hot rods raced onto the front pages of the newspapers and magazines in the 1950's as teenagers with a need for speed turned public roads into makeshift raceways, we'll take a look at the
history behind these machines and the story of how the police and the news press launched a campaign to stomp out this so called menace, it takes us back in time to the start of the baby
boomer youth culture and rockets us forward as hot rodders pushed the limits of speed.
today, hot rodding has become more than a just a hobby, it's also become a multi billion dollar industry of sanctioned drag racing via the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), aftermarket
speed parts and custom car accessories, and specialist car shops in the business of building clients their very own unique hot rods.
it has become a permanent part of American culture and had a halo effect on the rest of the world from Canada, to Sweden, even to Australia.
hot rodding much like skateboarding, surfing, and other American pop culture trends, got it's start in California.
it began in the late roaring 20's (the 1920's) when teenagers started racing on the dry lake beds of the southern California desert, the dry lakes were a perfect place to run flat out at
and see how fast one can go and they stretched for miles and had hard enough surface to make it ideal for driving, and what also made it a popular spot for racing is that it was only
a two hour drive from Los Angeles, a city as we all as car nuts know is a hot spot for car culture and street racing, plus it wasn't illegal to race out there back then, it was hard to beat,
they can just simply drive out there, strip down their cars, race.
the first hot rods to race on the dry lakes, were mostly stripped down Ford Model T's, they were inexpensive, plentiful, and were also easy to modify to make them go fast, one example of
this is one hot rodder, Wally Parks (the founder of the NHRA and editor of Hot Rod magazine), bought his first Model T for four dollars, an original Model T would cost you about
forty thousand dollars today.
the car had no tires on it, but he towed it home and began working on it, turning it into a souped up street rod, this was an underground hobby that relied on the talent and resourcefulness
of a legion of young backyard tinkerers with a need for speed.
hot rodders were mostly kids who like a lot of us today just wanted to learn how to work on cars and had some mechanical ability and would go to junkyards to find parts that they think would
make their car go a faster.
to up ante on speed, they would even as far as to taking off the fenders and the running boards to reduce weight, the fenderless look became a trademark associated with a hot rod,
the cars appeared ready to race.
like scientists, they relied on trial and error runs to improve their cars and make them as fast as they could make them go and be faster than the other guy, the lake beds became their
laboratories, and by the early 1930's, their souped up Model T's were reaching speeds in access of 100 miles per hour, more than double the stock Model T's 40 miles per hour top speed.
the cost of getting into this hobby back then was rock bottom, if you had at least a few dollars to splurge, the determination to scrounge around in a local junkyard for parts, and the
passion to transform some abandoned junkyard hulk of a car into a racer you were in.
hot rodders put tons of research and development into their cars much like an car company does when developing a new car or new innovation for their cars, and parts at a junkyard plentiful
and can be bought for practically pennies a pound and were all interchangeable, it was an era when you could be easily convinced that you can build a better looking and faster car than
Detroit and often times, they proved they could.
the scene at the dry lakes continued to grow, but growth can usually have it's downside, as it became more and more popular the number of dry lakes racers grew and as a result, there were
accidents, often times drivers ran into each other, other times there were situations where if you were out in front ,you could see, but if your were behind somebody, all you could see was
dust, running at the lakes was becoming dangerous.
to help clear the dust, five Los Angeles hot rod clubs formed the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) in 1937, their first order of business, bringing order to the chaos at the
dry lakes, the clubs introduced racing rules that made it safer to run on the lakes, the rules changed later on as speeds were increasing due to the introduction of a new engine from Ford
in 1932, the Flathead V8 engine, this engine became the hallmark of Hot Rodding and the Model A that was powered by the Flathead replaced the Model T as the car of choice for hot rodders,
the 1932 Ford roadster with a modified Flathead V8 become the poster child of hot rodding, stripping off the fenders, sloping the windshield and putting fatter tires at the back and little
tires at the front proved good for racing and it looked great.
the lakes continued to attract bigger crowds but unfortunately, the fun came to a stop, on December 7th, 1941, at approximately 6:00 PM, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, there was
no longer time to think about simple joys of life like hot rodding and racing, the young hot rodders lined up to serve their country, during the war while they were overseas, they began to
talk with fellow GI's about hot rodding and many of the racers began applying their mechanical skills to fixing Jeeps, tanks, various other military vehicles, and even airplanes, all skills
they could use when they returned home.
their growing need for speed propelled the GI's to return to the lakes when they came home, they started trying things that they were thinking about while away overseas in military service,
the technology they learned during their years of service during the second world war supposedly added a lot to hot rodding in the southern California, most of the airplane mechanics were
from southern California.
the lakesters as they were called had spread the word about the fun and joy of hot rodding to their fellow soldiers and now those soldiers were getting on it as well, their stories of their
runs on the dry lakes planted the seeds of enthusiasm for hot rodding across the United States.
but not all the new hot rodders wanted to go to the dry lakes, by the 1950's, some started to cruise the streets and head to the drive-ins which became popular spots for gatherings,
they would show up, by a drink and something to eat, and show off their cars.
but when it came to showing off to the girls?, it turns into a one on one game of, who's car is the fastest?, and supposedly most of those races came out of high school with teenagers racing
each other down the street, but most races back then started at drive-ins because they were seen as good spots to race, they were usually in places that were far away from the heavy traffic
and with empty streets.
most people usually were not bothered by the occasional street races, but eventually there were accidents and sometimes they even resulted fatalities, and eventually the police, the
press, the public, and even the politicians started to crack down on street racing, the police would set roadblocks on either end of certain sections of roads where hot rodders constantly
spotted forcing them to drive off road through the fields to get away, and it became pretty common for police to block off roads that they knew would serve as raceways for hot rodders.
hot rodding was starting to get a bad name, it became clear that something had to be done.
Robert Peterson a young man who possessed the necessary PR skills and vision to see how to turn things around was also interested in hot rodding, talking to people at car shows at the dry
lakes had convinced him that hot rodding needed a newsletter or a magazine, much like the hot rodders, he too went to the dry lakes and even raced with them, on top of that was a mechanic
who he spent time with their garage, during his time at the dry lakes racing with the boys, they all talked about how they really needed their own magazine or newsletter, for help
and advice, he turned to a friend of his father's who published a magazine, the result was Hot Rod Magazine, and they hit the news stands in 1947, but some thought using the name Hot Rod
with it's outlaw street gang reputation was risky, it was discussed many times between Robert and the fellow hot rodders and some didn't even like the name hot rod because of it's reputation,
and it was also a name thought up by the press, but every time they discussed it they always came back to that name, so it became the generic term as well as the official name for the magazine.
Hot Rod magazine took off from it's first issue, it became a platform from which Peterson and editor Wally Parks could reach the entire country, the magazine helped the sport grow, it reached
the older hot rodders and a new group of readers, the post war teenagers, these kids didn't want to be seen in dad's lame old sedan, they wanted to soup up their own cars, some of the new
hot rodders started to join the street racing bandwagon and public outcry increased, it was time for someone to find a way to harness the urge to go fast, people were starting become very
down on hot rods back and trying to ban them every way they can, you can't really blame them though, afterall these are public streets used to for going to work, taking the kids to school
and even children were constant presence on the streets, playing and having fun without a care in the world, and with that, the highway patrol would constantly have their hands full dealing
with hot rodders.
Hollywood on the other hand wasn't so concerned with the recklessness of hot rodding and rowdiness of teenage youth back in the 50's, they saw it as the perfect exploitation for a series of
hot rod themed movies to show at the drive-ins such as https://youtu.be/RSx3bp7xN0A.
Wally Parks and Robert Peterson worked hard to change the image of the image of hot rodding, they reached out to the clubs such as the SCTA, the SCTA knew that they had to do something to
create a better public image, they not only organized the dry lakes events to run more safely but they're members also joined the National Safety Council and pledged that they would become
safer drivers on the drivers on the streets and try to influence their friends to do the same.
the effort helped but it would take much more work to channel the hot rod racing energy into something very positive, Parks and others hit on an idea, why not organize official sanctioned
races in every community across the country, not a bad idea, and thus the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was born.
one of it's first tasks was to find venues for it's races, the old abandoned air strips used during the second world war would be the perfect place to host these events that they soon called
drag racing, quarter mile drag racing was born, soon the cars that showed up at the drags were the same ones that raced at the dry lakes or on the streets.
the hot rodders would often strip down their cars to make them lighter and gain an edge on the other guy, eventually hot rodders would start bringing their own strip down drag racers to the
strip to race that were made more for the dragstrip than for use on the street as a daily driver, the first modern dragster "The Bug" was a drag car driven by Dick Craft who drove it down
the quarter mile clocking a speed of 116 miles per hour.
by the early 1960's, the Top Fuel Dragsters were setting unbelievable records at the dragstrip, on August 1st, 1964, Don "Big Daddy" Garlits broke the 200 miles per hour barrier in the
quarter mile and the fans loved it.
Peterson, Parks, and others had won, they succeeded in luring the street racers to the dragstips and calmed down the public, but things were changing in the 1960's, Detroit's big three
automakers Ford, GM, and Chrysler were starting build their own hot rods, starting in 1955 with GM's introduction of the V8 powered Chevy Bel-Air, then there was the Chrysler 300, the
Dodge Polaris, then in 1964 GM's Pontiac Division released the GTO which marked the start of an era of a new factory built hot rod, the muscle car, soon the other carmakers were fielding
their own muscle cars, Ford launched the Mustang, Torino, Fairlane, Galaxy, and the Mercury Cougar, GM launched the Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Olds 442, Buick GS, the Chevelle, the Nova,
Chrysler launched the Dodge Charger, Coronet, Super Bee, Plymouth Road Runner, GTX, Barracuda, and later on in 1970 the Dodge Challenger, so many different kinds of muscle cars with a
massive variety of options that transformed these cars into speed demons, you could order a GTO with a 389 cubic inch V8 with three carburetors making over 330 horsepower right out of the
factory and at a price costing a little under $3,500 dollars.
muscle cars had made the hot rod obsolete, there was no longer a need to bring home a car from the junkyard and build it into a racer from scratch, people can just simply go to their local
dealership, buy a muscle car, choose what performance options they want, and have it built for them and shipped to the dealership ready for pick up, and just drive to the dragstrip and race,
the days of the homebuilt high performance hot rod were over.
the traditional hot rod world was adrift, some of the hot rodders turned to custom cars, these cars caught the attention of writers like Tom Wolf who dubbed them "the candy colored
tangerine-flaged streamlined babies.
while television shows loved the cars, many hot rod purist had no use for the custom cars, some didn't considered them hot rods, they considered them they're own niche while considered
hot rods to be more about high performance than show.
but soon a combination of mass produced muscle cars, the tanglement with custom cars, and then series of gas shortages, insurance premium price gouges, and government safety and emissions
mandates changed the automotive landscape by the 1970's, all of this chaos slowed the growth but never completely killed the spirit that gave hot rodding it's heart, as the boomers aged,
they began to long for the simpler times and searched out for the cars they admired when they were young.
one of the early leaders of hot rod resurgence was Pete Shaporez (I hope I spelled his name right), a hot rod builder who turned heads with unique designs and high quality craftsmanship,
Shaporez was able to turn his hot rodding passion into a business called So-Cal, a very famous speed shop in California that attracts rock stars such as Billy Gibbons the lead singer of
ZZ-Top, classic car collectors like Bruce Meyer, celebrities like Jay Leno and Tim Allen, and a number of baby boomers who want the right hot rod for their weekend cruises.
hot rodding has even reached out into the upper realms of the auto industry, Chrysler's former vice president of design, Tom Gayle, is an avid fan of hot rods.
hot rods even found their way into one of most prestigious and elegant car shows in the world, the Pebble Beach Concours De-Elegance in Carmel California, thanks to collectors like
Bruce Meyers who were determined to see these cars get recognized at the show, with a doubt this was not hot rod territory, this is the place where Jay Leno jokes, the billionaires came
to compete with the millionaires over who had the most important car, Meyers was very persistent and convinced the organizers that their champagne sipping would not be interrupted by
hooligans, they invited 8 historically significant hot rods to compete for the honor of winning a trophy, it was a major success, and was a major step closer to acceptance of hot rods,
Bruce Meyer entered the Dune Spencer Roadster that was restored by Pete Shaporez who was asked to come along, the car attracted the attention of collectors of Packards and other prestigious
cars who asked them intriguing questions about the car, it was a remarkable day for Meyers and Shaporez.
surely enough the hot rod's outlaw days were over, it was now at the center of the core of civility but it hasn't lost it's streetwise charm and allure.
today hot rodding is still strong in the automotive world but they now compete with a new breed of hot rods and they're not V8 powered fenderless roadsters but instead are compacts and sports cars powered by
turbocharged or naturally aspirated engines ranging from four cylinders to six cylinders and come from not only America but also from foreign countries such as Japan, the tuner car.
while tuner cars are all the rage today, it was the hot rods of the baby boomer age that paved the way for home made performance cars built at home on a shoe string budget, it's been a
wild ride, but it's not over yet and probably never will be.
Funny thing is, there are even "hot rod" shops that will build you an electric custom...
oh yeah I've heard of that, it's pretty cool
Wouldn't mind sending my 2000 Toyota Echo off to Eddy Motorworks for a full-on conversion. And thanks for all the history... though I was more into the whole test pilot thing way back when, I remember all the old names in the hot rod/racing/drag racing biz.
That's my childhood...