Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

History of Hot Rods & Customs


Factory Cars Challenge the Popularity of Hot Rods and Custom Cars in the 1960s
The AMX-400, built in 1969, was Barris Kustom's attempt at melding the muscle car with the custom car.
The AMX-400, built in 1969, was Barris Kustom's attempt at melding the muscle car with the custom car.

The decade of the 1960s was a strange period for hot rods and custom cars as both would witness a demise in popularity. Many factors created the right climate for nearly ending customizing and hot rodding, and much of it had to do with what was going on in Detroit.

Production cars were becoming more stylized, with thinner roofs, shorter body sections, and more sculpturing than anything that had been available through most of the 1950s. With slim, tall fins; lots of glass; and tighter body sections, they took on a look that was a natural progression of American automobile design. The look was hard to match by custom cars based on 1940s and early '50s cars.

Even the radical customizing trick of body sectioning -- mostly seen on 1949-51 Fords because of their slab sides -- couldn't change the heavily crowned fenders, tops, and body sections that looked old compared with the latest from Detroit.

As production cars became more modern in appearance, they were also developing a wallop under the hood. The auto manufacturers were fighting it out in NASCAR and drag racing, and they met the challenge with increasing cubic inches and engine configurations that were previously available only through speed shops. With the dawn of the muscle car era, you could drive off the showroom floor and take on anything, including the average homebuilt hot rod.

Besides muscle cars, Detroit began offering "personal luxury" cars -- personified by the Buick Riviera, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Ford Thunderbird -- that also grabbed attention from hot rods and especially custom cars.

In addition, numerous new-car options became available that were unheard of just a few years previous, swing-away steering wheels, disc brakes, and eight-track tape players among them. These items seemed futuristic from a 1950s perspective, but they were widely available on new cars in the '60s.

On the track, drag racing was becoming more sophisticated, and therefore more expensive. The era of the dual-purpose hot rod that served as both daily transportation and a race car was over.

To stay competitive at the dragstrip, many hot rods were modified to the point that they could no longer be driven on the street. This was especially true in the Gasser classes, which originally came about for hot rodders who couldn't afford the more expensive race-car-only classes that required racing fuel and supercharging or fuel injection. But this wasn't the only turning point for hot rods in drag racing.

In 1965, the American automakers changed drag racing, as well as the perception of their products by young fans, in a big way. In the Modified Stock category, the factories battled it out a quarter-mile at a time. In the interest of speed and better weight distribution, they altered the wheelbases of their factory entries, supercharged the engines, and modified or sometimes completely eliminated stock frames and suspensions.

This ultimately produced the Funny Car, which took the limelight away from the older cars running in the popular Gasser and Fuel Altered classes.

Soon after the introduction of the Funny Car, the Gasser classes started allowing late-model bodies. Many of the more popular Willys, Austins, and English Fords were switched over to sleeker and more Funny Car-like Ford Mustangs, Chevy Camaros, and Plymouth Barracudas. It was another sign that the old was fading.

Custom cars and hot rods were, in part, a reaction to the bland fare coming from Detroit in the 1940s and early '50s. But by the '60s, U.S. automakers were creating machines that matched or exceeded custom cars in terms of looks and hot rods in performance. And while it was once a problem for a younger person to afford expensive equipment, young men of the '60s had easier access to credit and could therefore buy new cars.

For those with gasoline running through their veins, other automotive interests emerged that pried them from the seats of their rods and custom cars. Volkswagens and their offshoots, dune buggies, became popular beginning in the mid 1960s.

Hot Rod and other enthusiast magazines ran ads selling fiberglass kits and how-to articles to go along with them. Some have likened the air-cooled VW engine to Ford's flathead because of its simplicity and the proliferation of aftermarket parts that became available.

Volkswagen was also partially responsible for another automotive diversion: the van craze. It started with VW "hippie vans" and spread to their American counterparts. The van movement wouldn't really take off until the 1970s, but it definitely began in the '60s.

Other factors would contribute to the rapid decline of custom cars in the 1960s. We'll cover those in detail in the next section of this article.

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