Hot rodding started a bit earlier than many histories say. In the 25th Anniversary issue of Hot Rod Magazine (January 1973), senior editor Steve Kelly suggested that the name of the sport was a contraction of “hot roadster,” which he discovered was used first in the late 1920s. Ed Winfield — who made racing carburetors and camshafts starting in the teens — was singled out as “the Father of Hot Rodding,” but many others contributed to this growing need for speed.
By the 1930s, there was hot rodding activity all along the West Coast of the United States, from Los Angeles to Seattle. The cars that factored into the start of the sport included modified stockers, midget racing cars and circle track cars. Most of the racing cars then were open cars and, Hot Rod Lincolns aside, most early hot rods were four-cylinder Fords.
Meets held at Southern California's dry lakes, north of Los Angeles, became a hot bed of speed activity. At first, the races included as many cars as showed up, or at least as many as could fit on the lake at one time. The cars were timed with handheld stopwatches, and the dust flew around so badly it was hard for drivers to see. There were no rules and plenty of ugly accidents, and rodders earned themselves an “outlaw” image. Ultimately, a range of different racing classes was worked out to accommodate various types of cars and engine sizes.
A 1920s or 1930s roadster in good shape was the dream of enthusiasts involved in the sport. The cars were “hopped up” with high compression ratios, ignition tuning, multiple carburetor setups and higher lift camshafts. They were made sportier by removing the fenders and lowering the body sills over the original frame rails. Sometimes, the hood was discarded to show off engine modifications (as well as to help cooling). Motorcycle fenders mounted on front sometimes helped satisfy legal requirements (and also looked cool). For racing, the lights and tops were removed. Race cars typically ran fatter rear tires, too.
Speed equipment emporiums such as Paul Chappel's shop and Bell Auto Supply soon dotted the LA area. The great bulk of the early speed equipment was designed for the Ford flathead V-8. Later, the Mopar Hemi and Buick “Nailhead” V-8s became the hot ticket. Of course, the Chevy small-block V-8 ultimately became the hot rodders’ most popular power plant in terms of numbers, but have you priced out an old Ford flathead lately?
Street racing was a natural outgrowth of the sport, and, for a while, hot rodders were in the same public opinion classification as Marlon Brando’s big-screen biker friends. Drag racing accidents and deaths mounted and helped lead to the formation of the Southern California Timing Association in 1937. Organized by a man named Art Tilton, the S.C.T.A. set up rules and classes for racing and even patrolled against street racing to help legitimize the sport in the public’s eye. Throttle magazine, which was published in 1941 only, carried racing results, features on cars and editorials about the sport.
Custom car building, which has its own parallel history, also began in the 1940s, with legends like the Harry Westergard, Sam and George Barris and Dick Bertolucci setting the pace. Custom cars almost always borrowed engine dress-up tricks from the hot rodding sport, but most were not built for racing in the same way found in the hot rods of that era. The two hobbies are “kissin’ cousins,” but not identical twins.
World War II contributed much to the sport of hot rodding, but there were war-related problems, too. The Army Air Corps took over much of the Southern California area, including the most famous dry lake, Muroc, to build war machines and airplanes. But in plants making military equipment and aircraft, workers began to deal with technology on a daily basis. They then brought their new know-how to the sport of hot rodding.
In addition to such Homefront happenings, many American GIs who served in Europe were introduced to sports cars while they were there. Since there were few sports cars in the United States at the time, they came home with the urge to build their own racy roadsters and fit them with hot “mills” (engines).
Art Tilton died in the war, but the S.C.T.A. marked its 10th anniversary in 1947. The next year, the Russetta Timing Association was established. These organizations continued to sanction speed trials at some dry lakes — such as the short one at El Mirage — but not every hot rodder was willing to travel to test how fast his car would go. The alternative was street racing, which was dangerous and illegal.
Hot Rod Magazine was launched after the war by Robert E. Petersen and Bob Lindsay. After a stint in the Army Air Corps, Petersen lost his public relations job at MGM and became an independent publicist. He established Hot Rod Magazine and personally hawked copies at local speedways for 25 cents each. Walt Woron was the magazine’s first editor. Legendary figures like Racer Brown, Don Francisco, Tom Medley, Ray Brock, Bob Greene, John Christy and Eric Rickman were the writers and photographers who put the content together.
In January 1948, Petersen was helping to promote the first hot rod show at Los Angeles Armory Exposition Park. His initial aim was to build a drag strip with television retailer and automaker Earl “Madman” Muntz. The drag strip never materialized, but the show was a success and helped Wally Parks — the only paid employee of S.C.T.A. — organize the first National Speed Trials at Bonneville Salt Flats, in Southern Utah, in 1949.
Those yearning to drive as fast as possible found that “The Salt” accommodated their need for speed. At the same time, for many, traveling long distances to Bonneville Speed Week wasn’t a practical alternative to street racing. About this time, Walt Woron left Hot Rod Magazine to work at Motor Trend, a second Petersen publication. Wally Parks then became the editor of Hot Rod Magazine. He ran drag racing results, how-to articles, car features and more. Parks promoted hot rodding safety. Out of his and others’ efforts, local, organized drag racing became another big factor in the history of hot rodding after the war.
In Orange County, there was great concern about the problems of street racing, so an abandoned airstrip was turned into the first organized drag strip in the U.S. — Santa Ana Drag strip. C.J. "Pappy" Hart built the strip on what is now John Wayne Airport. The "Santa Ana Drags" were held there almost every Sunday. The strip operated from 1950-1959, when Orange County forced it to close due to increasing air traffic. It has been said that Art Arfons’ jet-powered Green Monster dragster was “probably the first jet to ever ‘land’ at Santa Ana.’”
When drag strips spread throughout other communities — not only in California — everyone involved in hot rodding knew a sanctioning body was needed. Wally Parks got the ball rolling and, in 1951, founded the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Parks became president of the NHRA, but initially kept his “day job” at HRM. While that reflected the embryonic state of organized hot rodding at the time, Parks eventually gave his full-time efforts to the NHRA.
Originally, the NHRA was formed as what Parks used to call “a semi-social car club organization.” It wasn’t really viewed as a body to sanction drag racing, and it wasn’t until 1953 that the NHRA produced its own event — the Southern California Championship Drags, at the Pomona Fairgrounds. This event ultimately became the NHRA Winternationals after the first one was wildly successful. Plans had been made to seat 200 people, and 15,000 fans showed up. From that day forward, drag racing became the sole official activity and main source of revenue for NHRA.
Between 1954 and 1956, Parks helped put together nationwide tours of hot rodders called “Safety Safaris” that crisscrossed the country to teach hot rodders, civic leaders and the general public about drag racing. A year later, he was instrumental in organizing the first NHRA Nationals. In the early 1950s, the Ford flathead V-8 was the champion engine of hot rodding. The first full-bodied dragsters — like Art Christman’s No. 92A Ford — were modified from oval-track racing cars and fitted with hopped-up flathead V-8s. The Bean Bandits racing team of San Diego put together one of the first true “rail” dragsters.
Early hot rods like these were all virtually experimental vehicles. The “Mickey Mouse Special” was little more than a junkyard jalopy with a powerful motor, but the cars eventually grew more sophisticated and added safety equipment like racing harnesses and roll-over bars. As in the auto industry itself, the overhead-valve V-8 began to catch on more and more with drag racers. The “Bustle Bomb” car of Lloyd Scott could crack the 150-mph barrier with two OHV V-8s — one from Olds and the other from Cadillac – propelling it. However, the first car to go 150 mph was Art Arfons’ jet-engine-powered “Green Monster.”
From the early 1950s till the mid-1960s, “gas coupes” like George Montgomery’s famous Willys were hot. The popularity of the Gassers rivaled — and, in many places, outpaced —- that of professionally-driven Top Fuel dragsters and AA/Fuel Altereds. No form of racing car before or since the Gassers looked as much like the street cars that fans had in their own garages.
Some other famous drag cars of the 1950s and early 1960s included the A/C Ford sedan campaigned by the Creeper Car Club of Santa Ana, the “High and Mighty” Hemi-powered 1949 Plymouth of the Ramchargers (a group of Chrysler engineering students), the Cortopassi Brothers’ “Glass Slipper” dragster, Mickey Thompson’s revolutionary “Panorama City Special” and upholsterer Tony Nancy’s blown-Buick-powered A/Modified roadster.
With so much happening at the drag strips, it was natural for hot rodding to grow and evolve on the streets of the nation as well. Nearly every big city soon had a hot rod show, and the most famous venues included the Oakland Roadster (Grand National Roadster Show), which started in 1949, and the Detroit Autorama, which started in 1952. Part of the reason for starting a show in the Motor City was that grassroots hot rodders weren’t the only ones attending such events. Product planners who worked for Ford, GM, Chrysler, Packard and Studebaker were looking at hot rods and custom cars to get new ideas for their own offerings.
As their exposure increased, hot rods showed up in TV shows, motion pictures and other forms of media. One of the most popular segments of the weekly “Ozzie & Harriet Show” was an episode in which Ricky and David Nelson wanted to buy a “Deuce” roadster. “No ’32 Ford is worth $3,000,” said their father Ozzie (who wasn’t around when the same car sold for $192,000 in 2004).
In the late-1950s, the famous “Kookie Kar” made “77 Sunset Strip” a hit TV show with car-savvy fans. It started life as a $100 Model A Ford that hot rod God Norm Grabowski purchased in 1952 and later bolted a 1922 Model T body onto. The car started its film career in 1955, but the 1958-1963 TV show made it famous and inspired LIFE magazine to do a hot-rod-themed issue that featured the Kookie Kar. Millions of people discovered how cool it was to drive a hot rod.
By the early 1960s, hot rods were also being seen in advertisements, commercials and all sorts of books and magazines. Clarence "Chili" Catallo's radical Olds-powered 1932 Ford appeared on the album cover for the Beach Boys' big hit, "Little Deuce Coupe." It was becoming clear that the “hot rod culture” built around speed shops, custom car shows, drag races and weekend cruises to the diner and drive-in theatre was not going to go away. America was becoming “hooked on hot rods,” and it was destined to be a long-term addiction that survives and prospers more than ever today.