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Hot rods earned their infamous reputation thanks to youngsters (or hellraisers, as respectable, law-abiding folk used to call them) who thought any place was a good place to race. But the love of street rodding goes deeper than fast cars, grudge races and pink slips. It’s more about preserving the past and never forgetting where we came from.
This is terribly awkward. For some time now, I’ve felt the urge to come clean about an “affair of the heart” I’ve been involved in since … well, since several years before I married Bobbi, my wife of 32 years. Not that Bobbi’s taken a back seat, you understand. I love her with all my heart. But surely you’ll agree with my reasoning concerning this arrangement. Actually, only those of you who’ve been where I’ve been and seen what I’ve seen will understand. But hear me out.
Bobbi and I – and my other “significant other” – have worked out an amiable understanding that allows us all to co-exist in relative harmony. And to her credit, Bobbi has exhibited great tolerance concerning my weakness – even to the point, occasionally, that she admits genuine admiration for this ravishing beauty.
It all started innocently enough. Before Bobbi came into my life, there was this … shall I say … “object of my affection,” who subtly allured me during my impressionable early teens. A tantalizingly smooth lady of the streets whose charms totally captivated me … body, frame and lug nuts.
This charmer’s name is “Street Rod,” and through the years, I’ve only become more enamored by the stateliness of her rigid grille, her large, sensuous headlights, the appealingly graceful, gently flowing curves of her perfectly appointed body, the playful sparkle in her chrome, the impeccably tasteful color of her complexion and the throbbing pulsation of her engine – begging to be run hard, pedal to the metal.
OK, OK, I’ll get a grip. But at least allow me to explain.
An Affair To Remember
Once street rods get under your skin, they burrow in deep and don’t let go. In my case, this affair began years before the term street rod was a twitch in some maturing hot rodder’s gray matter. A neighbor, piecing together a ’32 Ford two-door sedan, opened his home to my younger brother and me to spend countless hours pouring over his collection of “Hop-Up” and “Hot Rod” magazines and envying the model-car collection he’d assembled over the years.
Like mine, his wife was very understanding, seemingly never bothered when we urchins invaded their small home to dream and drool our way through those musty old dog-eared car magazines. (When the weather is right, “Jug” and Joan still occasionally fire up that same old Deuce Ford with the warmed-over flathead V8, load their grandkids into the back seat and cruise around in the car that fueled the imagination of two teenage boys into a life-long love of street rods that has since drawn my kids.)
Folks who can’t comprehend cars being more than a mere means of conveyance have asked me what it is about old cars that turns me on. (I love ’em all but I love street rods with a passion.) In all honesty, I don’t know. Possibly it’s a subconscious fascination with the past. I get the same twitchy-tingly feeling deep inside from the sight of an old car or truck that I get from the sight and scent of certain old, musty books I’ve collected and from building stained-glass windows. (It’s virtually the same irresistible tingly feeling that thoughts of Bobbi still evoke in me – though she’s not old or musty or stained, of course). Ê
When I was 17, during Christmas break from high school, a friend and I drove his dad’s pickup to Roy, Mont., (named after someone named Roy or Leroy, I suppose) to bring home a truckload of Model T parts from his uncle’s place. I went along because I was interested in a 1934 Ford Sedan his uncle was willing to part with for $100. Through the cracked and weathered boards of the crumbling barn holding it hostage, winter sunlight filtering past missing roof shakes, I first glimpsed the sedan, sitting in dejected obscurity for 20-plus years. It was one of the most enticing sights my young mind had ever had the pleasure of seeing. To this day, though I can’t be trusted to remember to remove a cake from the oven, even with the timer blaring, I still remember everything about seeing that sedan for the first time. It was a surreal sight – a complete 1934 Ford sedan with disintegrated roof fabric, covered with inches of dust accumulated over its many years of incarceration. I still get goose bumps recalling that scene more than 35 years ago.
Hot Rods and Hellraisers: The Early Years
Like trying to chart the universe, the scope of rodding is far too broad to be contained by hard and fast rules, much less by words that fittingly define the sport/hobby. With emotionless deference, Mr. Webster (who obviously never owned one) gave it his best, curt shot by mentioning the term “hot rod” was in general use by 1945, referring to “an automobile rebuilt or modified for high speed and fast acceleration.”
If you’re inclined to believe we’re a product of the company we keep, you might find it interesting that Webster’s “hot rod” definition is sandwiched between “hot pursuit” (“… close continuous pursuit of a fleeing suspected lawbreaker”) and “hots” (“… a strong sexual desire É as in he (or she) has ‘the hots’ “).
Make whatever you want of that trivia, but modifying motorized vehicles for better speed and performance has been the name of the game since just after the first internal-combustion engine was suspended by its heels and slapped sharply on the rear. And early-times performance improvements were discovered more by trial and error than by calculated engineering.
Despite Mr. Webster’s definition, the term “hot rod” was more of a loose definition often uttered with a spate of disdain by respectable folks when referring to the cobbled efforts of a growing number of young hellraisers who thought any place was a good place to race. Generally speaking, early hot rods were old cars modified so as to gain power-to-weight superiority and to reduce wind resistance. Meaning that a lot of fenders, running boards, headlights and other such encumbrances went by the wayside. More often than not, early hot rods were of questionable structural integrity, with little to no thought put into
Before World War II, young service station “wrenches” and others were known to pit their mechanical skills by street/grudge racing under cover of darkness, much to the anger and bewilderment of law-abiding citizens and local gendarme, whose squad cars were seldom a match for this early generation of devil-may-care drivers and their stripped-down rods.
The war effort pressed many of these rodders into overseas duty in military vehicle maintenance battalions, where they learned new speed tricks from one another. With their return to civilian life and muster-out pay sufficient to resume their quest for the ultimate speed machine on a grander scale, many took up hot rodding where they’d left off – at street racing. Only this time their rods were hotter and faster.
The result was a new breed of testosterone-rich, often incorrigible hot rodders generally viewed as a plague to decent society and law enforcement, as portrayed in songs like “Hot Rod Lincoln” and after-the-fact movies such as “Hot Rods To Hell” and “Thunder Road” and, later yet, “American Graffiti.”
As is often true, though there were hot rodders who built safe cars and drove them sensibly, the general public tended to view them all with the same jaundiced eye that still equates Harleys with Hells Angels.
Creating a Gentler, Kinder Reputation
Somewhere around the mid- to late 1940s, perceiving that the urge to speed wouldn’t go away on its own accord, someone hit on the bright idea of converting abandoned B-17 and B-29 bomber practice runways into drag strips where hot rodders could put on smoke shows, pitting their mechanical skills in a relatively safe, contained environment. The idea eventually caught on, and incidents of reckless street racing, though not completely eliminated, were considerably reduced.
Still, the stigma remained … and remained. Even efforts by the National Hot Rod Association to clean up the besmirched past of hot rodding in the early ’70s couldn’t change the public’s perception.
Like a new coat of shine over its tainted and tarnished history, the National Street Rod Association (NSRA) was formed to distance a certain segment of the hobby from its often unsavory hot rod past. And the NSRA was determined to bring about a new direction and new respect for the hot rod/street rod world.
Realizing they could still have their rod – and drive it too – by showing respect for law enforcement and courtesy to other drivers, car club members and “lone wolf” rodders began cleaning up their act. Many even went out of their way to assist stranded motorists and to get involved positively in their communities.
Creating a Sculpture on Wheels
Since money was more available for building safer and more attractive (and painted, no less) street rods than in the past, the visual image of the sport improved, making them more acceptable in the public eye. Today, though many fine street rods have been built for far less, the average street rod costs somewhere in the $30,000 range to build, with some professionally built rods in the half-million-plus range.
But money doesn’t make a street rod or its owner a street rodder any more than clothes make the man. Street rodding is, among other things, a state of mind. And whether you look at nationality, ethnicity, financial status, profession, age or gender, there are few, if any, orders of society that haven’t been bitten, and bitten hard, by the street rod bug.
If there is such thing as an “average” street rod today, it shares little in common with those that cruised the streets and high school parking lots of decades past (though I wouldn’t trade those old memories for the world). A vast performance industry has since flourished to meet the needs of virtually any and every vehicle that street rodders rescue from countless dingle-berry bushes, river bottoms and old barns. And lots of street rods today are at least as sound as many of the vehicles Detroit cranks out – and some more so. Many of today’s street rods are assembled from the best of OEM products and others from top-quality aftermarket takeoffs.
These hot rods sport anything from Jaguar suspension to Chevy front frame clip to independent, tube or I-beam front axle, to three-on-the-tree or four-on-the-floor with a mystery shifter (the mystery being which gear you’d end up in). Others offer conventional steering with drum juice binders, power rack-and-pinion steering with four-wheel power discs and anything from single carburetors to multiple to huffers/blowers to Hilborn injection to TPI to blower/injection systems.
Terms like chopped, channeled, sectioned, raked, nosed, decked, shaved, slammed, tubbed and frenched are among the many that describe changes rodders routinely make in setting their cars apart from mainline automobilia. Some would stun you with perks from original-issue cowl-vent fresh-air systems to compact aftermarket A/C units capable of chilling a polar bear.
They may have anything from bone-stock mohair or wool upholstery, to the finest-quality molded cloth and leather available. Others offer anything from two-knobber-jobber radios to highly amplified surround-sound systems capable of blowing your socks off. And, like frosting on the cake, all are topped off with body and paint work from just plain sealer to four-stage pearl to multi-colors, to scallops, flames, splash and beyond.
Many street rods are self-propelled sculptures displaying every bit of the talent, imagination and creativity of the owner and/or builder as the beautiful sculptures on display in museums. Street rods are limited only by their builder’s imagination. To name a few, there are:
- Resto-rods or sleepers, which look original on the outside, but are anything but original under the hood;
- Nostalgia rods, which resemble the hot rods of the past. These are sometimes finished in black sealer, with wide whitewalls, reverse-painted steel wheels, salt-discs, spinner or flipper wheel covers, a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror, a lady luck shift knob, and springs – upholstery covered with blankets;
- Techy pro-built turn-key rods.
- Lead sleds.
- Highboys (fenderless).
- Millions of labor-of-love rods that, though they may never take a trophy or win public recognition, are unabashedly the pride and joy of the build-it-and-drive-it street rod set. In my eye, these are the purest form of street rodders/hot rodders and the true heart and soul of the hobby.
But the beauty of street rodding is that it appeals to each rodder on his or her own personal level. And as long as I like what I’ve built and what I drive, who cares what others may think.
What Makes a Street Rodder Tick
If you aren’t the old-car type, right now you’re probably saying, “This guy’s a fruitcake! How could anyone in his right mind get excited over the sight of a has-been hulk of an old car, covered in dust and resting on flat tires?”
To this I can only respond by saying that I guess it’s all a matter of perspective: What you may view as landfill, I see as a worthwhile project with great potential – a long-term challenge that will yield a finished product often more stunningly beautiful than when it rolled off the showroom floor.
And I’m not alone. Thousands of others out there, from restorer to street rodder, get just as excited as I do over such metal masterpieces, albeit in the rough, and view them as being just as valid a part of history as your family heirlooms.
Still, if you asked me what makes a street rodder tick, I’d have to admit I don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s the thumbs up (especially from bikers and truckers) that street rods constantly evoke from passing motorists. Or the honk and wave or headlight flashing routine. Maybe it’s the thrill of seeing every second or third driver wrench his neck to get a better glimpse as we pass by. It could be just a pride trip, and nothing more. Or maybe it’s our way of protesting this present era of cars that practically drive themselves, are virtually indistinguishable from one another and have absolutely no personality, no beautiful, flowing lines, no defining character, no intrinsic lasting value and will never, ever, be precious enough to warrant future restoration.
Or maybe it’s the thoughtful comment, like the one I received several years ago from a well-dressed older gentleman who approached our rods at a roadside rest stop as we were returning from a 2,000-mile rod run. Our two cars were matted with a wide range of California bugs and road grime and streaked head to toe from an Oregon rainstorm we’d just driven through. This admirer walked around them, carefully making mental note of each and every detail. He then asked a few questions – where we’d been, where we were going – before mentioning with a warm, knowing smile that in his younger days, he, too, had owned several hot rods. Then, as if in benediction just before he turned to leave, he said, “Thank you for keeping these beautiful old cars on the road for the rest of us to admire and to remember when.”
And to me, that’s what street rodding is all about.
Writer Dick Strom and wife Bobbi own and operate Modern Collision Rebuild, a 10,000-square-foot shop, in Bainbridge Island, Wash. E-mail Strom at [email protected]