History of Hot Rods & Customs

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.

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