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Is this the world’s greatest hot-rodder?

  1. “Keep Portland Weird” is a popular bumper sticker around Oregon’s biggest city. It’s not hard to see why. Home to such strangeness as the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, the Voodoo Doughnut shop and the World Naked Bike Ride, Portland takes some beating for serving up an endless stream of bizarre businesses and beliefs.

    So perhaps it’s only natural that Randy Grubb should have gravitated to a place close to this hub of oddness. Because the vehicles Randy builds in his remote workshop would make even the open-minded residents of Portland look on in amazement.

    Photos: Robert Kerian

  2. Grubb, the 52-year-old son and grandson of two SoCal hot-rodders, is the father of what has become known as The Tank Car, for the simple reason that it - all 6.4 metres and 4,300kg of it - is powered by the 29.5-litre engine from an M47 Patton tank. Plus a whole host of other fantastically oversized one-off exotica that he calls automotive sculptures.

    He rose to fame when former US talk show host Jay Leno, who has a car collection so broad and deep it runs to several aircraft hangars (think Jay Kay’s, Chris Evans’s and Nick Mason’s collections all rolled into one, then doubled), bought the oversized Tank Car and went public with it. It wasn’t luck that Jay bought the car - Randy designed and built it for him without Leno knowing…

  3. Looking at his work, Randy appears to have been a professional hot-rodder all his life, but that’s not the case. Even though he has been around and messing with cars and engines since he was a toddler, Randall - to give him his proper name - originally trained to be a dentist, just like his pa and grandpa before him.

    He was all set to follow in the fang-mangling trade until he stumbled upon glass-blowing, liked it and decided to do that instead. As you might expect for someone like Mr Grubb, he didn’t gravitate to making ordinary vases and plates. He found a niche making exquisite French-style paperweights, which he could produce quickly yet make a huge profit on. So it was the perfect job to finance his hot-rodding hobby.

  4. But all it took was a small lull in the glass trade in 2001 to make Randy swap his tongs for a hammer and become a full-time automotive sculptor instead. Bored of all the Ford-based hot rods he saw at the shows, he decided to start with a clean sheet of paper and see what emerged. Not much was the answer.

    It quickly became clear that to bring his new creations to life he was going to need a whole new set of tools. So, after reading about Leno buying a Merlin-engined car for a lot of money, he decided, without telling Jay, that he would build him another car with an even bigger engine (the Merlin is a mere 27.0-litre unit). Leno would buy it, Randy would get his cash, and that would be that.

  5. As fanciful and unlikely to succeed as that sounds, that is pretty much what happened. The car was built (in 6,000 hours using little more than a welding torch and a hammer), it won a couple of big awards, got Leno’s attention and he bought it. The end.

    Or rather the beginning of a whole new chapter in Randy’s work and hot-rodding history. Now with the cash to pursue his next project, Randy and his design partner, Michael Leeds (another glass specialist who had dabbled in extreme custom trikery), pushed on with the second project: the equally huge Indy Special. This was also powered by an M47 engine but this time inspired by the Fifties-era Watson roadster Indycar rather than the Tank Car’s pre-war racer look.

  6. With Leeds doing the extreme illustration and Grubb the equally unbridled design and super-sized fabrication, the Blastolene Brothers, as they christened themselves (the name was transplanted from Leeds’s BBQ sauce recipe) sold the Indy Special for $260k and went off in a completely different direction yet again. This time, they used the Thirties Delahayes and Delages as their muse and came up with the truly incredible B-702. The B for Blastolene, the 702 for the V12 GMC engine’s capacity in cubic inches.

    When the time came to auction off the B-702 (for $460k), Grubb and Leeds had their creative differences, and the Blastolene Brotherhood was on the way out. Still clearly obsessed with gigantic things - and wanting to innovate (Randy wants to do 10 completely different vehicle sculptures then stop) - he decided to get Grubby with a Sixties 351 Peterbilt and chop it down to size. The Blastolene Piss’d Off Pete was the result. (See sidebar over page.)

  7. Staying with the semi-commercial theme, Randy then turned his solo hand - everything is designed on graph paper then projected onto a wall to make the pattern before being hammered out by hand; there are no computers in the process at all - to the world of classic motorhomes. This spawned the fabulous Decoliner, based on a 1973 GMC motorhome, complete with a fully functional flying bridge that allows you to steer it, like a yacht, from the roof.

    Randy’s next project, the Decoson, took him onto two wheels, when he decided to see what he could do with a 1984 Harley-Davidson Sportster. Using a 1934 Streamlined Henderson as his muse, Grubb hammered out a new set of bodywork that looks both stunning and mystifying all at the same time. Then, having mastered that technique, he applied it next to a Honda 80 scooter and created the Decopod, complete with doors, flyscreen and a satisfying teardrop shape.

  8. A run of six Piaggio Fly 150-powered Deco Bi-Pods followed alongside a half-dozen Piaggio MP3 three-wheeler-derived Deco Tri-Pods, all slightly different to satisfy his insistence that no two Grubb vehicles will ever be the same. With all or most of those sold - $15k for the two-wheeler, $25k for the three-wheeler - Randy’s time is now being taken up with building a suitably outrageous, V8-engined quad for another fellow glass artist, Tim Cotterill, also known as the Frogman.

    Even though that’s still quite a way from completion, it hasn’t stopped Grubb thinking about the next project - and the next one after that. Opening his ideas book, he shows plans to build a vintage tri-hulled Deco-esque boat and about 100 other possible projects. So even though he’s already done more than his bit for hot-rodding as a whole, it looks like not just Portland, but also the rest of the world can rely on Randy to keep on keeping it weird for years to come.

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