Windsor man’s hot rod heaven heats up
On a country road on the outskirts of Windsor, two engine casings mounted over the mail box are the telltale sign of the master hot rod and vintage car builder who lives down the driveway, in the modest, older home next to the vineyards.
Vern Tardel, or “Mr. Flathead” as he is nicknamed, is renowned for his meticulous rebuilding of Fords, like the stripped down, hopped up 1932 models with the flathead V-8 engines immortalized in the movie “American Graffiti” and The Beach Boys song “Little Deuce Coupe.”
An image of one of his hot rods, with orange flames running down the car’s dark body, was the subject of a recent postage stamp that sold 100 million copies. Photos of his cars have been featured in modern art museum exhibits, and the cars themselves used as props in movies, including "American Graffiti" when it was filmed in Petaluma four decades ago.
Inside Tardel’s sprawling barn, he works on a slow but steady stream of classic cars and engines, surrounded by shelves of early Ford parts, hot rod memorabilia, bygone advertising and automotive signs.
“I’ve never been able to grow up. I continuously love to be a kid and play with these cars,” says Tardel, 71, who also set a couple records at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah before ending his racing days a decade ago, when he decided it was too dangerous to continue pursuing higher speeds.
Attentive to detail
Tardel is known for building “traditional” hot rods that are scrupulously attentive to period detail, meaning they are made largely of original parts, as opposed to the re-manufactured components in modern hot rods.
“People come from all over the world to visit his shop,” said Dave Fetherston, who publishes a series of “how to” automotive books co-authored by Tardel. “It’s truly astonishing how many people know about him and use him as a resource.”
“Any place where there’s any kind of hot rod presence he is a larger-than-life figure. He is one of the last authentic guys in the eyes of the hot rod world,” said automotive photo journalist Mike Chase.
Tardel’s land speed records, like the one he set in 2004 — hitting 177 miles per hour at Bonneville in a 1927 modified Ford Roadster, lend him additional status.
“It really identifies his authenticity as a hot rodder,” said Chase, a friend of Tardel’s for more than 45 years, with whom he attended Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa.
“There’s hot rodders that are hot rodders because they subscribe to a magazine; guys who pay others to build; guys who build their own,” said Chase. “He’s the guy they pay. And he’s the guy who builds his own and races. He has drag raced in these.
“Lots of guys with lots of money seek his counsel and look for him to build cars.”
Iconic ‘32 Ford Roadsters, stripped of their fenders and running boards, are Tardel’s passion. With their chopped bodies, souped up engines and lowered chassis, they were the prominent hot rods of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, “the one all the kids wanted to have,” Tardel said.
He was one of those kids, growing up on his family’s ranch off Brush Creek Road in Santa Rosa. He remembers his first neighborhood glimpse of a speeding, noisy, red Ford Roadster.