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Hot Rod History

… through the 1970s



A lot has been written about the origins of the hot rod and the development of the culture that gave rise to it and then grew up around it. This is my own personal take on the subject, and I’m sure others with more detailed knowledge (including the many who were there in the earliest days) might well disagree with my thoughts. With that caveat, I place the defining origin point for hot rods and hot rod culture as the end of World War II. A number of factors came together at one time — the period between the end of the war in 1945 and the beginning of the 1950s, and mainly in one place — southern California — to create a unique environment in which the hot rod and its culture were born.

At the end of the war, a legion of young men returned to America with a wad of demobilization cash in their pockets and a sense of freedom and excitement bred by their experiences in the war. With a period of peace and the steadily increasing prosperity of the country as a backdrop, these young men had a “can-do” attitude and a desire to express themselves in ways that their time in the military had stifled. At just this moment there were a lot of inexpensive used cars available. For five years Detroit had basically been in the business of supplying the military. Now all that production capacity was turned to creating a stream of new cars to satisfy the pent-up demand of a civilian population that had scrimped and saved throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s and the sacrifices of the war years. Men who’d stayed behind to work in America’s offices and factories had a lot of savings and they were ready to ditch their aging cars from the 1920s and 1930s for gleaming new models offered by the Big Three (and the others who are now gone, like Wilys and Kaiser). Their trade-ins became the starting point of the hot rodders, and came to define the way they were built and how they looked.


These factors dictated the core aesthetic of the classic American hot rod. It was the later Model Ts and the plentiful early-30s Fords and Chevys that became the raw material for the young men who created hot rodding and hot rod culture. Here’s a picture of a ’32 Ford Roadster, a contemporary car, but one built on the style of those first hot rods. The basic performance and engineering elements of the hotrod came together in these cars: More power, less weight and a look derived from these things leading to chopped tops, channeled bodies, pinched frames, dropped axles and, eventually wide tires.


And why southern California? Again, a lot has been written about the question of why southern California became the seed-bed for so much cultural change in the second half of the twentieth century. Part of it was Hollywood, part simply that the west coast had reached a critical mass of prosperity and population sufficient to establish itself as a new center of culture distinct from the old center in the northeastern United States. But a few factors made southern California the right place for the birth of hot rodding. One was the climate: with year-round perfect temperature and little rainfall, young men of little means could work outside on cars that had few creature comforts themselves. More important, Los Angeles was the first city truly shaped from its beginnings by the automobile: There were more roads, and new ones there. Finally was “the lakes,” the dry lake beds just east of L.A. that became a magnet for the chopped and stripped-down speed machines. Here the hot rodders found miles and miles of hard, glass-flat surface upon which to run their machines.



The 1950s were the Golden Age of hot rodding and, for a while, there was only hot rodding — not the different strains of car-craziness that it gave birth to. In the beginning, there was no distinction among the cars that kids played with as a form of street-running self-expression, the drag racing car, the customized work of art; there was just the hot rod, the amateur automobile art form. But the seeds of hot-rodding’s progeny were growing during that time.

The “lakes” were breeding a number of different kinds of cars aimed at faster and faster top speeds at the expense of driveability and, eventually even roadability. The famous “drop tank roadsters,” built from war surplus military aircraft fuel tanks, exemplified these early forefathers of the machines that would some day exceed the speed of sound on the ground:


Meanwhile, the true “drag strip” was born. The National Hot Rod Association was formed in 1951 to impose some safety standards on “those speed-crazed kids” and the NHRA, now the governing body for drag racing in the the U.S., held its first sanctioned event in southern California in 1953.


Finally, the pure aesthetics of hot-rodding began to be expressed in the metalwork of exterior modifications to later, post-war cars. This gave rise to the “kustom” culture of cars that were increasingly works of pure visual art. Later, this developed into the show car world of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s (more on that in a moment).


But for a time, it was all one thing — just young people exploring a new form of American individuality through the ultimate American experience, the road.


During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the southern California scene connected with hot rods gave birth to a whole host of related cultural phenomena. The stars of custom car building, like Ed Roth and George Barris, became celebrities in the hot rod scene and some, like Roth and Von Dutch became visual artists in a weird and adolescent genre that had a life of its own apart from the cars.


Probably half the middle-aged men (in 2017, when I’m writing this) in America had some kind of Rat Fink image in their room when they were kids. Many may not have realized the connection to the greasy hot rodders of a decade before.


Then there was the music. At first, hot-rodding was associated with rockabilly, the first form of true rock and roll. But, just as hot rod culture became a defninable space in the general landscape of American life, a different connection developed. Here it’s not possible to separate that connection with a broader southern California scene, known by the often-inapplicable term “surf music.” Most folks probably think of the Beach Boys and titles like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “409,” but there were many other musicians who were mining the hot rod experience for subject matter. Jan and Dean come to mind, and the Ventures (with their album covers adorned with “wild T-buckets”), and the incredible Dick Dale, whose music to me is the sound of hot rodding.


Hot rod culture sat at an intersection between the hipsters of the late 40s and 50s (think of Dean Moriarty’s relationship with cars in Kerouac’s On the Road, and “Big Daddy” Ed Roth’s goatee), the lower-class aspirations of kids from the wrong side of the tracks in a country with rising economic expectations (think of the menace of Dennis Hopper’s “Goon” in Rebel Without a Cause) and the general development of a “counterculture” of individuality and free expression. For a time, the hot rod became a central symbol of youth and creativity in America, and was as cool as anything around.


But by the mid-1960s, the wave of the counterculture had moved on and, although many of the “show car” artists of the time incorporated things like peace symbols and images of long-haired guys in patched bell-bottoms in their work, the days when hot rod culture was part of the “crest of the wave” were over.


The work of Tom Daniels exemplifies the first period of the show rod in the 1960s and early 1970s perhaps better than any other. Daniels had a huge influence on the hot rod aesthetic of my generation through his work for the plastic model kit maker Monogram (later acquired by Revell). Discovering his (definitely 90s-looking) website unleashed a flood of memories for me.  The box art for the kits he designed basically was art to a certin kind of kid in the late 1960s. Off the top of my head, I can well remember building the “Red Baron“, the “T’rantula” (probably the two most influential on my own personal hotrod aesthetic), the “Pie Wagon,” “Beer Wagon,” “Garbage Truck,” “Paddy Wagon” and “Sand Crab.” All of these kits were issued in 1968 or 1969, when I was 11 and 12 years old. I think these designs came along at a time when my automotive aesthetic was being forged for a lifetime.

Interestingly, most of these cars never existed except as model kits; few were ever built as real, driveable automobiles. I suppose this highlights as much as anything else the fact that the hot rod’s power is as much that of image and idea, rather than as transportation.


Here’s a very good brief description of the show car phenomenon of the 1960s and early 1970s:

The 1960s saw the pinnacle of one of America’s most unusual native art forms. Flowing streamlined designs, radiant colors, and amazing craftsmanship blended together to develop a new concept – – Show Cars.

Show cars evolved from the custom car, which was basically a modified version of an existing vehicle. Early pioneers of auto customizing in the 1950’s began changing and improving their wheels for speed, originality, and a cool look. During these times, cars were “chopped, tubbed, raked, and hopped-up.” These basic customizing techniques continued to become more elaborate until custom cars were being designed from scratch or by heavily converting existing vehicles into unbelievable designs. True show cars were distinguished by being one-of-a-kind originals, built from the ground up. It seems a paradox that their engines were extremely powerful, yet they rarely touched the road. In other words, these cars were meant to be looked at, not driven. The men who created them were true artists, and their creations were true art. Show cars belong to the genre of sculpture, and for those of us who couldn’t afford the originals, there were always the model kits.

Probably the most famous custom car designers are George Barris and Ed Roth. Barris was one of the pioneer customizes and has personalized automobiles for many celebrities. An avid model and toy collector himself, Barris started making hobby kits of his cars with Revell in 1957, the first being a 1956 Buick. He is better known for his special cars however, and when AMT made a model kit of his 1960 Ala Kart, a whole line of kits designed after Barris’ award-winning custom cars began.

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, reached cult status on auto show circuits and teen modeler circles with his outrageous cars and Rat Fink character. …

Other heavy contenders on the show car circuit included Daryl Starbird, Carl Casper, and Bill Cushenberry. By the end of the 1970’s though, the show car craze declined in popularity. …



With one notable exception — the Corvette — into the early 1960s American car manufacturers had largely ignored the hot rod phenomenon. This was typical of Detroit’s marketing insensitivity that would lead to the disastrous period of decline for America’s automotive industry in the 1970s and 1980s. But for a time in the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s, Detroit listened. The result was the musclecar. Heralded by the 1964 debut of the Mustang, this era marked a period of about ten years when the Big Three tried to tap into the current of youthful energy in the 1960s and the various elements of the hot rod culture. A new generation of mostly-male teens were imprinted with images and an aesthetic of speed and power based on current or near-current car models. This latter element of the musclecar phenomenon distinguished it from the original hot rod culture, which had focused almost entirely on cars that were at the time ten to twenty years old.


Today, the musclecars of the 1960s and early ’70s have become the object of a new round of hot-rodding, falling into the role that the Model T and the Model A did for the original rodders. Beginning 20 or 25 years ago, these cars became the object of attention for modification into real street rods and customs, with a similar aesthetic to the one that had animated the the Little Deuce Coupes and Wild Ts of the 1950s and ’60s. The musclecars fit the same formula: They were the cast-offs of the current generation of motorists.


But in their time, the musclecars were a landmark at the end of an era. With the first Arab oil embargo of 1972 came a new period in the economics of owning personal automobiles and, worse yet, a time when the space under the hood of a car became a confusing maze of vacuum hoses, tacked-on pollution filters, castrated engines and crowded front-wheel-drive transaxles. By the time the 1980s had rolled around, average people — even your average “car guy” — couldn’t really work on their own cars any more. Americans’ love affair with the automobile was going through a rough patch, and hot rodding basically went into hibernation for a generation.


For four generations the hot rod has been a uniquely American symbol of individuality and mobility, of speed and creativity. Some points in hot rod culture have become icons. The yellow Ford deuce coupe in American Grafitti is an instantly recognized symbol of a time and a place and an attitude, and serves as a visual reference for a whole host of other things: music, values, a time of transition in American life.


For those steeped in the notion of the hot rod, it serves as a focus of creativity and, for a lot of aging Baby Boomers, is a symbol of a time when they yearned for the freedom of adulthood. Like jazz, the hot rod is pure American, rolling to the rhythm of a big country with wide-open roads and people who put things together from wherever they can find what works.


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