As the tattered sleeves of his red mechanic’s shirt shifted in the summer breeze, Bobby Smart told Herald Life how his love of cars started. Growing up in Franklin Square, he would accompany his grandfather to junkyards on weeknights and weekends, and pick through parts until they found something that suited their taste.
The items were different from what you’d normally find in the body of a car — think bottle caps, license plates and weathered signs from convenience stores — but Smart, of Merrick, said, “The whole conception of a rat rod is there’s no right or wrong. You put your personality in to it ... and that makes it unique.”
Smart, now 55, was first introduced to rat rods — a custom car style that imitates the hot rods of the mid-20th century — when he was 12. He recalled “wrenching away” on cars alongside his grandfather, who had a rat rod, until he got his first car: a 1968 Dodge Charger.
“I had 1972 [Chevrolet] Vega seats in the Charger and rabbit fur on my dash,” Smart said. “A lot of show cars [have to look] a certain way, but a rat rod [is filled with stuff] you have laying around, or that means something to you.”
The two rat rods outside of Smart’s home on Florence Street turn heads and stop passersby, he said. They also incite curiosity when he drives them around town. He said children associate his 1953 Dodge Pilothouse — a pick-up truck — with the character Mater from the movie “Cars.”
“I get told constantly, ‘If you [entered your] car, it would win the rat rod show,’ but to me it’s not about trophies and awards,” Smart said. “I just dig driving it and I love people’s reactions. If it can stimulate a kid to enjoy the old cars, that’s what it’s all about to me.”
His 1953 Pontiac Chieftain, which his wife, Sheri, found, is a compound of 10 different makes and models. “It’s kind of like Frankenstein,” he said. “It’s registered as a Pontiac Chieftain, but it has Cadillac bumpers, a Chevy frame and a Chevy motor, and the interior is from a Cadillac.”
The floors of the cars are lined with license plates from various states. The interior door panels of the Pontiac are dotted with bottle caps, graphic stickers and signage from the gas stations of yesteryear. Smart mounted two bottle openers onto the trunk of the Pontiac, and installed a rusty saw blade “visor” on the back of the Pilothouse.
“Sheri bought it for me,” Bobby said of the saw blade.
The couple has been married for 25 years, and their common interest in cars keeps Bobby’s inspiration revving. “Sometimes I have Sheri right under the car [working] with me,” he said, “and she’ll throw out ideas.”
When Bobby was looking to add a detachable swamp cooler to the Pontiac, Sheri — whose first car was a 1960 Ford Thunderbird — suggested he make one from scratch. “A swamp cooler is an outdoor air conditioner,” she explained. “They’re very rare and they’re very expensive, so I said, ‘We could do this ourselves.’”
“It brings us together,” she added, “and he’s very easy-going when it comes to our relationship with cars.”
When Bobby is finished personalizing a rat rod, he will sell or trade them to other collectors and begin the process again. In the past he has restored a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, a Ford Thunderbird, a Buick Skylark, a Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z/28, a Pontiac GTO, custom vans and, even, a station wagon.
Working with his hands “keeps the blood pressure down,” Bobby said, but more, it grounds him in the appreciation he has long held for rat rods. The characteristics of classic cars — the rust, rough edges, dings and dents — tell a story that newer cars don’t.
“Every kid remembers their first car,” he said. “You never forget that first smell, that rip in your seat, the first little ding or dent or scratch, and then when it goes, you miss it. You’re always trying to recapture those first feelings ... and my love has always been there. It’s a pure passion.”