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History of Hot Rods & Customs

Billets Change the Look of Hot Rods in the 1980s
John Buttera fabricated an aluminum independent suspension for the Kolmos Phaeton, built in 1985.
John Buttera fabricated an aluminum independent suspension for the Kolmos Phaeton, built in 1985.

It had always been fairly costly to build a hot rod or custom car, but young car enthusiasts had always been able to scrimp and save enough to get their projects done. Beginning in the 1980s, though, more money was flying around than ever before.

Those dollars ramped up the level of build quality, components availability, and professional building services. Nearly every aspect of the hot rod and custom car scene benefited.

There are several possible reasons for the change. Many of the guys who couldn't have a cool car in high school were now older and had the money to build that car -- only better. For the first time, there were shops and aftermarket businesses all over the country that could build great cars and excellent components for those cars.

Friendly competition played a part, too. Many wanted to prove "I can build one better than yours." Whatever the reason, it was definitely a new era for hot rods and a renaissance for the '50s custom car.

The new design trend in hot rodding could be summarized in one word: billet. Though it was a decidedly 1980s phenomenon, it had its roots in the '70s. In 1976, Funny Car constructor John Buttera built a Model A roadster based on ideas submitted by designer Harry Bradley. It was new and contemporary, and it differed greatly from the way hot rods had been built.

The main difference was Buttera's use of machined billet aluminum for some of the suspension components, as well as the windshield posts, rearview and side mirrors, and gauge cluster.

Dan Woods had dabbled with machined aluminum in the early '70s with ball-end milled firewalls for T-buckets and Buttera had even made some machined aluminum parts for his own '26 T a couple of years earlier. But this was the first time that new machined aluminum components, including exterior parts, were used extensively on a hot rod. John's white roadster was also completely devoid of chrome -- another deviation from the norm.

John's friend Boyd Coddington took careful notice. Boyd was a machinist at Disneyland in the 1970s who had built some outstanding hot rods in his garage. In '79, he built a small shop behind his house and went into the business of building cars full time. Boyd and John teamed up to create a couple of billet parts for the car Boyd was finishing, a 1932 Ford Vicky.

The Vicky was really a resto rod with a billet instrument panel, but the next car out of Boyd's shop, Vern Luce's '33 Ford coupe, helped define the new era of billet "smoothie" cars. Smoothie referred to the elimination of all the "barbs" associated with older cars, items such as hinges, door handles, windshield frames, body seams, and in some cases, overlapping body panels (like the doors on a Model A).

Though Buttera's Model A roadster hinted at it, the Luce coupe really cemented the look for the high-tech hot rod of the 1980s. The design was a refined amalgamation of Jim Ewing's fenderless orange '34 Ford coupe and Jake Jacobs' '34 highboy coupe.

The Luce coupe came at a time when the landscape was ripe for a new trend, making it extremely influential. Many future rods would follow its design cues.

From there, the billet fad took off, and billet parts are still incorporated into new hot rods today. The difference is that today numerous manufacturers create billet parts that can be purchased with a phone call and a credit card.

Billet turned into probably the biggest thing in hot rodding since the tire. And it has even transcended hot rods to become prevalent on custom motorcycles, especially Harley-Davidsons.

For Boyd Coddington, the Luce coupe was only a preliminary step in the billet arena. Again with the help of John Buttera, Boyd came up with a three-piece billet wheel that would start the aftermarket billet-wheel trend. The first billet wheels appeared on a roadster version of the Luce coupe built for Jamie Musselman. That car received a great amount of magazine coverage, and won the first of many America's Most Beautiful Roadster honors at the Grand National Roadster Show for Boyd Coddington.

A form of this type of wheel had previously been manufactured by Center Line Wheel Corporation, but those wheels utilized cast or stamped centers. The billet center allowed Boyd to program a mill to cut an infinite number of different designs. Boyd turned his wheels into a whole separate company.

Interiors got the modern treatment too, with gauge clusters made of billet, integrated instead of screw-on armrests, and elegant designs for the door panels and seats. No tuck and roll could be found in these contemporary "smoothies."

The interiors were following the latest styles from Detroit, with instrument panels and window frames painted low gloss colors to match the interior. Interiors were now integrated, instead of making the separate pieces stand out with color or chrome.

Under the skin, electronic fuel injection was finding its way into many hot rods, as were four-speed automatic overdrive transmissions, and elaborate, custom-fabricated independent suspensions. Engine blocks were now ground smooth before being shot with paint to make them as shiny and smooth as the outside of the car. Valve covers, air cleaners, spark plug wiring looms -- virtually everything in the engine compartment was available in billet.

In the next section, find out how other '80s trends -- and even MTV -- played a role in hot rod evolution.

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