Hot rods, cars modified to increase primarily their performance and secondarily their aesthetics, first appeared in Southern California in the 1920s and 1930s. Popular early models were Ford roadsters such as the Model-T, Model-A, or 1932 Ford, better known as the Deuce. Roadsters are open cars that seat only two or three passengers, and for many years they were the only cars that buffs modified or souped up. Some historians assert that the term "hot rod" derives from the phrase "hot roadster," while others explain that rods are key engine parts that heat up when pushed to achieve the extreme speeds hot rodding entails. Either way, the term entered the American lexicon in 1945, at the end of World War II. Before that, enthusiasts tinkered with cars on their own, without the benefit of how-to magazines or speed shops. These early motorheads often got their parts on the cheap, by scavenging junkyards or even stealing them from parked cars.
As thousands of GI's returned home following World War II, they applied their increased technical know-how to the hobby many of them had put on hold for the duration of the war. As gas and tire rationing plans were lifted, car enthusiasts flocked to the ranks of two different auto hobbies. Some pursued European sports cars, and thus emphasized handling, while others gravitated towards hot rodding, which focused on American cars and engineering them to go as fast as possible. Many of these ex-servicemen experimented with fuel additives that had been used in military aircraft, which caused plenty of repercussions throughout the hobby. The popularity of the postwar do-it-yourself movement meshed perfectly with hot rodding, which valued constant tinkering. The postwar affluence allowed both the older, seasoned servicemen and a new crowd of showy teenagers to participate in the hobby, as wealthier families moved beyond the one-carper-household rule that had been de rigeur before the war.
This divide between more responsible purists and dramatic, aggressive youngsters greatly affected the growth of hot rodding. Police forces, parents, and the press expressed concern about the growing number of young drivers speeding brazenly down the public streets, with no regard for their own safety or that of others. By 1948, some car club umbrella groups had decided to take a stand, and developed Hot Rod magazine out of their newsletters and bulletins. The magazine promoted safety precautions and responsible driving, and strove to distinguish between the maniacal teenagers and the safety-oriented, civic-minded car buffs who constituted what they considered the real population of hot rodders. Hot Rod was instrumental in institutionalizing the quarter-mile drag race as what real hot rodders did with their souped-up vehicles. Wally Parks, who took over as the magazine's editor in 1949, believed that by channeling rowdy youths off the streets, where they were a public menace, and into the organized, orderly world of drag racing, he could repair hot rodding's tarnished image and protect the sport from being banned or strictly regulated by outside forces. Parks encouraged a wholesome ethic for hot rodders, suggesting that readers visit their local police to establish good ties, always stop to help stranded motorists, and refrain from using frightening or dangerous-sounding club names. One of the other main results of Parks's leadership, the establishment of the quarter-mile race, changed the nature of hot rodding, since this race valued rapid acceleration—and thus shortest elapsed time—instead of the previously sought highest achieved speed. The tension between these two goals continues to exist in the hot rodding culture. Drag races still measure both statistics for each race, although race winners are those with the lowest elapsed time, not necessarily the highest speed.
While hot rodding has always been associated with drag racing, the aesthetic aspect of the sport, primarily in terms of the modification of stock to "custom" cars, has been equally important. Although any car could be converted into a hot rod or custom car, until 1955, hot rodders favored Ford bodies, engines, and other parts. Ford made parts that were cheap, easy to find, and easy to interchange among model years. In 1955 there was the debut of the small-block (265-cubic-inch displacement) V-8 engine, which combined small size and a favorable power-to-weight ratio. It soon displaced the famous "flathead" Ford V-8 as the favorite "mill" among hot rodders. Whichever type of car a hot rodder worked on, they all had to have I-beam or tubular front axles, which was a tradition in the community. In the late 1940s to mid 1950s, a dropped or "Dago" axle became an integral part of the hot rod. The West Coast made popular the "raked" look, in which the back of a car's body was elevated by the use of "big-n-littles"—taller tires in the rear, smaller ones in the front. This gave the car a pleasing, aggressive stance. As the 1940s ended, closed cars began to surpass open-wheel roadsters in popularity. A hot rod is a hot rod because of its general aesthetic or overall look. No specifications exist that can include or disqualify a vehicle from hot rod status.
Most hot rodders feel that the golden years of their hobby were 1945 to 1960. These were the years before major sponsorships commercialized the industry and political dissent and a changing U.S. culture questioned the values hot rodders espoused. Although many hot rodders attributed changes in their hobby to these issues, experts date some problems that arose within hot rodding to as early as 1955. Cheating ran rampant, and professionalism threatened the amateur code that had previously characterized hot rodding due to the influx of large corporate sponsorships and prize money outlays. In the late 1950s, worries that drag racing was not removing the danger from public streets resurfaced. In these years, most strips fell under commercial ownership. As airports saw more business, they had little room for racers, who were forced to race on the commercial strips, pushing amateur racers out. Hot Rod magazine also changed direction, increasing coverage of more general automotive issues, which angered and isolated old-fashioned enthusiasts.
By the early 1970s, a different aesthetic had taken over. Hot rods featured bubble paint, cartoon-like designs, and chassis designs that elevated the body and left the wheels sticking out of cars. These changes reflected how far hot rodding was moving from its roots, and many enthusiasts disliked the new look. The 1970s also saw corresponding changes in the drag racing industry. As the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) consolidated programs, amateurs had even less opportunity to participate. States legislated against the environmental damage hot rods and drag races caused, including noise and other pollution. Moreover, the increasing professionalization of the sport was at odds with the civic-mindedness that had long been an important part of hot rodding.
Hot rodders are almost exclusively male, although there is some evidence that the hobby is attracting more women. In the old days, enthusiasts might have been family men holding down jobs who tinkered with cars in their spare time, or they could have been young men souping up their parents' cars or ones they had saved for and bought on their own. The hot rodder considered himself—and still did in the early 2000s—an individual, a free thinker, someone who lived a different lifestyle, outside the mainstream. Many hot rodders are men in their 50s, who developed a love for the cars of the old days in their youth, and who can finally afford to maintain one of these high-maintenance cars. One of the most important parts of the hot rod lifestyle is the camaraderie and friendship that develops among enthusiasts. Friendly rivalries exist, between Ford and Chevy owners, for instance, or between different car clubs, but most hot rodders identify as part of a larger community as well.
Street Rods and Custom Cars
Some of these nostalgia-seekers are happier owning street rods, which are period cars that have newer parts inside them, making them much more reliable. While alterations to hot rods focus on performance and aesthetics, owners customize street rods to be comfortable, including such luxuries as electric windows and air conditioning, both unthinkable in a hot rod. Since street rods do not demand an owner's constant attention, true hot rodders sometimes look down on them as showpieces barely distinguishable from custom cars. Custom cars are modified versions of stock vehicles. "Show cars" are the most highly modified of custom cars, often built from the gound up and one of a kind. They are meant to be seen, not to be driven. Custom cars do not get dirty, since their owners do not race them. They are expensive to create, and involve a high degree of artistic vision. One of the most important rules of thumb for customizing is that newer parts can go on older cars, but never vice versa. Customizers often mix parts—putting Buick fenders on a Ford body, for instance—in attempts to maximize the most impressive, best-looking parts of a car to create a uniquely attractive vehicle. The basic goal is to make any car look lower, longer, and wider. No matter what type of car they are working on, modern hot rodders often refer to old magazine pictures and try to recreate what they see there. Period touches are much prized.
Cultural Influences of Hot Rodding
Hot rodding has had a significant effect on American culture beyond racing and the cars themselves. The 1950s and 1960s saw the development of hot rod music, largely out of Southern California. Groups such as the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen had numerous hit songs including "Little Deuce Coupe," "409," "Drag City," and "Hot Rod Lincoln," the latter being in the "rockabilly" genre. The hot rod, immortalized in music and as depicted in B movies such as Teenage Thunder (1958) and fine films such as American Grafitti (1973), symbolized freedom, creativity, and rebelliousness among America's youth.
Hot rodding celebrates hands-on, creative engineering, combined with an eye for aesthetics. It celebrates America's heritage as a car-producing and car-loving nation, as well as the balance between the individual and the larger community. Hot rodding maintained its popularity in the early twenty-first century because it did not indulge in pure nostalgia, but allowed innovation and creativity. Most importantly, enthusiasts in 2004 were just as anxious to put their cars to the test and see what they had under that smartly painted hood.
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Elissa L. David