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History of Hot Rods & Customs

Hot Rods and Custom Cars Go Mainstream in the 1990s

The Nadean, with voluptuous contours and an understated paint job, was one of the modern custom cars of the 1990s.
The Nadean, with voluptuous contours and an understated paint job, was one of the modern custom cars of 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.

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