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With two toddler-age sons, a house in a quiet neighborhood and only 34 years on his odometer, Robert Roling might be the last person you’d suspect to be the owner of the 1950 Chevrolet coupe in the parking lot outside his shop, Kustoms Royale. It’s something straight out of an Eisenhower-era morality play about greasers on the boulevard to hell: a two-tone gem of a car, yellow and white, with a swoop of Buick trim up the side and a bumper that would decapitate anything taller than a chipmunk.
As Roling will tell you, however: You don’t need cupholders when you’ve got cool.
Housed in a cavernous metal building in Southwest Little Rock, Roling’s Kustoms Royale is one of the lone Arkansas shops that can steer you in the direction of a “traditional” custom car. Huge on the West Coast and in Europe and Japan, traditional cars are just what they sound like: cars that pay visual and mechanical homage to those dreamed up by kids in the ’40s and ’50s, with wide whitewalls, tuck-and-roll interiors, and bodies created from equal parts ingenuity and what can be scoured from ancient junkyards.
Though it’s lonely for a traditional car builder in Arkansas, Roling’s perseverance has recently started to pay off, most notably in the form of a big photo spread on cars built in his shop — one of them a sage green ’52 Oldsmobile Super 88 built for Metallica frontman James Hetfield — in the current Rodder’s Journal, the slick, coffee-table-sized quarterly focusing on traditional cars as nothing less than rolling sculpture.
Roling said the love of the older customs bit early. While working in a Benton hot rod shop in 1988, he saw a feature article on the roots of hot rodding, featuring many famous custom cars of the ’50s: restyled Mercurys and Fords, re-sculpted by their owners into sleek, road-going torpedoes.
“When I saw that stuff, I just went berserk. It was so cool I couldn’t believe it,” Roling said. “The really nice customs, to me, they look elegant. They’re like a coachbuilt car from the ’30s — a Dusenberg or an Auburn. They’re just pleasing to look at.”
Though the style had been mostly resigned to the history books for decades by then, he knew he had to have one. Soon after, he made his first trip to one of the largest traditional car shows in the country, the West Coast Cruising Nationals, held annually in Paso Robles, Calif. — “Paso” for short.
“When you go to Paso, there are people there from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, all over Western Europe and the UK,” he said. “Whole car clubs will come over from Scotland. Those guys are hardcore into it.”
By 1997, he had finished his 1950 Chevrolet. The next year, the car was featured in a spread in “Rod and Custom,” one of the big magazines of the then-fledgling traditional scene. Though he had planned on moving to Southern California soon after finishing his first car, marriage and a growing family kept him in Little Rock. In 2001, he started Kustoms Royale.
A slew of magazines now focus exclusively on traditional cars, but, Roling said, not many Little Rock gearheads “get” the style he aims for. Though his cars always draw crowds at shows in Texas and California, on the local scene, his creations are either ignored or openly derided as ugly-duckling throwbacks to another era.
“I talk to people all the time who say, ‘Robert, that’s a great car, but you’ve got to get rid of them whitewalls!’ ” Roling said. “Or they’ll say, ‘You need to tint your windows.’ They just don’t get it. … They don’t know the history behind Kustoms. They don’t know that it was started by guys 60 years ago; that it died out and now it’s having a rebirth.”
Though Roling wants his cars to look good, he also wants them to run good as well, which leads him to what hardcore devotees of the traditional car scene might call sacrilege: the use of modern components like disc brakes, air conditioning, and more up-to-date engines. While the Hetfield Olds and his ’50 Chevrolet may look like antiques, they’re something closer to a mid-’80s Sunday-go-to-meeting sedan underneath, with reliable components and engines gleaned from late-model cars. Roling said it’s all about creating cars that run as good as they look.
“When I build a car, I try to think about it like my mom’s going to be driving it,” he said. “[The owner’s] got to be able to get in the car, hit the key and drive off, every time.” The proof of Roling’s function-with-form attitude is the amount of asphalt that has passed under the wheels of his ’50 Chevy without a major mechanical problem: over 100,000 miles since the car was completed in 1997, with more than 10 trips back and forth to California, a few jaunts to Miami and “more trips to Texas than I can count.”
Dependability with style doesn’t come cheap, however. For a frame-up, completely redone car like the one he built for James Hetfield, Roling said the final tally comes in at around $100,000 — though the price can be a lot less depending on how elaborate a customer wants to get with details like paint, suspension, and interior. “That kind of shocks people,” Roling said. “But when you lay it out on paper, it makes sense. For instance, we’ve got a $50-an-hour labor rate, and a really nice car can take a thousand hours to complete. That $50,000 right there.”
While Roling isn’t sure why the Little Rock car scene hasn’t caught on to traditional cars, he doesn’t discount anyone who wants to trick out their ride. Most often, he said, he hears complaints by older hot rodders about “Tuners” — the kids who dress up Hondas and Toyotas with big wheels, big rear wings, ground effects, and mufflers that make their cars sound like hopped-up chainsaws. Roling, however, sees it as just another turn of the custom car wheel.
“I don’t knock ’em,” he said. “They’re doing the same thing kids were doing in 1957 when they were putting on a four-barrel (carburetor) instead of a two-barrel. … For me, it’s just about the cars.”