This time of year means a lot of things to me, everyone is constantly scrambling from place to place getting ready for the holidays, the weather in California finally catches up to us and we bust out the winter gear for our few frigid nights in the sub 50’s, and bloggers like me get a little time to get caught up on unfinished business while our coworkers are enjoying eachother’s company at holiday parties. Before I sign off for the end of the year I wanted to revisit a post I made a while back on the Los Boulevardos Forum, which was the first place I got to dip my toes into the world of online communication and longer form writing. This one always comes to mind this time of year because I can still feel the cold hopelessness of banging on an empty warehouse door looking for answers and not knowing how this was all going to end. If you’re a romantic like me about old metal shops and local hot rodding history I think you’ll get a kick out of it too, so here it is: my story of (to the best of my knowledge) the last Mor Drop axle.
So after reading a lot of different approaches to lowering a straight-axled car, and spending a lot of time looking at this killer shot of the Rolling Lab in Winfield’s shop, flipped and dropped (scrub lines be damned):
I finally decided that I was afraid of the huge bump-steer problems that I wasn’t positive I’d be able to engineer out with a flipped axle, and I sought out other options. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a purist by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m not one of these guys who does things automotively simply for historical value. I am, however, an engineering minimalist. I whole-heartedly subscribe to Occam’s Razor- which, in an automotive context, means that the simplest solution to a problem is by far the best. I wanted to keep my suspension as simple as possible, which meant keeping as much of the original components as I could. So sub-framing, for a number of reasons, was out. Flipping the axle seemed inherently unsafe and unstable, so I was left with having the axle dropped. I looked around on the HAMB for a while, and after reading countless reviews and posts I decided to take a chance and go to the legendary MorDrop in Oakland.
When it comes to Hot Rodding history, there are a number of famous Axle shops, but there are few as widely known and established as MorDrop. Also, aside from a few custom painters, shops, and the now defunct Oakland Roadster Show, MorDrop is one of the Oakland’s greatest contributions to hot rodding history. I had read the name dozens of times in print in my little pages collection, and was thrilled with the prospect of having a part of my car modified in such a legendary shop.
It wasn’t too easy to get a hold of them on the phone. At first, I feared that the HAMB rumors might be true, and that this place may have closed their doors, but after weeks of calling any number I could find, I finally got through! I remember it clearly, I was sitting next to my broken down van on an old tire eyeballing the wheelwells when a gravely voice answered my call:
“MorDrop”, the man said in a hurry. I stuttered:
“Hello? Uh… Hi. I was calling about getting an Axle dropped..?:
“Yeah. We do that. What kind? How far?”
“Uh… it’s an Econoline, 1963, I was looking to go four inches.”
“63 Econoline? I think that’s a little far. What size wheels?”
“Three inches will do it. You don’t want to go past three on an Econoline. Maybe with 15’s, but at 14’s you’ll be pushing it. You gonna drive it on the street, right? Measure and call me back when you’re sure.”
I was taken aback; not only was this place in business, but it was as if I had dialed and had my call somehow transmitting back to the 1970’s. I mean, how many times have you walked into a parts store and had grown men not have the slightest idea what an Econoline was? I was amazed. And a little put off, admittedly, the guy came off as a bit of a jerk. I’m sure the fault was mine, being a punk-assed kid.
I re-measured, and yes, the guy was right. At four inches the bottom of the axle would be dangerously at the scrub line, which means that it I had a blowout I would be sliding on the Axle, which would be fun for no-one.
I called him back, and amazingly, I got through again.
“Hey, it’s me again. You’re right, three looks like the most I can do.”
“Yep. Where you shipping it from?”
“Oh, I’m local, I’ll just drop it off in person.”
“Sure. If the rollup door is closed, bang on it.”
“Ok, cool. See you tomorrow! Hey, what was your name again?”
“Marty. Marty Costello. See you.”
I was so excited about my axle I had a hard time doing much else besides cleaning the hell out of it and sorting out all it’s brake hardware. I loaded it up in the trunk of the 57 and headed home. MorDrop is in Oakland between Fruitvale and Alameda, just before the bridge, so I’d pass by the exit everyday on my way to school. Every complaint I’d read on the internet had basically been about communication, so I knew that dealing with the place face to face was going to yield the best results. It’s hard to forget an order when someone’s stopping in every other day, and that was my plan.
I pulled of 880 towards MorDrop the next day after class. I rolled the 57 through a neighborhood that most people wouldn’t visit very often, Jingletown; a strange mix of old Oakland and New. On every other block there was either an old weathered manufacturing plant of some sort or a group of trendy loft apartments. That’s one of the stranger things about Oakland these days, hipsters (myself included, I suppose) live right next to abandoned factories in parts of town that were once an Industrial Center. It’s a form of gentrification that’s really hard to take a side on; on one hand, you’ve got new (predominantly white) people moving into neighborhoods that would otherwise be forgotten, but at the same time their demand for housing is pushing out whoever lived or did business in the neighborhood (predominantly Black) before, so aside from the obvious financial problems you’ve also got a perfect atmosphere for racial tension. On top of that, the other side of the freeway is Fruitvale, one of Oakland’s bigger Latino communities, so it’s a strange mix of a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds in a relatively small area. It could be a good thing for the city in the long-run, but I imagine I’d say otherwise if my roots in Oakland were deeper, and I had watched the rents of everyone in my neighborhood skyrocket as landlords make room for the new and affluent White population. It’s really hard to drive through my town without thinking about these issues, it’s ubiquitous and inescapable.
I pulled up in front of MorDrop, and I could see why the rumors were flying about the place being abandoned. The building is a big cinderblock cube next to a busy road, which makes it a popular place for tagging. Looking at the half repainted wall, one could see exactly to what extent the occupants cared to maintain their property’s facade in the half-assed beige roller marks that ended at an arm’s reach. It’s amazing that the original logo was still visible
The roll up door was half opened, so I stepped inside and called for Marty. Trying to be respectful, I didn’t walk in too far, and I had a moment to look around. I always tread carefully when stepping into another person’s shop; you never know when you’ll get chased out or where it’s not ok to be. The interior of MorDrop was amazing; everything on the walls looked like it belonged in a museum. On a homemade table at the front there was a stack of all different types of axles waiting to be dropped, I recognized a few Model A axles, and astonishingly even a few other Econoline axles. It’s hard to see something so obscure in such large amounts without briefly considering just how many linear feet of lowering this shop must have provided to the hot rodding world since it first opened it’s doors. The equipment, shelving, and machinery all looked like it must have been handmade and standing here since at least the early fifties, and it was moving to set my axle down on the same table that the beautifully chromed axles of the Oakland Roadster Show winners in my little pages collection had once sat on; it felt more like I was lowering the axle through a groove carved out and frozen in time due to cyclic repetition of this process rather than simple gravitation. Clearly, this was sacred ground.
I found this pic on the web, it’s not mine, but this is the same table back in the 1970’s:
An old man in coveralls came out of the back room, and extended a hand covered in grease and soot in greeting.
“Hi, I’m Marty. Is that the Econoline axle?”
I shook his hand, introduced myself, and we talked a little about just what I wanted. I decided to pay a little extra and have them completely go through the axle and replace the kingpins and bushings, as well as throw in a tie-rod drop kit. They know what they’re doing here, and I thought it best to pay extra for their expertise. I mean, Christ, if you had the chance to pay a little extra to have Vic Edelbrock install a carburetor, you let him tune it too, right?
We talked a little about Marty’s shop, the neighborhood, and how the recession and the toll it had taken on his business.
“Yep, when we opened the doors here back in the 50’s we had twenty employees working full-time, now I’m down to just me. I’ll probably be closed by winter, I just have to finish the last of these,”, he said gesturing to the table. Marty had apparently worked for John Moore back then, and took over MorDrop in the early 70’s (Moore had died of cancer around 1971, and I won’t pretend to know the details of the exchange; I didn’t ask).
Marty showed my a few Van axles that he had just finished, an A100, another Econoline, and a Chevy. He pointed out the subtle differences that made each drop distinct, and how different the King Pin bosses were. This guy really knew his stuff; for a man his age I was amazed that he was so sharp. I asked about the Axle press, and his overall method and tooling, so he showed me some of his equipment, a little reserved. It was a little funny, even though he was on the verge of going out of business he still felt like he had secrets to keep to protect his business. He fired up a furnace in the corner, and told me about some of the other things that had been keeping him busy over the years. I didn’t know it before, but MorDrop [was] also a fully-functioning Blacksmith shop, and they weren’t above making a gate or fixing a trailer. The shop was stacked with projects and scrap steel, each haphazardly strewn about as if someone was going to jump back on and finish them, even though they had the rust of a half century’s neglect on them. I took a second to mentally clear the clutter in the room, and I could picture just how elaborate the set-up in here must have been back in it’s heyday; I could picture one guy running the Forge, another using the now-antique stick welder in the corner, and another pressing dropped axles in the corner, all the while checking the still-standing clock on the wall trying to finish on time to get their axle finished on time some period-defining Hot Rod’s main floor debut.
I wish I had more time to soak it all in, but both he and I were pretty busy. He shot me a reasonable price and said he needed at least two weeks. We shook hands, I left my number, and headed out. This was in August [of 2009], so I had just started back in school and didn’t mind having so much time without the van down on four wheels.
Time flew by, and two weeks later I called back. Nothing. I stopped by on my way home from, school, and the rollup doors were closed. I banged around, but it was hopeless; no one was here. I got on my phone and started calling every number I had, and finally I got through to what I think was his daughter through some strange link of call forwarding. She didn’t know anything about the axle, but she did know that Marty was in the hospital, and she said she’d have someone call me as soon as possible.
A few days later I got a call back, again from the daughter, and she said Marty would be back in the shop in the next week. She told me that he was in the hospital getting cataracts removed from his eyes, and as soon as he healed up he’d be able to finish my axle. I was a little relieved, but lamented this turning into “one of those things” that seem to drag on forever and get worse and worse over time. My heart went out to him and his family, so I wasn’t upset, but after a few months of phone tag I was getting frustrated with the situation. I’d drive by every couple of days to see if anyone was there just to see nobody and a few fresh tags on the still cinderblock building, and I’d call often. I was beginning to lose hope that I’d ever get my axle back, and I even started looking online at new tube axles for the van.
Finally, at the beginning of December 2009 (remember that I had initially brought it in during August), I got a voicemail out of the blue from MorDrop. I was ecstatic! I called back right away, and talked to Marty’s son on the phone. He was a little confused, as it turned out Marty had misplaced my number, and they finally put it together that I was the one who kept calling. I met Marty’s son (I never got his name) down at the shop, and there my axle was, sitting in a vice, dropped!
It wasn’t perfect; the spring pads were bent, the holes for the shocks were out of round, and it wasn’t assembled, but at this point I was just thrilled to see that something had been done. I told Marty’s son what I had paid for, we found the receipt, and he agreed to finish it. Marty’s son had taken some time off of work to deal with Marty’s shop and other affairs while he was out, and still remembered the ins and outs of axle dropping from when he worked here in the past, I assume as a kid. I asked about Marty’s health, and he didn’t say much. He wasn’t much of a talker. He just said that Marty’s probably not coming back to work, and that they were looking into selling the business. I wasn’t sure what to think, the stack of axles that I had seen last time was still on the table, and it seemed like there was still plenty of work to do if someone wanted it. Marty’s son agreed to finish the axle with new kingpins and the tie-rod drop kit like I had paid for, and I made sure they had my number this time.
I love the receipt, imagine how many famous show cars have one of these in the glove box:
About a week later, Marty’s son called me back, and I went out to MorDrop for the last time. The axle was complete, painted, and a little wonky, but by this point I didn’t care. They had re-bent and straightened out the spring pads too). I threw it in my trunk, thanked him dearly, wished them well, and I headed out to Livermore to go test fit my MorDrop 3” dropped axle, I think I drove the whole way there with a huge stupid smile on my face.
I found out much later what had actually happened that November; aside from having eye problems, Marty had also suffered a heart attack. I read later on the HAMB that MorDrop was closing their doors for good (specifically, here: http://www.jalopyjournal.com/forum/showthread.php?p=5254037), and that the historic building was probably going to be torn down (it’s still standing today, but it’s pretty empty now, and visibly abandoned). Someone said they saw a guy selling a stack of MorDrop axles out at Turlock, and I had no doubt they were the axles that had been sitting on the table at the entrance of the shop. Unfortunately Marty Costello passed away on March 14, 2012 at the age of 77, and there’s very little sign that Mor Drop ever occupied that incredible cinderblock building on the edge of Jingletown.
As it turns out, my axle is one of the last MorDrop axles that the world will ever see, and quite possibly THE last finished axle to ever leave the shop. If anyone knows different I’d be thrilled to hear it, but until then that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I have nothing but respect for Marty and his family, and all things considered they were incredibly helpful in me getting my axle back while their world was falling down. I’m humbled by the historical significance of my drop, and I’m proud to have a part of my van that has been dropped in the forge and press that has lowered so many famous cars before mine. I’m saddened greatly that other people won’t get to step back into time in that Oakland warehouse to see one of the contributions of the Bay Area to the Hot Rodding world. I wish I had taken more pictures of the shop, but I didn’t at the time out of respect. I always thought I would go back to do an interview, or something to that effect, but it looks like I missed my chance. Time is as unforgiving.
I still had a long way to go with my van, and it wouldn’t be as easy as simply installing the axle, I still had a lot of clearance and other mechanical issues, but finally I started to see this project in context; it was starting to come together in my mind, and I was formulating a cohesive vision of what I wanted to do. It’s funny how sometimes these temporary setbacks force us to take pause and step back to revaluate just what we’re doing here.
Thanks for reading.
Editors Note: I drove by Mor Drop out in Jingletown a few weeks ago, it’s completely gone, the famous logo is no longer on the wall, and the Jingletown neighborhood has grown a lot bigger. This is a neighborhood close to the location of the now world-known Ghost Ship night club disaster in Oakland, and the strange tension of gentrification and debate on the future of neighborhoods like these is still unsettled. It’s amazing how much everything has changed over the past few years, and yes, I’m still slowly chipping away at the Econoline and am hoping to have it back on the road soon. I’m thinking of naming it Cold Fusion, as it’s perpetually just a few weeks away from being finished. This story is pulled from http://www.losboulevardosmessageboard.com, originally written by me on 4/7/11 and lightly edited 12/15/16.