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Cars September, 1 2013

Behind the Wheels: Kenneth Schmidt and Keith Cornell of Rolling Bones Hot Rod Shop

Written by Vincent Tang

Behind the Wheels celebrates the outliers among the automotive world, builders who challenge the idea of how a car or motorcycle is suppose to look with no interest in the boundaries and norms set by their contemporaries. Not content with what is coming off the showroom floors, they see cars as blank canvases to apply their craft, an opportunity to build something truly unique that will stand out. Whether they find beauty in patina’d steel or wet carbon fiber, we’ll comb the globe to find the most talented and truly unique builders and workshops that invoke a sense of awe with every creation they roll out.

The world of hot rodding is one heavily set in tradition, methods and techniques are preached as gospel and builders rarely deviate from the styles that were handed to them from the previous generation. For a scene that revolves around pushing boundaries and raising the bar, hot rodding is strangely set in its ways. Now Kenneth and Keith, the owners of the Rolling Bones Hot Rod Shop in Upstate New York, aren’t here to throw tradition to the wind, but with one foot anchored in traditional hot rodding and the other firmly outside the box, the two have managed to stay true to the methods and styles of 40’s and 50’s hot rodding while bringing it into the future with their own twist on classic Ford silhouettes.

Tired of trailer queen cars and poorly made imitation street rods, Rolling Bones build aggressive looking cars from Henry Ford steel meant for two things, to be driven hard and to be driven fast. Working out of a small cow barn where Keith’s older brother used to run a workshop, the two have built a strong reputation for building cars in a style widely known as the Rolling Bones style.

How did you guys meet and how the idea for Rolling Bones Hot Rod Shop started?

Kenneth: Keith and I crossed paths about twenty years ago when my son and I stopped in a local weekend street rod meet with his newly finished ‘49 Ford pickup. Keith was there with his nasty sounding black flathead powered ‘34 roadster, and to me it was the only real hot rod there.

It wasn’t until four or five years later that we started running together. He was building a Deuce three-window (1932 Ford Coupe) for a friend and Keith told him if he ever lost interest he wanted first dibs. His friend eventually wanted to go a different direction and Keith ended up with the coupe. I was looking for a three-window myself and Keith helped me find my own. Working together it soon became apparent we shared many of the same ideas along with a deep appreciation for the post-war hot rods.

Turning down offer after offer to sell our two hot rods, people finally started asking, “will you build me one then?”

That’s how it all started…

How did you guys get into hot rodding?

Kenneth: I had an older brother who was born in 1940, and since both our parents worked he was stuck with me tagging along. At sixteen he looked eighteen and he was the one your mother warned you about. It was 1956 and kids were car crazy, he was driving a hot rod, breaking every law he could and keeping our parents awake every night. I was ten with my brother for a hero and I was going along for the ride, we hot rodded together for the next forty years.

Keith: I grew up around cars; my father loved the cars of the mid fifties. After graduating from high school my older brother started a repair shop in the barn across from the house. I went through a string of muscle cars until I traded into a glass Deuce roadster powered by a tired old flathead (early Ford V8). It was like getting that first kiss from the beautiful girl next door – I liked it.

How would you describe the Rolling Bones Style of hot rod?

Kenneth: Hot rods didn’t happen all of a sudden right after World War II. The fire started much earlier but after the war all those young men came back with new skills and a little money in their pockets. That’s when they poured gas on the fire and hot rodding exploded across the country. The cars were raw creations, stripped of anything unnecessary, by those young men in the quest for speed. Those who had the magic touch, the best of them have become the pure essence of hot rodding, the foundation for guys like us. It’s those hot rods and those who came before us that fuel what has become the Rolling Bones Style.

Neither we nor anyone else can exactly duplicate those hot rods. We steal what we feel are their best ideas, using as many of the same parts with a very few modern bits sprinkled in there. We try to create time machines, time machines that skip over the endless weekend parking lot shows full of the same 1-800-SEND-IT boring street rods. We’re different from the herd that jumps up every five minutes with duster in hand hoping for a plastic trophy at three on a Sunday afternoon, nothing against that if that is what you’re in to but it’s just not our thing.

When you look at a Rolling Bones hot rod we don’t want her to look like she’s all dressed up with no place to go. We want you to see yourself staring through windshield out over the louvered hood, ready to taste the salt of Bonneville or to glide down a country road just as the sun starts to set with your girl next to you and the purr of the vintage engine under the hood.

And you only build hot rods out of Fords, why is that?

Keith: To us the only hot rod is a Ford; anything else is just an old car.

Can you elaborate?

Keith: What did the Pierson Brothers race? What make was Doan Spencer’s roadster? The SO-Cal Coupe is what kind of car? Look through Montgomery’s books of early hot rods, lakes cars and drag cars. 99% of them were Fords. We know a lot of people will disagree, but we stand firm with our statement. Anything but a Ford just doesn’t do anything for us.

Is period correct very important in your builds?

Kenneth: Period correct and who’s idea of it is great for those who want to build a trailer queen or go to local shows but it can also be suffocating; our hot rods are built for driving. It has been said they have everything they need and nothing they don’t and while they don’t have air conditioning, power steering, automatic transmissions and modern engines, they do have cowl vents, windshields that open, comfortable seats, five speed manual transmissions, no mufflers and vintage engines under the hoods. They will take you around the corner to the ice cream stand or across the country to magic places like Bonneville and the dry lakes. Just like your girlfriend they need a little attention every once in a while and that’s part of the love.

Do you utilize on traditional methods to fabricate or use new technology as well for your builds?

Kenneth: We are a small shop of three; Keith, my son Matt and myself. We still work in that same old cow barn Keith’s brother Duane started his repair shop in so many years ago. It has been said that we don’t have many tools and limited skills and that’s the way we like it. There’s a reason our hot rods have the authentic look and feel, the “soul” if you will. They touch a cord with those looking for the pure essence of hot rodding, once you’re behind the wheel they will make you sixteen again. Our methods are not rocket science, we build basic hot rods with basic tools using basic methods.

Cars have lost their luster for youths in the 21st Century, what did cars mean for you when you were growing up?

Keith: When I was a teenager a car meant freedom. I could drive myself to school, work and don’t forget the girls! In NY you need to be 16 years old to get your driver’s permit and then your license to drive. I probably had at least six different cars ready for the road at age 14 and just kept selling one and swapping to another.

Our readers might not be aware of the salt flats tradition; can you explain the activity and the significance of Bonneville that you mentioned earlier?

Kenneth: Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah have become the ultimate place for us. Considered by many as holy ground of hot rodding, it’s a place where you can race on the very same salt that those pioneers of speed pushed the boundaries throughout history. That is not to lessen other salt flats like El Mirage which certainly has it’s own magic but Bonneville is Bonneville, there is no other.

And you guys make it an annual pilgrimage to head down there for speed week?

Kenneth: We started out years ago racing a ‘32 roadster. On more than one occasion we drove her there, made her race ready in the parking lot of the hotel, raced her and then drove her home. It’s a 5,000 miles round trip.

Our trips cross-country and especially to the salt have become events in of themselves. Starting off at our shop with seven or eight hot rods and a couple racecars our nightly stops end up with impromptu motel parking lot hot rod parties as we gather more cars more along the way.  By the time we get to the salt the group will have grown to fifteen or twenty hot rods.

We have since built an all-out ‘29 roadster race car which runs in the mid 140’s (m/ph) and Keith has converted his ‘32 three window to race trim, running in the mid 180’s which make it’s at this point the fastest Y-Block Ford powered car in history.

Do you think that traditional hot rod building will eventually fade away or are you confident that there will be a new generation to carry on the torch?

Keith: I think traditional hot rods as we know them will slowly fade away. Don’t get me wrong there will be some here and there, but just look around at your average car show. More late model “tuners” than hot rods. I see it getting worse as time goes on. While there will be a small group to carry on the tradition, I think it will be very small in 15-20 years.

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