There’s just about NO other car coming out of the early days of the Rat Rod movement that caused as much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing and tongue-wagging as Mark Idzardi’s Purple People Eater. It demanded attention –– good, bad and ugly. And Marky, his brother Alex and the rest of the Shifters car club hailing from Orange County, CA ate up every bit of it. Mark and the club didn’t have to throw a middle finger in the air to the drowsy street rod set, since the Eater did it for them.
And that little coupe became a rallying cry for the crowd that was really beginning to amass in garages and backyards and impromptu car shows up and down California and a few pockets across the country. By the mid to late Nineties, the burgeoning Rat Rod scene was really gaining a head of steam and the Shifters were probably the earliest car club to assemble that embraced the new incarnation of the cars being built in the late Forties, Fifties and Sixties.
Marky and Alex had cut their teeth on late Sixties muscle cars and had developed a taste for Pontiacs as kids. So, when they found a ’56 Pontiac 316 c.i.d. for sale at the March Meet in Bakersfield, CA in ’97 or ’98, they picked it up quick. Turned out, the motor was hogged out to 450 cubic inches and had some good drag racing history: it ran in an Altered-bodied rail between 1959 and 1961 and held a track record at Riverside for a supercharged, gas class. As they cracked it open and ran through it, they found all kinds of early speed equipment and the truly historic motor is probably the earliest supercharged Pontiac engine still in working condition, much less existence.
So, they had a motor. And a blower on top of it. And EIGHT Stromberg carbs on top of that. They all got to work and hacked up a Model A sedan and built a hot rod based on a Sixties-era Altered dragster: short wheelbase, HUGE motor perched way up in the air for weight transfer on launch from the starting line, skinny spindle-mount front wheels with no brakes, racing slicks on the rear, a solid-mounted rearend, no radiator and gobs of attitude.
The car was, by all accounts, like nothing that had been seen in some forty years. When it showed up at the West Coast Cruisin’ Nationals car show in Paso Robles, CA the next year, people LOST THEIR MINDS. Freaked out. Babies were crying, women were rushed to safety, windows were shuttered, the National Guard was called out and the hotrodders in attendance quietly ate themselves to death. Well, maybe all that shit didn’t really happen, but people were changed that weekend.
The Purple People Eater was perfect. It had all the atttitude, all the rough edges, all the right parts and the right stance. It became the undisputed poster child for what the movement was all about: build a car on your own that respects tradition and indisputable good taste while making it your own –– naysayers be damned.
At the same time, the Interweb was being embraced more and more by the general public. The Purple People Eater’s influence spread like wildfire –– in ways that magazines of the day couldn’t keep up with and before we all knew it, early chatboards were abuzz with the little purple coupe’s upset at Paso and subsequent car shows. It was decried from the Establishment’s pulpit and blasted by the guys who had to shield their time-out dolls’ eyes from the spectacle. Simultaneously, the car was waking up kids who finally found the same kind of inspiration their dads found in Roth Studios forty years earlier.
When the PPE finally found itself on the cover of the February issue of Rod & Custom magazine in 2001, it blew the lid off the simmering crab pot. Legend has it that after Rick Amado photographed the car for the magazine, there was some, well, internal strife over what was going to be done with the film. But he finally got his way and that issue changed the direction of hotrodding more than any other cover of the era.
To this day, the car still commands attention and starts arguments: self-appointed drag racing experts say it can’t be run down the track. It has. People claim it’s dangerous. It is. Old guys shake their heads and say it’ll blow up. It hasn’t. Claims have been made that it was built all wrong and can only sit on a trailer. It’s been driven PLENTY. The Purple People Eater embodies the original spirit of the Rat Rod movement: built well with the right historical parts and the right attitude to bring excitement and inspiration back to hotrodding. What passes for a “rat rod” these days is an embarrassment to the original drafters of the Rat Rod constitution –– kinda like what passes for Punk Rock at a Hot Topic store in the mall. But to find what it was really supposed to be, look no further than the PPE, Marky, Alex and the Shifters.
Images courtesy Hot Rod magazine, Rod & Custom magazine, Traditional Rod & Kulture Illustrated, pontiacheaven.com