(MONEY Magazine) – Steering his immaculate '32 Ford across the manicured 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach golf course, Bruce Meyer gooses the throttle and releases a roar that says: "We're not to be ignored." Rumbling past a phalanx of priceless aristocratic touring cars, Meyer steers his open-wheeled roadster to a designated patch of grass facing a $180,000 1933 Packard and a 1910 Benz Prince Heinrich Racer with an estimated value of $1 million. It's just past 7 a.m. on a mid-August Sunday morning, and he's now positioned for the start of the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the most prestigious--and starchiest--automobile show in the world.

Meyer's noisy arrival is an invasion of sorts. This mecca for automobile collectors has traditionally been dominated by refined European nameplates such as Aston Martin, Ferrari and Rolls-Royce. The Concours is the peak of a three-day vintage-car extravaganza featuring an auto show, races and auctions. A by-invitation-only event, the Concours pits teams of collectors and restorers against one another this year in 30 categories of historic automobiles, such as Antique through 1915 and European Classic 1925-1937, the latter a category in which celeb fashion designer Ralph Lauren has entered his 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Gangloff Cabriolet. But none of this fazes Meyer, who scans the line of nine noisy, rude, eye-catching late '20s and early '30s roadsters that make up the Historic Hot Rods class and says, "We're here to celebrate the all-American hot rod."

Hot rods at Pebble Beach? Holy blazer buttons! Meyer's assault on tradition is akin to squiring a pack of Playboy bunnies to the country club tea dance. But this hot-rod happening didn't happen overnight. For seven years, the 55-year-old car collector from Beverly Hills has been lobbying Concours officials to include some of the old roadsters that were souped up in the '40s and '50s. Finally the gatekeepers gave in, yielding to a surge in popular affection for these masterpieces of backyard engineering. "People are starting to realize that hot rods are a form of American folk art that deserves to be maintained and collected," says veteran automotive journalist and hot-rod owner Brock Yates.

Now that he has been granted admission to the Concours, Meyer isn't content just to show off his restored "deuce." He plans to shoot for the best-in-class trophy, drive around town in another of his treasures, a red '32 Ford coupe worth about $100,000 (see the photograph on page B13) and, finally, bid on the 1932 Miller Automotive Special, yet one more powered-up vintage Ford that will be offered on the night of the show by Christie's, the renowned London auction house. He's a man with hot-rod fever, and he's come to Pebble Beach hoping the disease will spread.

For years the car-loving cognoscenti have dismissed hot rods as the tinkerings of proletarian amateurs with rolled-up T-shirts and ducktail haircuts. But for Meyer and his fraternity of collectors, most of whom grew up in the '50s, the bad-boy mystique only adds to the nostalgia value of the car.

What the original hot-rodders did was modify Detroit's prewar production vehicles--especially '32 Ford Roadsters, which were available and cheap in the years after World War II--to vastly improve their performance. They'd "chop" the car's top to lower the roof line, "channel" it by dropping the body over the chassis rails, swap body and engine parts from other makes and models, and boost the horsepower from the stock 65 hp to more than 200 hp by boring wider engine cylinders and lengthening the stroke. Then they'd test the souped-up results against competing machines on the street or at the dry lakes in the California desert. The so-called custom cars--such as the ubiquitous chopped 1950 Mercury--were built for show. Hot rods were built to go.

Today's collectors are a far cry from the shade-tree mechanics who originally pulled the fenders and running boards off these winning roadsters. The nine Pebble Beach rodders include a wealthy shopping-center developer, a private investor and a corporate fruit farmer. Meyer himself is the prosperous proprietor of Geary's, an upscale Beverly Hills gift emporium. His mega-garage at home is wall-to-wall classics, including a 1967 Ferrari GTB-4, a 1965 Shelby Cobra, a show-winning Duesenberg that belonged to John D. Rockefeller's business partner and a Mercedes that Clark Gable used to tool around in. A varying number of cars from his collection are regularly on loan to the Petersen Automotive Museum of Los Angeles.

The wheels he enjoys most, however, are the old Fords. "Every time I take one out," he says, "I forget about my Ferrari." He can choose from among the three-window '32 coupe, which he just restored for $85,000; a '32 with a head-turning checkered-flag paint job that was originally redone by Bob McGee and Dick Scritchfield, one of the most famous hot-rod teams of the late 1940s, and was featured in a 1948 Hot Rod magazine; or the nasty-but-nice black deuce that he's entered in the Concours. That car, the object of a $100,000, 1,800-hour restoration by Pomona, Calif. specialist Pete Chapouris, had first been turned into a rod in the late '40s by Doane Spencer, whose reputation as an innovator and fabricator among hot-rod enthusiasts is unsurpassed.

When Meyer first started driving '50s cars--long before he started collecting them--his ambitions were considerably less grand. In 1957 he tricked up his 1950 Plymouth to impress the girls at Los Angeles High. His freshman year at Berkeley, he took some of the cash from a student loan and bought himself a 1950 Mercury for $150, cut a few coils out of the springs to lower it and drove around campus looking like a character destined for Happy Days.

He took pleasure in buying and selling cars and gradually traded up, buying his first Mercedes 1955 300SL Gullwing--the quintessential sports car of its era--for $4,000 in 1964, after graduating from college. A few years later, Meyer bought the 1956 version he now has in his garage--it had just 12,000 original miles and was priced at $15,000. Today's estimated value: $210,000.

Meyer's first hot rod was an archetypal '32 Ford highboy (so named because of the stock roadster's arched rear deck), which he purchased for $15,000 in 1979 from aficionado Jim Busby, himself a hot-rodder and race-car driver. Meyer was hesitant to take this growler to work, but when he finally did, he realized that even in snobby Beverly Hills it was considered eye candy. As Meyer's wife Raylene explains it: "When people look at you in a hot rod, it's always smiles and thumbs-up."

The more Meyer studied the hot-rod phenomenon, the more he was drawn to the top 1% or 2% of the market--cars that possessed what the art world refers to as provenance. That meant they were either the product of well-known '50s craftsmen like Tommy Ivo, Ray Brown, Alex Xydias and Doane Spencer, or they were cars that had been successfully raced on the drag strips and the lakes. The best of them had been featured in magazines like Hop Up and Hot Rod some 40 or more years ago.

"Bruce gets credit for being the first one to pull these historic cars out of the boneyard," says Tommy Milton, who runs Collector's Cars, an Arcadia, Calif. restoration shop. Meyer began his quest by browsing through old issues of car magazines and picking out the ones that had broken records or turned heads. Then he tracked them down through the auto-collecting grapevine.

He searched for the chopped and lowered Pierson Bros. coupe that had run 153 mph at Bonneville, and found it was still racing in Oregon as the Tom Thumb Special. He expanded the hunt to include the era's straight-line open-wheeled racers, so named because they raced exclusively on straight courses like the Bonneville salt flats. His 1962 Don "The Snake" Prudhomme top-fuel dragster--the one with more than 200 wins and only nine losses--was found behind a speed shop in Sacramento. He pulled the So-Cal Speed Shop Belly Tank streamliner out of an old dockside shed in a gang-ridden neighborhood in Wilmington, Calif. This is a car whose body had been formed in 1949 out of a teardrop-shaped auxiliary fuel tank from a World War II P-38 fighter. Fitted with a 200-hp flathead Mercury V-8 and a racing suspension, it once turned 198 miles an hour, but it hadn't been raced in years. After buying it, Meyer handed it over to his friend Chapouris for a nuts-and-bolts $50,000 restoration.

To further research his finds, Meyer relies on period photos, press clippings and, when possible, advice from the original craftsmen. "What really interests me," he says, "is authenticity." Typically he'll approach the original builder and ask whether he wants to be involved in the restoration.

Completing a restoration--cosmetic and otherwise--on these old cars is tricky, however. Go too far, and you risk ruining the original. "It'd be like defacing a van Gogh," Meyer says. According to Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, "You have to size up the difference between real neglect and honest wear and aging." Also, the original creators typically treated their cars as works in progress. No sooner would they have one engine-and-drivetrain combination than they'd tear it out and try something new. For collectors like Meyer, proper restoration is a matter of determining the car's specs at a chosen point in its creation and replicating them.

Meyer's conscientious hot-rod archaeology has contributed its own trickle-down effect to the swelling interest in these American classics. Specialty magazines like Hot Rod and Street Rodder have growing monthly sales of 750,000 and 127,000, respectively, and a perfect-bound glossy new quarterly, the Rodder's Journal, covers cars the way Art & Auction covers the Impressionists. It sells more than half of its 12,000 copies in hot-rod specialists' shops. This past January, the Oakland Museum of California Art mounted a show called "Hot Rods & Customs: The Men and Machines of California's Car Culture," confirming that the best of these street creations are now suitable for a gallery.

The enthusiasm has translated into escalating prices, even for so-so cars. "Five to 10 years ago people had little interest in the flathead V-8s," says Kirk White, who bought and sold high-end sports cars for years but currently concentrates on hot rods. "You could buy abandoned rods with a bit of history for $10,000 to $20,000. Now you're probably going to pay $50,000 for one." While it's still possible for wrench-happy hobbyists to find prewar Fords like the proverbial abandoned Roadster in a barn that the farmer's widow will trade for $10,000, pristine originals are rare. Ford made only 12,080 of them in 1932 (original price: $460). By the time interest in them reawakened in 1990, most had been junked or run into the ground, and the 65-year-old steel on those remaining sometimes seemed as fragile as 200-year-old lace.

As a result, most hot-rod fanciers either admire from a distance or rely on the manufacturers of reproduction parts or so-called cloned cars. There are now more than 350 street-rod suppliers across the country turning out fiberglass bodies, copycat dashboards and fuel induction systems that replicate the rodders' variations on Henry Ford's originals. A separate class of high-end designers create one-of-a-kind custom cars for high rollers like comedian Tim Allen who pay as much as $250,000 for a hand-built retro rod that's reminiscent of traditional racers but is brand new from the ground up.

Even Chrysler Corp. is getting into the act with a factory-built hot rod, the Plymouth Prowler, that is an unabashed tribute to the nation's home-built originals. The Prowler comes complete with a 214-hp V-6 engine, purple paint job and removable fenders. It's been in the showrooms since August, and the company expects to sell all of the 1,000 it's producing this year at a list price of about $40,000.

The escalating cost of the original "lost" rods and the high price of quality restoration--typically $25 to $80 an hour for a job that might take 2,000 hours--mean that hot-rod fanatics like Meyer are now collecting for fun and not the prospect of flipping their jewels for a profit. Meyer's belly tank racer could conceivably be worth $250,000, but he'll never know unless he puts a price tag on it. "I haven't tested the resale market," he confesses, "because I can't bear to sell any of my cars."

That doesn't stop him from searching for additional trophies like Stu Hilborn's missing 150-mph Lakester or a perfect show-quality Bugatti to round out his eclectic collection. His rules: "I only buy what I like, I do careful research before I write a check, and I never buy on spec."

Well before Meyer went to Pebble Beach, his collector's eye focused on the Miller Special, an unrestored '50s salt-flats racer that will be in Christie's auction of 66 cars, a group that includes a hyperrare 1932 Bucciali. The motoring appraisers at the venerable auctioneer have determined that the Miller's race history, 1950s magazine appearances, and link to well-known engine tuner Verlin Marshall are reasons enough for them to break precedent and put a hot rod on the block. The auction represents one more chance for Meyer and his confreres to determine a new price floor for the class. "If the car goes for less than $50,000," he says, "I'll be the new owner."

On Concours morning at Pebble Beach, Meyer and Pete Chapouris stand next to their Doane Spencer special while four solemn judges in blue blazers cast their appraising eyes over each of the nine radical roadsters. The judges' job is to award points for design, restoration detail and faithfulness to the original mid-'40s versions. It takes them the better part of three hours to move down the line of hot rods, evaluating and comparing them.

Kirk White, the high-end convert, shows off his roadster with the help of the original builder, Ray Brown. Next to Meyer, developer Don Orosco prepares to fire up his '32 Ford, a car modified by rodder Tony LaMesa. Back in 1955, future rocker Rick Nelson craved this very car but was talked out of it by his father Ozzie, who advised him that $3,000 was too much to pay for an old heap. The car's current estimated value: anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000.

When the judges return from deliberating, they give the top three nods to Meyer, White and Orosco, who approach the awards ramp behind the wheels of their roadsters. Then, with the crowd applauding, Meyer is summoned to the winner's circle and awarded first prize. He also gets a separate trophy, largely for being the chief promoter of the effort to include hot rods in this show of shows.

That night, under the Christie's tent, the Bucciali sells for $850,000. Then the Miller Special is put on the block with a preset opening bid of $35,000. Meyer wasn't sure whether somebody with deep pockets would try to outbid him. So beforehand he spoke on the phone to his publisher friend Bob Petersen of the Petersen Museum and suggested that one or the other of them should buy the rod. Petersen remembered the Miller from the early days of hot rodding and, to Meyer's relief, suggested Meyer bid on behalf of the museum and authorized him to offer as much as $80,000.

It turns out that Meyer doesn't have to go that high. He's the only gotta-have-it Miller Special person in this crowd. The price action briefly escalates, then the auctioneer's hammer falls. Meyer's winning bid for the museum is $55,000.

Christie's will add another $8,000 for their buyer's premium (15% up to $50,000 and 10% of the amount above that), and California sales tax comes to $5,198. But who cares? Meyer is going home with two trophies and a new museum piece. He's made his point and turned plenty of heads. "This is as good as it gets for a car collector," he says. "C'mon, let's go for a ride."