Merkt, who grew up in Wisconsin, has been designing and building hot rods for more than twenty years. He moved to South Austin in 2007 and is currently a partner and main fabricator at Austin Speed Shop.
When I was six or seven, my uncle gave me his collection of fifties and sixties hot rod magazines. There were a few hundred, and since I was just a kid, I didn’t realize they were old. I memorized every one. Now I can pick an era and know exactly what cars were popular in a certain year.
My uncle, dad, and grandpa were all into hot rods in the fifties. I have a 1932 Ford roadster they took turns building. It’s a crazy hot rod—open-wheel, open-engine. When my dad got it finished, it won all these awards, and he started a body shop because everyone was asking if he could do stuff to their cars too. I got the roadster when I was eighteen, and I took it apart and rebuilt it to look like a sixties model. It’s silvery green, real loud, real fast. It’s been in Car Kulture DeLuxe, Rod and Custom—lots of magazines.
It all stems from guys who were really badass. In the thirties, which is when Ford invented the flathead V-8, a lot of the young men at the time would strip their cars down to make them faster. Then they went to war and got smart about mechanics and design by working on airplanes. When they returned, they got into refining their cars’ parts—the engine, the speed equipment, the carburetors—and the cars began performing. Guys started street racing, then drag racing. Later, in the fifties, they got into refining the look: lowering the cars, adding fancier parts. That spawned two different styles, hot rods and customs. Hot rods are to go fast, customs are to cruise and be cool.
Modifying your car was originally a California thing. But Hot Rod magazine came out in 1948, and all of a sudden guys in Iowa were emulating what they saw. It became regional; it was obvious where a car came from. By the sixties there was lots of chrome and crazy paint, and car shows were a big deal. Then the regular automakers started coming out with muscle cars. This changed things—it’s why we use a pre-1964 classification at the shop—because suddenly it was easy to buy a factory hot rod that was way faster than your modified ’55 Chevy. Since that period, the car world has been a mix of guys who are grounded in tradition—the seventies saw a return to fifties models, for example—and guys who are inventing new things, like the billet wheel in the eighties.
I want to be both. I want to work within that box of tradition but also push it. My approach is to look at the less obvious cars of an era, take their best qualities, and move them around, adding my own twist. As a fabricator, I decide what the customer wants and the best way to go about it. It’s like how you don’t tell an artist what to do, you just let him do his thing. We’ll buy kits and assemble them, but other times we have to hand-make the parts, like a brake pedal, because it’s the only way we can get one to fit. We do things like chop off the top of a car; we’ll take a Mercury and cut four inches out of the height of the roof to give it a sleeker look. Or, for example, we’re working on a ’49 Cadillac right now, and we don’t like the stock bumper. So we’re weighing our choices. Do we modify that bumper? Do we find one from a Cadillac from a couple of years later? We’re considering a Packard bumper instead.
A simple vintage car can take three months. A more complicated one can take three years. In the shop we have three to four main fabricators, a few mechanics, and a full-time upholsterer. Some days I’m researching the parts we’re gonna use; other days I’m making the pieces that go on the car. The designing part goes fast. So much of it is a throwback to certain eras or cars, so we just mix and match. But these cars are old now, so locating parts from fifty years ago, like from a wreck car, is starting to be a challenge. We spend a lot of time waiting for the right parts, whether from junkyards across the country or eBay. The final assembly takes time; this is high-end stuff.
There’s ten or twelve cars going on at once. We don’t have an average customer—a person who’s interested in these cars is anything but average. We do have regulars. I mean, a full build can take two to three years, and when you see someone that often and have such passionate talks about what you’re building, they become family. We built a ’51 Mercury for Jesse James that appeared on the cover of Rod and Custom magazine, and my favorite project right now is a ’66 Thunderbird that we’re building for a woman whose husband passed away. She wants it built in his honor, so we’re rallying to make it more of a car than she ever expected. Another car I’m excited about is a ’32 Ford three-window coupe for which there aren’t really any market parts, so they’re all going to be vintage or handmade. That will be pretty wild.
We try to show our cars everywhere we can. We travel to California, Kansas, Illinois, the Detroit Autorama. We’re kind of like a band of gypsies, us car builders. There’s also a big show in Austin every spring, the Lonestar Round Up, and thousands of cars and people come from all over the country and the world—from Norway, Australia, Japan. Looking at the pictures, you wouldn’t know if it was now or the fifties. All the cars cruise along South Congress Avenue. To be part of the show, your car has to have everything styled as it would have been back in the day. Last year we had a party at the shop with more than three thousand people, which is pretty crazy, being that there’s only about eight guys who work here.
Working on a car starts off being exciting—and then, when you’re in the thick of it, you sometimes lose track of what you’re doing. It becomes a big problem you’re trying to solve. Finally, after all the effort, it turns back into something you can actually drive, and that’s awesome. My goal is to build the best car ever. Each one, I’m hoping it’s gonna be that one.