Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hot-rod heart

Ken Austin's Rod Shop is a blast from the past

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Tucked away in a spacious warehouse in the small city of Newberg, Oregon, is The Rod Shop. It looks fairly nondescript from the outside but once you pass through the doors the rich history of hot-rodding in America comes alive.

Owned by hot rod pioneer Ken Austin and his wife Joan, the Austin auto collection features a stunning variety of antique automobiles, trucks and even a few tractors.

According to Austin, who is a very youthful looking 80-year old, it all started on the family farm near St. Paul, Oregon. As a kid growing up during World War II, and the son of a farmer, Austin found his calling when he and his father repaired an old outboard motor. "I'll never forget the excitement of getting that engine to start," says Austin.

By age 14, with only a student driving permit, Austin sold 12 cows he had raised as a 4-H project and bought a neighbours 1928 Chevrolet coupe for $80.00. The money he had left over from the cattle sale was invested in tools to set up The Rod Shop, where he charged only $1.00 per hour for automotive repairs. By 1949 Austin had already created a beautiful 1927 Ford Model T hot rod that took the first place engineering award at the Seattle Motor Show. In his early days Austin also made runs on the Bonneville Salt Flats and created the first of many Austin quick-change rear-ends, intake manifolds and other go-fast parts, many of which are still on display at The Rod Shop.

For most folks owning a successful hot rod shop and the patents to a number of inventions that made fast cars go faster would surely be a lifetime achievement but Austin ultimately sank his teeth into an entirely different venture.

The next time you are at the dentist office with a suction hose in your mouth, take a look around. There's a good chance that much of the equipment in the office, including that suction system, the drill and even the chair your dentist is using were all invented by Austin and wear the logo of his extremely successful business, A-dec, or Austin Dental Supply Company. Today A-dec is one of the largest employers in Oregon with more than 1000 employees and a worldwide list of clients.

"Keep that thing away from me," I chuckled as Austin demonstrated a variable speed dental drill he patented many years ago. "That thing," he replied with a grin, "has made me a whole lot of money."

Throughout his success in the dental equipment business Austin has always maintained a keen interest in old cars and has amassed an amazing collection of more than 40 vehicles that truly represent all facets of the hobby.

With so many cars to look at the truth is the collection is a bit overwhelming, and it is practically impossible to pick a favourite, but Austin's 1927 Ford Model T Roadster Pickup, a recreation of the car him and his buddies built in 1949 is a massterpiece. In addition to being razor sharp from every angle, the car also features one of Austin's blower manifolds on the V-8 60 engine. In amongst the colourful sea of chrome there are also vintage race cars including a 1945 Hilegrass Midget that once sped around tracks made of dirt, asphalt and even wooden boards.

The one car nearest and dearest to Austin is his 1939 Ford convertible sedan. It was his college wheels and ran in the 1952 Bonneville speed trials. Austin sold the car but his wife Joan tracked it down again in 1976 and gave it to Ken as a Christmas present.

"Throughout the years I've always had a passion for old cars," says Austin, who is also a former pilot and served in Korea with the United States Air Force. "They represent earlier and simpler times."

Austin's collection also illustrates how a farm boy from Oregon transformed the skills he obtained working on cars and inventing parts for them into a multi-million dollar dental supply company.

The original hand painted Rod Shop sign hanging from the ceiling of Austin's warehouse may appear a bit crude, but it serves as a glaring example of the American dream and how one man realized it. Inspiring stuff to be sure.

Paul.Williamson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2012 F2

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