Sometimes I dream of hot rods – a well designed and built coupe with that timeless essence and the delicate balance of rawness and finesse flying down an open road while the vintage flathead purrs its beautiful music as the scenery passes by in a blur. This may be the fantasy of a lot of people have as we daydream about things that we love. So, when Mr. Ken Schmidt of Rolling Bones fame kindly invited me into the inner sanctum to photograph the cars and shop and then ride down with them to the 2017 Race of Gentlemen there was no way I could say no.
THE ROLLING BONES
What can I say about the Rolling Bones that you don’t already know? Their cars and reputation for building one-off custom hot rods first came to my attention in the early 2000’s when a friend shared a video of the Bones and their cars driving across the country from their home in upstate New York to the hallowed salt flats at Bonneville where they would see just how fast these beautiful pieces of wheels and steel would fly across the salt. After a week of pushing for speed records driving back to New York at a measly 80-90 miles an hour probably felt like they were crawling. But regardless, these cars were meant to drive. And while they look amazing just sitting still they are in their prime habitat when the engine is pulling these works of art as fast as possible into the horizon.
I met Ken and Keith, founders of the Rolling Bones, at the Grand National Roadster Show in January of 2017. I had seen them at previous GNRS shows but thanks to my good friend Mike Takagi a more formal introduction was made. Mike is an incredible illustrator and true artist and had “met” Ken and Keith on-line through their shared passion for art and hot rods. Ken and Keith welcomed us into the crew and immediately invited us to join them at “a small gathering in Burbank”, later that evening. Not really knowing where we were going or what was happening, we were directed to a dark driveway and a door by a small lot in Burbank. When we walked in, we were greeted by a collection of historic cars and memorabilia that that one only dreams about in testosterone fueled fantasies. A very kind, vivacious and passionate gentlemen named Tom McIntyre graciously welcomed the small group into his inner sanctum and shared his incredible stories of the cars in his collection and his love for all things automobile. It was an unforgettable evening.
The following day I shared some of my images from the 2016 Race of Gentlemen at Pismo Beach with Ken and Keith and that was when I was kindly invited to visit the barn known as the Rolling Bones shop just outside of Saratoga Springs, New York. I had five months to plan for an adventure that so many people dream about but relatively few have the opportunity to experience.
“As a photographer with a specific vision I shoot film. This is a creative choice for me as it best represents the vision I have and hope to share with my viewers. It’s also a challenging vision as it can be gear heavy and requires a commitment to the process. I shipped out two decent size boxes to New York a week before the trip. These boxes included a 4x5 camera made some time between 1910-1912 and a ridiculous amount of film. I also took along a Rolleiflex twin-lens camera, a Pentax 67 and a Nikon 35mm camera. Why so many cameras? Because every camera, lens and film combination has its own distinct look and perspective and I wanted to show a variety of perspectives to best convey how I experienced this trip.”
There is much lore about this old barn in upstate New York where incredible hot rods are born. Well, it is just that–an old barn–and that’s pretty awesome in itself. Coming from Southern California I was struck by just how green and beautiful the area was as we rolled up to the shop for the first time ever. Sitting just to the side of the barn under a small awning there stood two Rolling Bones builds that hot rod dreams are made of. The door was open, and we could hear the sounds of activity as we approached the door that had a small Rolling Bones metal sign hanging on the front.
We walked into the shop and were immediately greeted by the sights and sounds of hot rod heaven. Some might even call it the ultimate man-cave. Surrounded by five Rolling Bones cars in various states of build I immediately wondered if any of the Rolling Bones might consider adopting me. Work stopped briefly as Ken, Keith and Matt came to welcome us to the shop and see if we brought donuts.
There are three master builders known as the Rolling Bones. Mr. Ken Schmidt whom I affectionately call the Godfather, Mr. Keith Cornell, partner and builder extraordinaire and last but far from least Mr. Matt Schmidt, son of Ken and also a master builder. These three men work together on each and every project to collectively make some of the most beautiful hot rods I’ve ever seen. These cars are made to run, and run they do.
Ken gave Mike and I a tour of the shop and it was everything I dreamed it would be with a combination of tools, dust, vintage parts and cars tucked into every nook and cranny. If heaven were a hot rod shop, I believe that it would look and feel a lot like this. There is so much history, so many stories and so much knowledge in this modest barn in the countryside in upstate New York that if those walls could talk there would probably be a lot of guys in a lot of trouble and one hell of a good book. So, how do you tell the story in a new way of a hot rod shop that has been talked about, photographed and shared for over a decade? This was my dilemma as I grabbed one of my cameras and started exploring this storied brand.
“My goal with this story, both visual and written, is just to give you a glimpse from my perspective of what this experience was for me. There is no way to capture all that the Rolling Bones are, personally, professionally or even all that they have accomplished in their time working as the Rolling Bones. So, as you read and see images from my trip my best wish is that you could get just a taste of what I saw, felt and experienced with the Rolling Bones for a few days in June, 2017.”
THREE DAYS TO THE RACE OF GENTLEMEN
Preparation was fast and furious as cars were readied for the trip to Wildwood, NJ for the 2017 Race of Gentlemen. With three days to prepare the cars, as well as continue work on the builds in progress the shop was in constant motion. Well, with the exception of coffee and donut breaks, which I came to learn are vital to the creation of hot rods, the shop also seems to be a community gathering spot for neighborhood gearheads and people would randomly stop by just to talk hot rods and soak in some of the hot rod juju that seemed to flow from the barn. Stories are told, some true, some questionable, friends are made, and the builds go on.
Two of the three days before we left for TROG it rained. And rained. And rained. I spent a lot of time inside just looking and listening, trying to take in as much as I could to remember and capture this experience. Matt and Keith constantly move around the shop focused and crafting incredible details at every corner of the builds in places that most mere humans will never even notice.
Mr. Jon Suckling flew in from England to race his car 232b at The Race of Gentlemen and to see his coupe in progress. His new build was sitting at the very front of the garage and every time I turned around Jon was sitting there looking at every detail, curve and element of his car trying to keep his excited child-self in check as his mind saw what this car was going to be someday. It is already a work of art. There is no modesty or restraint in this build, yet there is a refined subtly and finesse that seems to be in every Bones creation. This car is going to be incredible.
Ken, the godfather, seems to be everywhere and see everything. He knows what’s going on and is always there to make sure there are no corners cut or effort wasted in building the best hot rods in the world. Mr. Schmidt, as I’m sure he was known to his former students when he taught school is also a fine artist and you can see his eye for shape, form and detail in everything the Bones do. Ever the teacher, Ken took Jon aside and showed him how to shape the ribs of aluminum that would form the nose of his car. With a lot of good-natured ribbing Ken gave Jon the chance to experience a very small part of just how much work it takes to build something that ends up looking so perfectly simple. While Jon spent quite a few hours learning to shape these elements we were educated to the fact that this was not even a scratch on the surface of the work that it takes to build the nose-let alone the entire car. I can’t speak for Jon but knowing that I had had a small part in making something that was going on such an incredible build would be largely fulfilling and satisfying. A truly unique Rolling Bones build experience.
On the day before we were to leave for New Jersey the sun finally revealed itself. As the day passed tires were checked, oil was changed, and details reviewed all in preparation for the trip to The Race of Gentlemen and the race on the beach to come.
(To be continued...)