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In photos: Driving a 1932 roadster to massive U.S. hot rod show

Soon after completing his 1932 Ford roadster, Lou Meehan discovered the Syracuse Nationals, the largest hot road show in the American northeast. In this he was typical, for the show has grown as word has spread since the Nationals began in 200. Now rod builders time their projects to finish in time for any given year's show. Luc LeBlanc, of Victoriaville, Quebec, won the biggest prize this year, The Winfield Award, $10,000, with the 1949 Mercury Monarch he worked on for 13 years. But most of the 8,000-plus cars crowding the fairgrounds in mid July aren't bidding for any awards. Like Meehan, a Toronto chartered accountant and owner of Sunnyside Capital, their owners return each year for the cars and the company, to take in the innovations, perhaps gain new inspiration. It's a friendly crowd, mostly male, a scattering of long-suffering wives, children in tow. The sun beats down. You slather on more sunscreen, knowing no matter how long you keep going you'll never see all of the cars.

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It looks like rain, it feels like rain, as Lou Meehan decides whether his ’32 Ford roadster should go topless for the two-hour drive from Kingston to Syracuse. Screw the rain, he declares. We’ll leave the top behind.

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Riding in a hot rod – created to represent a 1948 Bonneville Salt Flats competitor – engulfs you in sound and fury. Somehow Meehan talks effortlessly, as though he’s in a silent sedan, but with no side windows and the low windshield, the roar of the wind overpowers the V-8’s rumble – until he mats the accelerator – and soon you lose your voice. Not talking, you realize it’s the heat of the beast coming through the floor that you sense most dramatically. At some point he pulls over, adjusts the windshield so it’s flat against the body: he said this would reduce wind noise. With it down, though, I feel like Dumbo, my ears flapping in the hurricane force. What a relief when we stop to return the glass to vertical: by comparison, now it feels sort of like we’re in the eye of the hurricane.

Dan Proudfoot/The Globe and Mail

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Lou Meehan’s made-in-2011 ’32 Ford odometer passes 5,999 and clicks up 6,000 miles as he entered the New York State Fairgrounds for the Syracuse Nationals. Even more positively, the fuel gauge, which was indicating the Chevy V-8 was breathing on empty the previous 20 minutes, pointed to Full, thanks to a last-minute discovery of a filling station. Rain clouds had given way to full heat sunshine. Time to take in the show – or at least as many cars as you can ogle in an afternoon.

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This 1956 Mercury was completed only a week before being trailored to the show, three years after John St. Germain began converting the aged Monterey into his custom Mercury Tri-Five. Lou can’t get enough of its painted perfection. In fact the champagne and root beer was sprayed on in St. Germain’s barn, at Goodwood, Ont.

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Show-goers find themselves inhaling deeply as they look inside. The Swedish leather wrapping the ’64 Oldsmobile Starfire front buckets and ’64 Buick Riviera rear exudes a fragrance that may just be richer than a Bentley’s.

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New Jersey landscaper Andy Wickenheisser groomed a yard in exchange for the 1963 Plymouth Fury convertible he spotted while working at a neighbor’s. The windshield was broken, the top needed replacing: perfect! Wickenheisser realized his vision by crafting a dome from Styrofoam, then searching out a shop in southern California to replicate the shape in Lexan.

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He built a frame powered by a snowplow’s electric motor that raises the Bubble Top for entry/exit. On the road, the bubble’s aero efficiency eliminates wind noise; all Wickenheisser hears is the 383-cubic inch V-8’s bellow through the eight pipes that pierce the hood ahead of him.

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Early-fins-era Caddies abound at Syracuse, Dennis Snow’s 1947 from Montour Falls, N.Y., being Lou’s favorite. But The Golden Empress, otherwise known as Chris Ryan’s wife Lori’s car, a 1949 convertible, grabs your attention. Nosed, decked, shaved, its rear fenders moulded, this Cadillac’s minimalist customization has maximum effect, crouching low to the pavement outside, restrained elegance inside.

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The original gauge cluster was moved to the centre of the dash, and winter white glove leather with golden accent lines wraps ’64 Thunderbird front seats and custom-made buckets in the back. The Empress showcases the abilities of Ryan’s Rod&Kustom, in Ninety Six, South Carolina, which Ryan opened in 2003 after graduating as a mechanical engineer from Penn State.

Dan Proudfoot/The Globe and Mail

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Murray Pfaff creates computer renderings of rod and custom concepts at his Pfaff Designs offices in Royal Oak, Mich. The FireMaker, parked next to John St. Germain’s Mercury, began as a 1956 Cadillac, reshaped according to Pfaff’s vision.

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Its flames and graphics were among his first computer renderings, the purple interior an inspired choice. Under the hood, an eight-litre Cadillac V-8 despatches flames 20 feet long from its fuel-injected exhaust.

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A newcomer to rodding soon learns you can buy anything and everything to make a car, at Syracuse. “Just plug and play,” Lou Meehan describes the process of wiring a car as we gaze at a vendor’s multicolored looms.

Dan Proudfoot/The Globe and Mail

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Elsewhere, Paul Horton’s Welder Series, offers frames and other components, laser cut and CNC-machined at Breslau, Ont. Another vender displayed a range of Chevrolet-based engines: a 468-cubic-inch big block rated at 711 horsepower that normally commands $14,800 could be purchased on the spot for $12,500.

Dan Proudfoot/The Globe and Mail

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Hundreds of cars and trucks in need of a new home, occupy the parking lots to one side of the Syracuse Fairgrounds horse racing track. Not all are rods: a clean late model Mercedes-Benz sports car is begging for attention at $5,900.

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Those ignoring this 1949 Chevy pickup miss a prime opportunity: runs, drives, and stops, the writing in the window promised, and the paint was so fried by decades in the Texas sun that you can see the sheet metal is rust-free and waiting for renewal.

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Full disclosure: this is personal, because a 1937 Chevrolet Master Coach was the first car I owned. I bought it for $95, when I was 15. ‘Asking $49,900,’ says the sign in the window of this ‘37 that’s just like mine but totally different. According to the build sheets, nothing needs re-doing, everything is new. And the red paint just glows. Mine was brushed-on-black. I write down the contact info and move on.

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Pontiacs like this 1952 Chieftain Catalina hardtop were never sold in Canada. At that time, our Pontiacs were Chevrolets decked out with Pontiac stripes and nameplates. So Lou Meehan falls hard for this one – Fresh Barn Find, Engine Runs Sweet, Light-up Hood Ornament – and takes down all of the details in case he decides to make it a future project. The asking price is only $2,850.

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Bob and Gina Adams’ 1949 Ford may be among the more conservative customs in comparison with the thousands of cars preening in the parking lots of the New York State Fairgrounds, but it’s more arresting than most. The sticker in the window identifies the Ford as having been selected as a Top 100 2015 show car by Street Rodder Magazine.

Dan Proudfoot/The Globe and Mail

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Any guy of a certain age remembers the movie American Graffiti and the scenes in which a blonde appeared mysteriously and momentarily in the night, a siren in a T-Bird. Now coming across actress Candy Clark in a vendor’s building, her American Graffiti display in the midst of instruments and intake manifolds excites rodders of all ages and she poses for photos with them. Of course it wasn’t Clark who played the mysterious blonde, that was Suzanne Sommers, but Clark was nominated for an academy award as best supporting actress, playing uncool Debbie Dunham, who dated the hapless character known as Toad. At 68, she appears to be a teen for life.

Dan Proudfoot/The Globe and Mail

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The Ulysses Seat Co. of Ithaca, N.Y., crafts the kind of products that inspire Lou Meehan. He looks at the row of seats and sees one in a Ford rod he’s considering. Ben Reynolds combines .063 aircraft grade aluminum, quilted black vinyl and meticulous workmanship in his Bomber seat line. The price: $698 list, $500 at the show. Meehan had never heard of Ulysses up to today; discoveries like this keep him coming back to Syracuse.

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Gasoline well spent, 14 U.S. gallons of premium Sunoco are more than enough for Lou Meehan to make the return drive from Syracuse to his summer home near Kingston, Ont.

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