Hot Rod Heritage, Part III

May 12, 2011

Hot Rod Heritage Part I     Hot Rod Heritage Part II

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series reviewing the history of hot rods and the origins of the performance market. Here, we start in the 1960s and move forward to the nostalgia movement of today.

Car shows became a place where more and more hot rods could be seen, and enthusiasts flocked to events such as the Oakland Roadster Show (which started in January, 1950), the Sacramento Autorama (started in November, 1950) and the Detroit Autorama (1952).

In 1959, Michigan’s Bob Larivee started promoting car shows in the Midwest with his “International Championship Auto Shows” series, which would become a huge organization that provided places for enthusiasts to enjoy the hot rodding craze in numerous cities. Many of the ICAS car shows took place in indoor venues during the winter months, helping keep the interest level high for all participants until the warm weather of spring arrived.

Oct. 21, 1963, was an important date for anyone who dug hot rods and music all in one package, as that was the release date of the fourth Beach Boys album, “Little Deuce Coupe.” The tune quickly became a big hit, reaching No. 4 on the U.S. charts and eventually going platinum. The car chosen as cover art for the album was a sleek creation from Clarence “Chili” Catallo.

Meanwhile, Tom McMullen started “Street Rodder” magazine at the urging of employee LeRoi “Tex” Smith, who felt that “street rods” were a growing market. How right he was.

Street Rod Nationals

In 1970, the first-ever National Street Rod Association Street Rod Nationals took place in Peoria, Ill., and some 600 rods participated. The following year, 1,200 rods turned out for the event in Memphis.

The national events would continue to grow annually (a record number of rods entered in 1994: 13,871) and organized rod shows and rod runs were part of the reason the hot rodding hobby continued to grow in strength and numbers.

Some of it was attracting the drag race set. Dick Wells (then president of NSRA starting in 1971) summed it up this way: “Many of our members used to be in racing of some kind; they tell us, ‘I had twelve-grand in my such-and-such quarter-mile flyer and could only drive it a few minutes every month. I spend less on a street rod, and I can drive, have fun with it every day if I want, and my wife and kids get to be part of it, too.”

Even as late as the early 1970s, there was still hope in finding “vintage tin,” meaning real steel cars from the 1920s era and newer.

But rust never sleeps and the trend was really growing toward reproduction fiberglass bodies for street rods. In addition, the use of fiberglass was chosen for parts such as fenders, even if the body was made of the original steel.

The making of ‘glass bodies also expanded to other makes and models outside of the standard ’23 and ’27 Ts and ’32 Fords; now there was C-cab Model T delivery bodies (with separate one-piece rear door) and complete Anglia (1948-’53) bodies and components for the “gasser” type of cars, plus even more as the years went along.

“Real steel” cars were always more in demand and more valuable; however not obtainable for many.

The main reasons for the explosion of fiberglass was because, even if a builder did score a great deal on a real steel car found out in a farmer’s field or in someone’s backyard with an oak tree growing through its roof, chances were it more than likely had been sitting out there in the elements for a couple of decades (or longer) and rust had entered into the picture. And the idea of patching up and repairing a body in that condition (and the actual skill required to do it properly) burned up a lot of time and took away a lot of the fun of building a cool street rod.

Fiberglass was the answer for many, and all sorts of bodies and related parts were produced in the early 1970s by a variety of manufacturers scattered all across the country. Popular sources included Anderson Industries, Elkridge, Md.; Gibbon Fiberglass, Gibbon, Neb.; Total Performance, Wallingford, Conn.; Speedway Motors, Lincoln, Neb.; Dee Wescott, Boring, Ore.; MAS Racing, Minneapolis; Poli-Form Industries, Santa Cruz, Calif., and others.

Some of the suppliers had higher-quality pieces, and the best were constructed using the hand-layered fiberglass method, which was the strongest (and lightest) way to do up the parts.

On the other hand, the cheaper, lower-quality items were more affordable (with the fiberglass being sprayed into the mold with a chopper gun) and made it possible for more to get involved in the hobby. No matter, in most cases the parts that were less expensive turned out to need a lot more prep work.

Hot Rod Delivery

There was now such a thing as a “mail-order street rod” as bodies, frames, suspension components, and related small parts were available from a number of sources, ready for the bolting-in of a salvage-yard engine, transmission and rear end. For some reason the “kit car” name was never widely attached to these types of projects and it was a good thing, as it would have degraded them and the movement.

Independent rear suspension was also the rage in the early 1970s for those opting to go to the extra effort of taking on the challenge of adding this feature to their rods.

The first real application of IRS on a street rod came in 1964 on the Don Tognotti “King T” 1914 roadster. It was painted in “chameleon” paint treatment by Gene Winfield, but its hand-made rear end by Walt Reiff was what got most of the attention.

“King T” featured a 1955 Chevy center section with the axles cut down to four inches. Half-shafts were added from a GMC truck shortened four feet, and the outer wheel carriers were handcrafted. It was a lot of work, but with all the chrome plating and addition of inboard disc brakes and coilover shocks, the whole assembly was something that raised the bar for rear suspension on a rod, even if it was out of reach for most enthusiasts.

The use of a production Jaguar IRS (from an XKE or the Mark 10 from the sedan) or a Corvette independent rear end made IRS possible for home builders, and in the early 1970s cost only a couple hundred bucks from the junkyards. Jerry Kugel was among the first people to start making bolt-in kits for the Jag rear ends for Model A Fords.

John Buttera entered into the street rod construction scene in 1974 with his ’26 T sedan, incorporating scratch-built independent front suspension with Kelsey-Hayes discs and rack and pinion steering from an Austin American. In the rear a Jag IRS was used, modified to include lower control arms.

Buttera was a well-known Funny Car chassis builder and when he got bored with racecar construction, he turned to rod building out of his 1-1/2-car family garage, but his work looked anything but home-built. His “tall” ’26 T raised the bar for street rod building as it also was equipped with trendsetting creature comforts like power windows, climate control A/C, cruise control, and leather and tweed interior with Volvo seating.

He was quoted as saying: “I build things because I generally cannot afford to buy them, and when someone says I can’t do it, I’ll do my best to prove them wrong.”

His years as a racecar chassis builder provided him the fabrication skills that basically blew away the rodding community when he started creating his masterpieces, and his eye for art was what separated his projects from less exotic work that had been seen previously.

Historic Hot Rods

Boyd Coddington burst onto the hot rod scene in the late 1970s after having worked at Disneyland during the day as a machinist and then at night building rods in a small shop behind his house.

In 1978 he quit his day job and went full-time into the car-building business, with his first major customer car being the Vern Luce ’33 coupe that put him on the map as a premier car builder. The car would soon draw him national acclaim.

His approach to building cars was unique and he fast became the major trendsetter in the industry. Among Coddington’s trademarks on the Luce coupe were the stance, overall proportion and attention to detail.

The Pete Chapouris “California Kid” ’34 car from the 1970s and other West Coast hot rods were also gaining attention, but it should be pointed out that not all hero rod builders hailed from the state of California. Case in point was a wild ’36 Willys coupe built by Gary Kollofski of Wayzata, Minn. “Hot Rod” magazine called it “a study in perfection and detailing” in its July, 1979 issue.

The car was bright yellow and had a Gale Banks twin-turbocharged 355-ci small block Chevy and rode on Motor Wheel “Fly” aluminum drag wheels-a serious looker and proof that one could build a standout street rod from anywhere, make the cover of “Hot Rod,” plus it didn’t always have to be a Ford.

Jamie Musselman’s ’33 Ford won the title of “America’s Most Beautiful Roadster” in 1982. It was also a Boyd Coddington creation, built in the “simple, smooth and straight” theme that he had mastered.

September of ’83 saw the color spread in “Hot Rod” magazine of the “ZZ Top Eliminator Coupe,” which became a very influential car in the industry after going mainstream with the group’s music videos. The ’80s also saw stunning cars such as the Chapouris ’32 Ford Highboy “Limefire” and the Jerry Moreland 1940 Ford sedan.

Next in line were talented newcomers like Chip Foose, who started working for Coddington part-time in 1990. Over the next 20 years, more and more successful builders emerged, and the popularity of today’s hot rod and automotive-related “reality” television shows are bringing the cars and excitement to a new generation of enthusiasts.

In the higher-end builds, steel bodies (refurbished originals or new replacement ones that have become available) are now used rather than fiberglass.

Automotive fads come and go, and at the time all of them looked good and had their place in history. What some may like as a result of when they grew up may or may not be the same as another from a different era, or with different tastes.

Regarding the word “classic” and how it relates to the hot rod definition of today, few if any would argue that cars like a traditional ’32 roadster are not true classics, as even the Pebble Beach Concours d’ elegance has recognized these machines for their historical value.

Space constraints for this article unfortunately didn’t permit the additions and mentions of numerous other cars that helped shape the history of the hot rod scene. Luckily, there are several books available on the market; and many of the old magazines offer a wealth of knowledge on the topic and are easier than ever to find.

Another place to learn more about hot rodding and its history is the Los Angeles-based NHRA Motorsports Museum, located at the Pomona Fairplex.

The words “hot rod” mean many things to many people. Today guys like John Force call their carbon fiber-bodied Funny Cars “hot rods” whiles others believe the term describes any old car from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The takeaway is the staying power of the hot rod, and the culture it has created. From those original dry lakebed racers of the 1920s to the latest Chip Foose creation shown on TV or at the SEMA Show, the passion and excitement they stir in people has never changed.