Retro Rumblings – Too Tall Pat Ganahl Gone (Way) Too Soon
Editor’s Note: This month’s column is a tribute to hot rod journalist and historian Pat Ganahl by someone who knew him and worked with him in various capacities over the span of four decades. The floor is yielded to Thom Taylor.
What can you say about the passing of someone who brought you fun, humor, information, history, photography, and perspective about hot rodding and custom cars? Pat Ganahl did all of that and more. Never one to be in the spotlight, he preferred imparting whatever he could to further hot rod and custom car projects and culture. A sort-of pied piper, if you will.
Pat died his way in mid-August, driving off the top end at Riverdale Raceway 1/8th-mile dragstrip in Washington, in his beloved Ike Iacono dragster. Death is always hard to absorb but dying doing one of the things you really love, after retiring from writing and wrenching for 50 years, ain’t a bad way to go. Of course, at a young 75 years old, it is still way too soon. Pat’s wife Anna told journalist Anna Marco that he died doing what he loved because he wasn’t a retirement home kind of guy.
Pat’s writing was and is so respected that he became editor of Street Rodder magazine and later Hot Rod magazine. But he was also the one to, along with publisher Lee Kelley, revive Rod & Custom magazine. Then, after five years at R&C, he did plenty more informing and cheerleading for hot rodding with how-to books, along with his impeccable writing for The Rodder’s Journal. He was an endless font of history, tech, and features that pushed along the hot rod and custom car genre.
Pat’s wife Anna always stood staunchly behind Pat’s pursuits, including attending the event where Pat lost his life. They were preparing to celebrate their golden anniversary, which makes the loss all the more tragic. And then there is their only child, Bill. He could have become an engineer or web developer or perhaps an English professor. But instead, he followed Pat into the hot rod rabbit hole. Apprenticing at Roy Brizio’s South San Francisco shop for years, Bill went on to open his own business as South City Rod and Custom, in Northern California.
Pat was the physically tallest and also the shortest-tenured editor at Hot Rod magazine. He knew from the beginning that his tolerance of office politics would prove to be a problem for him. It ultimately proved to cut short his editorship. But during his time there, he oversaw the Low-Buck Specials, Caddy Hack insanity, and infamous April Fool’s Swimsuit issue, among many others. He was pulled from the editor’s chair soon after that swimsuit issue.
“The big thing was the swimsuit issue hadn’t come out yet, and of course, when it did it was a huge success,” Pat told me a few years ago. “It takes a few months to get the sales figures once it’s off sale, so it wasn’t until months later they found the swimsuit issue sold 100,000 more copies on the newsstand. That was almost $300,000 in Mr. Petersen’s pocket – it was total profit.
“I had a staff of five people besides me,” Pat said of his time at Hot Rod. “That included Gray Baskerville, John Baechtel, Marlan Davis, and then two guys we called ‘the kids:’ Todd Howard and Scott Dahlquist. What was really fun was that I was never a manager of people before, so you can imagine what it was like managing such a diverse group, especially Gray and Marlan. Having staff meetings, corralling their ideas, and then putting it in a magazine every month was fun.”
A few days after the swimsuit issue hit the newsstand, Pat was demoted to staff editor. This happened not because of the swimsuit issue, but because the overlords wanted to fire his managing editor. Pat strenuously objected. But he stayed with Hot Rod until 1988, when he and Lee Kelley, also a former Hot Rod editor, revived Rod & Custom magazine.
“The whole thing was totally bootstrapped, and we brought Rod & Custom back successfully,” said Pat. “At six months, we were within five percent of Street Rodder’s circulation. I did it for the next five years, although doing it by myself almost killed me.”
A true hands-on, do-it-yourself hot rodder, Pat built numerous hot rods, dragsters, and custom cars throughout his editorships, writing, and hijinks. Most of the work was done in a modest garage behind his house. “He was the first person I knew personally who painted his own cars – well,” quipped David Freiburger on social media after Pat’s death.
After retiring from writing, Pat still couldn’t stop writing. So, for the past few years he cranked out a bi-monthly blog featuring the same type of stories, entertainment, information, and photography we’d come to expect from him. Called Pat Ganahl’s Rod & Custom, he occasionally warned his readers he had plenty more he wanted to present.
“I’m retired,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of good stuff, I’m proud of what I did, and I think it was pretty well done, creative, and spoke to the audience, so I’m done.” Being the hot rodders we are, though selfish it might sound, we really hoped at least the blog could go on forever.
As it is, he finished his last hot rod project, a ’33 Ford Fordor. With Anna riding shotgun, and Billy in his custom Riviera with his wife Sabina, the Ganahls had already traveled several thousand miles enjoying the cars and backroads. He was also anxious to find places to run the Iacono dragster. Not to compete, but to wring it out a little. And he never owned a newer car as a daily. He drove his yellow 1956 F100 everywhere, when he wasn’t in his Deuce highboy roadster or other hot rods he enjoyed through the decades.
According to Bill, they don’t know what Pat’s cause of death was, but he says it doesn’t matter. Pat died doing what he wanted and lived a full life. Bill and Anna may never know, but Bill wants to honor his father’s memory and for Pat to be allowed to rest in peace, which makes it unnecessary to know the reason for his death. He also said it was the best pass his dad ever made in the dragster, which somehow seems consoling for Bill.
So now, one of the few hot rod, custom car, and drag racing ambassadors is gone. But Pat was so prolific with all the genres he covered and the ways he covered them that he left a healthy legacy behind. And in many ways, he is still building his legacy through his son Bill. Pat, you’ll be missed by many, and we thank you for all the contributions you’ve made to the hobby.