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Hot Rod History - Part 2

  • By the 1990s, fat-fendered cars like this 1938 Pontiac coupe were being built to resemble the cars that hot rodders drove to high school in the 1940s and 1950s - 0
  • Barry Mequiar (left) interviewed Bruce Meyer (right) during one of his remote broadcasts from the SEMA Show in Las Vegas. - 1
  • Publicist Bill Hahn (left) is seen here discussing a book project with hot rod and custom car pioneer Gene Winfield. - 2
  • In the late 1990s, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles mounted one of the first exhibitions devoted to the history of hot rodding. - 3
  • To promote his early Ford V-8 reproduction parts at SEMA 2008, Bob Drake Reproductions set up this “old-fashioned hot rod shop” in their booth. - 4
  • The factory-built American muscle cars and muscular pony cars of the 1964-1972 era put a dent in the hot rod hobby. - 5
  • General Motors promoted the good-looking and clean-running “E85 Coupe” in its booth at SEMA 2008. - 6
  • Nissan’s Infiniti division gave some hot rodders an engine and then exhibited the Q29 Roadster they created at the 1998 Chicago Auto Show. - 7
  • Drag racing didn’t go away after the 1960s, but it became a more professional sport that was costly to participate in. - 8
  • The legendary Larry Shinoda handed out signed copies of this postcard that showed his designs, including his early hot rod. - 9
  • Bruce Meyers is a serious collector of famous hot rods. - 10
  • In 2008, the well-known hot rod shop Posie’s ran a “drive it dirty” tour with nostalgic hot rods. - 11
  • Chrysler first created the Plymouth Prowler as a 1993 dream car. - 12
  • This Ford Phaeton done up in “rat rod” style was another participant in Posie’s 2008 “Drive It Dirty Tour.” - 13
  • The Ridler Award is named for Don Ridler, a man who took over promotion of the famous Detroit Autorama in the mid-1950s. - 14
  • 2007 Ridler Award winner 1936 Ford. - 15
  • Inspired by rod builders like Chip Foose, highly stylized “smoothie” hot rods remain a big force in the hobby today. - 16
  • Hot rodder Tom Gale, who created the Plymouth Prowler, is seen here at the Chicago Auto Show. - 17
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by John Gunnell  More from Author

From the 1960s ’til Today, Hot Rods Got Cooler than Ever.

In the early 1960s, the hot rod culture built around speed shops, custom car shows, drag races and weekend cruising seemed to be here to stay. But while Americans got “hooked on hot rods,” product planners in Detroit were watching and taking cues from the trend. The cars they created were so greatly improved that they slowed down hot rodding for awhile. Suddenly, anyone could buy cars that looked like "factory customs” and ran like "factory hot rods.”

Known today as personal luxury cars (Riviera, LTD, Chrysler 300, etc.), pony cars (Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, etc.) and muscle cars (GTO, Talladega, Road Runner, etc.), these cars gave enthusiasts the same ingredients as modified cars without the hassle of constructing a vehicle at home. New-car order sheets were set up so buyers could "build” a car in the dealer’s showroom. In the beginning, the expense was quite reasonable, too. It cost more in time, labor and parts to put a hot rod together in your own garage than it did to buy a car.

Another factor against hot rodding was the growing professionalism that swept drag racing. It became harder for enthusiasts to build a true "drive-it-all-week” car that could also win trophies at a drag strip. Quarter-mile competition became less a do-it-yourself hobby and more a spectator sport. Unbeatable factory experimentals and, eventually, "funny cars” dominated all comers. These cars looked like those that people drove every day, but under their lift-up fiberglass body shells were big-buck, all-out racecars with corporate backing.

Magazines in the late 1960s were loaded with fiery photos of high-dollar drag machines decorated like a gaudy Evel Knievel motorcycle, as well as stories about how to build a kit car, dune buggy or custom van. People were still making hot rods, but the cars did not carry the cache they enjoyed a few years earlier. This would not change until the government and insurance companies ganged up on Detroit to end the muscle car era. When factory cars grew boring again, it was time for a hot rod revival.

Rod & Custom magazine got things going in 1969 when it coined the term "street rod” and swung back towards the roots of hot rodding. In 1970, the first Street Rod Nationals were held, and the National Street Rod Association (NSRA) was formed. This national organization was focused on issues affecting its members, like events, insurance and restrictive legislation.

In the early 1970s, many car magazines turned to journalism school grads, rather than real enthusiasts, for staffers. As a result, the content of the magazines grew more creative and professional looking, but less in tune with hobby-builders who were the grassroots core of the hot rodding sport. The hobbyists turned toward counter-culture sources, such as the low-budget film American Graffiti, to validate their interest in "old school” hot rods. By this time, due to Detroit’s watered-down new-car offerings, interest in old cars and old-style hot rods began to boom.

The success of George Lucas’ big-screen homage to the 1950s (released in 1973) was soon replicated in TV’s "Happy Days” series and later with the movie and Broadway production "Grease.” Characters like The Fonz and Richie Cunningham – literally a continuation of actor Ron Howard’s "American Graffiti” role – became pop culture heroes and spread the word throughout America that hot rods were cool. 

In the 1970s, there was rapid growth of interest in owning early post World War II cars. The NSRA accepted cars up to 1949 models, rather than only traditional rods based on prewar cars – usually Fords. Since the trend towards restoring and modifying "newer iron” was largely based on the availability of surviving vehicles, it was an unstoppable movement, and the 1949 cutoff added many new people to the hot rod fraternity. Since postwar cars could not be stripped down as far as, say, a 1932 Ford, people started building rods that retained many original styling features. Such cars became known as "Resto Rods,” and this style of vehicle was soon being appreciated in both prewar and postwar formats.

In the 1980s, the hot rod hobby became a big-bucks business. The practice of building cars with machined billet aluminum components swept the hot rod industry. Billet can refer to a long, rectangular or cylindrical bar of aluminum, iron or steel of certain sizes.

John Butera, Dan Woods and Boyd Coddington used billet parts to create smoothly-styled hot rods that were soon being copied everywhere. The main difference was Butera's use of machined billet aluminum for some of the suspension components, as well as the windshield posts, rearview and side mirrors, and gauge cluster.

Rod builder "Cowboy” Bob Norris of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, remembers this era as one that lessened his interest. "I started at 16 years old, with a ‘46 Ford I bought for $100,” he says. "Things went along just fine until the age of billet aluminum and $5,000 paint jobs that pushed me out of rodding for a while.” A big-buck hobby with $75,000 resto-rods and reality shows on TV wasn’t for Cowboy.  He gave up hot rodding until 9/11. At that point, his welding business dropped off. He had time and needed something to do. He found that old school hot rodding had changed things to his liking – but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

High-tech "smoothie” rods didn’t turn into old school rods overnight. The big-buck trend had to play itself out first. For a while, it seemed like every hot rod had a brand new engine with fuel injection, automatic transmission, billet trim and paint jobs that made them look like Hot Wheels toy cars brought to life. The slick, big-bucks style of hot rodding also got great media play, with Boyd Coddington featured in The Smithsonian magazine and singer Billy Gibbons’ ZZ Top "Eliminator” Coupe seen frequently on MTV.

Another trend that began in this era was to construct street cars that that looked like Pro Stock class drag racers. The term "Pro Street” was adopted to identify this style of street-legal modified car. Most Pro Street cars were actually built for drag racing as well as street use. They typically feature a narrowed rear axle coupled with fat rear wheels and tires for maximum grip. They have giant V-8s – often supercharged – and competition-style paint jobs. The National Muscle Car Association currently has Pro Street and Nostalgia Pro Street racing classes.

The Goodguys Rod and Custom Association was another outgrowth of this era that breathed life into the hot rod revival movement. This organization focused on organizing events on a nationwide basis, playing to the grassroots level hot rodder’s need for local activities. The Goodguys also followed the successful practice of accepting newer cars (up to 1972 models) to reach out to new people.

By the end of the 1980s, hot rodding had become a very professional sport filled with high-tech cars – many professionally designed and built – and its own huge parts-providing industry. Organizations like NHRA, SEMA, NSRA, NMCA and the Goodguys each had their own rules, but the tinkerers and little guys who started it all often felt like they were "out of the loop” to a large degree.

It was natural that these changes in the focus of hot rodding would eventually create a movement back towards the "good old days.” This began in the 1990s, when cars that looked like the earliest home-built hot rods began showing up on the streets and in magazine articles. These high-boy roadsters and T-buckets looked like the AMT models we built as kids. They had the same devils painted on the radiator grille, flathead V-8 engines with three chrome "pots” on top, rolled-and-pleated vinyl seats, whitewall tires and Moon discs.

Labels such as "Resto Rod,” "Nostalgia Rod,” "Old School Rod” and "Rat Rod” were applied to these cars, but the overall direction they all took was one of lower construction costs and a return to the styles and equipment of yesteryear. Some were fat-fendered 1930s Fords that looked like the "high school” cars seen in many articles and books about the history of hot rodding. Others looked like cars that a 1950s hot rod club had put together in a rented Southern California garage in order to do some bargain-basement racing on the dry lake beds.

The cars looked simple and basic. Many were finished in red or gray primer with no topcoats. Sheet metal damage like minor dents and rust was not only acceptable, but preferable. In fact, it didn’t take long before "rust” paints were developed. Once-shiny trim parts were often painted white or red – never flat black! Many cars carried old-style decals from Honest Charlie’s Speed Shop or Moon Eyes. Scuffed up Coker wide whitewall tires were a plus. 

The new grassroots movement became a cultural phenomenon for a younger generation of hot rodders. Along with the old-fashioned rods, they dressed in old-fashioned clothes, greased back their hair and embraced 1950s music and memorabilia of all types.

In 1997, the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in Monterey, California, broke new ground in the classic car field by welcoming historical hot rods into a new, fully-judged class. This practice was then incorporated into the event as an every-other-year feature.

As might be expected, recognition at Pebble Beach opened up other possibilities for hot rod enthusiasts. At Chrysler Corporation, designer Tom Gale, himself a hot rodder, created the Plymouth Prowler as a 1993 dream car. Within four years, this true "factory hot rod” was in the showroom. The Prowler even created enough media buzz to turn Japanese automakers on to hot rods. In 1994, the Q29 Infiniti Flyer, built by hot rod legend Art Chrisman, combined a 1929 Model A Ford body with an engine supplied by Nissan. This car hit a home run at events like the Chicago Auto Show. Not long afterwards, the Toyota exhibit at new-car shows highlighted a 1932 Ford with Lexus GS400 underpinnings.

As the calendar flipped into the 2000s, hot rodding seemed to be enjoying another boom and continuing its long-term love affair with American media. A new Discovery Channel show in 2004 called "American Hot Rod” made Boyd Coddington (and his staff) even more famous. Another rod builder, Chip Foose, starred in "Overhaulin’,” a TV show in which down-on-their-luck cars were often transformed into highly stylized rods. In short, hot rods are cooler than ever!

Hot Rod History – Part 1
America Gets “Hooked on Hot Rods” – 1920s to 1950s


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