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Race Around The Clock: Remembering Street Rod

No Need For Need For Speed

Featured post A lot of our ideas about the 1950s and early ’60s come from the era’s nostalgic revival years later. Grease, Happy Days, and American Graffiti give us our stereotypical image of the period’s cool cats, but those are all from the 1970s. They represent a fictionalised version of the time that was unrecognisable to people who lived through it – even the word “greaser” wasn’t contemporary, but comes from S. E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders. In their day the kids with quiffs would have been called juvenile delinquents or hoods.

I didn’t have a car when I was a teenager but I did have a Commodore 64, and it was as temperamental, arcane, and hard to get working as anyone’s first used car would be. A hand-me-down from my stepbrother, it came with a pile of dubious floppy disks, plus a few cassettes that rarely worked, and one of those floppies had Street Rod on it.

Street Rod is a game made in 1989 and set in 1963 but nostalgic for the 1950s. It’s also, by dint of its marriage of street racing with plot, mundane car maintenance, and the time limit of a single summer, a more progressive and interesting forebear to the modern Need For Speed.

The ’50s revival began with a band called Sha Na Na, who famously performed before Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. They were massively popular, even getting their own TV show in 1977. The musical Grease was inspired by them, and they had a cameo in the movie. But Sha Na Na’s dance moves were modern and they played old songs at double-speed. Right from the start the 1950s revival was fantasy rather than history.

The game takes place over a summer when JFK was still alive and The Beatles hadn’t arrived in the USA, so its America is still an innocent place of slicked-back hair, leather jackets, and muscle cars. I’m pretty sure everyone in Street Rod has a packet of cigarettes twisted up in the sleeve of their T-shirt. You play a kid from Los Angeles with $750, access to an empty garage, and an entire summer vacation to rise through the ranks of the local street racers until you defeat the coolest of them: a guy who wears sunglasses at night, drives a black Corvette, and is known only as The King. If you beat him you become the new King and get to date his girlfriend, as is written in the Constitution.

There’s a story to Street Rod, but one implied in details. You learn about the protagonist’s circumstances because you begin the game browsing the used car section of the newspaper and can only afford vehicles from 20 years ago. I rocked up to Bob’s Drive-In for the first time with a 1940 Chevrolet Coupe, which made guys with names like Biff sneer when I challenged them to races. There were two things on my side in those early races, though. The first is that I cheated like a bastard, slamming into opponents then pushing in front while they reacted, hogging the road in my fat American beast for the rest of the race. The other is that I upgraded its V6 engine in ways I still only notionally understand.

That was the point, of course. The audience for Sha Na Na’s brand of retro weren’t juvenile delinquents who’d grown up and wanted to remember the 1950s but kids who’d been too young at the time to know what it was really like. The fantasy they were selling was a childhood fantasy of innocence, one in which the turmoil of the 1960s hadn’t happened yet and the political witch hunts and A-bomb paranoia of the 1950s wasn’t relevant.

Upgrading in Street Rod isn’t a matter of buying new parts and watching them sprout from your car like sped-up footage of mold on bread. It’s also not about earning experience points until your car somehow learns to handle corners better. You have to get your hands dirty. You replace parts by searching newspaper classifieds for bargains and then adding them by hand. You pop the hood and tinker with engine guts as they tick over until you hit a sweet spot that makes the tinny internal computer speaker approximate the humming of a well-tuned machine.

The workings of an engine may as well be actual necromancy to me, but somehow I managed to pull the two-barrel carburetor off (clicking on each bolt twice to unscrew them), and then removed the manifold that housed it. I replaced that manifold with one that had room for three carburetors and then added two more just like the original, all sourced from the same newspaper as my car. I’d overclocked that V6 engine, which surprised the hell out of Biff when I left the big jerk behind.

In his book The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson writes, “I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s”. A white middle-class kid in Iowa, he lived in a world where he believed nothing could harm him. He grew up thinking cigarettes and sugar were perfectly healthy and “X-rays were so benign that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot sizes, sending penetrating rays up through the soles of your feet and right out the top of your head.” What a time to be alive.

Street Rod wants you to get to know your car the way a fascinated first-car-owning delinquent would. The transmission can be pulled off and replaced, again by clicking on all the screws one by one. The bumpers come off, giving a tiny increase to speed at the expense of durability. The roof can be chopped down for a slicker profile and maybe a slight aerodynamic boost. All these things happen because you point your mouse at the appropriate section of the car, and only when you need to swap in a new part does a menu intrude.

Street Rod is so grounded it expects you to fill the tank between races by dragging a gas pump onto the gas hole or whatever it’s called, wait for the tank to fill up and drag it back again. So many things that would be elided in a modern game are modeled here, right down to wear and tear on your tires and engine. It feels like a survival game, only instead of your character needing to drink water at an unbelievable rate you have to pour endless fuel into your car because that’s how these all-American behemoths worked.

But back to cars. Tom Wolfe wrote the first serious work on hot rod culture: ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’, published by Esquire in 1963. His conversation about the good old days with custom car designer George Barris reads like a design bible for Street Rod. “Everybody would meet in drive-ins, the most famous of them being the Piccadilly out near Sepulveda Boulevard. It was a hell of a show, all the weird-looking roadsters and custom cars, with very loud varoom-varoom motors.”

Street Rod is also a racing game, obviously. There are only two tracks: a straight drag strip and a curving, hazardous road race on the edge of town. Like a MOBA with only one map the point is to make you focus on the characters instead, but instead of a hundred different wizards Street Rod has 25 cars with names just as extravagant. Plymouth Valiant. Pontiac Silver Streak. Mercury Monterey. All of them handle differently, but since Street Rod is designed for keyboard you drive them the same way: always accelerating or decelerating. It forces you to drive like a lead-footed teenager.

When I crash the glass shatters, and sometimes there’s blood. Sometimes I repair the car, sometimes I sell it for scrap, and sometimes I have to reload. I get better though, and the amounts wagered on races increase until they become “pink slips” – ownership papers – with the winner taking home the loser’s car to keep or sell. The money piles up and the cars get faster, and suddenly Bob’s Drive-In is full of challengers who own vehicles right out of Mad Max, with flame jobs and engines popping out like mechanical chestbursters. To impress them so they’ll race me I’ve repainted my car and added a rad sticker to the side that says “I’m not a cop” as the next desperate steps in the race to the top. The days are ticking by, and summer’s over soon.

Barris’s description of the drag racing is also immediately recognisable from Street Rod. “We’d all be at the Piccadilly or some place, and guys would start challenging each other. You know, a guy goes up to another guy’s car and looks it up and down like it has gangrene or something, and he says: ‘You wanna go?’ Or, if it was a real grudge match for some reason, he’d say, ‘You wanna go for pink slips?’ The registrations on the cars were pink; in other words, the winner got the other guy’s car.”

Time limits in games are often a frustration. When you catch a getaway car in Driver: San Francisco but don’t manage it inside an arbitrary three-minute window and have to repeat the whole chase, that’s an annoyance. But the kind of time limit that adds significance to what you do – like the one that makes the final mission in Mass Effect 2 harder if you put it off – those I have no problem with. Knowing I had 150 days to complete Fallout pushed me to more dramatic, risky decisions than I made in the sequels. So I don’t mind Street Rod’s summer vacation ticking away, days vanishing from the calendar in my garage, because it urges me on, makes me incautious. I drive like a maniac in race after race until the transmission falls out the bottom of my new Dodge Polara like a bomb.

Anyway, the whole point of summers is that they end, and then we grow old and turn nostalgic. Fortunately I can indulge my nostalgia for Street Rod even without that Commodore 64, because the current rights holder has decided to give it away for free. You can download it from streetrodonline.com, though you’ll need DOSBox to get it running on modern PCs. There’s also a sequel from 1991, though I prefer the original. The main difference is that Street Rod 2 has extra tracks, one on Mulholland Drive and the other an aqueduct straight out of Grease, but both have hazards that force you to regulate your speed with exaggerated precision rather than hooning through them like a dangerously hormonal greaser. Also, there are no longer stickers you can slap on the side of your cars.

Both adult me and the kid with the Commodore 64 would rather be a greaser with “I’m not a cop” on the side of our two-door sports coupe.

Wolfe’s interest isn’t so much in the racing as the custom cars, all fins and streamlining. He notes how the hot-rodders’ older design innovations were being copied by car manufacturers, but modified and toned down so they could be sold to middle America. Like the culture of the 1950s being used as a costume closet by the films and TV of the 1970s, the recent past was being repackaged so it could be sold, as it inevitably will be again. Imagine it, 20 years from now – a musical about the forbidden love between a YouTube boy and an Instagram girl, their rival gangs clashing in social media dance-offs. I’d play that game, too.

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