Americans love speed. It suffuses our culture, coloring every aspect of it from food to mail service. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the automobile holds a hallowed space in the American myth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the culture of the hot rod, a rich substrata in popular culture dedicated to the car. The popularity of the hot rod ties in with this American preoccupation with youth, speed, and individualism, and the artists who pioneered the hot rod have after years of ignominious labor become recognized as master artists outside of this very specific milieu. Over 50 years after its invention, the hot rod is still omnipresent on the road and off, dedicated to the pursuit of speed and style, or rather, speed in style.
Hot-rod culture first emerged in the early 1940s—the war years—particularly in Los Angeles, where, as Tom Wolfe writes of the period, "Family life was dislocated, as the phrase goes, but the money was pouring in, and the kids began to work up their own style of life—as they've been doing ever since." In these early years, aesthetics and necessity joined to create a new form of car. Owing to war rationing, cars and car parts were scarce, and under-age car enthusiasts resorted to junkyard salvaging, creating hybridized cars with primitively hopped-up engines.
The aggressively declassé activities of these youngsters, who engaged in illegal drag race competitions and ostentatiously public congregations at drive-in restaurants, created an atmosphere of public alarm, not unlike that which accompanied the Hell's Angels two decades later. Part of the public opprobrium had to do with appearances. Hot-rodders cultivated a distinctly sinister look, chopping (lowering the top of the car) and channeling (lowering the body itself down between the wheels) their cars, which gave them a sinister appearance. The '32 Ford Roadster, one of the most popular objects of customizing of all time, in the hands of the hot-rodder was reduced to little more than a streamlined square, brightly painted and wedded to 30 inch tires and an enormous chrome engine. Nor did frequent contretemps between police and illicit road-racers improve the hotrodders' reputation. A whole hot rod culture had emerged around the rituals of customizing, cruising, and drag racing. In Los Angeles, drag racing took place on a deserted stretch of road in Culver City nicknamed "Thunder Alley," and large-scale police raids were a not uncommon occurrence.
The public might have viewed hot-rodders with distaste, but a middling movie writer named Robert Petersen was fascinated by the religious fervor with which teenagers were pouring money into their cars. In the late 1940s Petersen started Hot Rod Magazine, which eventually ballooned into Petersen Publishing, a magazine empire devoted to automotive speed and beauty. By the early 1960s, there existed not only Petersen's conspicuous empire, but models, T-shirts, toy cars, stickers, music groups, and movies; in short, any product tangentially associated with hot-rodding was produced and rapidly consumed. But even after the point where hot-rodding had been "rationalized," as Wolfe puts it, subjected to capitalism's "efficient exploitation," the hot rod's anti-social qualities remained central to their allure.
This brazen nose-thumbing quality was best expressed by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, a customizer who specialized in a baroque, grotesque creations, exemplified in automobiles with names like the Beatnik Bandit and Mysterion, and T-shirts with brand names like Weirdo and Monster (harkening back to the pieced-together Frankenstein quality of early hot rods) that featured grotesque hotrodding creatures (Wolfe calls them " Mad magazine Bosch") alongside slogans such as "Mother is wrong" or "Born to Lose. Writes Wolf:
Roth pointed out that the kids have a revealing vocabulary. They use the words "rotten," "bad," and "tough" in a very fey, ironic way. Often a particularly baroque and sleek custom car will be called a "big, bad Merc" (for Mercury) or something like that. In this case "bad" means "good," but it also retains some of the original meaning of "bad." The kids know that to adults, like their own parents, this car is going to look sinister and somehow like an assault on their style of life.
The first act in the narrative of the avant-garde artist begins with the rebellious artist struggling, ignored and unrecognized, with his work. Then comes recognition, then absorption into the mainstream, where the artists ideas are assimilated and become commonplace. So it was that the superstars of customizing—Roth, Daryl Starbird, George Barris—started their careers as pariahs and ended with Detroit car makers wooing them as highly valued consultants. In fact, Detroit had been assiduously following their careers for some time. Barris, who claimed to have had more than twenty designs lifted from him by Detroit, recounted for Tom Wolfe that Detroit stylists knew all about cars he had customized as far back as 1945, way back in the early days of customizing. Stylistic innovations such as tailfins, bubbletops, frenched headlights, and concealed headlights all derived from the customizers. The early era of muscle cars—Rivieras, Sting Rays, Barracudas, and Chargers—all drew freely upon hot rod aesthetics.
By the late 1990s hot-rods were a recognized art form, with Roth and his peers exhibiting their work in museums and galleries. A entire magazine empire is engineered around hot rods, and ever since the Robert Petersen put on the first hot rod car show back in 1948, such shows have been a perennially popular attraction. Hot rod clubs continue to flourish, nourished by each new generation of teenage boys who become obsessed with customizing. And so the tradition continues in unbroken lineage from the original World War II era kids to today's customizers of Japanese imports, affectionately known as "rice-rockets." It is a tradition, and as such, it is more about craft than rebellion, but the outlaw implications of hot-rodding still hold true. A custom car is by its very nature a menace, and in this menace lies the allure.
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