. Hot rodders have often found themselves in this gray area. We don’t like to be told what to do or be legislated into a box. The world of the hot rodder and the law has often been contentious. There were a lot of designers, builders and restorers, who could have faced the heat, but Coddington was singled out and regardless of his guilt or innocence, it brought him the respect of the hot rodding community. He bore the insults with a grace that bordered on greatness. He paid the fines and accepted the outcome and went back to work. Whether this was the ultimate reason for his bankruptcy is unknown. Boyd created some of the most beautiful cars ever made. He attracted great talent and many of his former employees, like Chip Foose, went on to great acclaim. Coddington had this easy aura about him. He was comfortable working alone, with his crew or in front of a camera. He sometimes came across as a cantankerous and sharp tongued boss when on a deadline for his show, American Hot Rod, but when he wasn’t under pressure, he was quiet and reserved. He won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster Award half a dozen times and numerous other honors. He wasn’t the first hot rod designer and builder, nor will he be the last. He wasn’t the most outrageous and colorful, nor was he the most tragic. He probably isn’t the most self-promoting among the builders and designers. But if you take everything that he has done and add it all together, he has to rank ahead of them all. Boyd would probably be the first to say that rankings, praise and aplomb mean nothing. He would tell you that it’s all about the cars.
We got to the reception early and waited until they opened the doors to his salesroom and shops. From what I could see, there were three buildings with about 60,000 feet of space and ample outside storage. There was a huge tractor/trailer semi truck that Boyd used to take his cars around to various shows. The garage bay had about a dozen cars under construction and gave a hint to the popularity of his designs among the public. Some of his clientele included rock band stars, baseball players and fortune 500 executives. His famous creations included CadZilla, Boydster and the AlumaCoupe among others. I tried to get an interview with one of Coddington’s employees, but she said she wasn’t allowed to talk to me and referred me to her supervisor. The supervisor in turn referred me to another person who I searched for but never found. That’s the mystery of Boyd Coddington, even in death he was always present, but never quite reachable. So I attempted to find out for myself. If you can measure a person by the quality of his friends, then Boyd is one of the great ones. I ran into Don Rackeman, Greg Sharp, Scrub Hansen, Ed Justice Jr, Larry Woods, Joe Merino, Steve Davis, Mauri Ively, Steve Coonan, Nick Sfetku, Jack Stewart, Jerry Kugel, Tony Thacker, Jimmy C and Chip Foose. Rackeman worked for my Dad at the NHRA and was a well-known drag strip manager. Greg Sharp is the curator for the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum and Tony Thacker is the Director of that museum. The Reverend Scrub Hansen is a colorful personality among hot rodders in Southern California and a judge at the Grand National Roadster Show. Ed Justice Jr has his own car radio show and is the CEO of Justice Brothers Car Care Products in Duarte, California. Woods is the vice president at Mattel’s Hot Wheels division and has used many of Boyd’s cars for hot wheels scale models. Steve Davis is a car designer of note. Jimmy C is one of the most popular and outgoing pinstripers in the Orange County area. Kugel designs and builds some of the most beautiful roadsters anywhere, but is also a land speed record holder. He has the distinction of taking away my brother’s Bonneville land speed record by running 81 mph over my brother’s old record. David Parks is the youngest son of Wally Parks. David took away Andy Granatelli’s old Bonneville record by recording a run of 224 mph in his Camaro. Kugel’s Fire Bird sped to a 305 mph record, not bad for a door slammer. The margin of increase was the greatest ever recorded. Nick Sfetku is a famous drag boat racer and hot rodder. Jack Stewart is a long-time member of the LA Roadster Club.
Hansen mentioned the passing of ‘Lil John Butera, who was about the same age as Boyd. Someone mentioned that Butera and Coddington worked together, but no one could give me an answer to this question. I met Dave Parker, Nick Barron, Gil Losi, Lew Frantz, John Dianna, Harry Hibler, John Edgars, Bob Leggio, George Barris and Squeak White. Edgars, Dianna and Hibler were the featured speakers. Edgars told the audience that “Boyd was a salesman and an artist. He brought a new concept of marketing to his art. Everybody wanted to be around Boyd. He had an eye for design. Boyd gave opportunities to others to thrive and succeed. He was a very giving person.” John Dianna, the owner of Buckeroo Publications, took the microphone and added, “Boyd had a smoother look. He could just look at a project and know how to put it together. He had a personal vision that allowed him to take on impossible tasks. Boyd surrounded himself with great talent. He invented the polished cast wheels that everybody has to have on their cars today. He could be a tough taskmaster when he had to juggle projects,” Dianna concluded. Hibler was the last to speak. “Boyd could be called humble, but not often. Boyd would be honored to know how many people are here today to pay him tribute. He was a dreamer, craftsman, doer and artist. He was not always easy to work for, nor did he easily listen to others. Boyd was not a yes man, but he kept an open mind. He knew when he had gone too far and was willing to apologize to those he had offended. He had an eye for detail and could picture in his mind what he wanted to achieve. I believe his CadZilla and AlumaCoupe were his greatest inventions. His legacy will always be with us and we owe a debt of gratitude to Boyd Coddington,” Hibler said. The crowd, estimated at over 500 people, made their way to the rear of the yard, where a barbecue catering company was serving food. Boyd would have liked to see people happy.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.