• Hot Rods Defined

Hot Rods Defined

Hot rods are typically American cars with large engines modified for linear speed. The origin of the term "hot rod" is unclear. One explanation is that the term is a contraction of "hot roadster," meaning a roadster
A roadster, also known as a spyder or spider, is a two-seat car, traditionally without a roof, side or rear windows.Most modern day two-seaters have windows and feature retractable roofs...

that was modified for speed. Roadsters were the cars of choice because they were light. The term became commonplace in the 1930s or 1940s as the name of a car that had been "hopped up" by modifying the engine in various ways to achieve higher performance.

The term can also apply to other items that are "souped up" for a particular purpose, such as "hot-rodded amplifier".

Late 1930s–1950s early days

The term seems first to have appeared in the late 1930s in southern California
California is the most populous state in the United States and the third-largest by land area, after Alaska and Texas. California is also the most populous sub-national entity in North America. It's on the U.S...

, where people would race their modified cars on the vast, empty dry lake beds northeast of Los Angeles
Los Ángeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the municipality of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...

under the rules of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). The activity increased in popularity after World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global military conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, which involved most of the world's nations, including all of the great powers, organised into two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, particularly in California because many returning soldiers had been given technical training in the service. The original hot rods were old cars (most often Ford
Ford Motor Company
The Ford Motor Company is an American multinational corporation based in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The automaker was founded by Henry Ford and incorporated on June 16, 1903. In addition to the Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury brands, Ford also owns a small stake in Mazda in Japan and...

s, typically Model T
Ford Model T
The Ford Model T is an automobile that was produced by Henry Ford's Ford Motor Company from 1908 through 1927. The Model T set 1908 as the historic year that the automobile became popular...

s, 1928–31 Model As, or 1932-34 Model B
Ford Model B (1932)
The Model B was a Ford automobile with production starting with model year 1932 and ending with 1934. It was a much updated version of the Model A and was replaced by the 1935 Ford Model 48...

s), modified to reduce weight. Typical modifications were removal of convertible tops, hood
Hood (vehicle)
The hood or bonnet is the hinged cover over the engine of motor vehicles that allows access to the engine compartment for maintenance and repair. In British terminology, hood refers to a fabric cover over the passenger compartment of the car...

s, bumpers, windshield
The windshield or windscreen of an aircraft, car, bus, motorbike or tram is the front window. Modern windshields are generally made of laminated safety glass, a type of treated glass, which consists of two curved sheets of glass with a plastic layer laminated between them for safety, and are...

s, and/or fender
Fender (vehicle)
Fender is the US English term for the part of an automobile, motorcycle or other vehicle body that frames a wheel well . Its primary purpose is to prevent sand, mud, rocks, liquids, and other road spray from being thrown into the air by the rotating tire. Fenders are typically rigid and can be...

s); channeling the body; and modifying the engine
An engine is a machine designed to convert energy into useful mechanical motion.Engines come in many types, a common type is a heat engine such as an internal combustion engine which typically burns a fuel with air and uses the hot gases for generating power...

by tuning
Engine tuning
Engine tuning is the adjustment, modification or design of internal combustion engines to yield optimal performance, to increase an engine's power output, economy, or durability. It has a long history, almost as long as the development of the car in general, originating with the development of...

and/or replacing with a more powerful type. Wheel
A wheel is a circular device that is capable of rotating on an axle through its centre, facilitating movement or transportation while supporting a load , or performing labour in machines. Common examples are found in transport applications. A wheel, together with an axle overcomes friction by...

s and tire
A tire or tyre is a ring-shaped covering that fits around a wheel rim to protect it and enable better vehicle performance by providing a flexible cushion that absorbs shock while keeping the wheel in close contact with the ground...

s were changed for improved traction
Traction (engineering)
Traction refers to the maximum frictional force that can be produced between surfaces without slipping.The units of traction are those of force, or if expressed as a coefficient of traction a ratio.-Traction:...

and handling. "Hot Rod" was sometimes a term used in the 1950s as a derogatory term for any car that did not fit into the mainstream
Mainstream is, generally, the common current thought of the majority. However, the mainstream is far from cohesive; rather the concept is often considered a cultural construct. It is a term most often applied in the arts...

. Hot rodder's modifications were considered to improve the appearance as well, leading to show cars in the 1960s replicating these same modifications along with a distinctive paint job.

Engine swaps often involved fitting the Ford Flathead engine
Ford Flathead engine
The Flathead was the first independently designed and built V8 engine produced by the Ford Motor Company for mass production and ranks as one of the company's most important developments. Even though Ford had an engineering team assigned to develop the engine, many of the ideas and innovations...

, or "flatty", in a different chassis; the "60 horse" in a Jeep
Jeep is an automobile marque of Chrysler. It is the oldest off-road vehicle brand. It inspired a number of other military Light Utility Vehicles, such as the Land Rover which is the second oldest 4-wheel-drive brand...

was a popular choice in the '40s. After the appearance of the 255 cid V8, because of interchangeability, installing the longer-stroke Mercury crank in the 239 was a popular upgrade among hot rodders, much as the 400 cid crank in small-blocks would become. In fact, in the 1950s, the flathead block was often fitted with crankshafts of up to 4.125 in (104.8 mm) stroke, sometimes more. In addition, rodders in the 1950s routinely bored them out by 0.1875 in (4.8 mm) (to 3.375 in (85.7 mm)); due to the tendency of blocks to crack as a result of overheating, a perennial problem, this is no longer recommended. In the '50s and '60s, the flatty was supplanted by the early hemi
Chrysler FirePower engine
The FirePower was Chrysler's first V8 engine; prior Chrysler 8-cylinders, dating to 1931, were in-line eights. Introduced in the Fall of 1950 for the 1951 model year, the FirePower had hemispherical combustion chambers, leading some to refer to this engine as the early Hemi or Generation 1 hemi...

. By the 1970s, the small-block Chevy was the most common option, and since the '80s, the 350 cid Chevy has been almost ubiquitous.

Post WWII origins of organized rodding

After World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global military conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, which involved most of the world's nations, including all of the great powers, organised into two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

there were many small military airports throughout the country that were either abandoned or very rarely used that allowed hot rodders across the country to race on marked courses. Originally drag racing
Drag racing
Drag racing is a competition in which vehicles compete to be the first to cross a set finish line, usually from a standing start, and in a straight line. First gaining popularity in the USA after World War II, the sport steadily grew in popularity and spread across the globe...

had tracks as long as one mile or more, and included up to four lanes of racing at the same time. As hot rodding became more popular in the 1950s, magazines and associations catering to hot rodders were started. As some hot rodders also raced on the street, a need arose for an organization to promote safety. Hot rodders including Wally Parks
Wally Parks
Wallace Gordon Parks was instrumental in establishing drag racing as a legitimate amateur and professional motorsport. He was the Founder, President, and the Chairman of the Board of the National Hot Rod Association, known by the acronym NHRA...

created the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to bring racing off the streets and onto the tracks. They created rules based on safety and entertainment, and allowed Hot Rodders of any caliber the ability to race. The annual California Hot Rod Reunion
California Hot Rod Reunion
California Hot Rod Reunion is a gathering of drag racers, hot rod enthusiasts and street rodders held in Bakersfield, California. The event was created by Steve Gibbs, vice-president of the National Hot Rod Association, in October, 1992, as a one-time event to gather some of the old drag racers...

and National Hot Rod Reunion
National Hot Rod Reunion
The National Hot Rod Reunion is a gathering of nostalgia drag racers, street rodders and automotive enthusiasts based on the California Hot Rod Reunion. The first four years of the National Hot Rod Reunion were held in Bowling Green, Kentucky...

are held to honor pioneers in the sport. The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum
Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum
The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, is located at 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Bldg. 3A, in Pomona, California 91768, USA. It houses a collection of memorabilia, automobiles and motorcycles related to the sport of hot rodding. Among other...

houses the roots of hot rodding.

1970s rise of the street rod

As automobiles offered from the major automakers began increasing performance, the lure of Hot Rods began to wane. It was no longer necessary to put a Cadillac
Cadillac is a luxury vehicle marque owned by General Motors. Cadillac vehicles are sold in over 50 countries and territories, but mainly in North America....

engine in a Ford roadster to be fast. It was now possible to buy a Muscle Car
Muscle car
Muscle car is a term used to refer to a variety of high performance automobiles. The term generally refers to American 2-door rear wheel drive mid-size cars, and sometimes full-size cars equipped with large, powerful, V8s, and sold at an affordable price for street use and both formal and informal...

that outperformed just about any Hot Rod, with more passenger room, and without having to expend the effort of building and tuning the car oneself. After the 1973 Oil Crisis
1973 oil crisis
The 1973 oil crisis started in October 1973, when the members of Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries or the OAPEC proclaimed an oil embargo "in response to the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military" during the Yom Kippur war; it lasted until March 1974...

, the public called on automakers to offer safety and fuel efficiency over performance. The resulting decrease in an average car's performance led to a resurgence of Hot Rodding, although the focus was on driving Hot Rods over racing so the term 'Street Rod' was coined to denote a vehicle manufactured prior to 1949, often with a more reliable late model drivetrain. Street Rodding as it was now known was a different phenomenon than Hot Rodding, as Street Rodding was mainly family oriented. National events were hosted by the National Street Rod Association
National Street Rod Association
The National Street Rod Association or NSRA is an organization that hosts a number of Street Rod and Hot Rod shows in the United States.The shows that are put on by the NSRA are:* Through the year 2006...

(NSRA), which also stressed safety as the NHRA did 20 years before, but this was safety for the street as opposed to on the race track. Each NSRA event has a 'Safety Inspection Team' that performs a 23 points inspection process that goes beyond what normal State Safety Inspections Require.

Modern rodding

There is still a vibrant Hot Rod culture worldwide, especially in Canada, the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

, Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans...

and Sweden
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden has land borders with Norway to the west and Finland to the northeast, and water borders with Denmark, Germany, and Poland to the south, and Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and...

. The hot rod community has now been subdivided into two main groups: hot rodders and street rodders. Hot rodders build their cars using a lot of original, old parts, and follow the styles that were popular from the 1940s through the 1960s. Street rodders build cars (or have them built for them) using primarily new parts.

A common factor amongst the current owners of hot rods is to make them more noticeable. There are now many different sectors of Hot Rodding, some of which are:-
  • Street Rods (These are a very popular branch of 'hot rodding'. Contrary to the implications of the term hot rod, street rods are a peculiar mix of hot rods, custom cars, and modern Detroit cars. Emphasis is on high end custom paint jobs, luxury leather interiors with all the amenities, modern engines and running gear.) As specified by the NSRA (National Street Rod Association), a Street Rod is to have been manufactured prior to 1949.
  • Pro-Street Rods (a branch of street rodding featuring mildly customized sedan and coupe models that one would not normally associate with hot rodding that have monster engines and huge rear tires inside the fender wells. They retain all the other luxury features of Street Rods.)
  • Billet Rods (street rods noted by many items being machined from Billet aluminum),
  • Traditional Rods (those that built according to a particular point in time and stick to those build techniques and materials),
  • Rat rod
    Rat rod
    A rat rod is a style of hot rod or custom car that, in most cases, imitates the early hot rods of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It is not to be confused with the somewhat closely related "traditional" hot rod, which is an accurate re-creation or period-correct restoration of a hot rod from the same...

    s (those that are pieced together to look like old time jalopies, although some times they require more work than a show rod), and
  • Show Rods (Hot Rods created to compete in National Car Shows such as AMBR (America's Most Beautiful Roadster), and the Detroit Autorama).

There are hundreds of local car clubs supporting the hot rod/street rod community. The National Street Rod Association (NSRA) is the largest club in the world and sponsors many local events including the Street Rod Nationals
Street Rod Nationals
The Street Rod Nationals is the world's largest Street Rod gathering. It is hosted, annually, by the NSRA . Every year that it has been held in its current location, in Louisville, Kentucky, the event has topped more than 10,000 cars. All of these cars are "Pre-49" .Tens of thousands of spectators...

which serve as a showplaces for the majority of the hot-rodding and street-rodding world to display their cars and to find nearly any part needed to complete them.
Collectively they are all referred to as Hot Rods.

Debates within the car community

Hot rods are part of American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

culture, although there is growing controversy within the automotive hobby over an increasing trend towards the acquisition and irreversible modification of surviving historic - some even very rare - vehicles rather than the traditional hot rodding concept of the salvage and remanufacture of reusable junked parts.

New "retro Inspired" steel bodies

As the supply of original steel bodies dwindles to nothing, those who reject fiberglass replicas can buy new reproduction bodies. They are not actual antiques, but often are superior in some aspects such as build quality to original hot rod bodies. The best bodies can command a price of US $10,000 or more.


There is a contemporary movement of traditional hot rod builders, car clubs and artists who have returned to the roots of hot rodding as a lifestyle. This current traditional hot rod culture is exemplified in a whole new breed of traditional hot rod builders, artists and styles, as well as classic style car clubs like The Road Devils, The Deacons, The Shifters, and The Dragoons. Events like Viva Las Vegas
Viva Las Vegas
Viva Las Vegas, from 1964, is an American romantic musical movie that co-starred the singer and actor Elvis Presley and the actress and dancer Ann-Margret. This movie is regarded by many fans of these actors and by film critics as one of Presley's best movies, and it is noted for the apparent...

, and GreaseOrama showcase this return to traditional hot rods and the greaser lifestyle. Underground magazines like Garage, Smokin Shutdown, Ol' Skool Rodz
Ol' Skool Rodz
Ol' Skool Rodz is a magazine published by Geno DiPol and Koolhouse Publications, featuring Kustom Culture lifestyles, Pin-Ups, Rat Rods, Kustom Cars, and Artwork. This magazine has a huge cult following and is considered an informative view of the Modern Kustom Culture lifestyle...

, Car Kulture Deluxe, Gearhead, Rolls & Pleats and BurnOut
Burnout or burn-out may refer to:*"Burn Out" , an episode from the seventh season of the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation...

showcase this return to traditional hot rods by covering events and people around the world. There are number of independently released DVDs featuring this traditional hot rod revival with names such as Mad Fabricators, Hot Rod Surf ‘All Steel All Real’, and Hot Rod Havoc.

In the media

Author Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe
Thomas Kennerly "Tom" Wolfe, Jr. is a best-selling American author and journalist. He is one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.-Early life:Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia to Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Sr. and Helen Hughes Wolfe...

was one of the first to recognize the importance of hot rodding in popular culture
Popular culture
Popular culture is the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred per an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the...

and brought it to mainstream attention in his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby is the title of Tom Wolfe's first collected book of essays, published in 1965...


There are many magazines that feature real hot rods, including The Rodders Journal, Hot Rod Magazine
Hot Rod Magazine
Hot Rod magazine is an American monthly magazine devoted to hot rodding, —modifying automobiles for performance and appearance.-History:...

, Rod and Custom Magazine, Street Rodder, RebelRodz, Amusin' Kruisin', and Popular Hot Rodding
Popular Hot Rodding
Popular Hot Rodding is a monthly American automotive magazine from Source Interlink media dedicated to high performance automobiles of 1960-1972. The magazine focuses on American-made performance cars targeting enthusiasts modifying, racing or restoring their hot rods...

. There are also television shows such as My Classic Car
My Classic Car
My Classic Car is a television show originally broadcast on TNN and now airing on Speed Channel about classic automobiles, hosted by Dennis Gage...

, a documentary series on Discovery channel
Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel is an American satellite and cable TV channel , founded by John Hendricks and distributed by Discovery Communications. It is a publicly traded company run by CEO, David Zaslav...

until his death in 2008.

The Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel is an American satellite and cable TV channel , founded by John Hendricks and distributed by Discovery Communications. It is a publicly traded company run by CEO, David Zaslav...

airs several shows dealing with modern interpretations of Kustom Kulture
Kustom Kulture
"Kustom Kulture" is an American neologism used to describe the artworks, vehicles, hairstyles, and fashions of those who drove and built custom cars and motorcycles in the United States of America from the 1950s through today....

such as Monster Garage
Monster Garage
Monster Garage was a television show for the Discovery Channel hosted by Jesse G. James. Each episode was an hour in length and was conceived and produced by Thom Beers.The show aired the series finale on June 12, 2006. Jesse G...

, American Hot Rod
American Hot Rod
American Hot Rod was a reality television series that aired on The Learning Channel and Discovery Channel. The crewmembers in the show built hot rods and custom cars in Boyd Coddington’s shop located in La Habra, California....

, and Overhaulin'
Overhaulin' is an American automotive reality TV show that ran for five seasons on TLC between 2004–2009. The show remains available via re-runs and syndication.-Hosts:...


Juxtapoz Magazine, founded by the artist Robert Williams
Robert Williams (artist)
Robert Williams is a painter, cartoonist, and founder of Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine.Williams was part of the Zap Collective, along with other underground cartoonists such as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton...

, has thrived as a recent extrapolation of Kustom Kulture
Kustom Kulture
"Kustom Kulture" is an American neologism used to describe the artworks, vehicles, hairstyles, and fashions of those who drove and built custom cars and motorcycles in the United States of America from the 1950s through today....

art. It has also begun to garner respect as an exhibitor of contemporary artistic talent that transcends Kustom Kulture
Kustom Kulture
"Kustom Kulture" is an American neologism used to describe the artworks, vehicles, hairstyles, and fashions of those who drove and built custom cars and motorcycles in the United States of America from the 1950s through today....

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