owners saying about the Rodster® Street Rod?
A Few Words With Ernie
Farmer’s Ranch, Texas
Ernie had a collection of
60’s muscle cars, which he sold after buying his Rodster Street
Rod. He found that his muscle cars were just collecting dust because
he was having such a blast driving his Rodster Street Rod as his daily-driver.
Of course, Ernie’s Rodster has a serious V-8 muscle-motor, with
something like 500+ HP. "The Rodster has been by far the most enjoyable
car I've owned. It's reliable, dependable, by far has the greatest performance,
ride, handling, and looks, and still gets twice the gas mileage -- it
basically took all the other cars together and improved on them."
So you bought Henry's
Rodster Street Rod?
Yes. I guess he built three
of them. I bought the "flame" car. (Kit
Car magazine cover story "project car," black with
a Pete Santini flame job.)
How long ago was
I'll say about three and
a half years ago.
How did you find
I was going through one of
those Hemmings Motor News or one of those magazines and just saw the
car in there advertising the kit and I called him and said, "I
really like the looks of this, but I don't have time to build one."
In fact, it's funny, I said, "I'm really not into flames."
And he said, "Well, I have a red one." He wanted to sell one
vehicle. "Come out and take a look at it." I was out at a
conference in Los Angeles and I took the opportunity to go over there
and visit Henry and took the little red one out. We did our best to
burn the tires out of it, and a tank of gas, went back to the shop and
I said, "Hey, it's a lot of fun." But I started looking at
the car with flames and said, "You know, it's really starting to
grow on me." The more I thought about it, "Well, that really
is the car I want." So we chatted for a little bit and I actually
made him an offer on both cars -- not to buy both -- but either one.
He said that his goal for the flame car was to put a V8 in it and I'm
one of these nut cases that there's never enough power. I thought, "Whether
I buy the red one or the flame one, I'm going to have to convert it
anyway," so I basically bought the flame one because I liked the
Every hot rod needs
flames, don't they?
Yes. You could say something
like "a hot rod isn't a hot rod without flames," but that
will "inflame" people. (laughs)
So you put in the
Yeah. In fact I told Henry,
"Look, if you make me a deal on the car, we'll do the conversion
and you can have the magazine cover it." So that he gets the publicity
for it and we get the V8. That was the first of the many ventures we
have spent on the car. Converting it to a V8 was basically the first
thing we did to it. We redid the interior, a number of things. I thought
I had a real race car till I got beat by a Camaro with a 600 cubic inch
motor. I said, "This isn't going to do it, so we need to make the
motor bigger" and other things had to be replaced. And we made
the motor bigger several times. I believe this will be the third or
fourth time that we've upgraded the motor.
How much bigger can
It's not that the engine
gets larger, it's the horsepower we're after.
We started with a stock Z/28
motor and, I don't know how well you follow horsepower, but the only
real thing to get excited over is what they call rear wheel horsepower,
or horsepower from a chassis dyno. That actually measures the power
that the motor is placing to the rear wheels, or what they say, to the
ground. You don't care how much horsepower the motor supposedly makes,
too many things along the way rob horsepower -- whether it's an automatic,
a standard, whether it's power steering, the water pump... everything
takes power. Again, we started off with about 240 rear wheel horsepower.
I think the next cam took us to about 285, from there we went to about
345. I think the next step went to a maximum of about 370 horsepower.
And now we have the motor torn apart, getting ready to rebuild the next
motor, which should give us somewhere in the neighborhood of 425, 450
horses to the ground. Which in real world numbers means 525 to 550 horsepower,
as everyone likes to quote their vehicles as making.
What do you do, do
you bore it out?
No. We have actually what
they call a stroker. We put a 400 crank into it, we've used different
rod bolts. Effectively, with this go-round, we'll end up with a 396
cubic inch small block with, obviously, a special cam. I think the biggest
secret is the heads, which are still LT-1 heads but they're manufactured
by a company in Houston called GTP. They do some special porting and
polishing that really gives the flow that you're after, along with all
this horsepower. We've had to replace the standard rear end. It was
good to about 300 horsepower to the ground. Once we got beyond that,
we started to tear up drivelines After I ate up three drivelines, "Well,
enough of this." We went to a very expensive rear end a company
called Mozer makes and it could do probably 850 horsepower or maybe
more. We certainly won't be going beyond that.
How about the suspension?
We have modified it somewhat.
We put a different lowering kit on the rear end. In fact, since you
brought it up -- I guess it was last week -- we actually changed the
front end and put in some drop spindles from Bell Tech which I think
will give it a little better ride. We also did a mini- tub to give it
a few more inches underneath so we can give it a bigger tire. We had
been running a BF Goodrich drag radial which, again, to 300 horsepower
really held the ground well, but now, there's really no traction left.
That was with approximately 11 inch wide tires, so we're hoping to get
somewhere between a thirteen to fourteen inch tire underneath it. From
a standing start or very low speed, the vehicle will gain traction and
probably sit there and spin the tires.
How big are the stock
I would guess the average
(tire) is probably 275/60-15 (15" wheels), which is going to be
about an 8 or 9 inch wide tire with regular tread. The drag radials
have a very soft compound just like you would use on a slick. So it
may not be any wider, but there'll be a lot more traction because of
the soft compound. They also wear out a whole lot faster. But the Rodster
is a relatively light vehicle, so the tires last a lot longer than most
people think they will.
So you say a Camaro
blew you away. Do you get challenged very often on the street?
Oh, all the time. In fact,
when I bought the car from Henry, it was a 4-cylinder 5-speed. I took
it to a car show the next afternoon. As I pulled in, some people standing
there looked at the car and gave me a funny look and said, "It's
just too quiet." I said, "Well, you're absolutely right, it
is." And of course, I had all the Mustangs and Z/28's trying to
race me. With the 4-cylinder, obviously, it wasn't capable of competing.
So I basically had to say, "Well, come see me in the spring, guys,
I'll get this thing done." So realistically, for the first little
while, about everything that we would race with just really ran away
from it. The car was fast, don't get me wrong. It was probably capable
of running mid-13 second quarter miles at 100 miles an hour plus, but
this Camaro -- obviously, it had a much larger motor. Extremely fast.
As a matter of fact, it's one of the fastest cars in Dallas, which says
a lot, the Metroplex aside and all the crazy lunatics out there. That's
the only car that I lost a race to. I hope there aren't more out there.
Where were you racing?
We were on the freeway, I'm
not sure that we exceeded the posted speed limits (laughs). I recommend
everyone else do that (obey speed limits).
Yeah. I have run the car
upwards of about 120 miles an hour. It's been extremely stable and well-handling
at those speeds, I'm very glad to find out.
You're just talking
about straight-line kind of stuff, no cornering on some winding country
No, we really haven't done
any of that. Although there's a race in Texas which I'm hoping to get
to this year where they block off the highway down in the Big Bend area.
I believe it's a 19- mile race. Henry had talked about it several times.
He said, "Why don't you take it out there?" I said, "If
I get time this year, I'd certainly love to."
It's in the spring?
April or May. I'm not really
sure of the date. Henry tried to get me to do it the last couple of
years, but I have two businesses and I opened up a third, which is the
laboratory I'm at right now. That has really required a lot of my time
with the start-up and getting things going. Taking away from my ability
to... I couldn't do the Hot Rod Power Tour last year because of the
start-up. But this year we'll be taking advantage of it. Jim Youngs
from Kit Car Builder, he wanted me to take it to some of the run 'n
guns. Everybody thinks the Cobras are the masters on the street. We
want to show that a heavier car with a smaller motor (the Cobra), we'll
humiliate a rather large percentage of them. With this new motor and
set-up we should be running low 11 seconds at probably around 120 miles
an hour -- which is almost, probably, Pro-Street times not too many
years ago. And this was with a car that's a daily driver with wonderful
manners. You know, you could put grandma in it; she wouldn't appreciate
the looks or performance perhaps, nonetheless, she could drive it to
the grocery store, get whatever she needed and come back without any
And it's less likely
to break than a Cobra.
In fact, I think it was three
years ago on the Power Tour, we were headed up to Elk City, or somewhere,
Oklahoma. At any rate, we had a rear wheel bearing go out in the middle
of nowhere, in a place called Paul's Valley, which is a place where,
I think, there was only a restaurant and a couple of hotels and a gas
station. We were limping in there with the bearing making all kinds
of noise and it was Saturday night, everything was closed basically,
and we had to wait till first thing Sunday morning. Had a little auto
parts store that opened up, and we found a... it was just a standard
bearing right there. Stuck it in the car and two hours later, we were
on our way. Well, you certainly couldn't do that with a lot of cars.
In fact, Henry told you I used to have quite a collection of what you
call muscle cars, the older cars from the late 60's, early 70's. And
this car has out-performed all of them by a long shot. Again, we've
got a lot of modern niceties -- the fuel injection and the power steering,
air conditioning. We get massive horsepower and we still get 23, 25
miles to the gallon out of the car. You just couldn't do that with the
old beasts. I say that fondly.
Henry said you used
to have a large collection of cars and now you're down to two.
What's your other
It's a Dodge pick-up to get
back and forth to work and to haul things. I'm not saying I wouldn't
add something else, but I don't know what it would be at this point.
I'm having too much fun with this car.
So you use it as
a daily driver?
Uh, huh. Which surprises
most people, but we put it on the road on a daily basis. But that's
what I bought it for.
What were some of
the cars in your collection?
Oh, gee... two 1969 Oldsmobile
442's, a '70-1/2 Firebird Trans Am, a '70 Chevelle SS 454/LS6, a '69
Dodge Charger -- that was one of the "Dukes of Hazzard" cars.
You mean it was used
in the (TV) show?
Correct. I've had three Corvettes
(a '62, a '64, and a '75 ), a '67 Camaro RS, a '48 Ford, a couple of
Plymouth Dusters, a '66 Mercury Cyclone GTA Indy Pace car, a Ford Falcon,
a '65 Malibu convertible, a '58 Ford Fairlane convertible -- these are
all cars that we had raced... I've just drawn a blank. I apologize.
That's okay. You
used to race?
I used to drag race. Nothing
serious. We'd take it out to the drag strips on the weekends to play
with the vehicles.
Was it an amateur
kind of thing?
Well, a lot of the tracks
had what they call a Friday night "test and tune." Anyone
who was able to pay $20 could go out there and race your car all that
you want. I was doing it quite frequently with a little Camaro, actually
being one of the fastest of the cars. I went back to the motor that
was in the Rodster. This last go round I took out to put into the '67
Camaro. It would bring its performance dramatically, but it now belongs
to my ex-wife, so whatever performance (she gets) is up to her.
Was this recently
that you drag raced?
Up until a couple of years
ago. With all the business interests, I just haven't had the time to
get out to the track. And of course, with the Rodster we do want to
take it out there and get some real times just to see what the car is
capable of. Drag racing is pretty tough on the vehicle.
Have you always fooled
around with cars?
I've probably owned 75, maybe
100 cars in my time. Most of the cars were the old muscle cars, I really
enjoyed them. I guess I'm a kid that never grew up. I grew up in the
late 60's. I had my first real muscle car, which way back then was a
'69 442 and I liked it so well that about ten years ago, I bought another
one. And it was my favorite car for quite some time -- till I sold it
a few years ago, just before I bought the Rodster, for no other reason
than someone I work with kept bugging me for the car. He finally offered
me more than I thought the car was worth, so I was happy to sell it.
Did you ever have
Not per se. Almost everything
that we had would have been, again, what's considered the old muscle
cars from the '60s and '70s. I guess by hotrods you mean that look like
they're from the '30s and '40s.
Yeah, you take an
old car, soup it up and customize it and make it your own.
We did that with a '48 Ford.
I just did that with a couple of the muscle cars; we'd take them and
build them up from there and customize them. I guess you can consider
that a hotrod, it was just a little bit newer body style than what people
are used to. I didn't care for the shape of the older cars, to be honest
with you. The things that I fell in love with were the cars from the
late 50's and onward just because they had such great styling. The previous
cars appeared to be much too boxy for me. And that's strictly personal
preference. We don't want to make anybody mad out there.
Oh, no. Everybody
has their own ideas. What attracted you to the Rodster?
Just the overall looks of
it. I don't know, I really can't pin it down. I saw the picture and
went, "Damn, that's a cute car." Actually, maybe we should
back up before I make too big a liar out of myself. I had been looking
at moving into the kit car market simply because the muscle cars have
so many problems with them. They're carbureted instead of fuel injected,
so they're very cold blooded -- if the weather's bad, they don't want
to run. So many things affect them. They don't handle like the new cars
do. So I thought, "Well, this time I'll get something like a kit
car" and tried to decide which one -- (and decided) the Cobra was
the vehicle for me. There are quite a few different Cobras and I finally
drove a couple and was just grossly underwhelmed. They were extremely
loud, they were rough-riding, they were too low to the ground which
made it difficult to get in and out of them. You get them over 30 miles
an hour and the wind beats you to death. I thought, "This just
isn't pleasant." It wasn't what I had envisioned they would be.
Then I saw the Rodster and thought, "Oh well, it fits a lot more
along the lines of something I'd like. Let's go out there and see what
it's like." Of course, Henry told me it's built on a modern frame
and all the plusses that go along with it. And low and behold he wasn't
lying to me, which was really nice to find out. So once we drove it
and I went, "Gee, it's really the type of car you could put on
the road and be very comfortable in." I like to drive my cars.
And some of them... you can't drive the quite expensive collectors.
(But) it's a very comfortable daily driver.
What are some of
the comments that you get from people on the street?
Well, most people just love
the looks. In fact, it's almost a constant "smile-mobile."
Everybody wants to pull up and honk at you, and thumbs up you constantly...
I guess the biggest distraction is the other people who want to hold
a conversation with you out on the freeway, to find out more about the
car. I get quite a kick out of it. And, of course, I love to race people,
because, again, they think it's a very old car that probably is not
very performance oriented. It's kind of fun to leave them in the dust,
wondering what happened.
How do they challenge
you? Do they just pull up at a stoplight or alongside you on the freeway?
Mostly it's out on the street
itself, wherever you go. Leastways, I'm not out late enough to get all
kids at the streetlights. It's more fun to have them pull up and rev
their motor. Then you kind of put the pedal down and wave bye to them.
I had one fool in a hopped up Cobra Mustang that insisted on racing
from an 85 mile an hour roll. I thought, "Well, okay." On
the dyno, we ran this particular car at 190 miles an hour and in the
real world, it's not going to go that fast due to aerodynamics, but
I'm sure it will easily do 165 plus. So it was kind of the wrong place
for this poor kid to want to race, but I was more than happy to oblige.
Once you blow them
away, do you pull over and wait for them?
Most of them don't want to
look at you once you've done it. Some of the kids do. I had a kid with
a '68 little Dodge Dart with a 440 motor which he wanted to talk about
how fast it was. I didn't realize it had that big a motor. We actually
did race from a standing start. I went off in (tire) smoke -- had to
let off and get back into it. Before I got out of second gear, I passed
him. There's a regular car hangout here every Saturday night. A lot
of people go and from that point on this kid would see my car and he'd
walk in the other direction. He wouldn't come over and talk. I'm very
sociable. I like to kid around with people, but I embarrassed him so
badly. He didn't think anything could outrun him. A few years ago we
were on the Hot Rod Power Tour, and there were some kids coming along,
beating all the cars, in a newer, hopped up Camaro. As soon as they
pulled by and revved the motor, I kiddingly revved it and they said,
"Let's road race." At the time, I had nitrous on the car,
so I just flipped on the nitrous switch and hit it. I didn't think any
more about it. I didn't finish the Power Tour; it ended in California,
but they did (finish) and they did meet with Henry out there so they
asked him all about the car. And he said, "You have Blazers with
4 or 6 cylinder motors" and they said, "Oh no, we ran into
one" and they proceeded to tell him the story that we were doing
about sixty when we hit it and that instantly I left them. They'd thought,
"Well, it's an old car we'll just stay into it and catch it"
and they said they ran their car like about 120 miles an hour and I
just kept getting further away from them. And Henry said, "That
would be Ernie." He kind of knows how crazy we get.
Have you ever gotten
caught by the police while you're doing this?
Nope. Of course, mainly because
the car really is so fast. I'm not saying this to brag, but most races
only last one or two seconds, three seconds, because by then, you just
pull away from people so hard you just lift off -- it makes no sense
to stay in it any longer. So you're not out there for blocks and blocks
on end trying to get up to speed. And I'm a little bit nervous. I'd
feel really terrible if I got into a wreck and hurt somebody, so...
I like to think that I do it somewhat safely. But no, the police have
pulled me over on numerous occasions. First thing is, they see the car
and want to pull it over and assume that some kid is driving it because
it is a little bit louder than it should be. But once they get me pulled
over and they see that I'm an elderly gentleman, we'll sit around and
kid about it and, you know, they thank me and look it over and we chat
a little bit and then I'm on my way again. So, it's been very positive.
And for all I know, they're probably marking the car so they know if
they ever see it running around, they know where to find the guy.
You're probably building
up a reputation out there...
We don't race it that much,
but it's still fun to play. I only had the opportunity to race one Viper,
which we managed to pull quite nicely. I haven't had a chance to race
any other ones. Unless they've been hopped up, we shouldn't need to
fear too many of them. We should be putting out more horsepower with
less weight and generally, be the faster vehicle.
Tell me about your
businesses. Henry says you have an exotic bird business.
Actually, all my businesses
are tied up in the birds. We have Backtalk Bird Center, which is probably
the largest retailer of exotic birds in the country. It's about an 11,000
square foot store. Many of the birds are quite rare -- threatened and
endangered species, as well as run-of-the-mill -- but it's mostly the
parrot type birds. We have a second company called Phoenix Unlimited,
where we manufacture products for birds like vitamin and mineral supplements,
hand feeding tubes, special nutritional supplement. And then (there's)
the laboratory here, which is called Research Associates Labs where
-- don't get impressed because of the title -- but we're the foremost
avian research laboratory. We're actually doing DNA studies on birds,
identifying a variety of viruses and diseases. That's where my passion
is. Many years ago, that reference lab was the largest veterinary lab
in the world before it was bought and -- like many other companies --
run into the ground. I just wanted to get back into the business, so
I bought an interest in it just over a year ago, and then moved the
laboratory from Cincinnati down to Dallas. (It's) right next door to
my other two businesses, so I kind of keep track of all of them.
Are you a veterinarian?
No. I call myself a frustrated
vet because I'm not. I like to think of myself as a researcher.
Have you always been
as interested in birds as you have been in cars?
Yeah, I think so. With the
exception of probably some of my late teen years, I've always had birds.
From 1972 on, after I got out of the service, I've had birds constantly.
I've imported, exported, I've gone to foreign countries to bring them
back. We've bred a fair number of birds -- again, mostly threatened
and some endangered species. It's been a fulfilling passion.
You're allowed to
sell threatened and endangered species?
Oh, absolutely. In fact,
the laws are really pretty crummy. I can retail them in Texas, but I
can't sell them to breeders across state lines unless they have permits
or we have permits. So most of the endangered species go to collectors
and breeders, and again, the endangered species are a very small percentage
of what we do as far as the shop goes. But it's a large percentage of
my interest anymore because I've gotten rid of most of what we call
the run-of-the-mill birds to concentrate on the very rare species.
What do you think
is the best thing about the Rodster?
I think the reliability.
The sheer fact that I'm not afraid to break down anywhere -- not that
I anticipate breaking down -- but knowing I've basically got a Chevy.
I can pull into any Chevy dealership or auto parts store and whatever
I need is going to be there and it's going to be reasonable. In fact,
the old muscle cars that I had, like the Camaros, Mustangs, parts were
everywhere, but once you get outside of that realm, it's very difficult
to find parts. You actually may have to wait for an extended period.
With the Rodster, the only problem I can see is if you wrecked it and
have to have Henry send you out a new piece of fiberglass. Everything
else is General Motors. That's tough to beat. A couple of years ago,
I took my youngest son with me on the Hot Rod Power Tour -- of course,
he's in love with his mother's Camaro. As anyone can see, it's one of
the nicest '67 Camaros in the country, I'm sure, but his remark was,
"Dad, that Camaro would never be as comfortable as this. You just
couldn't get out and drive it all day long like you can with this."
We averaged 75 to 80 miles an hour, got 20+ miles to the gallon. The
windshield fits up tall enough that I... I've got some people who say
they don't like the height of it, but the nice thing with the windshield
is that you don't have any wind noise. You can carry on conversations
at 60 miles an hour just as easily as you can at 20 or 30. You can enjoy
the stereo. It's extremely pleasant for a car without a top.
Any last words about
It's got a modern ride and
-- personal bias -- killer good looks. I've never had somebody pull
up that didn't get excited about the car. I didn't buy it for anybody
else but me, but in fact, many people have said, "You bought this
car because you wanted to be seen," and I say, "No, not really.
I'm actually a little bit of a slight introvert." I'm not a flashy
kind of person. I bought the car because I fell in love with the looks
of it. I saw the paint job and went, "Damn, this is nice!"
The Rodster has been by far the most enjoyable car I've owned. It's
reliable, dependable, by far has the greatest performance, ride, handling,
and looks, and still gets twice the gas mileage -- it basically took
all the other cars together and improved on them.
Editor's Note: You
may want to check out the following articles regarding Ernie's car:
Kit Car magazine's
Car magazine's V-8 installation article.