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History of Hot Rods & Customs

New Ideas and Looks for Hot Rods and Custom Cars
ZZ Top members pose with their famed hot rod, the ZZ Top Eliminator coupe.
ZZ Top members pose with their famed hot rod, the ZZ Top Eliminator coupe.

While Boyd Coddington was changing the way hot rods were built in the 1980s, another hot rod was spreading the word to a new audience. Owned by Billy Gibbons of the rock band ZZ Top, the Eliminator coupe was a '33 Ford built in Paramount, California, by Don Thelen in 1983.

At the time, a cultural revolution of sorts was taking place on television with the growing influence of MTV. The coupe was incorporated into four ZZ Top videos that saw a lot of airplay. The exposure introduced the hot rod to a new generation.

Two other trends that began in the 1980s on hot rods and custom cars were pastel colors and the pro street look. Pastels and neon-look colors were popular in mainstream culture and fashion, and these hues spilled over into the automotive world.

Pro street cars emulated the Pro Stock class of drag racing. They had huge slicks in the rear, which necessitated moving the rear portion of the frame inward and fabricating huge sheetmetal or aluminum wheelwell "tubs." Skinny tires were run up front, and the cars were lowered as far as was practical, and sometimes further. Big, powerful motors and, in some cases, roll cages completed the look.

In the custom car world, a few enthusiasts with a historical perspective began to seek out and restore original customs from the 1940s and '50s. A lot of the custom car treasures were lost forever, but a surprising number that had been stuffed into garages for 30 or 40 years began to see the light of day.

Kurt McCormick, of Webster Groves, Missouri, who has a bloodhound nose for seeking out original custom cars, began to find success locating historic cars in the 1980s. But the significant original customs were few and far between. That didn't stop other crafty custom car fans who began to build clones of their favorite customs from the past, as Jack Walker did with the Hirohata Mercury.

While the NSRA had given street rodders a national organization and plenty of events to attend in the 1970s, custom car fans felt left out. Street rodding events often cut off participation at the 1948 model year, excluding most customs. That began to change in the '80s thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated custom car enthusiasts.

Jerry and Elden Titus formed the Kustom Kemps of America (KKOA) in 1981 and hosted a national car show in Wichita, Kansas. Former Hot Rod magazine editor Terry Cook began to produce a yearly custom car gathering and 1950s happening called Lead East in '82. And in California, the West Coast Customs club hosted its inaugural custom car show in Paso Robles in '82.

These three events welcomed custom car owners and gave them the opportunity to attend a show without having to drive too far. They may not have rivaled the NSRA Nationals in terms of size, but for the custom car owner, these were "must attend" events.

Most of the attendees were older. They were the guys who had either been part of the custom car scene in the 1950s and '60s as young adults or who had admired it as youngsters. Their renewed participation in the '80s represented the revival of the custom car scene.

In 1987, a new organization that welcomed both hot rods and custom cars was created. Founded by ex-NSRA honcho Gary Meadors, the Goodguys Rod and Custom Association continues to put on events and has since expanded to include cars up to '72. Even with this new association and its events, the NSRA's Street Rod Nationals still grew each year.

As the street rodding scene grew, so too did demand for pre-1935 Fords, which were still the subject matter of choice for hot rodders. But as more pre-'35 cars were built, the prices for original cars or components rose. Suddenly, post-'35 cars seemed like bargains, and their styling began to look appealing as well. Thus began another trend of the 1980s, the acceptance by hot rodders of "fat fendered" cars from the late '30s and '40s.

With this new interest came new products, led by Pete and Jake's in 1985 with a line of fat-fender suspension components. Some of the parts aftermarket companies had been making adapted well to the later cars, while others needed to be newly tooled. The components combined with a seemingly unending supply of available Ford and Chevy sheetmetal to keep interest high in the fat-fendered hot rod.

Also in the mid 1980s, the Specialty Equipment and Marketing Association (SEMA), the organization that supports the automotive aftermarket, set aside a portion of its massive annual trade show in Las Vegas for street rod component manufacturers. Since most were and still are "mom and pop" operations, the new "Street Rod Alley" represented major recognition. It effectively said that street rod parts makers had grown to become a major part of the two-billion-dollar-a-year automotive aftermarket industry.

While not a trend per se, another development of the 1980s was the use of professional designers to draw plans for hot rods, and eventually custom cars. Boyd Coddington, John Buttera, Roy Brizio, and others enlisted Steve Stanford, Harry Bradley, "Mr. Hot Wheels" Larry Wood, and eventually, Larry Erickson. These designers, all hot rod enthusiasts, conceived ideas or put down on paper what the customer wanted to help guide ever more involved (and expensive) projects.

Most of these projects involved hot rods (like the Luce coupe at the start of the decade), but later in the decade, Cadillac Design Studio alum Larry Erickson designed a custom called CadZZilla™.

Commissioned by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and built by the crew at Boyd Coddington's shop in Stanton, California, the car was a contemporary iteration of an "aeroback" or fastback 1948 Cadillac sedanette. It was the first really new type of custom since the heyday of the 1950s.

The design language of the top, hood, side window openings, and front and rear ends was completely new and different from anything that had gone before it. CadZZilla™. created a stir and was instantly recognized as one of the all-time great custom cars.

By the end of the decade, custom car show participation had grown considerably, and CadZZilla's™ debut pointed the way to new possibilities in custom car design. Meanwhile, hot rodders were busy building new types of cars with new kinds of parts. It was a vibrant time for rod and custom car fans.

Next, find out how custom cars and hot rods finally hit the mainstream in the 1990s.

To learn more about custom cars and hot rods, see: