By on July 23, 2020

While the summer months are normally the perfect time to take a road trip, New York has mandated that any jaunts out of state require a 14-day quarantine upon return — and any location one might want to visit on a lark has a strong likelihood of being closed to visitors.

Seems like a lot of hassle with very little payoff for yours truly, so I’ve been escaping into old films and television shows before they’re cancelled for being offensive. Video games have also become a staple of the modern pandemic lifestyle and, if you read my review of the Ford Simulator franchise, you’ll recall that my tastes skew toward terrible, automotive-themed DOS programs from the late 1980s.

Today’s entry is actually pretty decent, however — or at least it would have been at the time of its release.

Before Gran Turismo (1997) allowed you to install performance modifications on branded vehicles and Car Mechanic Simulator (2018) encouraged us to virtually wrench every component one might realistically find on an automobile, we had California Dreams’ Street Rod from 1989.

Developed by Polish studio P.Z.Karen during the last gasps of the Cold War, the game is aimed squarely at the American market and fetishizes/spoofs the world of 1960s drag racing.

Graphically competent for the period, Street Rod throws you into the shoes of your average American with $750 in their pocket and a dream to become the best drag racer in town. Your garage starts empty, but vehicles can be purchased by thumbing through the paper, which often includes comical headlines that would have been particularly relevant to someone living in the 1980s. While some of the greatest secondhand steel ever to come out of Detroit is on offer here, the secret to winning this game is being financially responsible.

Blow your entire wad on the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air without any residual cash for repairs and you’ll regret it.

This requires one to drop a few hundred bucks on a beat-to-death 1939 Pontiac that’s going to get dusted by everything that’s waiting for you at the local hangout. Here’s where the modifications come in. As luck would have it, the paper is also a treasure trove of useful vehicle components. Literally anything you might want to bolt on is available and can be procured within the same day — blame the town’s insanely dedicated car community.

You can swap out engines, carburetors, transmissions, throw on some new tires or even adjust the timing. It’s downright impressive for a 30-year-old game, and fun to screw around with until… you realize you don’t have enough money left over to do more than a handful of modifications. Just make sure you’ve saved enough bread to fill up the tank and bet with.

Hitting the strip basically entails a quick drive to the closest burger joint and waiting around for someone to give you a funny look. Named antagonists in much nicer cars will pull up and provide you with an opportunity to do some racing and it’s here where the experience begins to fall apart. Like every racing video game from this era, the programmers were still working out how to create a believable space in three dimensions while allowing you to navigate it using a keyboard. It was a lot to ask of everyone, whether they bought or made the game. Even still, other titles did it better than Street Rod.

That said, it remains fun to lay some down rubber next to a computer-controlled rival. And you can scoop up a fair bit of cash if you choose your victims carefully. Before long, you might even have built up your budgeted steed into something truly fearsome and customized to look the part. At this stage, you’ll probably find someone willing to race for pink slips and not everyone is willing to risk their ride. Some won’t even race you for money if they’re convinced your machine is superior, requiring you to pick opponents with more horsepower than sense.

While the road course is livelier than the strip of blacktop used for stoplight drags, the stakes are astronomically high. Go off the road and you just lost the race (and banged up your ride), forcing you to spring for repairs. But do so at high speed and it’s all over. The car’s totaled and you’re too mangled and poor to have any hope of returning to become lord of the night. Another major obstacle is the strong police presence in the area. Running from the cops typically elevates vintage racing games, but this bastard basically materializes at random and forfeits the race. While he can be evaded, most of the vehicles (and skills) you posses are insufficient for the task.

It’s usually better to pull over and let him write you a smaller ticket than he’d likely issue if you’d tried to flee. Still, if you just used your last stack to bet with, running is the only option. If the police catch you without the cash to pay the bribe fine, you’ll be sent to jail.

Street Rod is loaded with nostalgia and comes at you from two fronts. The DOS-era graphics are fantastic (especially if you’re playing in VGA) and will satisfy anyone who wasted some of their younger years in front of a monitor before it was commonplace. Meanwhile, the 1960s theme is a fun window into what the past thought of the past. It even has some of the least obnoxious music and sound effects to grace the built-in PC speaker of yesteryear. Sadly, this still means it’s absolutely grating after 30 seconds and needs to be shut off — though this problem can be remedied by playing the game’s successor.

Street Rod 2: The Next Generation (1991) is more of the same — just with vastly superior audio thanks to sound card integration and a much larger selection of vehicles from which to choose. This time around you’re on summer break in 1969 and totally disinterested in anything that doesn’t involve burning gasoline. Dating and a seasonal job would only distract you from achieving total street dominance before you have to go back to school in the fall.

While technically superior in every respect, Street Rod 2 does suffer from a less than forgiving driving experience. Drag racing remains peachy keen but the Mulholland Drive and Los Angeles River Basin courses are so treacherous that it seems insane the locals keep revisiting them. Mulholland is much too curvy and littered with debris (typical LA) for the muscle cars to tackle with any grace. Yet it is the safer route. The river seem intentionally designed to kill anybody who cannot perfectly thread the needle at 110 mph. Gruesome crashes, often involving rollovers and blood will be familiar sights otherwise. Those needing a respite from being sweaty, hunched over their keyboard, may want to sign up for Grudge Night where everyone competes at what we’ll assume is a NHRA-sanctioned event.

Were it not for the upgraded sound, it would definitely be the harder pill to swallow for the sake of nostalgia if you plan on playing seriously. You may start with more money in your pocket and a broader array of automobiles/modifications at your disposal, but just getting through the first night is a genuine achievement. My recommendation is to save often and remain confident that you’ll have figured out the formula after around 15 minutes of trial and error. During that time, you’ll be able to pick up on all the inaccuracies of either game — like how some of the stock engine options are totally wrong and several of the interior graphics are duplicated to save on disk space.

Those are necessary evils for something produced back when most computer games didn’t exceed a single megabyte. But they’re not deal breakers if you just want to check out another ancient digital oddity that incorporates real cars. The Street Rod franchise has a lot of character and will definitely scratch the itch of anybody with a penchant for vintage domestics and retro graphics.

Available on MS-DOS, Amiga, and Commodore 64, most people living today will probably have to emulate them — which is quite easy now that they’re both freeware. You can even play them for free in your web browser via vintage software archives. I absolutely recommend either if you need a brief escape from the world. They’re definitely dated to a point that they’re really more of a novelty than anything else, but they retain enough fun to put up on the pedestal next to the Test Drive series and enjoy for an hour or so.

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30 Comments on “Street Rod: The Granddaddy of Car Culture Software...”

  • avatar

    “33.4 @ 66MPH”

    New Subaru?

  • avatar

    I put some hours in on this one in my youth and recently re-discovered it on an online DOS emulator. Simple, par for the course driving program from the era with some twists. The sequel was a bit more complicated, almost too much so and I thought was less fun. More detail, but less fun.

    Thanks to one of my 9 year old sons, I’ve recently discovered BeamNG and American (and Euro) truck simulator, and to see how far driving/racing sims have progressed (as always, if you have the system to run it) is astonishing to me. I’ve had various versions of these types of sims over the years and it’s amazing how far we’ve come.

  • avatar

    New York State does not have a blanket quarantine requirement. It only applies if you are arriving from a state that fails to meet certain requirements. Coming from Vermont? No problem. Flying in from Florida, it applies.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    It is a cool concept, but it does remind me why most people went to the arcade for race games back then. If you need to get a retro gaming fix, Duke Nukem’ 3D is my go to.

  • avatar

    I loved this game as a kid. I could hardly ever finish a race though. I’d spend hours diving through the classifieds and taking off carburetors and putting on manifolds. Then I’d flip over on mullholland drive. That crack across the windshield would get me every time…

    • 0 avatar

      Street Rod 2 was nearly impossible compared to the first one. I beat “The King” on SR1 but I don’t recall beating SR2. I remember being very frustrated by SR2 except that the gameplay/ car options were better.

  • avatar

    I had a TON of C64 games but never heard of this one.

    Also I submit that Tokyo Highway Battle was the first realistic attempt at “race-n-mod” driving game betting Gran Turismo by one year. It featured branded cars but didn’t list their names to avoid the licensing issues. Thus I’ve always considered Tokyo Highway Battle a beta version of Gran Turismo in terms of basic premise of how you progressed thru the game. Winning races, buying parts, adding them to your car and repeating until you won or could buy an even better car which started the cycle all over again.

    However, technically Motor Toon Grand Prix, a Mario-Kart like game, was actually the GT beta. It was the developers first attempt to “simulate” car suspensions & cornering loads making each vehicle have unique handling characteristics. Poly Digital learned enough with Moto Toon to know that Gran Turismo was technically possible. They even copied the tracks over to GT1 so there is a direct link between the two games despite being radically different.

  • avatar

    The very first driving PC game(C64) that I played that was amazing…was Test Drive circa 1987.

    All time great game!!

    • 0 avatar

      I had it on Apple II and it was great. Until Test Drive II: The Duel came out and it was even better, especially with the expansion packs. But yeah, TD1 was awesome.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Oh yes…I have many hours in Test Drive on the C64. I actually got a C64 recently based largely on playing that. Long Live 8 Bit machines (and 16 Bit Amiga’s and Atari ST’s)

  • avatar

    I had Accolade’s “Test Drive”…it allowed you to select a variety of cars – 911, C4 Vette, a Lambo, and a few others. “Driving” with the keyboard was pretty lame, as was the shifting but hey, it worked. It had some things that were pretty good – the shifting and redlines were selected to match the actual redline of the real engine, you could outrace the police if you choose bur risked a ticket…

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      The keyboard was lame, but a steering wheel and pedals in the 8 bit era!? That was the stuff of movies about the future. I have many hours flying a Cessna via the keyboard on an 8 bit Tandy 1000HX as well in 4 color CGA glory. Awesome Times!

      Now I have Xwing vs. Tie Fighter ordered for VR lol. Awesome, but I still love the old games too.

  • avatar

    STUNTS was the best driving simulator from the DOS era. Ploygons and a track editor baby!!!!

    If this game was made again today it would be in the 90s in LA with import tuners. Same concept just newer metal. Dont waste your $$$ on bodykits.

  • avatar

    Car and Driver: The Game was pretty epic, especially for the time. First one I experienced with real cars, decent roads and real race tracks (I still love Laguna Seca).

  • avatar

    I love that 1959 Royal Lancer. And I agree – Japanese cars look like funny POS.

  • avatar

    Also with Stunts, I played VETTE, by Spectrum Holobyte.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Hard Drivin’ by Atari in the Arcade is my favorite driving sim. 3 Pedals, Forced Feedback…so many quarters spent. You see “Street Rod II’ and realize they are from the same era. I am told it was a 10,000 dollar Arcade game. PC’s only recently caught up to that with forced feedback wheels becoming affordable.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you for the flood of memories!!! I recall breaking many a $5 bills to shovel quarters into that game. I had learned to drive a stick when I got my license and being able to use a clutch in that game was just epic, especially compared to the automatic only wusses! That “Ferrari” was nearly impossible to keep in a straight line at times, it seemed to have hot race slicks for tires and DO NOT hit that ramp going too quickly or you’d have a “Take 2” scene from Knight Rider, but it was just so real for 1990.

      And of all of the money plunked in that game, I think I only finished the track several times. You had to be flawless to lap it. That replicated manual steering, no ABS controls made it a challenge.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      Modern driving sims are absolutely insane now and you can build your own for less than 500 bucks (plus the computer/system and some games). It’s a world I’ve familiarized myself with and been wildly impressed by in the last three years. But I’ve been hesitant to devote a quadrant of my home to something that will probably just consume too much of my free time.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        I built an AMD Ryzen 3 powered PC that will run iRacing in full detail on 3 monitors at 1080 for around 600 bucks. I built 2 driving rigs, one from PVC pipes via commonly available internet plans and a later one from metal for 1-200 each for the materials including the seats from a youpullit yard. I’m still running a Logitech G27 wheel/pedals/and shifter that you can get used for under 200 I believe (I got mine long ago) but I’m going to upgrade to a better wheel and true load cell pedals (Fanatec most likely) soon which is likely a 4 figure deal.

        I have a VR capable set up too. It is awesome to ay, but I’m faster on the tripples and have been doing longer races lately so I do that. I haven’t tried VR on the 600 dollar PC. It lives on a beefier Ryzen 7 rig with a 1080ti GPU. I’m going to convert the first driving rig to a flight rig for when Star Wars Squadrons comes out as an X wing in VR pretty much meets all of my childhood dreams. Space is an issue for sure though if you don’t have extra rooms. These set ups occupy a loft and a good chunk of a bonus room. Lots of fun though.

        You can go all the way from a few hundred bucks to 6 figure full motion set ups F1 teams use on a rig though. Still probably cheaper than golf though.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s amazing to think that depending on the arcade, Pole Position and Hard Drivin or Stunt Drivin would be side by side.

  • avatar

    If you New Yorkers quarantine yourselves for 14 days, or any number of days, after traveling out of state because some government bureaucrat says you must you’re a moron.

  • avatar

    It’s funny how these games are much closer to the 1960’s than they are to 2020.

    Never knew the developer was polish, that’s an interesting tidbit. The most American game was made behind the (collapsing) iron curtain.

  • avatar

    “Before Gran Turismo (1997) allowed you to install performance modifications on branded vehicles and Car Mechanic Simulator (2018) encouraged us to virtually wrench every component one might realistically find on an automobile, we had California Dreams’ Street Rod from 1989.”

    Car Mechanic Simulator is a modern take on Gearhead Garage, which came out in 1999. Snap-On actually sponsored a version, which I had. As of about ten years ago there were still a ton of terrific user-made add on cars.

  • avatar

    Hearing about this makes me miss Car Town.

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