Hot rods are a large part of the custom car scene (also see rat rods) and over the years they’ve increased in popularity to encompass the attitude, originality and creativity of custom car builders all over the world. As much as we may take them for granted, it’s easy to forget that there’s a hot rod culture and an origin story there somewhere.
Let’s face it, hot rods are about American as you can get. Sure, they’re a global obsession, but despite modifications, it will always belong to the American people. And I don’t say that just because of their style but how they encompass the innovative self-expression, rebellious attitude and proud freedom that represents the American spirit.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the hot rod car has evolved throughout the decades into what it is today and originally began as a great way to breathe new life into old bits of junk. The modern-day hot rod seems to have developed into a form of art that encompasses metalwork, sculpting and design both inside and out. See here for a full a-z of hot rod terminology.
What is a hot rod?
Generally speaking, the hot rod is a typical American classic that’s been done up and modified for speed. The modern hot rod doesn’t always have speed in mind but is reminiscent of cars from the early 1900s. For some examples of hot rod cars, check out our Hot Rods For Sale section. Additionally, we have some free hot rod wallpapers to download.
To really understand the hot rod, we need to go right back to its origins in the 1930s.
1930: The beginning of something beautiful
The 1930s was a difficult era for many Americans. The Great Depression left a lot of people with very little money and buying a new car was just too expensive. So how do you solve this? Simple. Fix an old one.
Rescuing old cars and restoring them is kind of how it all began, but the restoration process wasn’t exactly genuine. Parts swapping was common and the resulting cars were mismatched Roadsters.
But swapping the engine for a V8 and amalgamating a bunch of other cars wasn’t the only purpose. The non-essential parts were stripped out to improve performance and before you knew it, there was an auto-racing culture evolving around these botch-job cars. As you can imagine, it was only a short step from there to larger improvements like lowering the front end and raising the rear end.
The dry lake beds of LA were a popular racing site and so speed became the top priority for customizations.
1940s and the effects of the war
With the outbreak of World War II, hot rodding ground to a halt. But by the time 1946 came round, and the end of the war, the fighting men returned with a wealth of new mechanical skills the army had taught them and they were able to return to customizing cars like never before.
With a lot of military airports abandoned after the war, these become the very first dragstrips and hotrodders began to pit themselves against each other in a test of speed.
The Ford Model A and Model T became popular hotrodding choices for their lightweight frames and so a new era of street racing began. With driving-related injuries and deaths on the increase, this era was also responsible for the public association of juvenile delinquency and hot rods.
The 40s also saw an increase in hot rods as a large majority of car enthusiasts gradually found themselves involved in the fad of customization. Most hot rods on the streets were now being built from older cars that underwent body modifications.
1950s: The time for safer hot rods
In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association was created, racing moved from the streets and onto drag-strips.
During this time, the culture gradually fused with the new rock and roll style music which subsequently developed the modern rebellious and raucous personality that it’s associated with. By 1955, Hollywood was starting to see the new culture for what it was and featured it in the film Rebel Without a Cause.
At this point in the hot rod’s history the actual term ‘hot rod’ was used more often as a derogatory for cars that didn’t fit in.
1960s: The appearance of the muscle cars
The 60s saw the introduction of muscle cars and shortly afterwards, Chrysler produced the hemi-engine. With the rise of the muscle car, it was no longer necessary to put a Cadillac engine in a Ford to make it go fast as there were performance cars available that could already do this. It was now easier to buy a car with ready-made performance – and an awful lot more space inside – than to build one yourself.
So the shift from speed to appearance began to take place during this era and a lot of hot rods were starting to appear in shows with eye-catching paintjobs.
1970s: The shift from speed to appearance
The shift to appearance continued throughout the 70s and hotrodders were starting to emphasize customized exteriors. Whilst this was happening, rat rods became a subsidiary focus in the custom car world with builders starting to create basic, stripped-down shells of old cars from the 20s, 30s and 40s.
The oil crisis in 1973 meant there was pressure from the public for the automotive industry to make cars more fuel efficient which restricted performance and so the hot rod was popular once again. The purpose behind these new hot rods was not to race, but to drive them on the streets, and so ‘street rods’ were brought into existent.
1980s and 1990s: The perseverance of the hot rod
From being put together out of old scraps, to becoming a hobby, custom car building grew exponentially throughout the 80s and 90s. Hot rods became more than just cars, they were works of art.
2000s and modern day: The hot rod today
Hotrodding has become such a global culture with owners pouring thousands of dollars into doing up their cars, designing them how they want and showcasing them at a wide range of events. But they’re a lot more than customizations, hot rods are known for containing some of the best automotive technology in the industry.
Modern day hot rods can be as time-consuming as a full-time job and there has been a whole industry dedicated to creating the ultimate ‘dream machines’. The hot rod culture is as strong as ever with its new breed of traditional hot rod builders, designers and artists dedicated to these ‘dream machines’. But despite all this change, the hot rod culture still carries the same passion, dedication and imagination as it did in the 30s.
The global culture of the hot rod
The modern hotrodding culture is a global phenomenon, especially in America, Canada, the UK, Australia and Sweden and has been subdivided into two main categories: the hot rodders and the street rodders.
Those building hot rods use a lot of original parts and stay true to styles that were popular in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
The street rods, however, are normally built with a majority of new parts and simply pay homage to the traditional roots of the hotrodding culture.
Hot rod racing
Ford’s flathead V8 came into being in 1932 but it wasn’t that popular in its early years. It wasn’t until later in the 30s when the V8 became a staple ingredient for the perfect hot rod.
The ideal place for trying out these new style hot rods was on the streets and these ‘speed contests’ often ended ugly. The move to the dry lakes wasn’t much of an improvement and the racing hotrodders descended into chaos.
The SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) was formed in 1937 and began to organize the racing scene with a more sophisticated timing system in place and racing became safer.
The history of modifications
The 1930s saw Harry Westergard customizing cars from his garage in Northern California. He would chop tops, lower suspensions, incorporate grilles, shave door handles and build custom hoods. Westergard’s influence continued through his employee George Barris who moved to Southern California in the 40s and opened his own place.
The 30s also saw influencers such as Jimmy Summers, Roy Hagy and Carson Top. By the end of the decade, custom designers were lowering the body, adding glass-pack mufflers, removing trim, frenching headlights and rounding the corners of the doors, trunk and hood.
Integration became the choice of customized design in the 40s and 50s. Builders would integrate the fenders and tops into the body, remove the small trim pieces and create a simpler look in contrast to the mismatched style of the previous era.
As the popularity increased, the 1950s saw a different kind of customization. Cars were receiving baroque modifications with complex trim, canted headlights and scoops and vents appearing on the quarter panels and the hood.
The official car clubs
The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was one of many hot rod organizations established in the 50s and took the culture a step closer to respectability. Hot rodders gathering at night would often create a loud, raucous and rowdy scene. This caused concern for police and American citizens. The street racing was getting out of hand with drugs, injuries, deaths and law breaking all becoming embroiled in the stereotype that was forming.
As the culture of streets rods and drag racers separated from the general hot rod community, organized car clubs sprang up everywhere including the Pasadena Roadster Club and the LA Roadster Club. The main aim of these clubs was to bring together those who had similar interests and to create some form of ruling to help reshape the public opinion.
These car clubs did a lot more than bring people together, they created social and public events for car enthusiasts to enjoy. They began to host car shows where members could display their customized projects. Over time, the opinion of the general public changed as car show competitions and magazine coverage started to display the true craftsmanship behind customized cars.
TV and film appearances
I’ve already mentioned the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause which featured the hot rod culture. Throughout the years there have been a number of films that have become firm favorites within the hotrodding community.
The 1973 American Graffiti by George Lucas is one of the top contenders for the most iconic film. The 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run made in 1981 were both directed by Hal Needham and both pay tribute to the car culture, winning places in the hotrodders heart.
Daniel Petrie’s 1982 film Six Pack and HB Halicki’s original Gone in 60 Seconds are both films worth mentioning too. Although not technically hot rod films, the Fast & Furious franchise is perhaps one of the best-known film series that celebrates custom cars and has once again found a place for them in the international media.
In all honesty, there are simply just too many films to name them all and in their own way, they all create a hot rod culture legacy that lives through the years.
It’s easy to see how the hot rod has changed with each decade and each cultural shift but the enthusiasm and talent that surrounds the culture is one thing that hasn’t changed.