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How to Speak Fifties

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by Bruce Caldwell   More from Author

A Fifties Lexicon

Special interest groups and hobbies tend to develop their own unique words and phrases. This is also true of specific eras or cultures. Someone not familiar with that time or activity could have difficulty understanding the lingo. Terms are often contrary to their commonly accepted definitions (e.g., when bad actually means good). The hot rod/custom car culture is loaded with unique terms, as was the whole Fifties pop culture scene.

This Fifties lexicon is presented as a means of gaining a general understanding of the car, music, TV, and youth scene that emerged in 1950s America. Some terms have regional variations, but if you master these words you won’t sound like a Poindexter or total square.
 
Definitions:

A Bomb:
Atomic bomb, a cause of much fear and concern.

Angel Hair:
Cotton candy-like decorating material used around custom cars at indoor shows.

American Bandstand: Seminal music/dance TV show hosted by Dick Clark that showcased the most popular rock ’n’ roll artists.

Appletons:
Aftermarket chrome spotlights popular on custom cars.

Baby Moons:
Small, unadorned chrome hubcaps.

Bailon, Joe:
Customizer credited with inventing Candy Apple Red paint.

Barris, George:
King of the Kustomizers.

Barris, Sam: Famed bodyman and George’s older brother/partner. Credited with chopping the first 1949 Merc.

Bathtub Nash:
Early Fifties Nash Ramblers noted for their upside-down bathtub styling.

Beatniks:
Nonconformist Beat Generation followers influenced by writer Jack Kerouac. Stylized garb often included a beret, dark sunglasses, and sloppy clothes. Beatniks liked to hang out in coffee houses and listen to avant-garde music and poetry.

Beehive: Women’s hairstyle where the hair is wrapped high on the head.

Bettie Page: Legendary pinup model who influenced current retro pinup models.

Big ’n’ Littles: Street rod tire and wheel combination where the rear tires are considerably taller and wider than the front tires.

Blown (or Blower) Engine: A supercharged engine.

Blue Dots: Accessory blue “jewel” taillight inserts that make a purple glow when the brakes are activated.

Bomb Shelter: A windowless underground or basement shelter designed to protect families from nuclear radiation.

Bondo: Plastic body filler often used by novice or budget customizers.

Boneyard: An automotive wrecking yard or junkyard. Also, a cemetery.

Bongos: Bongo drums; a small, connected pair of drums played by beatniks and often displayed on the package tray of custom cars.

Boxed: Frame rails reinforced with welded steel plates.

Bread: Money.

Brylcreem: Popular men’s hair product promoted by cartoon characters with tag lines “A little dab’ll do ya” and “Watch out, the girls will love to run their fingers through your hair.”

B-Side: The backside or non-hit song on a 45rpm record.

Butch Wax: Very sticky men’s hair product used to keep flat-tops stiff and erect.

Caddy: A Cadillac.

Candy Apple Paint: A translucent topcoat that allows the undercoat (usually gold or silver) to shine through for greater depth and brilliance. Originally red but expanded to include other colors.

Carhop: Waitress at a drive-in restaurant.

Carson Top: Padded, chopped, removable, non-folding custom top.

Cat: A cool guy; a cool cat.

Channeled: The process of raising the floorpan so the body can be lowered over the frame rails.

Cherry: Extremely nice condition, often an original, unmolested older car.

Chick: An attractive female, or a general term for a woman.

Chopped: A lowered roofline.

Cold War: Tension between the Soviet Union and the United States based on ideological and political differences.

Columbia Rear: A two-speed overdrive rear axle.

Commies: Communists, especially Russians; feared Cold War enemies.

Continental Kit: Covered spare tire attached to the rear bumper.

Cream or Creamed: Badly damaged a car. Also, a decisive sporting triumph.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: Looking for a fight or trouble.

Cubes: Engine displacement in cubic inches. Also, slang for squares or dull people.

Cushman: A small motor scooter.

Custom: A modified car where style is more important than performance. Most custom cars are vintage 1949 and newer. Sometimes spelled with a “k,” as in “kustom.”

D-A or D.A.: Men’s hairstyle pointed at the back of the head to resemble the rear view of a duck. Also known as a ducktail.

Daddy-O: A general greeting; a positive term for a friend or acquaintance, usually male.

Dagmars: Twin Cadillac bullet-like front bumper guards named after a statuesque television performer.

DJ (or Dee Jay): Disc jockey, a person who played records on AM radio.

Deuce: Any 1932 Ford is a deuce. The term doesn’t apply to other cars manufactured in 1932.

Dibs: To claim something.

Dig it: To understand or approve.

Dipstick: An uncool person.

Drag: A side-by-side car race. Also, a boring event.

Dropped Axle: A solid front axle that lowers the car by raising spindle height.

Dullsville: A boring event.

Fiesta Spinners: Mid-Fifties Oldsmobile Fiesta wheel covers with three-bar “spinners.”

Filled Top: Replacing the factory fabric sedan or coupe roof insert with steel.

Fink: An undesirable person, a snitch, a tattletale; someone who isn’t cool.

Flathead: A valve in block engine design that makes for very thin or “flat” cylinder heads. The term is most commonly applied to 1932-1953 Ford V-8s.

Flat-Top: Men’s crewcut hairstyle where the hair on top of the head stands straight up, usually aided by butch wax.

Fordillac: A hopped up Ford with a Cadillac V-8 engine.

Freed, Alan: Pioneering Cleveland disc jockey credited with popularized the term “rock and roll.”

Frenched: Any body part that is normally separate, but has been molded to the main body. Frenched taillights are molded to the body rather than bolted on.

Fueler: Top Fuel dragster.

Fuelie: Fuel injected engine, usually in a 1957-and-later Corvette.

Full Fendered: A hot rod with its original front and rear fenders, plus running boards.

Fuzz: Police.

Glass Packs: Minimalist mufflers filled with fiberglass to suppress exhaust noise.

Ginchiest: The most cool.

Going Steady: In a committed relationship.

Hairpin Radius Rods: Aftermarket suspension components used to locate the front axle.

Halibrands: A traditional, slotted “mag” wheel manufactured by the Halibrand Company.

Headers: High performance tubular steel exhaust manifolds.

Hemi: Short for hemispherical, the term refers to Chrysler V-8 engines with spark plugs in the center of the cylinder heads.

Hood: Sheetmetal engine cover. Also, a criminal, gangster, or juvenile delinquent.

Hot rod: The generic term for an older car modified for better performance. Street rod is the more contemporary, gentrified term.

Hula-Hoop: A popular toy/exerciser approximately three feet in diameter and made of plastic by the Wham-O Corporation. Users spun it around their gyrating hips.

I-beam axle: A solid front axle with an “I” cross-section profile.

Ike: President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Injected: Fuel injected.

J-D: Juvenile delinquent.

Juvy: Juvenile detention hall.

Kemp: Custom car.

Kookie: Highly popular character on TV show 77 Sunset Strip played by Edd Byrnes. Known for his T-bucket hot rod and constantly combing his D-A hairstyle.

Lakes Pipes: Externally mounted exhaust pipes.

Lay Rubber: Spin the rear tires so as to leave rubber on the pavement.

Lead Sled: A custom car. Early customizers used lead body solder for modifications.

Lid: Hat.

Little Pages: Digest-sized car magazines.

Long Green: Money.

Louvers: Air vents stamped into steel panels such as hoods and deck lids.

Merc: Mercury car, most commonly a customized 1949-1951 Mercury coupe.

Mickey Mouse Rings: Fake white walls.

Moola: Money.

Moon Disc: Spun aluminum, flat wheel covers originally designed for racing. Developed by the Moon Equipment Company.

Moon Eyes: Distinctive, forward leaning pair of cartoon eyes used as the logo (and popular decal) for the Moon Equipment Company.

Moon Tank: A small, spun aluminum auxiliary gas tank manufactured by the Moon Equipment Company.

Mopar: Chrysler Corporation cars.

Mouse Motor: Small-block Chevy V-8.

Nailhead: A Buick V-8 (1953-1967) with distinctive upright cylinder heads.

Nerf bars: Small tubular bumpers used in place of stock bumpers.

Nomad: A top-of-the-line 2-door 1955-57 Chevy Bel Air station wagon with a unique B-pillar, side glass, and sloped tailgate.

Pad: House or home.

Payola: Bribing disc jockeys to play records.

Pearl Paint: Paint with a high iridescent content reminiscent of real pearls. Originally made with fish scales.

Pee Chee: A folder for carrying homework.

Pez: A small hard candy that came in pop-up dispensers that resembled cigarette lighters.

Pink Slip: A car’s title or registration. In California, the owner’s copy was pink.

Platter: Record disc, usually a small 45rpm recording.

Poindexter: An overly serious student, not one of the cool kids. A nerd.

Poncho: Pontiac.

Portholes: Iconic Buick front fender vents. Also, the auxiliary side windows on 1956/57 T-Bird removable hardtops.

Pound: Beat up; to harm someone in a fight.

Quick Change: A rear axle with easily removable gears. These rear ends were originally designed for circle track racing.

Rails: Tubular frame dragsters. Also known as rail jobs.

Rat Fink: Ed Roth’s satirical cartoon version of Mickey Mouse.

Razz: To bother.

Real Gone: Crazy, in a good way. A term of admiration.

Record Hop: A dance with recorded music.

Reds, Red Menace: Communists.

Rocket 88: Oldsmobile with a high performance V-8 engine.

Roth, Ed: Legendary pinstriper, customizer, who popularized “Weirdo” or “Monster” airbrushed T-shirts. Affectionately known as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.

Rumble Seat: An auxiliary seat under the deck lid of a roadster or coupe. The deck lid is bottom-hinged with a seat cushion attached to the lid.

Running Boards: The flat section of metal between the front and rear fenders.

Scallops: A decorative style of custom painting featuring long, tapered, parallel panels of paint that typically contrast the primary color.

Sectioned: When a horizontal band of metal is removed from the midsection of a body to lower the overall height of the vehicle.

Shaved: Any time an emblem, hinge, door handle, trunk handle, or trim item is removed.

Shoebox Ford: 1949-1951 models.

Slicks: Treadless racing tires.

Small-Block: A smaller displacement (generally 400ci or smaller) V-8 engine. The term most often refers to Chevy engines, but can apply to other makes.

Sock Hop: A dance, usually held in a school auditorium, where shoes weren’t allowed in order to protect the wood floors.

Sombreros: Smooth, early Fifties’ Cadillac wheel covers.

Spaz: An uncoordinated person. A term of derision.

Split: To leave.

Split Wishbones: Early Ford front axles were located with a triangular “wishbone” brace. A hot rod trick was to cut or split the wishbone and move the mounting points outside the frame rails.

Square: Uncool person, often a parent or authority figure.

Steady: A committed boyfriend or girlfriend.

Steelies: Solid wheels made of steel. Usually accented with trim rings and small hubcaps.

Stroker McGurk: Cartoon character drawn by Tom Medley for Hot Rod Magazine.

Stroker Motor: An increased displacement, high torque engine created by installing a crankshaft with longer throws.

Stovebolt: Chevy six-cylinder engine.

Submarine Races: Parking in a car for the purpose of making out.

Suede: Primer or semi-gloss paint.

Suicide Doors: Rear-hinged, forward opening doors that were prone to blowing open (before the advent of modern safety latches).

T-Bird: Ford Thunderbird from 1955 onward.

Threads: Clothes.

Three Deuces: Three two-barrel carburetors.

Three-On-The-Tree: A three-speed manual transmission with the shifter mounted on the steering column.

Tin Indian: Pontiac.

Track T: A fenderless Model T Ford roadster with a smooth, rounded nose influenced by circle track racers.

Tri-Five Chevy: Any 1955, 1956 or 1957 Chevy.

Tri-power: Three carburetors.

Tub: A canvas top phaeton or touring car.

Tuck ’n’ Roll: A style of automotive upholstery characterized by stuffed pleats.

Tudor: Ford’s name for a two-door sedan.

Uncle Miltie: Comedian Milton Berle, known as “Mr. Television.”

Von Dutch: Iconic Fifties pinstriper, real name Kenneth Howard.

Wax: Music records.

Wide Whites: Extra wide whitewall tires.

Woodie: A vintage station wagon with a body made out of real wood from the cowl back.

Zoomies: Upswept racing style exhaust headers.
 
 
 

Big n Littles, Chopped, Custom, Full fendered
This chopped, full-fendered 5-window Deuce coupe sports big ’n’ littles.
 


Appletons, Chopped, Custom, Frenched, Louvers, Sombrero
A chopped, full custom, suede shoebox Ford with a louvered hood, frenched headlights, Appleton spotlights, and Sombrero wheel covers.
 


Blown, Moon Tank, Rails, Slicks, Zoomies
Blown rail job dragster with slicks, zoomie headers, and a Moon tank.
 


Flathead, Tri-power
Flathead Ford V-8 with tri-power carburetors.
 


Custom, Chopped, Merc
Chopped, full custom Merc with Buick headlights and side trim.
 


Caddy, Dagmars
Caddy convertible with Dagmars.
 


Moon Discs, White Whites, Portholes
Moon discs and wide whitewalls on a Buick with three portholes.
 

Tub, Tuck n Roll
This Model T tub has tuck ’n’ roll upholstery and chrome reverse wheels.
 


Scalloped, Shaved
A scalloped 1957 Ranchero with shaved emblems and door handles.
 


Continental Kit
Continental kit.
 


Fiesta Spinners
Olds Fiesta 3-bar spinner wheel covers.
 


Woodie
Woodie wagon.
 


Dropped Axle, I-beam Axle
This Deuce highboy roadster has a dropped I-beam axle.

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