Scene & Heard Issue 18

David Murphy is a name intrinsically linked to the burgeoning ‘Retro’ scene, online and in the real world… but what the hell is Retro?

“What did all these cars go to before?” A question asked of me by Street Machine’s very own Simon ‘Motorvation’ Coulson 14 years ago.In 2004, we were standing by the entrance road to Santa Pod at the first ever Retro Cars Show, our own little slice of this world, a forum called Retro Rides, barely four months old at the time.

Our stand had six cars on it, perfectly placed near the entrance and we could watch all this stuff arriving. You see, it had been less than a year since this whole thing had got its name, Retro, from the magazine that was organising this show.Now you see it everywhere, stickers, companies, clothing, everyone and their dogs has a ‘retro’ event, but what does it all mean and why should you, a Street Machine reader, care?

Let’s start with the answer we had for the question at the time, as it may help make sense of it all.We figured that in corners of fields at Bromley Pageant, or Donny, or Wheels Day, or any of a hundred classic or custom shows, there was the oddball selection, that’s us.You know those guys putting Cosworth engines in Cortinas in the Nineties, or looking after old Datsuns instead of banger racing them, or building low riders out of totally unsuitable vehicles. In ones and twos, in shows and events up and down the country, the tribe that became known as Retro was present, but not unified.

Certainly Street Machine was always a part of this, long before ‘retro’ had its name.It showed that not every rod needs to be an American car or a Pop, not every custom (or kustom) needs to be built out of Americana, and not every car you take to throw down the strip needed a monstrous V8.Indeed, flicking through the first few issues of Retro Car magazine would net you some familiar names to Street Machine readers: Jon Hill and Bryn Musselwhite both had a very evident hand.

What of the builders?The Beardmore Brothers are a name firmly associated with modified cars in the UK, and few things defined the early retro scene as well as John’s Cosworth powered hillclimb Morris Minor convertible.The intersection of racing, home brew ingenuity, custom car know how and an unusual base vehicle was the perfect storm.

For us, age of your car has always been a question – “is my car old enough to be retro?” or even “is my car too old to be retro?”  Well, to answer the second question, we welcome pre-war cars in to our events and always have a strong showing of attendees at the Vintage Hot Rod Association’s Pendine event.To the former, there is more of a story.  Right now it sits at about-1995-ish or earlier.

The ‘ish’ is where it gets a bit complicated. There are designs from well before ’95 that are registered later, and there are cars that were first built in ’98 that we’d probably consider ‘retro’, some of the limited run Japanese Kei cars as an example.It is annoyingly subjective, and I’m in the unenviable position of occasionally having to say, “no, really that isn’t”, then always add a “yet” at the end, because ultimately everything has potential to be cool, and time will always move forward.

If you draw a Venn diagram of four circles, all intersecting in the middle, then you label those circles “hot rod”, “custom”, “Americana” and “kustom,” then look at the area where they all overlap that, at least to my mind, would be Street Machine. The Retro scene can’t be defined like that; it has developed as its own thing, its own language that can’t be classified as being part of something else.

To draw a Venn diagram of what retro is you’d need to first start with a large circle labeled “retro”, then around its edge, overlapping, you could add “custom,” “race car,” “lowrider,” “hot rod,” “VW scene,” “JDM,” “classic,” “stance,” “off road” and whole bunch of others. The retro scene is a magpie – it sees things it likes and isn’t afraid to incorporate those things into its language.

It has trends and anti-trends. It can be done on a super tight budget or can take in builds that cost a fortune. It will happily enjoy someone building an unloved Skoda Favorit in their garage, as well as someone rolling out a Ferrari 250 SWB. We’re a very broad and very enthusiastic church, accepting of whoever you are and whatever you drive.

Now, all these years later, I stand with Simon at the Retro Rides events looking over a field or track filled with thousands of retro cars and it is still as exciting, seeing what is arriving. Compared with the scenes we evolved from, we’re still very young and still discovering what it is all about. There are few ‘rules,’ and we always prefer people to be out there doing it rather than just sitting indoors dreaming about it.

David Murphy is one of the men behind the bustling retro-rides.org online forum, the ever-popular Retro Rides Gathering at Shelsley Walsh and the new, growing Retro Rides Weekender at Goodwood. Get yourself along to any of them. Or all of them.