EASTON — Let's start with the hair. Think Elvis, "American Graffiti" and James Dean. The slicked back greaser style ruled the day. Before the British Invasion, and then the hippies, Buddy Holly was at the apex of rock and roll, and cruising on a Friday night was an essential part of the mating ritual.
Cars were king.
Bob Davis, 64, is a master mechanic with a garage full of beautiful restorations. He is also astutely aware of this fading history bound up in chassis and motors.
Two things have stuck with Davis. A motor club called the Colonial Rodders and a car called the Cherokee Lady. Both of these have weaved through this man’s life.
Davis, owner of Easton Signs, remembers looking up to these hot rod guys, The Colonial Rodders, when he could barely see over the hood. He dreamed about cars. He doodled slingshot dragsters when he should have been focused at school. The Cherokee Lady has occupied Davis’s hands and his intellect for decades. He wrote a booklet about the car, an Austin Bantam.
In the early 60s his passion for cars was born at the same time the Cherokee Lady was born. The hot rod has had several names like “Bunny One” “Bunny Two” and “Mr. B.” In 1963, it moved from its first home in Salisbury to Easton. The new owner was Bobby Hopkins. At this point it needed an engine. By 1964 the car was back at the drag strip racing with its next owner, Bill Eason of Oxford, behind the wheel.
In 1975, it was painted golden yellow with a white stripe.
Over the decades, Davis has allocated considerable garage space to this passion for building and restoring vintage cars and hot rods. The Cherokee Lady is in there.
“My goal for the Cherokee Lady is ... I took it to a birthday party and Billy (Eason) sat in it for half an hour. I mean, he spent a lot of his life in that car. More than anyone else because he drove it for years before he even owned it. Then he ended up buying it and raced it for years. So it’s a big part of his life. I am thankful I can keep that alive,” he said.
In Davis’s booklet on The Cherokee Lady he writes, “Bill would go on to make 100s of passes while strapped into the seat at numerous tracks like Delmar US 13, York US 30, Monrovia, Cecil County, 75-80, Suffux, Darlington, Bristol, Englishtown, Capitol, Maple Grove, MIR, and Acqwaskco.”
This one car has been in and out of Davis’ life for decades. He has seen it race the quarter-mile. Talking about the car, he goes into a foreign language, “Aluminum rods, a 505 Isky roller, dual-point Mallory and two Rochesters, linked up to a hydromatic.”
The Colonial Rodders — his boyhood idols who dressed like characters in "American Graffiti" — inspired Davis. As a boy, he heard rumbling engines next door.
“I lived in that house as a little boy on a dead-end street and the fellow that lived next to me was a mentor. All I wanted to do was be over there. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t care about the ABCs or the 123s. I wanted to fool with cars,” he said.
“As a child I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t understand it. I knew nothing, but it lit my fire,” he said.
“I don’t want any credit as much as I want the club to get recognition," he said. "The local car club was a sanctioned car club in the '60s that had a chaplain, a treasurer, they had a president. They had rules. If the Colonial Rodders had an event, you made sure to be there. That was huge. They had street dances between the Tastee Freeze and McDonalds on Route 50. That parking lot would be packed with teenagers. There would be a band playing. They were raising money for the club. And they did a lot of charity work,” he said.
“Nowadays, car culture is just different. They’re into Mustangs and Chargers. I’m just into my era. I am just old-fashioned. The Colonial Rodders are 72 to 78 years old now. And it touches their heart and brings a tear to their eye. I love that stuff. Live for it, live for it, live for it. This to me is 100% therapy and fun. It’s not a job,” Davis said.
He said he can remember Christmas parades and Halloween parades that had the Colonial Rodders’ cars in it. Now his current project lies in piles about to become animated. It is a slingshot drag racer. He has already resurrected The Cherokee Lady. Now it is this nameless frame’s turn.
“The front wheels are back there, The rear wheels are off of it. Some of the front end is back there — you can’t see it. It’s buried. These are some of the components,” he said.
Davis is a tall man — at least 6’3”. Not a great size for the slim confines of slingshot. He drives them out of his garage, but no way on a race track. He can’t use the brake pedal without turning the steering wheel, which is hourglass shaped, out of the way of his knee.
There is a lot of history with these racing machines. One car can contain multitudes of stories. Every paint job, every engine overhaul reflects the current owner’s sensibilities.
Chassis Research was owned by Scotty Fenn, a pioneer in the dragster movement. If the metal frame is imprinted with Chassis Research, then you have something special and historic in your hands. The chassis is a frame or skeleton for the slingshot.
“Look at drag racing — it is made up of four things: Racers, strip owners, associations and insurance companies. Take away any or all of the last three and you will still have racers and they will just go to the street. But if you take away the racers, you will have nothing,” said Scotty Fenn from an 1965 interview in Drag World newspaper. Scotty Fenn was integral in starting the dragster movement.
Davis doesn’t make a cent off of all this expertise. He makes his living doing signs. Vinyl lettering. Easton Police, Aqua Pool, Clear Water Pool and Fox Trucking are all clients.
He has not taken on any mentees to transfer all this knowledge. He has binders full of specs and history of each particular car. Where does all of this keeping of historical records, painstakingly stripping paint to get to the original color on a car and staying in touch with the old guard who raced — where does it go? What happens to this man’s obsession?
“Another friend came in the shop and said, 'What do think’s going to happen to all this when you die?' Nobody cares, you know? They’ll just go into the trash can. You’ll see them in the spring at Hog Neck at the Jalopyrama. You’ll see it. These are true hotrodders. They come all the way from Pennsylvania with no windows in,” said Davis.
“True hotrodders drive the cars. They look the look with rolled up blue jeans and engineer boots,” he said.
For all the expertise and industry, he isn’t interested in racing the cars. He isn’t even interested in driving them. Davis is a builder, not a racer.
“I don’t drive them at all,” he said.
“I am not the story. The story was lived long ago. You know, I am just trying to keep it alive because it was important to me. It touches so many different venues,” he said.
Davis should be thinking about retirement. “But this is all I have ever done. It is like groundhog day. I wake up and do the same thing,” he said.
Clearly, this is a highly creative man whose palette is filled with pistons. One has to master many art forms just to bring a frame to life, bring an engine to life.
“I am a preacher, too, at the church in Cordova. This is going on my sixth year. You are touching people that you don’t normally touch with Facebook,” he said. His congregation is Fairview Church of the Brethren on Chapel Road.
He wrote a sermon for his flock. “For many years my mind would go back to a childhood memory. By the age of only 11, I had accomplished my dream of being a drag racing champion. I climbed into that old dragster many times each year. I was filled with excitement. As I would go through the motions paying attention to every detail, nestled down in that cockpit with one hand grasping the steering wheel and shifting gears with the other hand, always making sure to push the hand brake at just the right time. Another win! That is how it was. And it didn’t matter that the old car never moved an inch. There wasn’t even an engine. But to me and my imagination, it was the fastest car in the world,” he wrote.
He gets his church secretary to convert his orderly hand writing into a computer file he can share with the congregation. Lately, with COVID he has had to rely on Facebook to lead worship.
All this knowledge and the brotherhood of the Colonial Rodders is going the way of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sandblasted away by the winds of time. Who will drive The Cherokee Lady next? Or has she seen her last quarter-mile stretch?
“I wish I was a racer. I wish I had more time. But I never raced as much as I did in that dragster that didn’t even have a motor in it,” he said.