About two hours north-west of Melbourne, Victoria lie the historic towns that sprung up in the Ballarat Gold Fields in the 1850s due to the prospect of striking big in the mines. This area that was formerly rich in precious metals also has a wealth of Australian hot rodding history spanning over half a century and one of the larger towns, Castlemaine, continues to be recognized as the ‘Hot Rod Capital of Australia’.
At one point there were some 200 hot rods rumbling through these towns but that number has slowly dropped off over time. Some of Australia’s most venerable hot rodders call that region home, including Rod Hadfield and Eddie Ford, who were both instrumental in spreading the hot rod gospel across the country. Pockets of younger generations of car builders can be found too, welding and grinding away in garages by night, keeping the flame of their local history burning strong.
There is a congregation of these like-minded individuals in the tiny town of Newstead each year known as the Chopped Rod & Custom festival and it has its roots embedded firmly in the same spirit. Born from the minds of Eddie Ford’s own sons Ryan and Kyle, along with friend Paul Williams, Chopped started in 2008 as a congregation of traditionally-inclined hot rodders for a weekend of camping and celebrating their passion for hot rods and customs. After adding a dirt dragstrip into the event’s activities in 2010, it soon flourished and along with that grew the appreciation, respect for, and all-round embrace of traditional hot rods and customs by those who came through the gates.
An event created to celebrate the revival of, and the freedom that comes with driving these kinds of cars, people travelled from far and wide to get a taste of the spirit of hot rodding free from the hassles of normal life. At the core was the encouragement that people could build and enjoy their own traditional hot rod or custom; that with a bit of enthusiasm and patience, anyone that had caught their first whiff of the culture could jump in the deep end, and really enjoy the fruits of their labor.
To preface this, Australian road laws can be quite harsh and sometimes tricky when it comes to modified cars and while there has always been a respectful to-and-fro between the government and incorporated bodies of automotive enthusiasts, enjoying the open road has become a less stress-free undertaking. Fender and ride-height laws, tougher restrictions on imported cars and bolstered highway patrol can make a Sunday drive a gamble for your wallet, or keys.
The Chopped Rod & Custom festival takes place on private property, on the grounds of the former Newstead Racecourse (horses, that is), which means it is free from the regulations normally enforced on public roadways. Cars that are not registered for road use, like some hot rods, race cars and even gassers can breathe a sigh of relief as they touch down on the dirt road at the front gate.
Tents are pitched, beers are pulled from coolers and smiles crack open on faces across the field. A festival atmosphere forms with rock ‘n’ roll and punk music, great food and a small group of vendors but the main attraction is the chance to drive freely around the grounds in your hot rod or custom, and partake in some heads-up dirt drags. There are no times or official competitions, just pure, fun racing with friends.
The lurch and rumble of chunky cams, open headers and hi-comp engines is music to many ears. Wide open throttles and sideways action on the drag strip drowns out any feelings of fear or restriction otherwise experienced by these guys and girls when driving their machines on public roads. Revellers party on through the nights and the sun rises through misty air as dusty hot rods sit patiently, waiting to be sparked up and raced again in the cold morning light. The spirit of freedom and the smell of gasoline and campfires becomes ingrained in those who come through the gate and stay for the weekend.
In more recent years Chopped has grown to such immense popularity that thousands of people come to spectate and camp out for the festival spirit, enjoying the bigger bands on the playbill and the relaxed party atmosphere of a weekend event set in a quiet country town. While many of these uninitiated may dance around the fringe of the core idea of the hot rod and custom festival, they too are in search of their own escape from ‘public roads’.
While some may cry ‘the times, they are a-changin’, it should be remembered there’s still some refuge to be found. Wide open throttles, rooster tails, a weekend of freedom.