July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
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
The scene was faintly outrageous. Purists turned their heads away in disgust, the unintiated gaped, and a few of the anointed smiled.
The scene was faintly outrageous. Purists turned their heads away in disgust, the unintiated gaped, and a few of the anointed smiled. There, on the immaculate fairways of the Pebble Beach golf course, among the most elegant thoroughbreds in the automotive world—the Bugattis, the Fierce-Arrows, the Ferraris, the Hispano-Sui/as, the Duesenbergs, and the Rolls-Royces—were parked no less than nine cut-down, chopped and channeled, nosed and decked, flatheacl-powered “hot rods.” There they were, bad-boy junkyard dogs, intruding on the precincts of one of the world’s most prestigious automotive Concours d’Elegance, sitting in blocky defiance among the prim and polished esoterica.
The presence of the hot rods in the snooty realm of Pebble Beach in August 1997 was the final acknowledgment by automotive connoisseurs that these purely American machines, handcrafted by untrained artisans in the late 1930s and ’40s, were in fact works of automotive art deserving of exhibition beside the great classics that had long been celebrated as supreme unions between pure sculpture and twentieth-century technology. The nine hot rods, all original, flawlessly restored examples, most of them built in Southern California, the seedbed of the automotive culture, were, like most of their counterparts of the era, Ford-based. Power in seven of them came from the venerable Ford flathead V-8, though much modified by original “speed equipment” of the day (finned aluminum cylinder heads, twin carburetion, more radical camshafts, custom exhausts, et cetera). The favored bodies were from late-twenties- and early-thirties-vintage Model T and B roadsters, mounted on much-modified chassis and running gear.
The winning car, after lengthy scrutinizing by blue-blazered steely-eyed judges, was a shimmering black, all-original 1932 Ford “highboy” roadster that had been started in the late 1930s by a Los Angeles teenager named Doane Spencer, who had gone on to become a famed craftsman in the Southern California car culture. Its owner was the Beverly Hills sportsman Bruce Meyer, whose collection of pristine cars ranges from Duesenbergs and Ferraris to several rare and valuable hot rods. Second place was another 1932 Ford, whose provenance included recorded speeds of nearly 130 miles per hour during trials by its builder, Ray Brown, on California’s high desert dry lakes, where the entire culture started in the dim years of the late 1920s.
Dim because although it is known that young men were driving cut-down, slightly modified Model T flivvers to California’s Rosamond, Muroc (now Rogers), and El Mirage dry lakes north and east of Lancaster for high-speed runs sometime after World War I, no recorded history exists. By the late 1920s a fledgling speed-equipment industry had begun with add-on bits for Ford Model T and A four-cylinder flatheads. Lee Chapel had a speed shop operating out of a wrecking yard on San Fernando Road south of Glendale, while George Wight was running a similar setup at his junkyard in the tiny, dust-swept town of Bell, southeast of Los Angeles. Wight’s business became Bell Auto Parts, the source of both Cragar custom wheels and Bell Helmets, the latter a multimillion-dollar manufacturer of motorcycle and bicycle helmets.
Even in the Depression-racked thirties, young men in the Los Angeles basin found sufficient money and ingenuity to create high-powered or “souped-up” versions of Ford engines—both the early four-cylinders and the more powerful flathead V-Ss that appeared in 1932. While some racing took place on Los Angeles streets, the vast acreage of the dry lakes formed the basic testing ground. Each weekend the lumpy roads leading up to Rosamond and Muroc swirled with dust churned up by hundreds of cut-down roadsters driven by eager, brush-cut racers. Among them were instinctive mechanical geniuses who would later develop innovations in carburetion, camshafts, cylinder heads, ignition systems, magnesium wheels, fuel injection, and myriad other technological breakthroughs: Stuart Hillborn, who perfected simple, direct-fuel injection; Ted Halibrand, a Douglass Aircraft engineer, who invented the magnesium wheel; Roy Richter, who created the Bell helmet; the camshaft and carburetor prodigy Ed Winfield; Vie Edelbrock, who owned one of the first speed shops in L.A.; and the camshaft pioneer Ed Iskenderian. They and dozens of other self-taught mechanics contributed volumes to the automotive technology employed in modern passenger cars.
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).
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.
This is hardly to suggest that street racing was a harmless activity in those woolly days. Veterans of the sport recall night races on vacant stretches of such main Los Angeles thoroughfares as Sepulveda, Artesia, and Culver Boulevards —now jammed with buildings and traffic, but in those days deserted straightaways coursing through oil fields and truck farms. Sometimes as many as two hundred hot rods would engage in what came to be known as drag racing , a term believed to have arisen from a drive-in parking lot challenge to “drag it out” for a race.
In the early days following me war, the races would sometimes run for a mile or two until one of the competitors’ cars broke or the driver gave up. The noisy, tire^ burning contests generally continued until the police arrived, at which point the crowds roared off, often churning through adjacent bean fields or dodging oil rigs in reckless attempts to escape. Most made it. Those who did not were often jailed for a variety of traffic offenses and sometimes had their “rods” impounded by angry judges. As the impromptu duels evolved, the “track”—i.e., street—became limited to about one-quarter mile, a distance that was to become standard as the sport grew organized.
With street racing booming and the authorities and media in ever-higher dudgeon, some enthusiasts realized that reforms had to be instituted before a major disaster occurred. Wally Parks, a brilliant organizer and hot rodder who had helped form the SCTA, quit his job at General Motors and became the SCTA’s first employee, in order to formalize and regulate something on the edge of anarchy. Parks is the single visionary who understood that if drag racing could be controlled, it held the potential to become a popular mainstream motor sport.
A breakthrough came in January 1948, when Parks and other members of the SCTA organized the “First Annual Automotive Equipment Display and Hot Rod Exposition” at the National Guard Armory in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park. They made the daring decision to publicly employ the term hot rod for the event; heretofore even insiders had considered it a darkly menacing phrase. Robert Petersen, a struggling Hollywood publicity agent, was assigned to sell ads for the program. But Petersen and his partner, Robert Eindsay, had bigger ideas. They produced the first issue of Hot Rod magazine (a title they chose after considering “Autocraft”) in time to sell their tiny press run on the steps of Exposition Hall. The little magazine was a runaway success, and in less than two years Parks had been hired as the editor and circulation ballooned to three hundred thousand a month. Hot Rod would lead to Petersen’s creating Motor Trend and other automotive enthusiast magazines and would elevate him into the lofty realms of the annual FORBES list of America’s richest citizens.
Hundreds of small manufacturers opened shop in Los Angeles in the late forties to fabricate all manner of speed equipment for the booming sport while Parks wrestled with the problem of sanitizing the racing and creating a more positive public image. Organized drag racing had begun in 1950 on a little-used landing strip in Santa Ana, a suburb in Orange County south of L.A., thereby launching a sport that now attracts millions to watch five-thousand-horse-power Top Fuel dragsters explode through the quartermile at more than 300 mph. Parks formed the National Hot Rod Association the next year, and through his efforts the organization has flourished in the United States and inspired similar associations around the world.
Meanwhile, the once-tinv speed-equipment business has expanded into an eighteen-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and in the past thirty years a revival movement called “street rodding” has produced the masterfully styled re-creations of the early hot rods. Powered by modern V-8 engines, street rods utilize original steel bodies and fiberglass replications of 1920–48 Fords, Chevrolets, and other roadsters, coupes, and sedans; but these vivid forms, mounted on special frames, carry modern accouterments—air conditioning, power windows and steering, CD players, disc brakes, automatic transmissions—that make them thoroughly contemporary automobiles in every sense except for their retro-styled bodies. Master craftsmen like Boyd Coddington and Pete Chapouris and his staff at the So-Cal Speed Shop in Pomona annually handcraft street rods that can cost an enthusiast up to two hundred thousand dollars. Well-built machines of all types regularly sell for twenty to thirty thousand dollars and sometimes considerably more.
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?