The story of Virginia’s first custom car. One piece at a time.
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Roddy Moore with Virginia’s first hot rod.
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Wide Open Customs, in Roanoke, recreated the original Caribbean Coral paint job.
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Moore’s ’32 Ford three-window coupe at his garage near Ferrum.
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The dash and console were rebuilt by Allegheny Speed Shop in Catawba, and the air-foam seating by M&S Upholstery in Roanoke.
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The car’s classic whitewall tires.
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The hot rod at Detroit’s Autorama, where it won the Steele Products Preservation Award.
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An early iteration of the hot rod.
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Early photos of the hot rod.
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The hot rod on Monument Ave. in Richmond.
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Early photos of the hot rod.
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Driving on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
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Early photos of the hot rod.
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Early photos of the hot rod.
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Early photos of the hot rod.
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The Pattersons on their honeymoon.
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Early photos of the hot rod.
Slick Patterson’s car was a rare and beautiful Frankenstein. The automobile’s sleek frame, chrome-plated ornamentation and jigsaw machinery were culled from a variety of makes and models, painted in an exotic red-brown hue and fashioned with homemade features like a primitive air freshening system. It was pretty rad for 1951.
Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, the State Center for Blue Ridge Folklore, says that Patterson’s car was well documented. “It was so unusual that people remembered it throughout the years .… and it was covered in the national car magazines.”
For three-plus decades, with his staff at the BRI, Moore has been examining and preserving the length and breadth of Southern culture, investigating old-time music, moonshine, the canning industry, farm life and many other traditions, including cars, a personal passion. “At 15, I bought a 1940 Mercury Convertible from paper route money and then decided you couldn’t build a hot rod out of a ’40 Mercury,” he laughs. It was when he was researching a 2004 exhibit about early auto culture in the Commonwealth, Car Crazy, that he found out about Patterson’s ride.
It was the first known custom-built auto ever made in Virginia. But what happened to it? Over the next 10 years Moore started to assemble the story, like the car, one piece at a time.
Clarence Patterson was known as “Slick” because of the way he liked his hair combed back. Small in size, never more than 5 feet 9 inches, he was born in 1928 and lived in Glen Allen, outside of Richmond, raised by his grandparents. At 16, he altered his birth certificate, dropped out of school and joined the Navy at the end of World War II, serving on USS Iowa. On the way up and back, he found himself stationed in Long Beach, California.
Car culture—particularly the joining of vintage auto frames to new, souped-up engines—was a thriving pastime on the West Coast, fueled in part by military personnel with newly acquired technical know-how. It was a few years before hot-rodding became a nationwide fad.
“I began work on this car in September 1948, soon after I was discharged from the Navy,” Patterson wrote for the Sheet Metal Workers Journal four years later (he was a sheet metal mechanic most of his life). “I built this car from my own idea and designing, as I had no drawn plans or specifications whatsoever. I started work in a neighbor’s garage with what tools I could borrow from friends.” Nick Kellison, the neighbor, helped out, while another enthusiast, Mel Williams, provided space in his auto body shop (and sometime-air and drag strip) on Atlee Road. Patterson fooled with the car after work, but often attended trade school at night. “He was a patient man,” his wife Margaret says today. “He never set a deadline to finish the car.”
“I was 20 years old at the time,” he wrote. “It took two years [and] eight months to complete my custom [car], at a cost of approximately $3,000, not including my own labor.”
He started with the back and frame from a ’39 Ford convertible and assembled parts and features from different models of Cadillac, Ford, Packard, Plymouth, Lincoln, Mercury, Pontiac, Chrysler, Buick, Kaiser-Frazer, Oldsmobile, Nash, Dodge, Chevrolet, Hudson and DeSoto. Chopping the top by 3 ½ inches, he set the windshield back and designed all of the metal and wood work—including a beautiful knob-activated dash board repurposed from a ’41 Ford.
He took the parts to be chrome plated at a shop in Washington D.C. The rubber air-foam seating and cream and black leather upholstery were installed by the Virginia Auto Top Company in Richmond, while the unusual paint color (Caribbean Coral, a color exclusive to Kaiser motor vehicles) was applied by Kellison. “If it runs, it’ll run backward,” Slick’s skeptical grandfather told him. And, yes, when he first tested the car, the wheels did roll counterclockwise.
“Patterson feels he is one of the youngest men ever to build a car practically from the ground up,” the Ford Times reported in 1952. Today, Roddy Moore says, “You can build a car and use one catalog.” But 65 years ago, it was all trial and error—picking through junkyards, swapping parts, experimenting. Slick installed a 1948 Mercury stock engine and finally declared the car complete in May of 1951.
He and Margaret, who had grown up three blocks from him in Glen Allen, were married the next year. “We took the car on our honeymoon,” she remembers. “And we got a lot of attention.” The newlyweds traveled up the winding hills of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Fontana Village Resort in Western North Carolina: “I remember that we had to stop one or two times so he could get water to cool the motor because it overheated.”
The car was written about in magazines like Motor Trend and Speed Age, and Patterson claimed to have turned down several offers to buy it. “I’m sure I have an automobile like no one else in the country,” he once told the Sheet Metal Workers Journal. In a 1951 Richmond News Leader article, titled “Slick’s ‘Dream’ Car is 15 in One,” he told writer Guy Friddell, “This is no hot rod. You’ve heard of California custom built cars, this is a Glen Allen custom built.”
But as he and Margaret prepared to build a house and start a family—they would have two kids, Michael and Sharon—he realized that, as special as it was, the car was not practical. “It wasn’t what you would call a family car,” Margaret says. “In fact, you could barely see out of it.”
A few years after he drilled the last bolt, Patterson sold the car. Though Margaret doesn’t recall how much Slick sold it for, she does know it was enough to help them build their Glen Allen home.
After that, the trail gets sketchy. According to Moore’s research, Slick’s ride popped up on the lot of Commonwealth Motor Company in Richmond in the mid-’50s, and was later owned by a Richmond city policeman who put an Oldsmobile engine in it. Then the car appeared outside of an Esso gas station on Route 1 in the late 1960s, not far from the Pattersons’ Glen Allen home. The owner repainted it in gold metal flake and set it outside as an attention grabber (also, apparently, claiming that he built it). “We would see it at the gas station, passing by, all rusted out,” Slick’s son, Mike Patterson, 55, recalls.
“From time to time, people would report seeing it somewhere, but we didn’t know what happened to it,” Margaret says. “My husband really wasn’t that interested. He had done what he set out to do.”
Slick never built another car. His mechanic days were through, although he followed NASCAR racing and repaired the family vehicles. He enjoyed woodworking as a hobby and would make furniture for Margaret or the grandchildren—once, he built an aluminum camper to take on a family trip—but never the same thing twice. In 2007, he passed away at age 79 from congestive heart failure. But before he died, Patterson got a call from Moore. His car had been found.
Flash forward eight years and 72-year-old Moore stands in a garage shed near Ferrum College, where he stores his vintage hot rods. “I got out of cars for a long, long time and then got back into them about 20 years ago,” he explains. “And that’s how Car Crazy got started.” (The exhibit traveled to other venues, like the Virginia Historical Society, once it left Ferrum.) He has numerous custom cars in his own collection, including a favored one—a ’32 Ford roadster with a Chrysler hemi engine. “These cars are built to the era of 1960,” he says. “Back then, to have this, you would have been the cat’s meow.” But then he pulls the cover back and, there it is, in all of its shiny Caribbean Coral glory: Slick Patterson’s car.
“I even had license tags made of the original license plate,” says Moore, his handlebar mustache framing a grin.
Climbing inside and sinking into the beautiful air-foam seating (which was replicated by M&S Upholstery in Roanoke), I twist the chrome knobs on the dash (rebuilt from Slick’s design by Larry Rathburn at Allegheny Speed Shop in Catawba, chromed at R&D Finishing in Elizabethton, Tennessee). The interior is beautifully retro (but cramped), and the front window is miniscule by today’s standards—Margaret Patterson was right, you can barely see through it—and the tiny windshield wipers would barely acknowledge a sprinkle. “You can do OK if someone is with you to help you drive,” says Moore. “And get this.” He points to the dash. “On the inside of the grill, there is a hole cut and connected to a house gutter pipe that comes back, and there’s a valve here, one of the gauges, pull it and you’ve got fresh air vents. It’s still in the car. It was galvanized and protected under there.” He smiles. “There’s fresh air for you in the hot weather.”
When Moore located the car in 2004, first in the collection of a Richmond lawyer, and then in the hands of a classic auto dealer in Lynchburg, it was a rusty husk. He bought it anyway (he declines to give the figure). “I told people I wanted to restore it and they laughed at me. Luckily, I got the right guys to do it.”
It took three years and nearly a dozen veterans of rebuilding and customizing vintage cars. “I don’t think you showed me the pictures until you got it here,” mechanic and engine builder W.D. Messenger says to Moore outside his garage in Callaway, where several old roadsters sit waiting for repairs. “I guess you don’t want to scare people too bad.” Messenger has been fooling with cars since he was a kid. “You can bring me the bolt of an original ’40 Ford and I can tell you where it goes,” he smiles.
“The biggest thing about that car was fixing it up the way the original guy fixed it,” Jeff Bennett says. He and his crew at Wide Open Customs did the body and paint work. Housed in a large garage in the Mount Pleasant area of Roanoke, Bennett works with vintage hot rods and customs. “It’s what we do every day. When you build a hot rod, you do what you wanna do. But this was like restoring an antique car the way it originally was.” He chuckles at some of Slick’s choices. “I don’t know why he put a 1950 Nash grille on there.” Moore joins in: “But it works.”
Slick Patterson had noted the cars he used, but not what he took from them. “The only way we could bring this car back was the family scrapbook. Because what was left of the car when we got it and what it had been were two different things,” explains Moore.
Meticulously, Slick had documented the entire construction of his “dream boat,” taking numerous snapshots and keeping a scrapbook. Margaret Patterson loaned it to Moore. “The photographs of the build showed us everything from the dome light of the interior to the door handles,” he says. “They had details. So we could put everything back that had been there.” Bennett nods. “If we hadn’t had those pictures, we probably couldn’t have done it.”
Last year, the finished restoration was unveiled at Detroit’s Autorama, one of the nation’s largest custom car shows, and it copped the prestigious Steele Products Preservation Award. This year, in February 2015, the hybrid auto was showcased at the Asphalt Angels annual show in Doswell, where Slick Patterson’s family saw it again for the very first time.
“It was such a thrill,” Margaret Patterson recalls. “It was just like it was.” Son Mike, who never saw the car in its original glory, thought about his dad. “It’s neat that the first place in Virginia it was shown was only a few miles from where my father was raised.”
“I’m going to show it, and drive it some,” Moore says when asked what he plans to do with Virginia’s first custom-built car. He owns it, he adds, but it will never be his. “It’s Slick Patterson’s car. That’s the history. And that’s the important thing about all of this.”
Where there are antique cars, there are antique car clubs.
“We like cars from the past,” says Carolyn Craig, president of the Northern Virginia Rods and Classics club. “It’s that simple. Some of us have cars that we couldn’t afford when we were younger and when they were new.”
The NVRC is one of hundreds of active clubs, organizations and associations across Virginia that regularly shows off its love for vintage and “classic” automobiles. Some host big-time car shows, others put on regular showcases at the local mall parking lot or fast food joint.
Craig’s club comprises 30 members from all over NoVa—Loudon, Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington. “We are all in different places, from different backgrounds and ages,” she says. “We have people with modified cars, one member has cars from the ’50s to the ’70s, and foreign cars.” The group helps to sponsor the annual Leesburg Car Show, held in June at Tuscarora High School and, like many contemporary clubs, gets together for regular “cruise-in” meet ups: Friday night at the Chick-fil-A in Sterling, Saturday night at the Manassas Burger King.
“The cruise-ins have been going on for 20 years or more,” says Brian Wenk, the head of Richmond’s Asphalt Angels, the oldest car club in Virginia (established in 1957, currently with 15 members). The club also hosts the state’s longest-running indoor custom car show every February; this year, it was held at the Farm Bureau Center in Doswell’s Meadow Event Park. “It’s not like car clubs have exploded in numbers, it’s been going on for awhile,” he says. “But I think the outside world has only started noticing them of late.”
“Car club” meant a different thing back in the 1950s, when affiliations of automobile owners and racers began meeting up over quarts of oil. These clubs were built around drag strips, says Roddy Moore of the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College. “A lot of the early clubs, they would build a race car and then take it to the drag strip and race it.” For an exhibit called Full Throttle: Racing and Rodding in Southwest Virginia, the institute traced many of these seminal outfits, which had names like the Gas Gobblers (Roanoke), the Quarter Milers (Henry County) and the Loafers (Salem). Today’s cruise-ins have their roots in the early days of the roadside diner, Moore says: “Places like Bill’s Barbecue in Richmond would have been where you would go back then, to show off your car.”
Fred Fann is the president of the Car Council of Central Virginia (CCCA), which brings together 42 active Richmond-area clubs. “Some of them only take Chevrolets up to a certain year, or only take Mustangs or Corvairs, we have a military vehicle club. Some will accept any car, like the Antique Auto of America-affiliated clubs.” He tries to keep up with shows and cruise-ins for the CCCA website, and there are more of them all the time. Says Fann: “What’s happened to drive these events is that a lot of charitable organizations and churches have contacted car clubs to help them raise money for various charities.”
In addition to regular cruise-ins, the Yorktown-based Classic Cruisers Car Club hosts four annual charity shows, including one at the Mathews Market Days celebration in September. “We have between 70 and 80 paid members,” says Blair Armbrister, the president of the Cruisers, whose dues-payers own Model A’s, 1940 Fords, “even a Morgan” as well as muscle cars and vintage trucks. “The car has to be at least 20 years old,” he says.
While the Asphalt Angels show is Virginia’s oldest indoor event, the Virginia Hot Rod and Custom Show, a newer setup held in Hampton each April, is up and coming. A premier outdoor event is the Richmond chapter of the American Automobile Club of America’s gathering at Richmond International Raceway in June. There’s also the Southern Knights Cruiser Show held in October at Richard Bland College, which raises money for military veterans and draws hundreds of rarified rides. For specialists, the Super Chevy Show at Dinwiddie’s Virginia Motorsports Park in May, and the Central Virginia Mustang Club’s annual Mustang and Ford Car Show in September at
Ashland’s Bass Pro Shop showcase hundreds of vintage autos.
Drag and street racing still goes on, and members still swap parts and share advice on rebuilding their rods, but the car club is now, as Moore puts it, “more of a social gathering. The old hot rod clubs were all about going fast. Today, it’s more about cruising with air conditioning and automatic transmission.”
“I have several of my best friends in the club with me,” says Armbrister of Classic Cruisers. “I think that people like getting together and sharing their cars with each other. What could be better than that?”
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