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Hot rods have had a large impact on the history of the American automobile, starting as a racing fad through the "rebel' generation, and later on through today, the hobby and collecting generations. Here is the story.
“Hop Ups”, “Gow-Jobs”, or “Soup-Ups”
These are what hot rods were first originally called during the beginning years. The hot rod is associated with the 1950’s, but the true roots go back to 1920 when adrenaline thirsty young men took their new “gow jobs” to the salt flats in California. They would buy cheap non running cars and match it with an engine, then go out racing. Automobiles were being sold in the millions by the 1920’s, so old cars and parts were readily available and generally cheap. To make the cars go faster, they removed all unnecessary weight from the vehicle, including base runners, panels, ornaments, and unfortunately in many instances, the headlights. The removal of headlights was the cause of some early gruesome deaths during this time. These modifications got more speed out of the small 20 horsepower engine the Model T had, along with the rear tires were also enlarged to create a higher gear ratio and help aerodynamics.
Interest in racing expanded with the release of the Model A in 1927, but it was not until the release of the flathead V8 engine in 1932 that turned the tide for racing. The new 1932 Ford Roadster or “Deuce” body was very light, and teamed with the flathead V8 was a racing machine. The new Flathead V8 produced 80 horsepower, but it was quickly figured out this could nearly be doubled with a few modifications including removing the muffler, straightening and shortening the exhaust pipes, and adding multiple carburetors. Hot rodding would never be the same as cars started passing the 100 mph mark with ease. The 1932 flathead V8 powered Ford Roadster is the true “Icon” of the typical hot rod.
Safety became a serious issue, as gruesome deaths were happening in the middle of the night when racing, including head on collisions with the removal of the headlamps. The SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) was created in 1937, and is considered the first true organization formed to bring safety and clarity to the racing scene. The depression in the mid 1930’s slowed the hot rod scene, and once World War II started and men went to service, the hobby was basically “put on hold”.
World War II Puts Hot Rodding On Hold
Although the hot rod scene was put on hold, the seeds were being planted for the explosion the field would see after the war ended. GI’s went through boot camp in California for the Pacific theatre of the war, where they saw hot rods and customs in LA, and Californian GI’s shared their pictures and stories of their hot rodding. Once the young men came home after the war and had money to spend, free time, and new mechanical skills, the hot rod scene took off again. This helped fuel the craze after the war as it spread across the country, not just California. The new “Hot Rod” magazine started in 1948 helped fuel the explosion across America.
Designing and building a custom car by themselves was a form of expression for returning GI’s. The economy was booming, parts were readily available, and they had to show off for the girls that had grown up since they were gone for the war. The hot rod became an “antisocial” icon, along with leather jackets, blue jeans, and cigarette packs rolled into with t-shirt sleeves. Rock and Roll was right around the corner to help define the next generation from their parents.
While the hot rod scene was bubbling, there was also the “Custom” car that was very popular. These were cars redesigned and engineered to be custom one of a kind with elaborate paint jobs, cropped tops, removed parts, and added decorations. These cars were more about looks more than all out speed, but many could still perform if they put the big engines in them. Barris Kustoms is the most well known custom car shop in California from this time, but there were dozens of others. Today, hot rods and customs are generally clumped together in magazines and auto shows, but these groups really despised each other during the 1950’s.
Custom cars were not built by the owners, they were designed and built for owners who could afford high end cars, mainly Hollywood stars and such. The custom cars had beautiful paint jobs and other work done to make them look beautiful, but speed was secondary. Many customs had lead as body fill, making them extremely heavy. Hot rodders termed customs as “Lead Sleds” or “Lead Barges”. The feeling was mutual the other way around. The custom car owners with their shiny and extravagant cars, despised the looks of the hot rod as they were built by the owners and looks were not always a priority to speed. “Shot Rods” and “Ricky Racers” were terms coined by custom owners towards street rods.
East Coast vs. West Coast
By the end of the 1950’s, looks started to change with East coast and West coast rides. East coast customs started to sit higher with the harsher road conditions due to the weather. The modifications tended to be less drastic than the West coast models also. East Coast hot rods used channeled bodies, mimicking sports cars. Closed models were also more prevalent on the East coast due to the weather.
On the West side, street rods generally kept their looks from before the war. Highboy roadsters and coupes were prevalent, and customs were more radical than their East side counterparts due to the higher competition at the auto shows. The West side did control the trends of the field, as nearly all the hot rod and custom car magazines were based in California, along with some of the best custom car shops and designers.
By the early 1950’s, hot rodding accidents and other problems became a real issue. It was getting too dangerous to drive these cars on city streets and highways. The NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) was formed in 1953, and promoted safety first with simple safety requirements on the car, and track racing only. Early street rod speeds reached up to 100 mph, but with the new high compression overhead valve engines available by all 3 American auto manufacturers by 1955, speeds were reaching 180 MPH. Development was moving so rapidly in the racing scene that the NHRA and other associations could not keep pace.
The NHRA was a wild success, but it had a big impact on the “hot rod” movement. Soon after the NHRA was formed, funny cars and other extreme racing cars were built, and these have nothing to do with the original hot rod. Many abandoned the old “street rod” for the extreme racing circuit.
The “Family” Slows the Hot Rod Scene Again
Interest in hot rods started to slow in the 1960’s due to a few factors, one being the young men that came back from the war that originally fueled the boom were now fathers, and the hot rod had to be traded for a “family” vehicle. No longer did they have the time and money to keep their hobby going.
Detroit’s design changes of the 1960’s with fins, more glass, and tighter bodies took a toll on the custom car market. Customs were born from the drab models offered up to 1950, but even stylized hot rods using older plain body parts could not match the new styling being offered by the auto manufacturers now. By the 1970’s muscle cars and pony cars were beng produced by American auto manufacturers, and now you could drive a car off the lot and probably be able to beat 90% of the competition.
The custom car scene nearly disappeared once Detroit started producing stylish cars, but it did not disappear completely. Lowriders became popular on the West coast, especially in the Hispanic community. Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac’s were the favored models to be lowered with fashionable engines. Ride height laws from the 1950’s and 60’s were bypassed by installing hydraulic suspensions that could raise and lower the car. These lowriders typically had swivel seats, bars, t.v.’s, etc making them customs, although there was usually only minor if not any body modification, unlike the custom cars of the generation before.
The Return of the Hobby
The movie “American Graffiti” was released in 1973 by George Lucas, and the popularity of the hot rod exploded again. Hot rod shows flourished, and new companies entered the market. You could now buy complete fiberglass kits to make your own hot rod, which was also made the hobby safer. “Old” hot rodders of the 1950’s” turned “family man”, now had their children grown up, which gave them time again to pursue their old hobby. Popularity is still growing today with new T.V. shows and channels dedicated to hot rods and other classic cars. A small niche in the hot rod scene today is the “Rat Rod”, which is built to mimic early hot rods when they were built with found or cheaply bought parts, many times rusted out or painted with flat paint.
About the Author
Daniel Fehn is a web designer, a huge classic car and truck fan, and a wannabe mechanic currently living in Minneapolis, MN. I designed and built timelesshotrods.com so I could share my enthusiasm for hot rods and street rods, and created the classified ads section for all to buy and sell their rides for FREE.
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