Hot Rodding: A Brief History
Some products are valued strictly for their practical benefits; copy paper, for example. No one gets excited about copy paper – no one who’s sane, anyway. Then there are items which do far more than meet an everyday need. They reach directly into our hearts and souls, invoking our imagination and our passions. Automobiles fall into the latter category, which explains why Americans have been finding ways to push their limits ever since cars first appeared in this country. In the late 1930s, a group of west coast auto enthusiasts, under the auspices of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), began racing modified vehicles on the endless stretches of dry lake just outside of L.A. These early “hot rods” were usually Ford A, T, or B models, stripped of parts like fenders, windshields, and bumpers. The engines were either swapped out from other vehicles or specially tuned to maximize performance. RELATED: See Photos of the 1929 Ford Hi-Boy Hot Rod
WWII brought the hobby to a screeching halt, as young men who would otherwise be challenging to a race were instead taking on the Axis, in a contest with much bigger stakes in the balance. When these fellows began returning home, though, they brought the mechanical skills they learned in the military with them. This led to a resurgence of hot rodding in the second half of the 1940s. “Speedsters” was a name often applied by both participants and the public at large to these vehicles, which traded convenience, comfort, and safety for adrenalin-pumping speed.
As youth culture began to emerge in the 1950s, “hot rod” became a term of both endearment and contempt, depending on how the user felt about the customized cars. Hot rodders became experts at engine swapping, taking powerhouses like the Ford “60 horse” flathead, boring them out, and putting them in Jeeps or other lightweight vehicles.
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The 255 ci (4.2-liter) V8 was immensely popular in the hot rod community due to its interchangeability. This was followed up by the 400 ci (6.6-liter) small-block, which racers would bore out and optimize with 4.125 stroke crankshafts. By the late 50s the flathead was abandoned in favor of the early HEMI engines, and by the 70s the small-block Chevy reigned supreme.
As with any outlaw activity, hot rodding eventually became respectable. This began in the 1950s with the formation of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). By this point the need for rules to govern the hobby were clear. Hot rodders were challenging each other to public street races, and innocent bystanders all too often paid the price for such indiscretions.
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Another trend in the 50s was an increasing emphasis on making hot rods beautiful as well as bold. This led to some of the coolest rides ever seen, adorned with flaming stripes and nicely chromed; “pimped out” as the kids today would say.
The hot rodding community is still going strong in the 21st century. In recent years it has broken into two branches: the hot rodders, who use vintage equipment as much as possible, and the street rodders, who freely adapt modern components to their equally modern vehicles. Both groups, however, follow in the path first blazed by those brave souls from the 1930s, who showed everyone just how important the automobile is to the American soul.
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Photo Credit: Hot Rod Magazine