You might say Harry was the safety crew! He put out a lot of fires managing the Pond, even
Hot Rod’s coverage was devoted to racers with features like “Exotic Racing Carbs”, “New Concepts for Fuelers”, and “DOHC Small-Block Chevys”. Harry couldn’t diminish the above features but keeping the racers and non-racers coming back for more was a fine line.
According to Harry, before Hot Rod began featuring custom vans, vans were used by businesses like the phone company as utility vehicles. The “Denimachine” was a custom-built Ford van loaded with speed equipment that Hot Rod built to promote Coca-Cola and Levi jeans. “The idea was to get advertising out of Coke and Levi by giving them editorial coverage building 10 custom vans to be given away and promoting a sweepstakes through the magazine. They had more people sign up to enter the sweepstakes than had ever been done by Coca-Cola up to that time when we built the Denimachines.”
The vans, valued at $18,000, serious money in the ’70s, toured the country. They were displayed at malls and fairs promoting Coke/Levi/Ford where people could enter the sweepstakes. The side of the van read: Custom Designed by Hot Rod Magazine. That’s what “starting a trend” was all about. Harry recalled that a total of 270-280 vans built looking like the Denimachine were sold after the contest.
Knowing what a stock ’48 Cad fastback looks like and expecting the usual custom Cad treatm
It was happenchance how a ’48 custom Caddy, to end all custom Cads, came into being. The four players were Jack Chisenhall, owner of Vintage Air; Larry Erickson, automotive designer; Billy Gibbons of the rock band ZZ Top, from Dallas; and Harry Hibler.
“Billy was dating my wife’s best friend,” Jack begins. “Billy was wondering what could possibly follow the ‘Eliminator’. I remembered talking to Tom Medley, then publisher of Rod & Custom, about Bonneville one time and Tom said a ’32 Ford roadster was more aerodynamic going backward than forward. That’s where that teardrop idea came to me. I kept thinking of the car with a teardrop shape.”
“I met Jack at the Street Rod Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, in 1987,” Larry Erickson begins. “I took sketches of how to hot-rod a ’32 Chevy roadster, most of which required you to make it look like a hot-rodded ’32 Ford. Jack stopped by the booth I was at. We were standing next to a ’40 Ford and commenting on the trim piece on the hood.”
“I purchased some of Larry’s artwork,” Jack says, “which I still have in my office. Later when Billy and I started talking about building a custom I called Larry. I told him what I had in mind. What car would he start with? He said, ‘It would have to be a ’48-49 Cadillac fastback.’ I said let’s make it a ’48 so it could get into the National Street Rod Association events. Larry said, ‘Let me see what I can come up with.’”
“I was working at Cadillac at that time;” Larry says, “in the design group. (Larry was the exterior designer of the ’92 Cadillac Seville, STS, and Eldorado project.) I created a look that reflected Gibbons’ personality and what he was interested in. I knew his music, I knew the blues. I couldn’t have created that car for anybody but Billy. I did that first sketch and sent the original artwork to Jack.”
“Out of the blue,” Jack continues, “Larry sends his artwork of the Cad back to me. Billy was at my office, and I pulled the artwork out and showed him. Billy was blown away by it and wanted to build the car. I found a ’48 Cad in Phoenix and bought it.”
Jack would later learn that the hot rodder who took some of his drawings to Columbus and who would become the chief designer of the ’05 Mustang at Ford’s Strategic Design Group, graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which is the same school our illustrious former Publisher Tom “Stroker McGurk” Medley went to.
“We started talking,” Larry says, “… well, who would build it? Jack knew everyone on the East Coast and West Coast because of Vintage Air and had been to all the shops. He did a report as to which shops could do the car. Jack’s plan was for the three of us to meet in L.A. and go to some of the shops.
“Jack, Billy, and I went to Harry’s office at Hot Rod because we wanted to get Harry’s endorsement and see if he would get Hot Rod behind it,” Larry says. “Harry could see immediately what he was going to do with it, he could see what it meant to people; he was the guy running the magazine. When we talked about what shops could do it, Harry said, ‘There’s only one guy who could do it, you gotta go to Boyd Coddington’s.’
“There was so much of that car that had to be handmade at Boyd’s; it was an incredible project,” Larry adds. “I never invoiced Billy for all of my time on the artwork; I just thought that was the most fun I could have as a human being. Billy sent me a check one time and I have it hanging on my office wall.”
“I got on the phone and called Boyd,” Harry says. “Boyd would have exactly six months to build the Cad completely from scratch. He finished painting it shortly before we did the cover shoot for the July ’89 issue. There was no Bondo in that car; it was all hammer-welded. (Craig Neff did all the metalwork … the fins, quarter-panels, and trunk.)
“Larry’s fullsized drawing was stuck on the wall of Boyd’s shop so that every measurement that Boyd needed they could take off the drawing. If there was a doubt they could fax Larry, who would measure it, and fax them back the specs.”
That Cad was not a trailer queen because two Hot Rod staff guys who probably pinched themselves all the way to Canfield, Ohio—Rob Kinnan and Steve Anderson—drove the ’48 to the Hot Rod Super Nationals in 1990. Harry adds, “Believe me, I did sweat bullets until it got there.”
CadZZilla, Godzilla? Too close for comfort?
“That’s when we made the grand debut of ‘CadZZilla’ in New York City, right off of Madison
Billy, being in show business, didn’t want any legal issues because of the similarities of the names so he located Mr. Ishiro Honda, the director of the 1954 film Godzilla. Wrote Bob Merlis of M.F.H. Publicity in Los Angeles: “After several hours of recollection of the making the famous film, Mr. Honda viewed the rendering of CadZZilla and immediately found admiration with the car’s image and agreed it was truly going to be a monster of a custom car. The officiating paperwork was arranged granting clear and proper title to the name CadZZilla.”
The deadline was met due to the remarkable effort by Boyd, his crew, Chisenhall, and Erickson. According to Harry, that issue of Hot Rod sold over a million copies.
Added Merlis: “Mr. Gibbons followed Harry’s suggestion of inserting the twin capital ZZs inside the name to complete the tag.”
Harry’s influence not only made the difference in a custom Cad’s success, it had the “Motor City” calling him many times. In 1991, GM wanted Harry’s input on the design of the Camaro and Firebird: “GM wanted to know what they needed to do to catch the next group of Hot Rod readers. I spoke to a room of engineers and marketing guys on how to specifically differentiate the Camaro from the Firebird down to what engines and transmissions.”
After Petersen Publishing
After Mr. Petersen sold his company, Harry made the decision to leave in 1996. Since then he’s involved himself with a number of successful business ventures. He’s also restoring his Offy-powered Kurtis Midget plus a ’74 Ford Ranchero that he’s owned since new.
Harry has worked with a number of organizations, serving three terms on the SEMA Board of Directors. He was inducted in the SEMA Hall of Fame in 2002. Harry’s contributions to drag racing were showcased when he became the Honoree at the 20th California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield in 2011.
You might ask with all that Harry has done in (and for) the sport, plus his many accomplishments in the publishing industry, why hasn’t he been inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, established by Don Garlits? For years Harry was on the Hall of Fame Selection Board and it would have, in Harry’s mind, been a conflict of interest. That responsibility behind him, Harry will be inducted in March 2013 in Gainesville, Florida.
Well done Harry. You’re one of the reasons we go with an old Hot Rod rolled up in our back pockets to the March Meet and Hot Reunion in Bakersfield. We’re looking for guys like you who’ve been there, done that, to sign it.
The Fuel Altereds were as aerodynamic as an outhouse and it took a form of lunacy to drive them. “Wild Willy” Borsch, who drove the “Winged Express”, told Harry, “Just keep it between the guardrails, regardless in which direction it’s pointed.” Altereds carried names like “The Mob”, “Old Raunchy”, “Panic”, “Pure Hell”. Then there was Ron Boswell and Don Green’s mean and nasty AA/FA ’32 Bantam roadster called “Rat Trap”. Normally the driver was George “Stone Age” Hutcheson or “Dangerous Dan” Collins, but this time it was “Hand Grenade” Harry after he shut down the 392 Chrysler Hemi after his run. “It was the second time I drove the Rat Trap. I was just getting out after getting close to the record of 217/218 mph at San Fernando. George Hutchinson was the driver and he wasn’t there so Don Green said, ‘You drive it.’”
Harry Hibler was Hot Rod magazine. Fresh from managing a dragstrip, Harry knew the dangers and personally saw to it that racers and fans were as safe as that period would allow. Being a Top Fuel racer himself, while at the magazine he knew personally just how much his and others lives were on the line every time they left it. The readers knew that the guy at the helm was one of them. His leadership reflected the influence the magazine had on the automotive industry. Harry never forgot that in his 29 years with Petersen Publishing.