Windsor man’s hot rod heaven heats up

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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.”

Ford Roadsters

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.

“I said, ‘Boy that’s for me. I need to have one of those.’ I got hooked on ‘em.”

Fords, he said, were dependable and ubiquitous, with the pick-up trucks on ranches and the cars in people’s garages.

Ford had the first low-priced, mass-marketed car with a V8 engine, a milestone in American automotive history. Dubbed a flathead and also known as a side-valve engine, it had valves placed in the engine block beside the piston, instead of in the cylinder head, known as overhead valves.

Tardel’s father was a machinist, so there were tools around and engines to work on. He apprenticed in body shops and got tutelage from another well known local hot rodder, the late Ed Binggeli, at Bing’s Speed Shop in Santa Rosa.

After going to Santa Rosa Junior College for a year and a half, Tardel went into the body shop trade full time. He worked at the Lampson Ford dealership in Geyserville until 1966, before working at other garages in Santa Rosa and restoring cars on nights and weekends.

Tardel opened his own body shop on Old Redwood Highway in Windsor, which lasted until the late 1980s, when he moved his restoration business to his ranch.

“I’ve been working with these things since I was 14. I built the first in high school, in 1960,” Tardel said last month as he walked around some of the flathead Fords in his Windsor workshop.

In addition to the candy apple 1932 Ford Roadster in his shop, there were at least two dozen other classic cars on his 2.5-acre property.

They included Ford models in various conditions of repair and readiness, from a 1924 sedan to a 1927 Model T, and sedans and roadsters representing just about all the ensuing decades, right on up to a ‘63 Thunderbird. And then there’s the 1970s era Pinto that Tardel seems to keep around for laughs, with painted flames that poke fun at Pintos’ reputation for exploding gas tanks.

Flathead heaven

One of his notable possessions is “Silhouette,” a dragster with an airplane-like cockpit and design that was raced in the 1950s at the long-gone Cotati drag strip and was later seen in a hot rod movie.

“There are many people who would die for a chance to come here. A lot of people call this ‘flathead heaven,’” said Spenser Nice, who works with Tardel at the property off Pleasant Road.

These days Tardel rebuilds engines — Ford flatheads, maybe a couple per month — and occasionally a complete hot rod.

He will take an original engine block and machine it locally to make the inside brand new. The crankshaft and pistons might be manufactured in Southern California, and another part might come from Ohio.

“Basically I buy the components and assemble the motor,” he said. “I put it on an engine stand, start it up, run it and break them in. The customer can put it in a car and drive away.”

Tardel doesn’t like to discuss numbers but acknowledged that a completed, entry level basic 1950s hot rod might cost $80,000 to $100,000 to build.

He also offers his own line of vintage car parts, available online. Orders for his products and parts come from anywhere Ford hot rod enthusiasts live, including parts of Europe — England, Sweden, France, Italy and Germany — as well as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Mexico.

He has co-authored numerous small, how-to publications, offering instructions on building anything from a Ford hot rod to brakes, transmissions, ignitions and carburetors.

“My main thing now is doing books. I want to do as much as I can to pass along to the younger generation,” he said. “It has become a relatively pretty good source of income. It has allowed me to not always be greasy all the time.”

Tardel has others who answer his e-mails and fill the Internet orders. He’s sometime described as curmudgeonly, partly because he doesn’t like to answer the phone. “I don’t get any work done,” he explained.

Instead he pretty much only responds to Fax messages, what a friend describes as “his only concession to modernity.?

He has built furniture out of car parts, including benches for wineries and restaurants; sells a jigsaw puzzle of a ‘32 roadster; and has a patent for a $12.95 mug manufactured in China that is shaped like a carburetor. Thousands have been sold over the years.

His latest idea, which came with the realization that hot rod enthusiasts are passing away, is a finely sculpted holder for cremated remains in the shape of a hot rod. The name, of course: “Vern’s Urn.”

Over the years, Tardel’s creations have been sought out by Hollywood, most recently by producers of “The World’s Fastest Indian,” the story of motorcycle racer Burt Munro starring Anthony Hopkins. He arranged for period hot rods that served as props.

In 1973, he furnished three or four background cars for “American Graffiti” and was paid $25 a night per car, which seemed easy money at the time.

Postage stamp

Tardel was in rarified company when the ‘32 Ford roadster he built was featured on a postage stamp, one of two in the “Hot Rods Forever” issue. About 100 million copies of the stamp were printed before selling out

“They were quite popular,” said U.S. Postal Service spokesman Mark Saunders. Of 40,000 stamp designs suggested each year, only about 20 are issued.

“I can’t believe there are that many people interested in hot rods,” Tardel said. “It was quite an honor.”

In a dedication last year, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the stamps “personify the beginning of America’s fascination with customizing fast cars. And they’re just as popular today as they were decades ago.”

Tardel and Karen, his wife of 47 years, first came to his Pleasant Avenue home in 1967. Technically the address is Santa Rosa, but Tardel considers it Windsor.

“My wife and I decided we wanted to raise our family in the country. Windsor was rural and affordable,” he said.

In more recent times, the Tardels bought a second home outside Austin, Tex., to be closer to their grandkids and son Keith, who runs an auto speed shop there. (His other son Matthew is an engineer in Silicon Valley.)

But Tardel finds south Texas too humid and plans to leave the Lone Star State behind.

“We will sell there and stay here for the rest of our lives,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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