- Historic Sites
Hot Rods Redux
Decades after they were first cobbled together by enthusiastic amateurs, they are coming to be recognized as perhaps the supreme folk art of the American century
July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
We know modified Model T’s were racing on the dry lakes after World War I, but no records exist.
Racing on the lakes was deadly business. Old-timers recall that late-night runs when the desert was cool were made without headlights, but nobody remembers why. Rollovers during timed runs were not unknown, and they flung drivers without seat belts or helmets onto the hard-packed alkali. It is said that following a fatal crash, the victim’s car would often be scavenged for parts and abandoned on the edge of the lake while the corpse was left on the steps of the little Muroc Post Office.
By 1938 the activity had become sufficiently hectic that a formal organization, the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), was formed and competition formalized through classes based on the type of car. A few of the faster machines, with radically streamlined bodywork, were approaching 140 mph (most were in the 90-110 mph range)—an impressive figure for a stock-engine machine but well short of the Muroc mark of 171 mph set in 1927 by the Indianapolis 500 champion Frank Lockhart aboard a supercharged, 90-cubic-inch Miller single-seat racing car.
It was probably during the late 1930s or early 1940s that some long-forgotten enthusiast coined the term hot rod . Believed to be a contraction of hot roadster , it may have been in scattered use by the end of the 1930s, although it would not enter the vernacular until after World War II, when it gained fame as both a pejorative noun and a pejorative verb (“to hot rod” was to drive like a maniac).
Coined by a forgotten enthusiast, the term is believed to be a contraction of hot roadster.
The SCTA brought a modicum of stability to the dry lakes speedsters until November 1941, when the Army Air Corps absorbed Muroc and Rosamond into its everexpanding high-desert bombing ranges. Both lakes are now within the perimeters of Edwards Air Force Base and unavailable for competition. (However, in the summer of 1996 the military opened Muroc for a weekend hot rodders’ reunion, and no less than 240 old rods, accompanied by fifteen thousand fans, appeared to make a run over a shortened 1.3-mile course.)
The war energized the hot-rod movement. The coming of peace in 1945 saw thousands of young men mustered out of the military with newfound skills and interest in exotic machinery of all kinds. They had learned metal turning, welding, machine-tool operation, and a score of other highskill trades that dovetailed perfectly with building fast automobiles. As new cars poured out of Detroit, the postwar market was flooded with thirties-vintage Fords and Chevrolets that formed ideal hot-rod fodder. The men and machines were in place to create what the Hearst newspapers would soon balefully trumpet as the “hot rod menace.”
The great Los Angeles basin was brimming with a wealthier population, including thousands of young veterans who had chosen to stay in the booming, sunny environment. Eager for action and restless, many turned to hot rodding—and some to the harder-edged motorcycle culture that saw the legendary Hells Angels formed in 1948. The bikers first gained national prominence over the Fourth of July weekend in 1947, when a small, drunken riot in Hollister, California, was blown out of proportion by a Life magazine picture—possibly posed—of a loutish biker with piles of beer bottles littered around his Harley-Davidson. At the same time, the two Hearst-owned Los Angeles dailies, the Examiner and the Herald , hammered out an endless drumbeat of hysterical stories about “Juvenile Daredevils” raging through the streets in “hopped-up” jalopies, killing themselves and other motorists. The automotive historian Pat Ganahl, editor of The Rodder’s Journal , who has done extensive research on the subject, found no less than two hundred stories in the Hearst archives, most of them written between 1946 and 1948, when the “menace” reached its peak. But Ganahl could find evidence of only half a dozen deaths; most of the stories involved little more than the mass issuance of speeding tickets.