Hot Rod Heritage

Feb 28, 2011

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles reviewing the history of hot rods and the origins of the performance market. Here, we take a look at the early days of the hot rod movement, pre-World War II.

Hot Rod Heritage, Part II     Hot Rod Heritage, Part III

Automotive historians point out that hot rodding is as old as the automobile itself. Karl Friedrich Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach are recognized as among the first people to tinker with those first cars to increase speed and performance-”and thus launched the hot rodding spirit.

Henry Ford himself was a hot rodder as well by this definition. Look no further than 1901, when he built and drove his 70-hp car to a victory against challenger Alexander Winton in a race to see who was the speed king.

Next came Ford’s famous #999 racecar that featured a huge 4-cylinder engine (with a 7.25-inch bore and 7.00-inch stroke) and nothing much else but a pair of frame rails, a big radiator and four wheels. With Barney Oldfield behind the wheel, it won races, set speed records and helped draw attention to the Ford name (which was Henry’s main intention). Ever the racer himself, Henry took a revised #999 car out to frozen Lake St. Clair in Michigan and set a land speed record of 91.37 mph in 1904.

To tell the history of hot rods in America, the story starts in the mid- to late-1920s in southern California. The streets of Los Angeles and surrounding areas, plus the nearby dry lake beds, are the places where most agree it all began.

Fast Fords

The hot rod craze was a phenomenon that took off like wildfire when young men discovered the joys of modifying the early cars like Model T and Model A Fords-”stripping them down for less weight and “hopping-up” their engines.

The modifications done to the earliest hot rod cars were typically centered on the cylinder heads and adding increased-capacity carburetors to make them go faster, plus oftentimes the addition of racing camshafts. There were no books or manuals for reference-”every modification was the first of its kind.

One of the most popular places to run these home-built modified cars was at Muroc, a dry lake located in the Mojave Desert. While it was only about 100 miles away from metropolitan Los Angeles, it was a long and dusty trail to get there with plenty of zigzagging along the way.

(Incidentally, Muroc isn’t named after some old Indian tribe. It’s actually Corum spelled backwards. The Corum family that resided in the region needed to name the area in order to get a post office, and there was already a California town named Corum, so they got creative.)

There was plenty of high-speed action on that dry lake bed, including in the spring of 1924 when a speed record of 151.26 mph was set by a famous racer named Tommy Milton, driving a Miller race car. Soon thousands of young California teenagers had discovered that they could bring their own cars up to Muroc (even if they were more on the jalopy side as opposed to a fully built hot rod), and run at high speeds without the worry of getting in trouble with the police.

But Muroc was not a safe place to run a car in these early years. There were virtually no rules and no safety precautions, and just being there as an observer put you at risk. It was commonplace to see multiple cars running in different direction, with dire results from time to time.

Legendary hot rodder Ed Iskenderian recalls of Muroc: “I came within about 15 feet of getting killed one time up there. They used to drag race at Muroc. They’d take up to about four cars that run in a certain speed range and let them drag race. It was kinda dangerous because of the dust. I was leaning on a Model A tire at the finish line by the stand, about 50 feet off the course. I decided to change position and go over by the tower because the cars were coming through. And all of the sudden they came through blind. You could hardly see anything-”whoomp! We heard something bump, and when the dust cleared, that Model A was moved back about 200 feet. This modified had come through and hit wheel to wheel that Model A (that was out of gear). The modified driver wasn’t really hurt, just bruised; his butt went through the cross-member, it did damage.”

The Father of Hot Rodding

A man named Ed Winfield has been coined by those that were around during these times as being considered the “father of hot rodding,” and he was a very big figure on the scene overall, including being a parts supplier to many of the earliest cars that ran on the dry lake beds.

In 1972, Terry Cook interviewed this legend and he said, “any car I could get a hold of was a hot rod. I would tune ’em up-”ignition and carburetion-”for performance.”

Winfield was born in 1901 in the Los Angeles area and at an early age was already making his own high-performance racing camshafts, starting out with motorcycle grinds and then moving on to automotive cams. His specialty was Model T camshafts built to racing specifications.

When he was 13, he managed to get a hold of someone’s 1908 Maxwell and was seen doing a high-speed run in it, about 60 mph down a hill in town. At 14, he worked for a time for the legendary racecar engineer/builder Harry Miller (who was building the Barney Oldfield “Golden Submarine” streamlined race car at the time) but went on to start making racing parts on his own.

Winfield first built what he called “full-race” cam grinds for all-out competition use. He also offered a “semi-race” version and soon after created a “three-quarter” cam, which he is quoted as saying was “three-quarters of the way to a full race cam.”

It has been said that if an early dry lakes racer had a Winfield head, a Winfield cam or a Winfield carburetor-”or better yet, all three-”he had the hot setup for racing. Winfield soon became a prophet of sorts with the kids that raced on the street and dry lakes.

The dry lakes were not the only places these early hot rods raced, however. Public roads were also used including Sepulveda Boulevard, a road that ran north-south in the San Fernando valley.

It was a haven for high-speed street racing, which led to hot rodders getting a bad name in the public eye. Hot rodders were viewed as outlaws by some and the newspapers reported on accidents and deaths that resulted from these dangerous high-speed runs.

In late November of 1937, five car clubs had a meeting (what was to become the Southern California Timing Association) to get things organized for safer running at Muroc. Key people that attended were Kong Jackson, Wally Parks, Ed Adams, Mel Leighton and Art Tilton.

Topics included such things as providing an ambulance service, creating trophy awards, developing a points system, designating spectator areas and devising a way to organize patrols to eliminate the “private” races being held all over the lake bed.

Many people were involved in organizing the SCTA (from all sorts of car clubs, including the Road Runners, Sidewinders, 90 MPH Club, Idlers, Ramblers, Outriders, Night Flyers, Comets, Revs, Derelicts Club and Throttlers) and subsequently there were some five meetings held before the first actual “SCTA Lakes Meet” event took place, which was a huge success.

One proposal suggested during one of the meetings after the event was to ban all coupes and sedans at SCTA events. The belief was that there were plenty of roadster bodies available at any number of junkyards, and they could be purchased for $10.

“We didn’t think coupes were real hot rods,” said Alex Xydias, a hot rodding key player that was a SCTA board member who later founded the historic SO-CAL Speed Shop in Burbank, Calif.

The “roadsters-only” talk ultimately led to the formation of the Russetta Timing Association, a group that provided a means for coupe and sedan racers to compete.

Not Just the Guys 

A woman named Veda Orr had a lot to do with the growth of hot rodding in her own right. She was the wife of Karl Orr, a fixture in the world of dry lake racing, and was a behind-the-scenes partner in the speed shop they operated in Culver City, Calif.

She ran 114.27 mph at Muroc in 1937, and later would go 132 miles per hour in their #21C ’32 roadster. Veda was instrumental in helping to boost hot rodding to servicemen during WWII, as she mailed copies of her “California Timing” news publication to them free of charge as a way to keep them posted as to the scene, plus giving them hope during the difficult times.

The mimeographed copies of “CT” were passed around to hundreds of thousands of enlisted men, with many of them having developed a newfound interest and coming home with a burning desire to get involved in hot rodding.

It goes without saying that the people that ran on the California dry lakes shaped the future of the sport as well as the performance industry that was to follow.

Limited space prevents a full accounting of all those who participated (in addition to those already highlighted) in the early days; however it would not be appropriate to neglect mentioning their names at least.

An incomplete list of pioneers before the war who contributed to the growth of the hot rod scene includes Stuart Hilborn, Vic Edelbrock Sr., the Spaulding Brothers, Chuck Potvin, Bob Rufi, Tony Capanna, Manual Ayulo, Jack McGrath, Bill Burke, Sandy Belond, Jack Engle, Dick Kraft, Johnny Junkin, Charles Beck, Rollin White, Johnny Walker, Roy Aldrich, Arnold Birner, Marvin Lee, Orville Welchel, Horace Achterman, Jack Lehman, Hi Halfhill, Duke Hallock, Pete Clark, Frankie Lyons, Frank Morimoto, Ernie McAfee, Bill Hanggie, Dusty Campbell, Pinky Slover, Clint Seccombe, Frank Sheitlin, Eddie Meyer, Jack Harvey, George Rubsch, Ken Lindley, Bob Corbett and Barnie Navarro.

Next time we’ll look at some of the steps hot rodding took following WWII, setting the stage for today’s modern scene.

Hot Rod Heritage, Part II