Putting a fresh spin on an old saying, no street rodder is an island. If you’ve got a cool ride, you make friends. Whether to swap war stories or bench race, rodders of a feather flock together. After all, what’s more fun than sharing your favorite hobby with like-minded car guys? Not only that, you might pick up a tech tip or two along the way on tuning those finicky Webers or the setup of your four-link rearend.
While cruise nights are national passion, one area in particular is really known as a hot bed of hot rodding. On any given weekend in Southern California, you’ll find a whole slew of street rods at drive-ins, donut shops and car shows, where rad rides roll on fat meats, with exhaust headers brapping, engines gleaming, paint jobs flaming. How is it that Southern California spawned so many street rods? And for those not familiar with the Socal scene, where are the cool places to see and be seen in a street rod?
Stepping back in time for a moment, although many things influenced the growth of hot rods, and their somewhat more socially acceptable offspring, street rods, it really boils down to a combination of a few key aspects of the region. It all began with hopped-up, fender-less Model T roadsters in the mid ‘30s that ran on dry lakes such as Muroc (now the site of Edwards Air Force Base). In these early days of hot rodding, drivers donned leather helmets, removed the windshields, and dropped the hammer.
“They were all so basic,” recalls Don Ferrara, whose cars made the cover and centerfold of Hot Rod magazine in the ‘50s. “None of them were very finished—nobody had any money back then, and there weren’t many speed parts available.”
Hot rodding began to gather momentum when WWII veterans, who had boosted the performance of battle machines on the front lines, applied their newfound skills to Flathead V8s and ‘32 Fords. Street racing and events on the airstrips became so popular—and dangerous—they were formalized at the Pomona dragstrip by Wally Parks, who founded the National Hot Rod Association in 1951. The NHRA now has a museum devoted to hot rods and dragsters (and also holds a cruise-in every Wednesday evening during the summer months).
With Hollywood nearby, it was only a matter of time before the movie industry got into the act, seeking ways to sell tickets by spotlighting antisocial behavior in forgettable films such as Hot Rods From Hell. They portrayed hot rodders as something far worse than they really were, which of course added greatly to the appeal of hot rodding. All these factors fed off and promoted each other, and these early roots later sprouted all sorts of related automotive offshoots such as street rods, custom cars, muscle cars, and so forth.
Today, the Socal car scene has become an international export, the subject of books and TV, song and cinema, along with merchandising of every sort of souvenir. What was once perceived as an outlaw vice is now pretty much socially acceptable, a mainstream lifestyle and big-buck business. (More than $630 million in retail sales per year, according to some estimates.)
So what once ran on the sun-baked clay of California’s dry lakes is now found posing on the green, manicured lawn of the swanky Pebble Beach Concours. Owners of high-dollar rods who used to crack a six-pack in the garage now sip vintage wine over their cars at museum openings.
Inevitably, a backlash has erupted against such rarified rods, these kinder, gentler—and pricier—expressions of the rude and rebellious rides that once characterized hot rodding. Coming full circle, a cruise-ins you’ll encounter the adherents of Kustom Kulture, with their greased-back ducktails, tatoos, cuffed jeans and leather jackets lettered with club logos such as “Pedestrian Killers.”
For the hip chicks, the look is Laverne & Shirley, only more hormonal, with pointy bras, tight skirts and makeup applied with a palette knife. These Rat Fink vixens, probably known on first-name basis at their local vintage clothing stores, strut their stuff with tight-fitted tops embroidered with catty challenges such as, “I Like Your Husband” or “Love Sucks.” While these antisocial throwbacks think of their primered jalopies as the “real rods,” the hot rod fraternity sometimes scoff at them as “rat rods.”
Whatever your taste in rods, they have has always been a slippery chameleon, changing color and shape in response to the latest speed parts and desire to improve performance. So much of hot rod style comes from this pressure for faster trap times, resulting in the oft-used expression, “Looks fast sitting still.”
Yet speed wasn’t the only goal. As the late, great Gray Baskerville, longtime senior editor for Hot Rod and Rod & Custom magazines put it so succinctly, “A hot rod is an extension of your manhood.”
If you were to pick one car that sparked the volatile fuel of hot rodding, it would be the 1932 Ford “Little Deuce Coupe,” so named for the “two” in ‘32. During one event at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles (now a Mecca of sorts for all things automotive in Southern California), several hundred deuces assembled on the upper deck of the parking lot. Noted car collector Bruce Meyer, who organized the gathering, observed that, “The ’32 Ford epitomizes hot rodding. When somebody says ‘hot rodding,’ they think of the Deuce.”
Meyer speaks with authority, since he has had six of them on display at the museum, including several that won America’s Most Beautiful Roadster at the Oakland Roadster Show. Perhaps the most famous of the lot is Doane Spencer’s Hiboy. So-Cal Speed Shop is in the process of building a clone of that car.
It’s easy to see why the ‘32 became a classic. In addition to the performance potential of its then-new V8 engine, you could remove the front fenders for increased speeds on the dry lakes, and the frame rails would become part of the design on a fenderless front corner. Ford built only about 12,000 of these roadsters, and those that didn’t rust away in wrecking yards became the blank canvas for the hot rodders’ art. It’s not uncommon to find deuces with Chevy small-blocks, or even Hemis and Olds V8s. Variations abound, limited only by the creativity of the hot rodders who build them. So many that, of the original 12,000 roadsters, as many hot rodders joke, only 50,000 remain.
Why are so many designs based on the 70-year-old shape of that original Deuce? In simple terms: “They’re cool-looking, they’re the birth of hot rodding,” sums up Vic Edelbrock, Jr. He should know, considering that the performance parts company bearing his father’s name is synonymous with Socal rods (and one of his hiboy graces the cover of this issue). He also has a museum of hot rods, called Vic’s Garage, which is open to the public by appointment.
Of course, everybody has their favorite rod, and as original tin has dwindled in supply, innovative builders have embraced later-model Fifties and Sixties customs for projects. But some of the more traditional benchmarks include the ‘34 Ford, ‘40 Ford, ‘41 Willys, ‘49 Merc, tri-five Chevy (‘55, ‘56, ‘57), among many others.
As renowned street rod designer Chip Foose points out, “There are no rules in hot rodding—it’s all personal expression. What’s important is how cool does it look—it’s the antithesis of dependable transportation. The more outrageous it is, the better.”
As one example, Foose won the coveted Ridler award for the ‘35 Grand Master Chevy, not a typical vehicle to modify. While hardcore hot rodders might shake their heads over this million-dollar show queen (some characterize it as a Faberge Egg that belongs in a jewelry case), there’s no denying the beauty of this pinnacle piece of workmanship, with $70,000 invested in paint job alone. Wes Rydell, owner of the Grand Master, observed that, “For me, it’s all about a style, a look, a stance, a shape that’s hard to describe—but when you see it you know it.”
Even traditional icons such as the So-Cal Speed Shop in Pomona, which holds a popular open house every June, has branched out to a wide variety of projects cars, in addition to its traditional rides. Sitting side-by-side with a ‘32 Ford, you’ll also find a Woodie, lowriders, an HHR salt racer, among many others.
So what are some of the other happenin’ hot spots for rodders? Although you can find rodders hanging out in the parking lots of just about any well-traveled drive-in or coffee shop in Southern California, there are a few choice spots you wouldn’t want to miss. Take a gander at the shots shown here, and you’ll see a good selection from north to south, and east to west. While by no means the only places for cruisin’, you won’t go wrong checking these out.
Some day, bearded university savants might look back on the phenomenon of street rodding and wrestle with such self-important questions as, “What’s it all mean?” Nothing and everything. They shouldn't try to think about it too much. Hey, rodding is only rock ‘n roll—you’re just supposed to like it.
Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake, near “beautiful downtown Burbank” (as the old line from TV’s Laugh-In line went), enjoys the attentions of hot rodders every Friday night. While the collection of cars is fairly diverse, everything from Hemi-powered muscle cars to a gullwing Mercedes, street rodders fit in nicely. Rat rodders are common contingent as well.
South of Los Angeles in Huntington Beach is Donut Derelicts, a gathering of rods and customs at a non-descript donut shop on the corner of Magnolia and Adams Avenues. Despite the funky setting, it hosts an incredible array of cars every Saturday morning. And we mean morning—the parking lot fills up by 7:00 a.m., if not sooner.
Edelbrock, a name known the world over for its performance parts, has a museum around the corner from its Torrance headquarters. Chock full of rods, muscle cars and primo street machines, including Vic, Sr.’s famous ’32 Ford, the facility is open to groups and car clubs by appointment. A re-creation of Vic’s workshop is one highlight of the exhibit.
The Goodguys Rod & Custom Association, founded in 1983, is like a big fraternity, with a fellowship totalling more than 70,000 rodders worldwide. As an automotive event promoter, Goodguys holds 22 annual events across the country from New York to Florida, from San Diego to Seattle and all points in between. The events are diverse and cater to many different groups of auto enthusiasts, but for street rodders, the Del Mar event is one of the key shows to attend.
The L.A. Roadster Show has been drawing rodders for more than four decades, and for most of those years at the L.A. County Fairplex, located in Pomona. More than 350 manufacturers of new reproduction parts, kits and accessories have their own special section to display their products and services in a shaded midway. But the main attraction is the hundreds of 1936-and-earlier open cars of all types and makes; some original, some modified, but all of the highest quality and completely finished with glossy paint (no flat-black “rat rods” allowed in the show area). There’s no entry fee for roadsters, along with driver and passenger, and more than 850 roadsters showed up in 2006.
Encompassing about 300,000 square feet, the Petersen Automotive Museum features an impressive range of exhibits and lifelike dioramas with more than 150 rare and classic cars, trucks and motorcycles. Covering four floors, the facility traces the history of the automobile. On the second floor there are five large changing exhibition galleries with state-of-the-art displays of race cars, classic cars, vintage motorcycles, concept cars, celebrity and movie cars, and automotive design and technology.
The May Family Children’s Discovery Center is located on the third floor. Designed to spark interest in science by way of the automobile, the 6,500 square-foot, interactive hands-on learning center teaches children basic scientific principles by explaining the fundamental functions of a car. The Museum is located at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. Check the museum calendar for special rod-themed events.
Even though the architecture looks like pure vintage Fifties car hop, Ricky & Ronnie’s Cruise-In Diner in Torrance, at the corner of Sepulveda and Normandie, is a relative newcomer to the rodding scene. But it’s a welcome addition, with a separate restaurant and parking lot designed specifically for car clubs of all kinds (perhaps because one of the diner’s owners also has a car resto shop as well). And the food’s pretty tasty too.
The So-Cal Speed Shop in Pomona, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, holds an open house for all manner of rods. Founded in 1946 in Burbank by Alex Xydias, So-Cal rods ran in pretty fast company. For example, a V8-powered bellytank lakester clocked 136 mph in 1948 and appeared on the cover of the January 1949 issue of a fledgling Hot Rod magazine. After a string of successes, the company went dormant for a while, but many years later, Alex and Pete Chapouris joined forces to resurrect the famed So-Cal Speed Shop, which now produces an amazing array of projects.
Every Memorial Day weekend, rodders and custom cars converge from both northern and southern California in Paso Robles, a sleepy little town right off the 101 freeway. The caliber of vehicles that drive to this event is astonishing, and the parade night is the highlight of the weekend. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll likely find it in Paso.