Fifty years ago, Rod & Custom Magazine hosted a small gathering of street rods in Peoria, IL as a national celebration of these machines that made the streets cooler everywhere they went. The first affair in August of 1970, drew in around 1,200 pre-1949 cars from around the United States, to great success, even as Rod & Custom itself waxed and waned.
This event, long-since known as the National Street Rod Association Street Rod Nationals, wandered the country for nearly half of its life, including three stops in Louisville, KY. On the fourth stop to the home of Muhammad Ali, and Hunter S. Thompson, the organization decided to make the city on the banks of the Ohio River its permanent street rodding refuge every early August.
This year, the Nationals celebrated not only its 50th anniversary but also its 25th time in Louisville and 22nd consecutive time in the city; the organization plans to stick around to at least 2025, as well. Our contributor, Cameron, isn’t too far from the River City, so she cruised the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky to get us a ton of cool pictures, plus a first-hand account on this special edition of the street-rodding extravaganza.
Rolling to the Gateway to the South
Our ride for the days-long extravaganza was this rented 2019 Nissan Maxima SV, whose blue pearl paint was appropriate for the trek into the Bluegrass State. It may not have been the right ‘winga-dinga’ ride for the Nationals, but we didn’t have to worry about it breaking down along the way, either. While we don’t have a manual for this eighth-generation ‘Four-Door Sports Car,’ we do have a pair covering the second- through sixth-gen models, under numbers 52450 (1985-1992) and 52452 (1993-2008).
Taking It to the Streets
The Nationals actually kicked-off the day before with a handful of street rods rolling out from the University of Louisville’s Cardinal Stadium to Louisville’s downtown entertainment block, Fourth Street Live. The parade not only makes for the perfect backdrop for the NSRA’s press conference, but it gives visitors and locals alike a chance to check out the coolest rides around.
Of all the street rods parked under the glass-and-steel canopy of Fourth Street Live, this 1962 Chevrolet C10 Fleetside crew cab from Arizona takes the cake. The brown-and-chrome wonder has a neat all-American ‘Chevrolet’ logo on the grill, and the steel wheels are color-matched with the body. Such trucks weren’t factory built by General Motors, but were custom made by the likes of Orville Metal Specialty Company, Crown Steel Products, and Armbruster Stageway; the first GM factory crew cabs wouldn’t arrive until the third-gen C/K trucks of the early Seventies.
Hot Street Rods, Cool Indoor Breezes
“We were moving every year,” said NSRA Marketing Director Jim Rowlett, explaining how Louisville eventually became the Nationals’ permanent home. “We’d do a three-year rotation… That’s what we were doing for a long time. You leave a city for three years and come back, the people that are in politics may still be there, but the radio stations or the hotels or whomever might be [around] changes. You lose that continuity for the event. The reality is you don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time. The continuity means so much… it becomes a more consistent effort, and it makes a better event for us and for the car owners.”
Our first day at the Nationals was spent entirely inside, where hundreds of vendors and dozens of custom cars and trucks drew the attendees’ attention. Tops among these was none other than the legendary ‘Eliminator’ 1933 Ford Coupe owned by ZZ Top’s own Billy Gibbons. The car starred in a trio of videos from the Texas rock trio’s 1983 smash album, Eliminator. It garnering so much attention that Gibbons asked its builder, Don Thelen, to build a replica to handle the extra promotional work so he could enjoy the original one more.
Soaking Up the Sun Along the Two-Lane Blacktop
“I tell everyone it’s like a family reunion with cars,” Rowlett said. “We see people here we don’t see anywhere else. Particularly now for the 50th, we’ve had some vendors that used to be here that have come back, not necessarily to vend, but they just want to come back and see everybody. It makes for a great time.”
Our last day was mostly spent outside in the early August summer heat. Everywhere we turned, there was just something amazing to be seen, including the 1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash we found tucked away near the expo center. The orange orphan has seen so much since it first left the line nearly 120 years ago: enclosed bodies, increases in power, ever-changing styles, ever-evolving technology. If this car could talk, we can only imagine what it would say.
To the Next 50 Years
“I think that the hobby is in good shape,” Rowlett said. “We opened up several years ago to later-model cars, which was a wise move because we’re seeing more younger folks getting involved… We’re second- and third-generation now in some cases… It’s still strong, and as long as it stays strong, we’re gonna stay right here; we’re scheduled through 2025. I think everything looks good.”
Two days was simply not enough to take in everything the Nationals had to offer. Other features we barely got to appreciate were the Streetkhana (where attendees can swing their rides through an autocross course at speeds of around 40 mph), an outdoor swap meet next to the expo center, giveaways, and concerts. As many pictures as we took, there were easily twice as many awesome cars that we missed!
And speaking of the Streetkhana, there was one car that caught our attention parked nearby, a former Louisville Police Department Plymouth Fury looking much more like a street rod these days than when it patrolled these mean streets. The Louisville Metro Police Department officer told us it was restored by the city a few years ago, and had been serving as a promo tool for events like the Nationals. Alas, this machine is set for retirement to the local police museum by the fall of 2019, but at least everyone will still get to see this example of local police history.
“One of our goals was to make a family-oriented event,” said Rowlett. “We have arts and crafts… we have games for the kids. We try to involve everyone. On Sunday, we have church service at 10 o’clock… I understand not every bit of it is everybody’s cup of tea, but you wanna make sure that everybody feels comfortable, likes what we do, and stays with us.”
Over 12,000 cars and thousands upon thousands of guests showed up for the 50th anniversary of the Nationals, all united by their love of street rods and camaraderie. The next 50 years should be just as impressive, beginning with the 2020 Nationals, set for August 6 through 9. And who knows? Maybe you’ll see Chilton there officially as a vendor.
In the meantime, if your Nova, Firebird, C/K, Mustang, Cutlass, Capri, or CJ needs some TLC, why not check out our manuals? Whether it’s a tow rig or your street rod, we can help keep your ride out on the road.Tags: 2019 NSRA Street Rod Nationals, car shows, Kentucky, Louisville, National Street Rod Association, NSRA Street Rod Nationals, road trips, Street Rod Nationals