Lightning Rods

A woman in a striped shirt poses with her hands on her hips A man in a ball cap holds his son in his arms, also wearing a baseball cap A couple in sunglasses pose on a plain background

Hot-rod enthusiasts are as
distinctive as the cars they love

Photographs by George Brainard

Photos, clockwise from top left: Cristien Neitch, a nurse from Austin; Rusty Burford, owner of Dirty’s Speed Shop in Seagoville, with son Ryder Burford; Matt Williams of Austin says his favorite part of the Lonestar Round Up is that “there is truly a home for all people, all cultures, all colors, all ages, scholars and deadbeats, squares and tattoo heathens, old and young, judges and criminals alike.” His wife, Wendi Williams, agrees: “Anyone and everyone is there to shake a hand or lend a hand,” she says.

Car pictured is a 1951 Ford Deluxe

A few people walk down a dirt road in between rows and rows of historic cars
The Lonestar Round Up at the Travis County Expo Center in 2012

Brian Auderer remembers visiting his grandparents in Beaumont as a kid in the 1970s and becoming enamored with his grandmother’s 1950s Plymouth. Back home, his family had a boxy station wagon, but the Plymouth was all chrome and curves and baubles. “There was something about the joy of that design era, the positivity,” he says. “It was something I I wanted to be near.”

A woman stands holding a tall black dog on a leash

Erin Riddle, a pinup photographer from Temple, with her dog, Chloe

Today, the Austin-based designer and illustrator is a producer of the Lonestar Round Up along with other members of The Kontinentals car club. The Austin festival, which celebrates 20 years in April, lures hot-rod and custom-car aficionados from all over the world, including Australia, Norway, and Japan. The festival only features cars manufactured before 1963. What qualifies these cars as hot rods is the work individuals put into them to make them fast, from installing V-8 engines to stripping excess features. Custom paint jobs make the garage creations even more photogenic. The festival attendees tend to be just as vibrant. Some go for a rockabilly or pinup look to match the era the cars are from; others are old-timers with grease under their fingernails who are more interested in mechanics than aesthetics.

Austin photographer George Brainard grew so attracted to the scene that for six years he set up a studio near the entrance of the festival, where he asked interesting looking visitors to sit for him. Brainard released the portraits, plus photos of the cars and festival, in his 2015 book, All Tore Up: Texas Hot Rod Portraits.

He first took photos at the 2003 event, at Auderer’s behest, to help promote the festival. Once the festival became self-sustaining, Brainard showed up on his own. “There was great music and tons of cool people and all these cool cars,” he says. “I was hooked. I kept going back.” His photos, shot in black and white, capture fascinating details, from intricately carved belt buckles to scraggly grays in long beards to perfectly applied winged eyeliner. “Being a portrait photographer is all about making a connection with a person,” Brainard says. “It can be very intense with people you might only know for three minutes. Then you spend hours studying their face as you look through all the photos.”

For Auderer, the portraits allowed him to get to know the people who attended his event. “It’s fascinating to see into all the different stories there,” Auderer says. “They’re all interested in this thing, but they’re all wildly different from each other.”

Here, we showcase some previously unpublished photos from Brainard’s collection that capture the essence of hot-rod culture—the nostalgia, the ingenuity, and the style. “It really is a classic American art form,” Auderer says. “It wasn’t companies. It was individuals in their garages making these cars. No two are alike.”

—Kimya Kavehkar

A few people walk down a dirt road in between rows and rows of historic cars
Cori Aguilar, Houston: “I got into car culture when I started dating Gabriel Alanis 10 years ago. He is a car guy himself and has a ’53 Chevy he’s been working on. Every person who owns an old-school car knows that it truly takes blood, sweat, and tears to get their dream car customized how they envisioned. It’s about respect, admiration, traditions, and the preservation of mobile treasures.”
Two cars race down a road with guardrails as a crowd looks on
From 2002 to 2016, The Kontinentals, the car club that puts on the Lonestar Round Up, also hosted a drag-racing event called The Day of the Drags at Little River Dragway in Holland, just east of Salado. Here, a 1955 Chevy, left, pulls ahead of a Chevy truck at the 2012 event.
A man in a fedora and sunglasses poses in a pair of striped overalls A man in a black Vans hat and black shirt poses for the camera A man in a shirt reading 'Nashville Sucks' poses

FROM LEFT: Ben Scribner of Novato, California, at the Lonestar Round Up in 2011; Spencer Townsell, a member of Houston’s Los CoChinos Car Club, at The Day of the Drags in 2010; Jàmy Balum of San Antonio at The Day of the Drags in 2010.

A black and white photo of an old car with a large wheel
A 1931 Model A Ford sedan in front of a 1959 Chevy El Camino.
A long, white car in front of a brick building with a sign reading "Bar BQ Catering Service"
A 1954 Ford Victoria owned by musician Jimmie Vaughan in front the Taylor Café in Taylor.
A man in a cowboy hat and black t-shirt crosses tattooed arms
“I was first exposed to custom culture at the Hemsby Rock ’n’ Roll Weekender in England in the early ’90s,” Austinite and DJ Paolo Bortolomiol says. “It’s the fantasy of living the same hot-rod culture that was in the ’50s: lots of booze, girls, cars, and the smell of gasoline in the air.”
A woman in a plaid shirt and jeans with a large belt buckle poses with her hand on her hip
Sophie Camilleri from Melbourne, Australia, described herself to photographer George Brainard as “an Aussie girl that’s fallen in love with Austin.”
The back of a car with a license plate reading "9B G8"
A 1929 Model A Ford Coupe at The Day of the Drags in 2012.
An overhead view of a Cadillac underneath a neon sign
Steve Wertheimer, the owner of Austin music venue the Continental Club and a member of The Kontinentals, owns this 1957 Cadillac.

Lonestar Round Up

April 16-17 at the Travis County Expo Center 7311 Decker Lane, Austin. General admission is $15. See website for COVID-19 updates and restrictions.

A man in a white cowboy hat stands with a Lone Star beer in his hand
Raul Flores, left, of San Antonio says he enjoys “meeting new people and visiting with old friends” at car shows.
A man with a large white beard in a cut-off t-shirt stands with his hands in his pockets
“The biggest benefit of the culture is making friends all over the country,” says Ken McClure of Wright City, Missouri. “It really gives you a little reassurance when cruising in old cars. If you ever have old-car issues while traveling—and you will—you have a network where help is within a handful of phone calls.”

From the February 2021 issue

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