- 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
Formal affirmation by Detroit of the street-rod phenomenon came in 1996 with the Chrysler Corporation’s introduction of the Plymouth Prowler, an aluminum-bodied two-seat roadster that reflected styling themes last seen on the road half a century ago. The creator was Tom Gale, Chrysler’s vice president of design and a committed hot-rod enthusiast. The Prowler, built in limited quantities, was an instant success; prices immediately jumped from its sticker of just under forty thousand dollars to more than seventy thousand, where they remain to this day.
The street-rod movement has generated hundreds of local clubs and two nationwide associations, including the Goodguys and the National Street Rod Association. These groups, each with a membership of about fifty thousand, along with a host of smaller regional organizations, hold hundreds of gatherings annually, where enthusiasts display their cars, sometimes engage in drag races, browse through swap meets, and are entertained at concerts featuring tunes from the fifties and sixties. The centerpiece of the movement is the Street Rod Nationals, held each summer in a Midwestern city where as many as twelve thousand dazzling street rods swarm over the local fairgrounds.
But standing at the pinnacle of this retro-enthusiasm is the original, purebred hot rod of the type represented at Pebble Beach. These machines form the essential link with the past and represent an honest, unvarnished expression of form and function that defies duplication. Yes, the marvelous classics at Pebble are true automotive royalty, but from a different gene pool. They were constructed by technicians and factory workers employing contemporary manufacturing techniques. The hot rods were hammered and welded together in garages and gas stations by men employing pure wit and ingenuity, a classic example of the uniquely American trait of innovating in defiance of convention. Is there any wonder, in the current atmosphere of re-examining the nation’s past and re-evaluating components of life that have been discredited and discarded, that the hot rod, pure of heart and form, has now taken its place as legitimate American folk art?