Remembering Jeff Beck, Music Legend and True Hot-Rodder

Jeff Beck passed away January 10, 2023, at the age of 78. Most people knew him as a Grammy-winning guitarist. The rest of us knew him as a Grammy-winning guitarist and hardcore hot-rodder. About 10 years ago, I had the chance to interview hardcore hot-rodder Jeff Beck. He was about to be honored—along with the late Ken Block—by the Petersen Automotive Museum as part of a “Race, Rock ‘n Rally” fundraiser; being recognized for this was “emotional.”

I was in Los Angeles, he was in the UK. It was made very clear to me by his people and others involved that I would have approximately 10 minutes of Jeff’s time and must follow strict Q&A protocol, with my time slot being at the very end of the hour that had been allotted to accomplish all his media interviews.

We ended up violating every mandate and spoke for 45 minutes. He was funny, enthusiastic, honest, and openly reflective about his life as a car guy and builder. It might not be rock ‘n’ roll to be considered a class act, but that’s what he was. I was told later by his handlers that he’d said it was one of his favorite interviews. Perhaps it was because we talked cars more than music. Or perhaps the answer can be found in something he said: “I’ve never met a nasty hot-rodder. You’re not just seeing cars. You’re seeing people having a lovely time.” Talking with him was a lovely time.

And he was no poseur. He had a humble upbringing, with “maybe one car for every 10 properties on my street. A car was something to be marveled at. You could climb in and touch the pedal and go somewhere.”

His mom gave him his first issue of HOT ROD Magazine when he was about 6 years old, and he told me “I remember seeing Gray Baskerville’s 1932 Ford roadster. I loved that.” That same year, his uncle taught him about cars and parts in a workshop at the back of his “flat.” He grew up to become an avid builder, with a collection that included a replica of the 1932 Ford Coupe from American Graffiti (he’d actually bid on the original from the film but lost). He was a big fan of nostalgia drags. A 2007 Chevy Corvette was the fastest car he’d ever owned.

At the time of my interview, his collection had 14 hot rods and three Corvettes, “and I just got another one yesterday, a ’32 five-window that I’m going to strip down.” He would get each project car to the point where the paint and interior were done. All were his favorite, which brought an astute observation about the challenge of owning that much inventory: It’s more like having a museum, “and it’s a bit over-the-top in terms of practicality, and, inevitably, if you’ve got 15, 14 are going to get flat batteries or the tires are going to go down or you’re going to say ‘uh oh. ‘”

Here are a few other keen observations from a true gearhead, whose talent on the guitar and passion for cars will truly be missed.

On Building Cars

“I’ve built cars that really go well, but not one that wheel-stands. I was gonna put a really nasty engine in it, like a 500- or 450-horsepower small-block Chevy with injection and get to experience what it is like to do 11 seconds or 10 seconds and also have it slightly streetable as well, and one that I built completely from the ground-up.”

On Chrome

“I just couldn’t get over chrome. How did you find it in you? Why would you chrome an engine? That fascinated me. Why would you chrome an oily engine? It’s a rusty, oily thing. It opened up my eyes to a whole different culture.”

On That Constant Spare Part

“It usually starts with a spare frame, and that’s the curse, because if you’ve got a spare frame, you know you’re going to build another car. And then a guy sells you a body, but he’s got the frame for it. So, you always have a spare frame.”

On Learning To Weld

“It wasn’t until about 1968 or 1969 that I learned to weld and that’s when it took off. It was a hot-rodder I met in Boston. I was looking in the window of a speed shop and he pulled up in a T-bucket and I went, ‘Oh, my God,’ and he spent my summer break teaching me to weld. I learned everything about the basics of hot-rodding from a T-bucket.”

On the T-Bucket

“It’s just a square frame with a glass body on top of it and an engine, and what you do with it is up to you as long as it’s engineered well and starts and goes. It’s the basics, nothing else. No fancy stuff at all. I’m comfortable as well. Now it’s about heated seats and automatic mirrors and all that. It’s utterly and completely not necessary at all. A little ’32 roadster with turn signals, brake lights, and headlights and then you’re on the go.”

On His Passion for Driving

“It’s no doubt that people are addicted to driving. When you put the pedal to the metal and go faster than you could normally walk, and you can go places miles away, it’s a novelty, and that’s why people can’t stop driving. It’s still the most amazing adventure you’ve ever known, isn’t it?”

On Road Trips

“Unfortunately, in England, wherever you go you’re going to get a traffic jam. But I’d love to do that. I’ve never been to the salt flats. I know Charlie Nearburg, the record holder, and he said I can drive it.”

On Working on Cars

“I like to get the nasty jobs done first. The frame is the backbone of any car, so the frame comes first.”

On American Graffiti

“I didn’t go to movies that often—I still don’t like movies. I only go to the ones that everybody raves about. But I think it was the secretary of my manager who said, ‘Have you seen American Graffiti?’ and I said, ‘Nope.’ When the car crashes into the restaurant at the beginning, I said, ‘I’m hooked. My movie.’ And when the car parks at Mel’s Drive-In, that was it. That was me up on screen! And even though I didn’t go to LA until 2 or 3 years after, I smelled the air of that film, you know what I mean? It was just a little humble ’32 five-window coupe.”

On the Challenge of Reproducing That ’32

“The question was, why did it look that good? Everything about that car was spot-on. Pat Ganahl took me to see it and my whole world stood still when I sat in it. Making it look like it did—the glamor of the camera and all the color and all that. I’m still trying to get it right. But it’s pretty damn close. Why I’m doing it, I don’t know.”

On the Brizios

“I took a ride out [to San Francisco] in a limo once to Mission Street to see the Brizio family. I told the limo driver, ‘Can you park at least a mile away? I don’t want them to see me get out.’ But they said, ‘Bring that limo up here! We want to see it.’ And I said, ‘Oh no.’ But I struck up a friendship with Andy, and we promised one day we’d get together and build cars, and he did a couple for me. Most of what I’ve learned, I learned from him.”

On Restomods

“Restomod enables you to drive the best-looking car ever and enjoy it the way that it could never be enjoyed. Proper brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, the way it should have been that way in the first place. Restomods are great. The purists always maintain that you shouldn’t alter a nut and bolt. But we’re hot-rodders. We do alter things. We want them to be better.”

Watch the New Car Craft Video Series!

To kick off the Car Craft YouTube video series, hosts Kevin Tetz and John McGann immerse themselves in the task of swapping a Gen 3 Hemi into a 1972 Dodge Challenger. And this isn’t just any old Hemi—we’re dropping a 707-horsepower Hellcat into the car and putting one of Tremec’s brand-new TKX five-speed transmissions behind it. The Challenger is also getting a brand new coilover suspension and a brake upgrade. The goal is to make it run and drive like a new Hellcat-powered Challenger, but with the classy good looks of the original E-Body. After you’d done with episode 1, watch EPISODE 2 and EPISODE 3, then sign up to the MotorTrend YouTube channel for more great automotive content!

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