By David Dickinson as told by Tanya Biehler
in memory of Bob Biehler 1942-2012
Roland “Bern” Biehler was a “Jack of all trades” and his son, Bob, was proof that “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Bern had fifty-four jobs in his lifetime and seemed able to do just about anything. If there was something that he wanted to accomplish and didn’t know how, he’d run down to the library and read, absorbing knowledge like a sponge. He would then go apply his new found knowledge and become an expert. Similarly, his son Bob seemed able to do anything he set his mind to. Things came even easier to him, as was proven over a lifetime of designing and constructing equipment, cars, art or anything else that was creative and required concentration and dedication.
As he progressed through his life, Bob Biehler gained many admirers and fans; people simply in awe of what he could create in his mind, plan out and then construct, sometimes using the most common materials laying around that others would throw out or send to Goodwill. Maybe the best example was the custom air cleaner he fabbed up for a famous car he built called “The Defibrillator”. That little unit that so many people admire was made out of a Chinese wok. There’s more to that story and it wasn’t just an air cleaner. Let’s just say that Bob became a world class hot rod builder with lots of tricks hiding up his sleeves; and under his ever present do rag.
Bob bought his first car when he was fourteen years old. While he couldn’t drive it, he could spend hours of tinkering, repairing and personalizing his new baby so it was just right when he got his license. That car was a 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline and it was the just the first of many automobiles that tugged at his heart strings. This was a fun car to play with, but Bob wanted to build hot rods. He had dreams of fast cars, with no tops; cars that were fun to drive and would catch the eye of everyone going down the road; especially the girls. Girls liked cars.
Long before Bob’s dream of building a car came to pass, his parents had to deal with the prospect of keeping the family covered and secure. The roof over their heads came in the form of a two bedroom tract house. Affordability, like today, was an issue and the move was made in spite of the fact that the family already consisted of Bob, his parents and a sister. So, two bedrooms didn’t work for too long. As Bob and his sister grew, the need for separate bedrooms became more of a necessity than a luxury.
An addition to the rear of the house became a master bedroom and the two original bedrooms were perfect for the growing brother and sister. Time and love have a way of changing things and so the Biehler family grew a little more. With a baby on the way, they needed to make more room in the small, yet growing house. The solution came in the form of the small single car garage.
The garage door remained, but a dividing wall was constructed to create a room that was accessible from the inside of the house. That room became Bob’s bedroom and needless to say, Bob was thrilled. He got to live in the garage; a natural environment for a young car nut in the making. In that bedroom, Bob dreamed his dreams and made his plans and with a sharpened pencil and a fresh notebook began creating designs that would inspire for a lifetime.
By the time Bob was sixteen, he was ready to build a hotrod. Like many young men in those days, whose cars were literally built in the back yard or the driveway, Bob covered his first hot rod with a tarp to protect it from the elements when it was not being worked on, but it was still exposed to unsavory elements of the public in the dark of night. Many young car builders in those days dealt with the lack of security that a canvas tarp provided.
That lack of security reared its ugly head one night when Bob’s new transmission went missing. Unlike many crimes, this one was easy to solve. Bob and another guy had been negotiating for the same tranny and Bob, in the other guy’s mind, had bought it out from under him. That didn’t sit well with the other guy and he still wanted the transmission. So, in the dead of night, he snuck up to the house and stole it out from under the tarp, where it sat waiting for its imminent install. The next morning, Bob went over to the guy’s house, walked right into the garage and spotted the tranny on the floor.
While many have known Bob to be pretty easy going and understanding of others, this really pissed him off and fired up his temper. He picked the tranny up off the ground and went over and threw it into the rear window of the car that the thief was getting ready to install it in and then hauled the tranny back home to its rightful recipient, his 1923 Model T roadster.
The solution to security was found in more construction. Actually, demolition would be more accurate. To get the car under cover, the dividing wall in the garage was cut out in the shape of the car and the car pulled in. Bob was now truly in his element and this was the beginning of a long and successful life of recycling old steel.
By the time the car was finished and on the road, a new decade had started. The 60’s became a time of discovery and excitement for young people and Bob and his best friend and eventual brother in law, Chuck, were no exception. They had cars, time and the spirit of adventure.
The 1960 National Motor and Sports Show at Balboa Park in San Diego was a big deal to the boys. It drew cars from all over and Bob and Chuck got to put their cars in the show. Bob’s ’23 T and Chuck’s ’32 Ford five window coupe were on the floor with some of the nicest cars in the area that represented some of the finest craftsmanship in SoCal. These boys were in Hot Rod Heaven and they displayed their hot rods with the same pride as those craftsmen whose work they so admired.
Once the cars were parked in their assigned spots and display ropes were up, the angel hair was laid neatly in place and the boys were ready for the show. The next day was going to be a big one. This had just been the set up for the show and as they wandered around the building now full of old cars made new, they were in awe. As the displays were completed and the old guys were leaving, the boys asked the security guard if they could spend the night and sleep in their hot rods. This was highly unusual, but the boys pleaded their case. They had no way home and back. What else could they do? Well, the guard, an understanding lover of old cars relented; providing they would behave themselves.
At first, the boys sat and played cards in the aisle beside their cars, watching the guard come and go. After watching the guard and checking their watches, they determined that it took exactly eleven minutes for the guard to make his rounds. This seemed plenty of time over the course of the night to truly inspect each car up close and personal. These were custom cars and hot rods that they had read about in magazines and had coveted from afar.
They felt privileged to sit in cars that were famous in their day; the Kookie car from 77 Sunset Strip, Elliot Ness’ car from The Untouchables, a highly modified Olds Toronado called The Californian and one of the main attractions, Barris’ Beatnik Bandit. There were the custom Mercury lead sleds that have always been popular, the tri-five Chevys that were popular to redesign, the always coveted ’32 Fords and much more. Each car was unique and a work of art by someone.
Here, in the privacy of the huge room full of cars that was Bob’s bedroom for the night, they took the opportunity to sit in each and every car, careful to not disturb the displays or leave fingerprints on the highly polished works of automotive art. Some cars they would sit in together “cruising” and others they’d find their way into alone, only to yell across an aisle to each other about how cool the cars were.
That evening was the equivalent of turning two five year old boys loose in a candy store and they ate their fill every ten minutes before rushing back to their cars, seemingly behaving themselves each time the guard came by. The guard would wave or stop and chat for a moment, but always had a knowing smile for the two.
This was the first of many shows over the years for Bob Biehler and he never tired of looking at the old cars or admiring the creative art and craftsmanship of their builders. A career that started out with a Soapbox Derby car closed as world class hot rod builder. Always looking for new ideas and sharing his experience and ideas with others, Bob Biehler was a car man’s car man.
This is the first in a series of stories to commemorate the life of Bob Biehler, who passed away on April 13, 2012. Check back for more stories often and if you have a story about Bob that you would like to contribute, please contact us or the family. Bob's wife, Tanya, and the rest of the family are an integral part of telling Bob's story and we hope you will join us in recounting his life and passion for his trade, his family and friends.