Body Styles: What Is A Jalopy And Where Did The Term Come From?

Jalopy racing was popular from the 1930s through the 1960s. Photo from www.pinterest.com.

Jalopy is a term that has been used since the 1920s and popularized in all forms of media as evidenced by the car that comic book character Archie drove his pals around in Riverdale. Archie’s jalopy became so famous that it was featured on lunch boxes and comics. The Jalopy even had a model made after itself by Marx Toys.

It (Jalopies) actually hurt my career in a way.      – Parnelli Jones

Author John Steinbeck called these beat up cars “gillopy” in the book In Dubious Battle, published in 1936. Beat generation writer Jack Kerouac made many references to Jalopy in his award winning novel about loss and search for something to hold on to, On The Road, written in the late 1940s. Jalopies featured prominently throughout these stories.

What Is A Jalopy?

So … what exactly is a Jalopy? As the Great Depression took over the country, the market for cheap transportation grew. Some car dealerships made their bones by selling beat up cars for very little money. American automobiles had been created at such a rapid rate in the roaring 20s that second hand cars were often shipped to Canada and Mexico, both nations lacking the same auto production as the United States. Many of these cars were put on ships and transported to Mexico’s port in the state of Veracruz, then transported to the capital of the state, Jalapa.

Archie’s Jalopy even had its own model kit.

Upon arriving in Jalapa, these cars were repaired and sold into the Mexican market. These shiploads happened so frequently that the ship clerks and dock workers began calling these cars by a slang name: Jalapas. In time this slang eventually morphed into Jalopies. These beat up cars became the poor man’s transport and were often called Jalopy, no matter their make and model.

The famous Jalopy was even featured on the Archies’ lunch box.

In Hot Rod Culture

Early hot rodders also picked up these Jalopies which became the base for a new form of racing, Jalopy racing. This form of racing became so popular in the 1950s that it was televised in the LA area. In no time at all, the Jalopies earned a place in popular racing culture. Parnelli Jones and other racers in the Gasoline Alley area of Torrance/Gardena became stars.

We asked Parnelli what it was like to race in the Jalopy races. “We had as many as 200 cars show up to qualify for a main event that was maybe 16 cars. So you had to fight for every inch you got,” said Jones. “It actually hurt my career in a way. I learned how to go fast but not for long. Y’know, that take care of your equipment sort of thing. Kinda like a quarter-horse. Full bore out of the shoot instead of pacing yourself like a thoroughbred.”

The days of building a championship racecar from a junker is all but gone, but we can still look back at the days when junkyard cars were souped up enough to race against 200 other cars, with the winners looking worse in the end than some of the cars that failed to advance. The ones that were still running at the end of the event came back the next day or went on to become fodder for the Mexican junkyards.

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
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