When the HOT ROD was king

Harry Fagen will have 6 classic cars in the Flashback Cruz, but, when it comes to hot rodding, there was nothing like Bend 50 years ago, he and others agree, when there was little else to do and cops were more lenient

Inka Bajandas / The Bulletin /

Harry Fagen, 66, still has the 1933 Ford Coupe he bought and built into a hot rod when he was 15 years old in 1958.

Before showing off the deep red car with a narrow windshield and windows, which has gone through various reincarnations over the years, he explained how he quit school and started working for an auto shop at 15.

“I’ve been doing this stuff all my life,” he said.

Like other Bend hot rodders, who were most active during the ’50s and ’60s, rebuilding old cars still dominates Fagen’s life. He’s part of the Central Oregon Classic Chevy Club and plans to have six classic cars in the club’s Flashback Cruz next weekend.

While he enjoys the Cruz, he said nothing compares with the hot rod heyday in Bend 50 years ago.

Fagen moved to Bend from Minnesota when he was 7, and as a teenager in the late ’50s got involved in the Central Oregon hot rod and drag racing scene.

He is among the remaining members in Bend of the LeMans Bend hot rod club, which was popular and active for about 15 years in the ’50s and ’60s.

Back then, Bend was a very different, smaller town, where you knew everybody, said Earl Clausen, 74, who helped found the LeMans Bend hot rod club in 1955 when he was 20.

He got his first car, a ’41 Ford two-door sedan, when he was 16. The LeMans club was the first hot rod club in Bend, and members met once a week, he said.

They would talk about what cars they were going to race and show, and then they would all go for a drive together. They’d drive around downtown, up and down Wall and Bond streets, and then on Third Street, which he said was the main drag in Bend at the time.

“There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Bend in those days,” he said. “That’s all there was to do.”

They all dressed in white T-shirts, had flat-top haircuts and wore special red and white jackets custom-made with LeMans Bend and a race car printed on the back, and their names stitched on the front. Clausen still has his.

“We wore leather jackets until we got these jackets. We were really proud of them,” he said.

The main hangout for the hot rodders was Clausen’s parents’ diner, the Midget Drive-In on Northeast Third Street near Burnside Avenue, where Bend Truck Toyz currently sits. They would grab a burger or something to drink and then drive north on Third Street to the Tom Tom Diner.

“We’d just drive back and forth like all the kids did,” said Fagen.

“Many a drag race set up there,” said Dave Phillips, 73, another hot rodder, referring to the Midget Drive-In. “You’d stop and have a Coke, and hook up with someone who thought their car was faster than yours and set up a race.”

Phillips’ father was a mechanic who had a wrecking yard.

“He told me not to work with cars, so, of course, that was exactly what I did,” he said. He took shop classes at Bend High School, when the school was located downtown.

Fagen used to race his ’33 Ford at a legal drag race track set up out by the Madras Airport on an old airstrip. People still race there today. The men also set up plenty of illegal races throughout Bend. One place was on an old highway behind the High Desert Museum, Fagen said. Lots of people would show up to watch the races, which would take place at night, he said.

“Everything was more fun in the ’60s, even hot rodding around town,” Fagen said. “The cops back then, they were a lot easier to get along with.”

The hot rodders would squeal their cars’ tires downtown, but, he said, if they were to do that now, the cops would start showing up.

Phillips said they definitely drive less aggressively these days.

“We had a lot of fun when we were young,” he said. “Lots of fun that’s illegal now, I’m afraid.”

Clausen is in awe of how much hot rods have taken off.

He’s amazed at how many clubs have started, how much money people spend on their cars now, and the emergence of the classic car equipment industry.

“It’s such a big business. It’s hard to believe how big it is,” he said. “That all takes off from years ago when we started at the drive-in.”

Back when they were first getting started, Clausen, Fagen and Phillips had to build everything themselves and scavenge for parts.

Fagen gestured to some black straps hanging from a wall of his shop. He said he took that seat belt to use for drag racing from a wrecked airplane at the Bend Airport. Just like Phillips, who has carburetors hanging from his shop walls, Fagen said he’s saved everything out of habit and doesn’t ever throw anything away.

“We didn’t have money back then,” Fagen said. “It was tough.”

He and Phillips, who remain great friends, still do all the work on their cars themselves and to this day have projects they’re working on. They’re not making show cars, they said, but cars you can drive.

People hire Phillips to restore cars, and Fagen has about 18 cars on his property, in various stages of being rebuilt.

He said seven or eight of those he has completely restored. He works late into the night on his cars and credits that to why he’s able to get so much done. He doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon and said he’ll be working on cars until he dies.

“Cars are my choice of drugs,” he said.

There’s no greater feeling, he said, than getting in a car he’s finished restoring and driving it around town.

“It’s a high you can’t beat.”

Cruise on by the Flashback Cruz

To check out some of Earl Clausen’s and Harry Fagen’s hot rods, go to the Central Oregon Classic Chevy Club’s Flashback Cruz, July 31-Aug. 2.

Hot rods and classic cars will be on display the afternoon of Aug. 1 at Drake Park, and then they will be cruising downtown Bend from 7 to 9 p.m. The event also features raffles, music and other entertainment throughout the weekend. For more information, visit http://centraloregonclassicchevyclub.com/index.html.

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