Reunited: Hot rod club celebrates 50 years

Published 12:55 pm Thursday, August 3, 2023

When Smithfield resident Al Casteen’s daughter, Taraleigh, took him to dinner on July 28, the lifelong hot-rodder recognized a 1936 Ford Phaeton in the restaurant’s parking lot.

“That’s Gerry Burger’s car,” he announced as they pulled into Dock of the Bay from Carrollton Boulevard.

As Taraleigh tells the story, her father got out of his own car and started walking toward the Phaeton when he heard a voice admonish him, teasingly, “You go sticking your hand in anybody’s car?”

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“When I built it,” Casteen replied, turning to see Burger.

Casteen’s friend of more than 40 years had made the 500-mile drive from Brunswick, Georgia, bringing the Phaeton along on a trailer, to celebrate the soon-to-be 50th anniversary of the Portsmouth Street Rod Association Casteen had founded.

Casteen, who was living in Portsmouth at the time, started the group in 1974. Taraleigh, in the span of a week, organized the surprise celebration.

Burger is the retired publisher of Rodder’s Digest, a nationwide hot-rod magazine that once featured Casteen’s prized “Fat Rat,” an extensively modified 1939 Chevrolet Coupe, on its cover. Four years ago, Casteen sold Burger the Phaeton, and had been eagerly awaiting a chance to see what modifications Burger had since made.

The morning after Casteen’s unexpected reunion with Burger, Taraleigh and her sister, Lana, asked Casteen to meet them at the Isle of Wight County Volunteer Rescue Squad under the pretext of having coffee and doughnuts with its members.

“I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what,” Casteen said.

Casteen, an honorary member of the organization, had made establishing the squad’s station on Great Spring Road one of his top priorities during his two terms in office as a county supervisor. Arriving in the Rat, he saw his daughters had arranged a second surprise.

There, he found the station’s ambulances parked outside, still ready to respond to any calls, and the vehicle bays instead filled with surviving charter members of the club and their hot rods.

“I was probably the youngest guy when we started,” Casteen said.

When Casteen purchased the Rat in the early 1980s from fellow hot-rodder Mike Wiley of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the car already sported its lowered roofline, shortened body and rear-opening “suicide doors.” According to J.D. Power, an automotive data-gathering company, the term dates to the 1960s when activist and third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader used it in his book “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Dangers of the American Automobile,” to describe the doors’ ability to fall open at high speeds.

Casteen has made his own changes to the Rat over the decades, including having it repainted in his favorite color – yellow.

Casteen’s club has attracted newer, younger members over the decades, among them Sarah Tyson and her husband, Justin, who made the nearly 300-mile drive from York, Pennsylvania, for the reunion.

Tyson and Casteen met roughly 18 years ago while each attending a national car show in York.

“This young teenage girl came through and seemed to know an awful lot about cars,” Casteen recalled.

“Dad kind of took her under his wing,” Taraleigh said.

“Our club has never been exclusive,” Casteen said. “It’s always been fun and fellowship for me.”

His exploits with area car enthusiasts include driving one of his hot rods on a nearly 6,000-mile round trip to Pomona, California, for the annual LA Roadster Show, which was chronicled in the July 27, 2016, edition of The Smithfield Times.

Casteen’s fascination with old cars began in early childhood.

“I was 2 or 3 years old,” Casteen said.

Casteen’s uncle moved in with his father in the early 1950s and brought with him an old Ford.

“That motor sounded good,” Casteen recalls.

His father also ran a service station for 31 years.

“I was right there with him a lot of time,” Casteen said. “I just grew up around (cars).”

Casteen described the club’s reunion as a “humbling experience.”

“It was such an honor,” Casteen said.