The timeline for hot rods and custom cars starts before World War II. Teens itching to tinker with cars and go fast were racing cheap Ford Model Ts on Southern California's dry lakes and street racing in Los Angeles even in the 1920s. The Harper, Muroc, and El Mirage dry lakes -- all 50 or so miles north of Los Angeles -- saw racing activity from the '20s up to World War II. Racing at El Mirage continues today.
Speed junkies could jump in their hopped-up, chopped-down Model Ts and be at one of the dry lakes in less than three hours. Or, if the need was urgent, they could find a deserted back road or open field. At the lakes, the cars were timed with handheld stopwatches and placed in a class determined by the resultant time.
The vast majority of the cars being run were four-cylinder Ford Model Ts or their successor, the four-cylinder Model A. The cars were cheap, plentiful, lightweight, and easy to work on. They responded to simple "hop ups" like higher compression, ignition and timing adjustments, additional carburetors, and more radical cam grinds.
The drill was fairly simple: Buy the nicest roadster you could find (because roadsters were the lightest); strip off everything not needed to go fast, like the fenders, headlights, hood, and top; find some cheap used tires to replace your bald ones or to mount over your existing tires for a little extra tread; and go racing.
On the next page, learn more about the first speed shops!
Speed Shops and Racing
Paul Chappel's Speed Shop on San Fernando Road in Los Angeles and Bell Auto Supply in neighboring Bell were the first stores in the country devoted exclusively to supplying speed parts for those who wanted to run with the fast pack. Performance parts included high-compression heads, exotic overhead-cam conversions, and radical cams (also called "sticks").
The Ford flathead V-8 was born in 1932 and with it a new opportunity to go fast. Though slow to be accepted by hot rodders, more 65- and 85-horsepower flathead V-8s found their way into junkyards as the '30s progressed and thus began the transformation from four-bangers to flatheads. Also released in 1932 were the lightweight '32 Ford or "Deuce" frame and roadster body. The combination was unbeatable in terms of performance potential and looks. To this day, a flathead-powered Deuce roadster is the quintessential hot rod. That engine and frame combination would also provide an excellent foundation for many types of bodies, or sometimes hardly any body at all.
As interest in racing grew, kids began to try out their "gow jobs" more often on public streets. What was mostly good, clean fun could get ugly -- and it often did. "Speed contests," as the police called them, were occurring with greater frequency and more dire consequences. Casualties were described in detail in local newspapers, branding the hot rodder as a social menace requiring increasing control or, better yet, elimination.
More hot rodders were finding the dry lakes a safer, less public alternative to racing on the streets. But this "detour" was having its own problems. Multiple casualties were reportedly occurring during the middle of the night on the dark racing courses of the dry lakes. Hot rodders ran unmonitored, without thinking that a like-minded racer could be coming from the other direction. The result was sometimes catastrophic.
Help was on the way, though. In 1937, the Southern California Timing Association was formed. The SCTA formalized classes, developed more sophisticated timing systems, and made racing safer and more organized. Then, in 1941, a monthly publication called Throttle Magazine was created to track racing results, feature some of the better cars, and report on new safety and speed issues. The scene was starting to gel, but after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. became involved in World War II, hot rodding would have to wait.
The custom car craze also began before WWII. In fact, its roots go back even further -- to before World War I. Individualizing or "customizing" cars was popular with the well-heeled in the U.S. and Europe as far back as the development of the automobile. The most expensive cars of the 1920s, like Duesenbergs and Rolls-Royces, could be purchased as chassis only, to be custom-bodied by the shop or "coachbuilder" of the owner's choice.
Coachbuilders had actually been established in the late 1800s to build custom bodies for horse-drawn carriages. With the development of the automobile, shops such as Brewster, Hibbard and Darrin, and LeBaron (Dietrich) in New York; and Bohman & Schwartz, Coachcraft, Earl Automobile Works, and Don Lee Cadillac in Southern California, were building bodies for high-end cars.
Some rather flamboyant automobiles were created from those stock Duesenbergs, Hispano-Suizas, Packards, and Pierce-Arrows for Hollywood actors such as Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and Clark Gable. With their long, low proportions and ostentatious styling, these custom cars went beyond the coachbuilders' typical stately and elegant offerings. They demanded attention wherever they rolled.
The desire to have a standout automobile among the moneyed Hollywood elite filtered down to lesser actors and others who were not as wealthy but had just as much desire to drive unique cars. As dictated by income, their custom cars of choice tended to be less-expensive production cars like Fords, Mercurys, DeSotos, and Studebakers. With chrome emblems removed, fake pipes leading from the hood sides to the fenders, padded convertible tops, and "flipper" hubcaps, these relatively common cars took on a unique, expensive, custom look.
In the next section, find out how hot rods went from a localized fad to a nationwide trend.
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How Hot Rods and Custom Cars Became Popular
As the 1940s began, the hot rod and custom car fad continued to trickle down to car enthusiasts throughout the Los Angeles area. Now it involved older used cars that were transformed into "mystery cars" through sometimes minor, sometimes major body modifications. But it remained a relatively small and localized fad before many of the participants in this trend were called into service in WWII.
Southern California wasn't the only place you could get custom car work done. As early as the late 1930s, Harry Westergard was customizing '36 Ford cabriolets and coupes out of his home garage in the Northern California city of Sacramento. Westergard chopped tops, incorporated grilles from more expensive cars like Packards and LaSalles, formed custom hoods, and lowered suspensions. He also shaved door handles, then added Buick solenoids to open the doors.
Westergard would forever perpetuate the art of customizing through his influence on locals Dick Bertolucci and especially George and Sam Barris -- all of whom started performing custom bodywork in the 1940s. George Barris worked for Westergard for a while, but then moved to SoCal and opened his own shop in '44. Sam Barris joined his brother in '46, and together they built what would become the most famous custom shop of all time. Meanwhile, Bertolucci started out of his father's garage in '48.
While the Barris brothers had both NorCal and SoCal ties, Los Angeles had other customizers of its own. Jimmy Summers had been doing pioneering custom car work on more pedestrian production cars out of his Melrose Avenue shop since the 1930s, as had Roy Hagy from his Hagy's Streamline Shop on Vermont.
Also on Vermont was none other than the Carson Top Shop, which created the iconic padded Carson top in 1935. Link Paola was doing typical custom car work just east of Los Angeles in the Montrose/Glendale area, as were the Bistagne Brothers.
By the end of the decade, Gil and Al Ayala were doing custom body work and paint from their East Los Angeles shop on Olympic Boulevard, and Bill Gaylord was customizing bodies and upholstery from his Lynwood shop. Even racing legend Frank Kurtis did custom work in L.A. between his racing activities.
Though any car was fodder for the customizer's torch, the popular choices were Fords and Mercurys from 1935 through the current models. Typical modifications involved trim removal; lowering the body by cutting or heating the springs; adding glass-pack mufflers to get that "burble" sound; frenching headlights; rounding the corners of the doors, hood, and trunk; chopping the top; and sectioning the body.
Custom cars were usually finished with white tuck and roll interiors, deep dark lacquer paint jobs, and a choice of wheelcovers that included aftermarket "spinners" or production-car items like Cadillac "sombreros."
Custom cars from this era, ranging to about 1955, are considered to be the really classic examples of the genre. As customizing grew in popularity in the mid '50s, the cars started to receive baroque modifications with the introduction of dual and/or canted headlights, complicated trim, and scoops and vents anywhere from the quarter panels to the hood.
Customizing of the late 1940s and early '50s was about integrating the separate fenders and tops into the body, eliminating the little trim pieces like badges and head- and taillight surrounds, and giving a car a simple, singular look as opposed to the stock appearance that could look like a bunch of different components bolted together.
Two things happened to spread the gospel of hot rods and custom cars during World War II. First, many servicemen were filtered through California on their journey to the Pacific. There, they witnessed firsthand America's car-culture capital, with its unique customs and stripped down hot rods ripping through the streets. It must have left quite an impression on many.
Second, many GIs from Southern California spread information and pictures of hot cars to any soldier with time to spare. The racing and cruising activities must have seemed cool and exciting to any young soldier. Simple exposure must have been enough to spark the interest of young soldiers.
So once the seed was planted, it had to be nurtured, and for that we can thank Robert "Pete" Petersen and Hot Rod magazine, which came on to the scene in 1948.
After the war, the economy boomed. Young veterans had a bulletproof attitude after facing the horrors of combat, and they now found themselves with excesses of time and money, along with mechanical skills learned in the service. The postwar energy helped hot rodding and customizing grow more than it ever had in Southern California, and Hot Rod spread the word nationwide.
Hot Rod picked up where Throttle left off, the latter never returning after its one-year run in 1941. The fledgling magazine touched on all aspects of the car-enthusiast arena, covering hot rods, custom cars, drag racing, and even circle-track racing.
Hot Rod also informed readers about the latest speed equipment, and taught them how to perform engine and body modifications. Hot Rod was in a good position to promote safety, and to help organize early drag racing and car shows, all of which helped promote and organize hot rodding itself. Speed-parts manufacturers and custom and performance shops had a place to advertise. It was a win-win situation for all involved.
As the end of the 1940s approached, hot rods and custom cars were poised to become not just a trend but a lifestyle. Postwar adolescents were discovering the freedom and social significance of driving a unique automobile on the streets of Downtown, USA.
As we will see in the next section, many of the styles and innovations born in the '40s and refined in the '50s would forever change the way automotive enthusiasts spend their free time and present themselves to the outside world.
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The 1950s: The Golden Age of the Hot Rod and Custom Car
It's a summertime Saturday night in the 1950s, and the Southern California suburbs are hopping with hot rods. In the San Fernando Valley just north of L.A., ex-GIs are bent over their crude roadsters doing last-minute checks before heading out at midnight to one of the dry lake beds east of Los Angeles.
Their goal is to be first in line for the heads-up racing that starts at dawn. Soon they'll aim their headlights for the excitement of speed and the camaraderie that goes with running the straight, dusty courses. But first, a few of them conduct impromptu light-to-light races down San Fernando Road to check out the clutch and size up the competition.
Over in the bedroom communities of Lakewood, Lynwood, and Compton a few miles west of L.A., cruisers in their late teens and early 20s are "drive-in hopping." It's a ritual that takes off from The Clock drive-in in Bellflower, then heads down Pacific Coast Highway to The Clock on Sepulveda in Culver City, over to Tiny Naylor's in Hollywood, onto the freeway to Toluca Lake and Bob's Big Boy, over to Bob's in Pasadena, a straight shot west to Nixon's on Whittier Boulevard, and finally back to The Clock in Bellflower.
For those low on gas money, there's always cruising the boulevard. Chopped 1949 Mercs dressed in either in dark, organic colors or multihued primer, roadsters and coupes with hopped-up flatheads, and groups of buddies in dad's four-door sedan drive up and down Bellflower and Whittier boulevards slowing for girls, friends, and maybe even a short stoplight race. It's all in the name of blowing off steam.
The drive-ins play host to a traveling circus of "show boats" flaunting their polished custom cars. These hangouts are perfect for setting up some side-by-side racing along Sepulveda Boulevard or over by the oil derricks outside Whittier in Santa Fe Springs. Drive-ins all over Southern California are the social-activity "command centers" for the hot rod and custom car culture.
Occasionally, street racing accidents end up on the front page of the Orange County Register in grisly detail. There is safer, organized racing in Orange County, too. It's the abandoned airstrip, which is considered the first organized drag racing venue in the country -- Santa Ana Dragstrip.
It's the golden age of the hot rod and custom car, and Southern California is the place to be. Decades from now, these scenes will be relived and recreated thousands of times. Hot rods and customs from this period will be revered, copied, and restored to preserve for all time this magical era in automotive history.
It could only happen now, under these circumstances, only in this place, only for a while. It is the convergence of many factors, tangible and intangible.
How had World War II contributed to this phenomenon? Continue to the next page to find out.
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World War II Vets, Hot Rods, and Custom Cars
Why the hot rod and custom car craze came about had much to do with what was happening on this side of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but also a lot to do with what lay beyond them. World War II changed the world and laid the foundation for the American car-crazy phenomenon that exploded in the 1950s.
Once the hostilities in Europe and Asia had ceased, those lucky enough to make it back wanted to enjoy living the way they couldn't while serving Uncle Sam. Finally home, ex-GIs couldn't get enough of cool cars, all-American burgers and fries, and the girl next door who had grown up since they left. Building a hot rod or custom car was a method of self-expression, and for many, the cars provided the means for the social life they desired.
Many GIs also found it hard to let go of the adrenaline rush of enemy action. Something inside them yearned for a little bit of that thrill, but without the potential wartime consequences. Getting behind the wheel of a cool hot rod or custom car fulfilled those conscious and unconscious desires. And with many coming back from the war with some money saved and a job waiting, they had the means to acquire what they wanted.
Also consider that young car enthusiasts were presented with a broadening array of speed and customizing equipment, new-car offerings, and magazines that hadn't been available before the war. Hot Rod magazine had been around since 1948, but Motor Trend, Car Craft, Hop Up, and Rod & Custom also sprang up in the early '50s, spreading the word about new products and the cars people were modifying.
The venerable flathead V-8, the engine of choice for hot rodders, was still around, but it had evolved and found its way under the hood of what many consider to be the quintessential custom car: the 1949-51 Mercury.
These Mercurys were the final evolution of the low fender, high beltline school of design. The new 1947 Studebakers, '48 Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, and '49 Fords and Chevys all raised their fenders in line with their beltlines, forever changing automobile design. These cars laid the groundwork for the radical Chrysler, GM, and Ford products of 1955 that would incorporate an uninterrupted body without fender, hood, or trunk definition.
The 1949-51 Mercurys at least partially held on to the earlier body design language, making them familiar to customizers, and therefore popular as modern versions of the old school of design. This resulted in some of the most memorable custom cars of all time.
Many of the famous Mercs were created, or at least updated, at the Barris brothers' shop in the early to mid 1950s. They included the '49 coupes of Sam Barris, Louis Bettancourt, and Jerry Quesnel; the '50 coupes owned by Buddy Alcorn and Wally Welch; Ralph Testa's '50 convertible; the '51 coupes of Dave Bugarin, Bob Hirohata, and Frank Sonzogni; and Freddy Rowe's '51 convertible.
It is a short list to be sure, especially when you consider that this small group of Mercury custom cars influenced such a large contingent of custom car aficionados that have loved these cars ever since. Imagine the impact they must have had when they were first introduced to the world in the early 1950s.
Meanwhile, for hot rodders, the Russetta Timing Association, established in 1948, and the Southern California Timing Association, which had formed in '37, were still holding speed events at the SoCal dry lakes. Classes were established based on characteristics such as a car's weight, body style, aerodynamics, engine displacement, and number of cylinders.
For those who wanted to go even faster, racing on the vast salt flats at Bonneville in Southern Utah was catching on. The first National Speed Trials for hot rodders was held there in '49, and participants liked the longer runs and faster times.
While Russetta and the SCTA had given structure to the dry lakes, it was becoming apparent that a body was needed to organize, monitor, and sanction the heads-up racing called "drag racing." Hot Rod magazine and its editor Wally Parks, under the auspices of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), stepped up to fill the void. Wally founded and became the first president of the NHRA in 1951, all the while handling his editorial chores at Hot Rod.
The NHRA's mantra was to get it off the streets and race safely at an organized dragstrip. Wally eventually left Petersen Publishing Company (Hot Rod's publisher) in 1963 due to the increasing demand for his time at the NHRA.
The NHRA brought respectability to a sport that some viewed as dangerous and even rebellious. In the next section, learn more about hot rod "attitude" and custom car clubs.
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Hot Rod Organizations and Custom Car Clubs
In the 1950s, the formation of hot rod organizations like the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was an important step toward respectability, but much work needed to be done. When night fell and cruisers gathered at the drive-ins, the scene often became loud and rowdy, and sometimes got out of control.
This caused concern for city fathers, police, and neighboring residents. Street racing was a frequent occurrence, and so were accidents. It was illegal, dangerous, exciting, and fun -- a sure cocktail for disaster. But this wasn't the only thing drawing the ire of parents and the constabulary.
Some hot rodders and custom car owners adopted a look, brought back with them from the war. They wore leather jackets, blue jeans, and T-shirts with cigarette packs rolled into sleeves. It has become a cliché, but at the time it was meant to convey an antisocial, edgy distinction from what was acceptable. The look was part of the point of the whole hot rod and custom car phenomenon: To create a different lifestyle for adolescents from that of their parents. It was teenage rebellion. It was the beginning of the youth culture.
Though similar in appearance and ideology, there were differences between hot rodders and custom car owners. Hot rodders bought their parts from speed shops and performed most of the work on their cars themselves. The custom car crowd sought out the expertise of shops that performed mild-to-wild body alterations. And therein lies the difference and the rub.
Some rodders felt disdain for custom cars because they were "low and slow" and most of the work was performed by outside shops, not the owners themselves. They derided custom cars as "lead barges" or "lead sleds" due to their sometimes abundant use of lead as a body filler.
Custom car owners shot back at hot rodders with names like "shot rods" and "Ricky racers." Rodders tended to be "gearheads" that weren't as interested in the aesthetics of their cars as custom car fans. Custom guys concentrated on looks and cared little for performance. These two groups are intertwined in our modern view of their activities, but they were actually quite different and could be antagonistic toward each other.
Some feel that the custom car was a direct offshoot of the hot rod. That view doesn't jibe with the vastly different approaches the two factions had toward their cars. Yes, some rodders drove custom cars and vice versa, but it wasn't the norm. Owning two cars was beyond the reach of most hard-working young men. And the abilities required to master engine and chassis modifications, as well as body customizing and fabrication, were rarely found in a single person, or even among a whole peer group.
That's where the custom car shops came in. Barris Kustoms was the best known of the early custom shops. Located in Lynwood, California, the shop was in what some call "the nest" for its concentration of custom-related enterprises. Gaylord's Custom Upholstery, which specialized in Carson-type tops, was just around the corner from Barris Kustoms, and Larry Watson, Ed Schelhaas, and Dean Jeffries were also located within the nest.
Also in the L.A.-area were Link Paola, Jimmy Summers, the Carson Top Shop, Gil and Al Ayala, and Valley Custom. Northern California had its players, too. Gene Winfield operated out of Modesto, and Joe Bailon and Joe Wilhelm worked in the Bay Area.
By the mid 1950s, Dean Jeffries, Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Junior Conway, Dick Jackson, and Larry Watson were all plying their custom painting and/or pinstriping talents either at Barris' or within the nest. Some, like Von Dutch, were already established names, and the rest would become famous in the custom car world as the '50s progressed.
For the hot rodder or drag racer who wanted performance beyond the means of a shade-tree mechanic, some of the shops in the nest also catered to hot rodders and drag racers. The Chrisman clan, which included brothers Art and Lloyd and uncle Jack, started their engine building and racing careers in Lynwood, as did Keith Black, who pioneered the development of the Chrysler Hemi engine in drag racing's early days.
Back on the streets, car clubs formed all over the L.A. basin with names like Renegades, Road Runners, and Night Riders. They were fraternities of like-minded rodders or custom car owners.
Toward the end of the decade, a distinction even developed among dry-lakes racers, drag racers, and the "street" hot rodders who were organizing clubs like the Pasadena Roadster Club and L.A. Roadster Club. Some members of the street roadster clubs raced, but the main point was to bring together owners with similar tastes and to change the public's perception of them as riotous renegades unable to stay within the bounds of the law and accepted behavior.
The clubs also organized social events for their members and hosted car shows that allowed members to showcase their cars to the general public.
With car club-peer recognition, car-show competition, and magazine coverage rewarding the best cars, the level of craftsmanship ramped up greatly. For the most part, hot rods and especially custom cars were well-built, attractive cars that met or exceeded anything coming out of Detroit.
Competitive drag racing would soon take off -- on both coasts -- with the help of the NHRA. Go to the next section for more details on the national racing scene.
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East Coast vs. West Coast Hot Rod and Custom Car Styles
On the hot rod and custom car competition side, salt flats and lakes racing were finding limited participation due to their need for flat, barren landscapes. With the topography being unique to only a few areas, there was no possibility for expansion. Thus, this type of racing maintained its tradition of amateur participation, and does so even to this day.
With the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) help, however, drag racing took off. Expanded classes, evolving safety procedures and equipment, and new tracks helped it grow, but even more important was the professional presentation.
New, high-compression overhead-valve engines were introduced in Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles in 1949, and this engine design became available in most cars from the Big Three by '55. These faster, more reliable powerplants found favor with hot rodders, especially those who drag raced, and led to the development of new speed equipment and more speed shops to sell it.
Typical early drag racing speeds hovered around 100 mph at the dawn of the dragstrip in the early 1950s, but by the end of the decade speeds were exceeding 180 mph. Events were literally moving quite rapidly in drag racing's development, and not just on the West Coast.
Dragstrips were opening in both the East and Midwest too, helped along by the NHRA's Safety Safari -- a group of men paid to organize dragstrips under NHRA sanction. By 1955, the first NHRA "Nationals" was held in Great Bend, Kansas, with drag racers across the country participating.
As the decade progressed, an unspoken, accepted look developed for hot rods and custom cars, and that look was slightly different for the East and West Coasts. East Coast custom cars tended to sit higher than their West Coast counterparts due to the bad roads and harsh winters Easterners faced. East Coast cars also tended to be less radically modified, but they took on more baroque styling themes when they were heavily customized.
Channeled hot rods found greater favor in the East as owners strived for more sports carlike proportions. Closed coupes and sedans were also built in greater abundance in the East, again because of the more severe weather.
Highboy roadsters and coupes that adopted the look of the prewar lakes racers were more prevalent on the West Coast, as were more radical custom cars inspired by greater competition at car shows. The West drove the trends for hot rods and custom cars due mainly to the location of the magazines that catered to these cars, but also due to the abundance of craftsmen located in California.
Later in the decade, a number of East Coast magazine titles emerged to better cover the local scene, and this only helped spread the popularity of hot rods and customs nationwide.
With a burgeoning national scene, the car show phenomenon also spread across the country. Hollywood, California-based Rod & Custom magazine acknowledged this fact as early as 1953 by featuring an article on a prominent West Coast custom car -- the Hirohata Mercury -- driving cross-country for the annual Indianapolis Custom Show held in conjunction with the Indy 500.
During the winter months, these indoor rod and custom car shows intensified interest while racing and cruising all but disappeared due to the weather. They also helped spotlight regional speed shops, mechanics, and body shops that catered to the hot rodder or custom car owner.
As the decade drew to a close, custom cars transitioned away from 1940s and early '50s coupes and sedans with moderate-to-radical body modifications. The new look, featured on late '50s finned hardtops and convertibles, utilized paint techniques and relatively little custom bodywork. Customizing was now in a paint gun.
These "mild custom cars" were popularized by painter Larry Watson and his brand-new, widely publicized 1958 Ford Thunderbird. Custom cars were still in their prime, but with the sweeping changes Detroit made in automobile design -- the canted headlights, high fins, thin roofs, and large expanses of glass -- mild custom cars became distinctive enough with just panel painting or scallops, lowering, cool wheel covers, and some well done tuck-and-roll upholstery.
Detroit was designing beyond the need to customize, but teenagers and custom car enthusiasts still needed to stand apart from their parents and peers.
Hot rods were ending the decade on a high note, too, but they would face a number of challenges over the next few years as America entered the dawn of the factory "muscle car" era.
Hot rods and custom cars seemingly came out of nowhere at the beginning of the decade to become a cultural phenomenon that encompassed the whole United States. Hot rods and custom cars appeared in movies, advertising, and television shows. They affected laws and city policies. Their influence reflected the changing importance that the teenage culture would take on as the decades progressed.
The car scene didn't just grow in the 1950s. It became a subculture with its own clothes, language, businesses, magazines, events, shows, competitions, and more. It was the golden age of the hot rod and custom car.
Detroit's muscle cars had a direct effect on the hot rod's popularity in the 1960s. We'll discuss this chapter in hot rod history in the next section.
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Factory Cars Challenge the Popularity of Hot Rods and Custom Cars in the 1960s
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.
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The Decline of the Custom Car
By the late 1950s, car shows had become popular with custom car owners, and their interest spawned the show car circuit of the '60s. But even in the '50s, a car wasn't eligible to compete a second year unless it had new modifications that distinguished it from its previous iteration.
As a result, many of the wonderful customs of the '50s were slowly degraded from a styling standpoint with unnecessary changes in the name of competition. Canted headlights and more baroque styling features were turning the once beautiful cars into overdone statements that should have been left alone. This, too, began a general decline of the custom car genre.
But it didn't stop there. As the decade progressed, wacky show rods proliferated the show car scene. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was one proponent of the genre with his wild fiberglass creations. As Ed tried to outdo himself each show season, his custom show rods went farther over the top, though they usually held some charm.
Another factor in the decline of custom cars in the 1960s was Hollywood. Some of the famed customizers of the '50s moved slowly away from building custom cars for individual customers to the more lucrative television and movie work.
George Barris was the most notable of these, but Dean Jeffries also did customizing and stunt work for Hollywood, especially after moving his shop next to the Hollywood freeway adjacent to Universal Studios. Larry Watson actually became an actor, appearing in more than 150 television shows from the 1960s through the '80s. Even Von Dutch got into the movie scene, doing two cars for the Steve McQueen movie The Reivers and setting up timed explosives for numerous movies. These were four of the key figures from the 1950s custom car era.
Not everyone had abandoned the traditional custom car. In the Midwest, Darryl Starbird and the Titus brothers (Jerry and Elden) produced custom cars based on both newer and older cars throughout the 1960s. In Northern California, Art Himsl and Rod Powell customized cars and did elaborate custom paintwork, carrying on the traditions of two other Northern California customizers from the 1950s: Joe Bailon and Joe Wilhelm. But the custom car was slowly evaporating from the car scene.
The enthusiast magazines provided perhaps the greatest evidence of the custom cars's decline. By the late 1960s, only Rod & Custom magazine was featuring any sort of custom car, and the majority of these tended to be modified Corvettes with flared fenders, extended duck tails, and bubble hoods.
Some of the last custom cars featured were based on later Rivieras and Chevrolet Impalas, but it was questionable whether they actually improved upon the stock designs. It seemed as if the end of the custom car was near.
Meanwhile, the hot rod world was changing with the times even though its numbers were dwindling. The overhead-valve engine, headed by the small-block Chevy V-8 that had made its debut in 1955, had pretty much eliminated the Ford flathead and even some of the earlier overhead-valve engines. Automatic transmissions were getting lighter and more efficient, and were finding their way into more hot rods. As the trends changed to thinner white sidewall tires, hot rodders followed as well.
As the decade progressed, stylistic changes in drag racing, like the use of magnesium wheels and raised front ends for weight transfer, appeared on street roadsters and coupes. A similar phenomenon had happened in the 1950s when Indy roadster characteristics such as hairpin radius rods and larger meter tires in back and smaller in front were adopted by hot rodders.
On the club scene, groups like the L.A. Roadsters, Bay Area Roadsters, and Early Times found their way into Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding, and especially Rod & Custom magazines with their high-quality cars and club gatherings, now called rod runs. Some of these club runs were combined to produce larger gatherings like the Roadster Roundup, which still continues today.
Over the years, members of each of these clubs worked at numerous West Coast hot rod publications. This helped keep the hot rod fires fanned even as actual participation in rodding waned.
As the decade drew to a close and drag racing became more of a professional endeavor, engine and chassis builders and component manufacturers started businesses to cater to the latest speed equipment and service needs.
Many of these businesses also made hot rod components. Kent Fuller, Dragmaster, Andy Brizio, Cal Automotive, and Speed Products Engineering (which would later become The Deuce Factory, specializing in street rod components) all supplied drag racing components or services, and advertised T-bucket kits.
Others offering T-bucket kits were Ted Brown, Bird Engineering, and Total Performance in Connecticut. Some of these enterprises would lead off the second coming of the hot rod in 1970.
Though the 1960s ended on a down note, some new and exciting developments were in the works for the hot rods of the '70s, while the custom car would slowly begin to make a comeback as its old self.
A new era and a new generation of enthusiasts were about to burst onto the scene to remember and preserve the old and bring on the new. In the next section, get detailed information on the hot rod's rebirth in the 1970s.
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Hot Rod Revival in the 1970s
The 1970s could arguably be considered the most exciting decade in the history of hot rods, while the near-dormant custom car was showing signs of rebirth in its original '50s idiom.
There are many reasons for the hot rod revival, but they all lead back to a refocused Rod & Custom magazine. Most of the traditional magazines that featured hot rods and customs had moved away from that segment into drag racing coverage, muscle cars, more technical fare, and in the case of R&C in the '60s, everything from minibikes to plastic models to slot cars.
Now, through the staff's efforts, two developments organized the hot rod scene and ensured its numbers, then and well into the future.
In 1969, the R&C staff decided there should be a national event sponsored by the magazine to bring together as many hot rodders and their cars as possible. Besides the fun factor, it would give R&C an opportunity to acquire features on cars from other parts of the country, not just Southern California. Since they didn't have the budget to fly cross-country to photograph cars, they tried to meet car owners halfway.
A single, central event would also give the editors an opportunity to talk with their readers and to make contacts for potentially more features. They could take the pulse of what was happening elsewhere, and learn of new trends, shops, and personalities.
The editors decided to locate this event in the center of the country, and the town of choice was Peoria, Illinois. After contacting the city, locating a local club to help with logistics, and flying to Peoria to meet with the mayor, R&C proclaimed "All Roads Lead To Peoria" in the June 1970 issue.
Parallel to the event planning were ongoing discussions between the R&C staff and concerned rodders about a potential national organization. The goal was to form an organization to help fight pending state and national safety-equipment regulations, legislation related to the safety of homebuilt vehicles, and smog-control devices for hot rods, or "street rods" as they were now called.
Also, many rod owners were finding it difficult to get insurance. An organized group, it was surmised, would attract a national company to insure street rods.
It became apparent that the best place to attempt to start an organization would be at the upcoming event, now dubbed the Street Rod Nationals. So, the National Street Rod Association, or NSRA, was conceived on the eve of the Nationals, just in time to sign up members from all over the country.
More than 600 pre-1948 rods came out for the first Street Rod Nationals on August 14-16, 1970. They showed off their cars and took part in games, but mostly came to party and celebrate the largest gathering of hot rods yet assembled.
"Street Is Neat" was the slogan conceived by R&C's Tom Medley, and with a successful event and the beginnings of a national organization, the street rod scene was looking neat indeed. Attendance at the second Nationals doubled, and in recent years, the event has grown to attract more than 14,000 cars. The NSRA has more than 50,000 members today.
The Nationals became a springboard for several milestones that would make street rodding what it is today. A number of publications dedicated to street rods emerged. Street Rod magazine first appeared in late 1971, followed by Street Rodder and Ray Brock's Rod Action in '72. These publications would help spread the word and spotlight new companies and their products.
What about custom cars? Well, 1971 would mark the end of the continuous string of custom cars to be featured in magazines since 1948. Milo Broz's sectioned '50 Ford coupe was the last custom to be featured. It appeared in Rod & Custom, which was the last magazine giving customs any recognition.
For the most part, the few custom cars that did exist were from the 1960s. And the few being built were either '50s or '60s relics late in their completion, or they were the work of enthusiasts who didn't much care about the current trends.
A couple custom car trends did linger, though. Corvettes were somewhat popular with customizers because their fiberglass bodies easily took to modifications. And pickups were being lowered with an occasional rolled pan. But the traditional custom car was dormant.
If there was a significant customizing activity in the early 1970s, it had to be the predominately Hispanic lowriders. They could be found on the streets of East Los Angeles, the San Fernando or San Gabriel Valleys of suburban L.A., parts of Arizona, and in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
They tended to be late-model Chevrolets, Pontiacs, or the occasional Oldsmobile or Cadillac. Lowered with dressed-up engines, aftermarket wheels, and wild custom paint jobs, they exhibited excellent craftsmanship -- like 1950s customs.
Generally, lowriders had velvet or velour interiors with features like swivel seats, cocktail bars, TVs, and/or elaborate stereos. About all they lacked compared to traditional customs were body modifications, though some had them. They also differed stylistically. Many wore original badges and trim, and they were frequently festooned with such accessories as sun visors, fender skirts, bumper guards, fog lamps, and headlight visors.
To avoid problems caused by the lingering Southern California ride height laws from the 1950s and '60s, most also used hydraulic suspensions that could lift or lower the whole car in a matter of seconds. The hydraulics utilized lift gate rams from large trucks attached to the suspension components, and they were powered by an army of batteries in the trunk.
But within the next few years, interest in custom cars would be ignited by a popular movie. Continue to the next section to learn more about the custom car's newfound popularity.
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Custom Car Interest Rekindles
Just as the custom car seemed to fade completely, developments took place in 1973 and '74 that would help rekindle an interest in '50s custom cars.
George Lucas' movie American Graffiti was released in 1973 to an enthusiastic audience that connected with the film's nostalgic depiction of teenage activities in the summer of '62. Central to the story were cruising customs and hot rods. For car enthusiasts, what could have been more perfect than the Deuce coupe, chopped Merc, and '58 Impala that were central to the story? American Graffiti got people's attention, but there was more to come.
Once again, the magazines played a part. In 1973, Hot Rod, not known for featuring custom cars, ran an article that espoused 1950s customizing as an art form. Examples were included along with a pullout poster by artist Robert Williams. Titled "A Devil With a Hammer and Hell With a Torch," the poster celebrated the accomplishments of George Barris and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and showed real and imagined '50s- and '60s-style custom cars.
Then, Street Rodder devoted its November 1974 issue to chopped Mercs. Bang! The magazine devoted almost entirely to street rods was featuring a custom Merc on its cover. It was all coincidental, but the 1950s style custom car was being celebrated in different media. Slowly, '50s style customs were coming back.
Back on the street rod scene, numerous fledgling companies were manufacturing components exclusively for hot rods by the mid 1970s. Included among them were Pete and Jake's Hot Rod Parts, The Deuce Factory, TCI, Total Performance, and Super Bell Axle Company. They made kits for engine and transmission installations, suspensions, and disc brakes. The Deuce Factory even had a completely new, stamped 1932 Ford frame.
These products made constructing a street rod a lot easier and safer. The components were well-made and engineered, and the new rodding magazines, as well as the Street Rod Nationals, provided the means for effective marketing.
As early Ford bodies became more and more rare, fiberglass companies started manufacturing everything from fenders to complete coupe and roadster bodies. Existing businesses expanded their lines, and more companies sprang up to manufacture more sophisticated equipment such as independent suspensions and air conditioning systems.
From these companies emerged another hot rod milestone. Shops began specializing in constructing hot rods. Customers could buy any service from chassis fabrication to upholstery to wiring, or opt for a complete "turnkey" rod. Dan Woods' Contemporary Carriage Works, J&J Chassis, Andy Brizio, and Pete and Jake's Hot Rod Repair all were doing hot rod construction and fabrication by the mid '70s.
These were the beginnings of the huge street rod aftermarket industry. It was a slow and steady progression, and an obvious outgrowth of the Street Rod Nationals and the NSRA.
Custom cars were slow to this party, and when they finally arrived, it was in a different way than hot rods. The custom car movement had grown from its rebirth in this decade, but the ideas applied to the custom car hadn't changed significantly from the 1950s.
The same cars were being customized, the shoebox Fords and 1949-51 Mercs for example, and these cars had more complicated bodies and components than hot rods, making aftermarket bodies and parts less feasible to produce. Aftermarket bodies for typical '50s custom subjects weren't needed anyway because these cars were still readily available and relatively affordable.
Also, most custom car modifications have always been unique and labor intensive for each car. Whereas almost every hot rod needed suspension components, making them lucrative to manufacture, custom cars couldn't benefit from as many aftermarket components because it was too difficult at the time to manufacture custom bodies and the market for such products was much smaller.
It also made little sense to make a chopped top for a Mercury or a hood with rounded corners, for instance, because each custom car is a personalized statement, often with different treatments for the various custom modifications.
In the mid to late 1970s, early custom car pioneers, like Gene Winfield and Joe Bailon, noticed an increased demand for their '50s-style customizing services -- things they hadn't done in maybe 10 or 15 years. Dick Dean, who had been doing customizing work since the '50s, started specializing in chopping the tops of anything, like new pickups, and late-model cars, as well as traditional custom car subjects. He advertised in the magazines and became known as the "Top Chop King."
Back in the hot rod world, a new look had taken hold, that of the "resto rod," so-called for its use of original components such as lantern-style cowl lights and accessory trunk racks.
This gave restorers two reasons to dislike hot rodders. First, rodders were "ruining" original cars by cutting up the frames and bodies and installing late-model engines, air conditioning, and the like. Second, the resto rodders were robbing restorers of their prized original components like headlights, accessory clock mirrors, and greyhound hood ornaments.
Original-type mohair upholstery and even stock two-tone paint jobs were showing up with regularity at rod runs and in the magazines.
By the end of the decade, the typical hot rod was a clean, simple traditional or resto rod with modern advances like independent suspensions, disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, power windows, power brakes, and tilt steering columns. Like they often had in the past, junkyards provided the components that builder incorporated into their hot rods, only now some different parts were chosen.
The quality of street rods was on the rise, and so were participation and the street rod industry as a whole. But a styling shift was on the horizon. The look had its roots in the 1970s, but it wouldn't manifest itself until the '80s.
And while the custom car had begun to return to its 1950s roots in the '70s, it was still loosely organized with very few shows to galvanize its following.
The '80s would change that, as several events and organizations would emerge to give custom fans a place to congregate and celebrate. We'll cover these in the next section.
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Billets Change the Look of Hot Rods in the 1980s
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.
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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New Ideas and Looks for Hot Rods and Custom Cars
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.
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Hot Rods and Custom Cars Go Mainstream in the 1990s
In popular culture, there is usually a 40- to 50-year lag time from when something was first popular to when it is rediscovered. That held true for the hot rod that became known in the late 1990s as the "rat rod." Some like the term, some don't, but it has stuck.
While it is hard to classify any type of art form, rat rods take on the rougher look of 1940s and '50s dry-lakes cars. Stripped down and grimy, they look like they were just driven off the dirt and dust of El Mirage. There is usually no paint, just primer. They have minimal interiors, spotty body work, and may or may not have a hood. Exposed welds are quite welcome.
The engines are vintage, and they often have rare vintage speed equipment that is probably scarce because it got shelved early on when it didn't work all that well. Fixing, nursing along, and messing with the old iron is part of the deal.
One of the main reasons for the initial growth of rat rods was a series of books containing vintage photography from the personal collections of many early rodders and drag racers. The books were authored by an early rodder and drag racer himself, Don Montgomery. With Don's books, the newer rodders interested in the wheres and what-fors of the early years now had candid shots of the era to reference. Early speed equipment, car configurations, and the general way they did things were all chronicled and accessible.
The rat rod scene soon became a culture, not just a hot rod building style, for a new, younger breed of hot rodder. Go to any rat rod show today, and you'll see it has its own art, music, and fashion, all revolving around 1940s and '50s styles. Tattoos are quite popular with this group; the more the better. Tattoo parlors often display their work at rat rod gatherings. Rockabilly and swing music can be heard from live bands at rat rod shows like Billetproof (no billet aluminum parts allowed) and The Blessing of the Cars -- where a priest is on hand to bless cars with holy water.
Rat rods brought about a resurgence of car clubs, too. Some of the earlier clubs, such as the Choppers of Burbank, California, and the Shifters of Orange County, California, started early in the 1990s and adopted club names inspired by names from the past. Some of these clubs welcomed both rod and custom car owners, all in the "rat" style, of course. With the clubs came parties and social gatherings, just like back in the 1950s.
Rat rods also came about as a reaction to the expensive, pro-built cars that were being churned out with ever higher levels of fit and finish. By the mid 1990s, Boyd Coddington's shop had become a big business, with its hand in many segments of the hot rod and custom car worlds.
Coddington was no longer the little guy, and to some, his style had become too prevalent. They felt the best way to beat him was to change the rules. Rat rodders were the most obvious and radical shift away from the fiberglass and billet creations that had become street rodding's state of the art.
While the modern street rod was experiencing a bit of a backlash, the modern custom car was flourishing. Two Northern California customizers, John D'Agostino and Richard Zocchi, helped spur interest in the custom car scene.
The duo began receiving recognition for showing customs built to their designs in the late 1980s. By the early '90s, they had made it a practice to debut their cars each year at Oakland's Grand National Roadster Show. For custom car enthusiasts, seeing the latest from D'Agostino and Zocchi became an anticipated part of the show.
Both gentlemen's cars are in much the same idiom. They combine vintage custom styling cues with contemporary paint blends, suspensions, interior touches, and wheels. Their efforts have influenced many custom car aficionados, carried on the tradition of the 1960s show custom, and boosted interest in custom cars in general.
While D'Agostino and Zocchi were raising awareness of custom cars through their beautiful designs and prolific output, another phenomenon gave the custom car scene a boost in the 1990s, that of the high-end, high-profile custom car.
In 1989, CadZZilla™ led off a string of envelope-pushing, highly publicized custom cars. CheZoom followed in late '92, Frankenstude was finished in '96, and Scrape debuted in '98. All of these cars received publicity beyond the traditional custom car media, introducing a mainstream audience to custom cars.
At the other end of the spectrum, the youth-oriented rat rod scene inspired a revival of late 1940s/early '50s-style "in-progress" leadsled custom cars. Builders took pride in leaving the cars in primer or bare metal to better show off the modifications and craftsmanship.
Back in the hot rod world, rodders also began exploring new/old forms of hot rodding, like lakes modifieds, for the first time in years. Interest in restoring historical cars, presaged by Rod & Custom staffer Jim "Jake" Jacobs and the NieKamp roadster back in 1970, was peaking.
The prestigious concours at Pebble Beach even got into the act by introducing a hot rod class for the '97 Concours d'Elegance. Reviews have been mixed regarding hot rodders' inclusion in an upscale arena they never dreamed of entering (or perhaps even cared about), but a hot rod or custom car class has returned every other year since that first show.
Hot rodding was maturing, too. Companies like Petersen Publishing, Hilborn Fuel Injection, and Edelbrock were celebrating 50 years of service. Some of the icons of hot rodding and custom cars were leaving us as old age crept up. Guys like Rich Guasco, who won the 1961 Grand National Roadster Show and who later piloted the Pure Hell Fuel Altered, were restoring their cars and using them in retirement like they had as young adults.
The introduction of a breakthrough product would soon fuel the modernization of vintage custom cars. Learn more about this product in the next section.
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Modernizing Vintage Custom Cars and Hot Rods
Feeling that they had explored the fringes of modernizing hot rods with the smoothies of the 1980s, many rodders built rods in the '90s that looked and sounded like rods from the past. Flathead engines started showing up more often in newly built roadsters. As a result, speed equipment that hadn't been produced in decades returned to parts catalogs.
And new twists on old hot rod staples were becoming more common. For example, electronic fuel injection units were hidden in '60s-style mechanical fuel-injection intake manifolds and '40 Ford-style drum brake backing plates now hid modern discs. Everything old was new again.
Then, a breakthrough product appeared, and it made quite a splash. Brookville Roadsters in Brookville, Ohio, came out with an exact reproduction 1932 Ford roadster body in 1997. While '32 Ford bodies had been available for decades in fiberglass, this body was significant because it was made out of steel, just like the originals.
Apparently, a lot of people had been waiting to find a reasonably priced steel body because hundreds laid out the cash for a Brookville body and made plans to build a '32 roadster.
In addition to the bodies, tires that hadn't been manufactured in decades were now available from specialty tire suppliers like Coker. Combining the best of the old and the new, Coker offered radial tires with wide white sidewalls. What seemed unimaginable only a few years earlier was now possible. A hot rodder could buy a new version of almost any old speed part.
As more enthusiasts were initiated into the fold in the 1990s, they in turn exposed others to the hobby, and thus even more joined the bandwagon. The Street Rod Nationals grew to 14,000 pre-1949 hot rods, making it one of the largest car shows in the world.
To see just how mainstream the hot rod had become, look no further than Detroit. After Mitsubishi supplied the driveline for Boyd Coddington's Aluma Coupe in 1991, Chrysler quietly developed a hot rod-style show car, the Plymouth Prowler, for the '93 auto-show season. The Prowler received a positive response, and Chrysler introduced a production version for the '97 model year. Annual production continued until 2002 at about 3500 units each year.
Traditional hot rodders complained that the V-6 wasn't true to the hot rod spirit. Still, the Prowler served as a symbol of how far the hot rod had come in 50 or so years -- from stripped down Detroit castoff to limited-production "halo" vehicle.
High-end hot rods caught the interest of Japanese automakers, too. In 1994, the Q29 Infiniti Flyer became the first Oakland Roadster Show America's Most Beautiful Roadster winner with a Japanese engine. Based on a '29 Ford, the car was built by Art and Mike Chrisman for Joe MacPherson.
Infiniti didn't pay for the project, but Nissan's luxury division did supply many parts and much technical support. The yellow roadster utilized the engine and transmission, as well as other components, from an Infiniti Q45. It was quite an engineering feat.
A couple of years later, Toyota's luxury arm, Lexus, ventured into the hot rod arena with a one-off highboy roadster show car based on the venerable 1932 Ford. The car incorporated the drivetrain and some suspension components from a Lexus GS400. The marriage of the old and new looked natural.
Hot rods and custom cars had traditionally been preoccupations for young men, but in the 1990s it became obvious that the age of the participants was increasing. Actually, the hot rod and custom car fans of the '90s were many of the same participants from the hobbies' earlier incarnations in the '50s and '60s.
By now, their children had left the nest, they had ascended to higher income tax brackets, and they had more spare time. They were looking for a hobby that also had a social aspect, and a return to the hot rods and custom cars of their youth fit the bill.
The hot rod and custom car hobby was going strong at the end of the millennium, but it had yet to hit full stride. While the rat rod scene had begun to attract a new, younger crowd, another development would soon introduce hot rods and customs to an even wider audience. We'll let you in on that development in the next section.
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Television and Trends for Hot Rods and Custom Cars in the 2000s
So far, we've discussed the evolution of the hot rod and custom car over the last 75 or so years. Besides the physical evolution, you've read about its growth and steady increase in popularity. So, by the start of the new millennium you might imagine that its image was set in the hearts and minds of America and that exposure was at its peak.
Television, that vapid wasteland of sitcoms and teleprompter news readers, can popularize a pastime faster than you can say "nitro-burning Funny Car." In 2001, the Discovery Channel documentary Motorcycle Mania took viewers into the world of Long Beach, California, chopper builder (and former Boyd Coddington employee) Jesse James.
The documentary spiked ratings, and a second documentary on Jesse and his shop followed. That program saw excellent ratings as well, and the success begat Monster Garage in 2002.
Monster Garage was conceived as a weekly program about building a crazy car or truck in five days. Several automotive personalities have been guests on the show, including myself. Concurrent to Monster Garage, American Chopper, a show about a dysfunctional family building choppers in New York, also garnered excellent ratings for the Discovery Channel.
Following the success of these shows, Discovery looked for the next big thing, and that honor fell to the hot rod and custom car. In 2004, Discovery launched American Hot Rod, a show that follows the workings of Boyd Coddington's shop.
Also in 2004, The Learning Channel (TLC), a sister to Discovery, introduced Overhaulin'. Starring hot rod and custom designer/fabricator (and another former Coddington employee) Chip Foose, the show follows the building process at Chip's shop as he turns guests' project cars into modern rods and custom cars.
Hot rods and custom cars also began appearing in the TV documentaries that had formerly been devoted to classic or exotic cars. With the popularity of these and other television shows, it's a sure-fire bet that hot rods and custom cars have found new recruits eager to build or just own something like they have seen on TV. While television has not changed hot rod and custom car styling trends, it could very well affect their popularity for years to come.
As for those trends, building styles continue to evolve. Today, anything can be seen at a rod run or custom car show. Many of the more-contemporary components and equipment developed since the mid '70s -- by companies such as Pete & Jake's, Super Bell, TCI, and the Deuce Factory, and later Magnum Axle, Chassis Engineering, and the So-Cal Speed Shop -- can be seen on hot rods and custom cars today.
Some of those parts have fallen out of favor, though, as a few of the styling trends of the 1970s, '80s, and even '90s have been abandoned for a more traditional look. Many of today's hot rods are highly detailed and look like they may have come from any era.
The difference between the rods and custom cars of the past and those that emulate them today is detail. From fabrication to execution, these new nostalgic cars are rolling art. Today's builders have taken the construction of hot rods and custom cars to heights that the builders of the 1950s couldn't have fathomed. Heck, they've taken them to heights that builders of the '80s couldn't have imagined!
The flathead Ford engine has experienced a resurgence in popularity, but the cars they end up in today are usually more detailed and better built than those of the past.
Some of this interest in vintage styling has come from rat rods, but it also came about as a backlash against the ever more computer-controlled engines and drivelines in today's new cars.
The use of modern drivetrains in hot rods and custom cars complicates construction and maintenance. As a result, a lot of builders are going back to simpler ways to build cars to keep the fun factor in their projects. If a project requires an engineer to package the engine, transmission, computers, and electronics, and another one to keep it all running, the fun's gone.
The rat rod genre continues to add more recruits. These cars often incorporate more-radical customizing and hot rodding elements. Severely chopped tops, drastically channeled bodies, and radically equipped vintage engines all provide striking looks. And there is no segregation of the rods and custom cars -- if it's cool and primered, it's welcome.
From the looks of things, the participants seem to be having fun, which is what it is all about. Rat rods are often stripped down without a lot of detailing and finish, making them quick to build and worry-free. In some ways, owners of highly detailed rods and custom cars must be envious.
I doubt that many high-tech hot rod owners can park their cars and walk away without worrying about what may befall their cars in parking lots or on city streets. Rat rodders don't have that problem.
What does the future hold for hot rods and custom cars? Find out in the next section.
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The Future of Hot Rods and Custom Cars
As we dig back into the past for hot rod inspiration, many are finding that their past may not be the same as their friends' or contemporaries'. The older fellows might like '40s and '50s styles, while younger guys might relate better to the '60s. As a result, we are now seeing interest in the '60s styles -- things such as bubbletops and exotic fiberglass rods like those from Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.
These types of cars appear from time to time at car shows and rod runs. There may only be a handful due to the expertise required to make a body from scratch, but their inclusion points to styles from the past coming back, seemingly in chronological order.
Along these same chronological lines is the new interest in the Gasser look. Gassers were the stock-bodied hot rods of drag racing's golden days of the mid-1960s. To aid weight transfer, they were jacked up in front with big slicks in back. The Gasser look is finding its way back into hot rodding in increasing numbers. It had to happen: As cars got lower, there would inevitably be an opposing trend.
So we see that styles from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s have returned. It hasn't happened yet, but we may soon see a groundswell of interest in resto rods of the '70s, and then who knows, maybe even the smoothie style of the '80s. You may not want to think about saving that hard-edged billet mirror for the nostalgic smoothie rod you might be building in 2020, but things could be heading that way.
With the number of magazines and events that existed in the '80s, a lot of youth were exposed to rods and custom cars at the time. In the future, adults who remember those cool billet windshield wipers or independent front suspensions may strive to create something similar for themselves.
Most of these trends affect hot rods more than customs. While the custom car will certainly never go away, it may become a shadow in the midst of hot rods, as well as other enthusiast subjects such as muscle cars, Volkswagens, tuner cars, pickups, you name it.
As stock automobiles from the 1940s and '50s become increasingly rare and more expensive, it becomes a little harder to take a torch to one. And for those who do, there is no turning back. It's best to be versed in the intricacies of custom metal fabrication or face the task of saving it if that chopped top goes awry.
In recent years, many good-looking newly built custom car have appeared at events throughout the country. That's a good sign, but their numbers are only a fraction of the hot rods touching asphalt for the first time. Currently, brand-new Model A roadster, 1932 Ford roadster, and three-window coupe bodies are produced in metal -- and just about any body style and year of Ford is available in fiberglass.
There are also reproduction metal 1969 Chevrolet Camaro and 1947-54 Chevy pickup bodies, with '67-68 Ford Mustangs not far behind. No shoebox Ford or 1949-51 Mercury body has been produced in metal, though, which speaks to their demand. Though fiberglass Mercury bodies are available from longtime customizer Gene Winfield, they don't seem to be making it onto the street.
As hot rodders and custom car enthusiasts act and react to current and past trends in building styles and components, one thing is for sure: Hot rods and customs are an American phenomenon -- one that participants are proud to carry on. The cars are creative, interesting, and just plain cool.
They are a celebration of the last 75 or so years of innovative backyard efforts, some of which have turned into multimillion-dollar industries. Many rodders and customizers have become heroes or icons to other enthusiasts. In all cases, the cars have thrilled owners and onlookers.
It takes vision, determination, and the skill of a metal virtuoso to take on the challenge of making an old car handle, run, ride, and look better. These qualities seem to be innate in many American men and women, and they have been for years.
Though its roots were with the postwar youth, those original participants are aging to the extent that one might expect the whole phenomenon to fade with their memories.
But the state of the hot rod and custom car hobby is as strong and vibrant as it has ever been. It appears that this marvel of American ingenuity and imagination will remain for future generations to prize and admire -- possibly forever.
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