Working in the automotive industry, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked what got me interested in cars, particularly the hot rod scene. Maybe this is because fewer females are interested in the industry, or maybe at a mere 25 years old I seem a bit out of place ogling over customs, rat rods, and such. But no matter what the reason for it, the question has brought about plenty of discussion and has resulted in really getting to know the people of this hobby, regardless of which hot rod subculture they prefer.
I will admit, I started out in the industry primarily focused on performance cars, American muscle, and anything that could compete for titles like “World’s Fastest Production Car.” But over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that modern isn’t necessarily where all the heart is.
Sure, designers, engineers, and countless enthusiasts put their hearts into creating and maintaining the next performance machines – but if you’re looking for a diehard culture that, though it has changed and grown over the years, still maintains its original integrity, hot rod culture would win ten times over. It is this, along with the various ways that all generations of enthusiasts have been able to enjoy the culture, that makes the hot rod scene what it is today, and admittedly, what has led to my self-proclamation of being a hot rod kind of gal.
Growing up, I viewed the flame-lined, short-statured, unique pieces of rolling hot rod artwork found at shows as the kind of cars older generations would prefer. Little did I know then, that these magnificent machines have not only spawned enthusiasm from all generations, they have also become the epitome of fixtures in my dream garage.
So what makes the hot rod scene so appealing to all different generations? Well, it comes down to two things – the heritage and the flexibility which the hot rod scene possesses to fit everyone’s needs and interests. So let’s take a look at what being a hot rod enthusiast is all about.
The Start of a Culture
Hot rod culture dates back to the early 1930s when enthusiasts started modifying their cars and racing them on dry lake beds and beaches near Los Angeles under the direction of the Southern California Timing Association. Modified to reduce weight, the original hot rods were typically vintage Ford Model Ts, Model As and Model Bs. These cars were quite often channeled, relieved of excess pieces like hoods and windshields, and given a proper engine tune or different block all together to increase their power output.
After World War II, the hot rod scene became a grander affair, attracting men returning from the military with the know-how to greatly improve their cars and the craving to have a bit of fun. This increase in the culture’s popularity also brought about the use of abandoned military bases and other such venues for organized drag racing, as well as the formation of many companies and organizations that catered to the hot rod scene, including the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA).
By the 1960s, hot rods were progressively being replaced by street rods, or hot rods that were a bit more driver friendly and less about quarter-mile times. From there, many subcultures emerged and continue to mold the modern hot rod scene to this day.
So what did the evolution of hot rod culture leave us? Well, many things. Not only do we have an enormous amount of unique vehicle fashions, we also have distinct cultures that surround each one.
To start our tour of hot rod subcultures, we’ll start with traditional hot rods. These, unlike any others in the scene, are built using many original parts. In doing so, builders stick with the customary body lines and parts that were popular in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.
While many people claim to own a “hot rod,” the truth is that fewer and fewer people are actually sticking with this unique and classic art form for their vehicles modifications.
Within the traditional hot rod scene, there are a few subcultures, one of which is the speedster culture which revolves primarily around the first vintage one or two-seater race cars. Typically powered by a four-cylinder engine, these amazing vehicles give us a look back at how the beloved sport of racing started. And although it’s a dying breed, companies like Speedway Motors still cater to these once advanced racing machines, holding events and even maintaining a museum in their honor.
Another subculture within the traditional hot rod scene is that of the “greasers.” We’ve all seen the movie Grease, and ironically enough, the whole theme surrounding the 1950s and 60s culture portrayed is coming back in force.
Named such for the slicked back hairstyles sported by many young men in this subculture, greaser culture features a unique form of dress, hairstyle, artwork, and vehicle choice, such as motorcycles and lead sleds.
Defining an era, most of the vehicles in this subculture maintain a mild paint scheme, featuring things like matte body colors and other “unfinished” type of finishes, while some feature more vibrant flame jobs.
Although certainly not everyone’s idea of the perfect hot rod subculture, the greaser style and everything that it brings has been once again embodied by our younger generations.
Street Rods and the Pro-Touring Movement
In the 1960s, the hot rod scene took a deliberate turn from traditional hot rods to street rods. Rather than vehicles primarily used for racing, street rods were meant to be driven more than a quarter mile at a time. It is this scene that encompasses so much of hot rod culture today.
Built with new and improved parts, street rods typically feature modern-built engines, upgraded brakes and suspension systems, pristine paint jobs, and cushy interiors. Most customs fit into this subculture, as do show rods, classic Detroit cars, and pro-street rods (rods featuring giant engines and large rear tires). In order to be considered a street rod, the vehicle must be of a pre-1950 model year.
In addition to the street rods that are cruised and enjoyed regularly at shows there are street rods that bridge into the pro-touring movement. These cars, in addition to features added for show-and-shine attention, are built to compete in autocross and other pro-touring competitions. Headed by a younger generation, the pro-touring style street rod culture is of the mindset that enjoying your car is all about driving the hell out of it, and boy do they ever.
Rat rod culture also encompasses this ideal of using and abusing your vehicle to your heart’s content, except with these vehicles, we’re not talking about fancy paint jobs or luxury interiors to worry about most of the time.
Built to resemble old jalopies, rat rods are works of art like no other in the hot rod scene, which feature materials, components and ideas that don’t traditionally appear on regular hot rods or street rods.
Typically of a natural patina, rat rods are one of the most distinct genres of hot rod culture that people love or hate. But regardless of your opinion on the rat rod form, there is no denying the work and technique put into creating these one-of-a-kind vehicles (sure, some are better than others in the execution arena). If nothing else, rat rod culture is truly the way to branch into the scene on a shoe-string budget.
Another hot rod subculture that has gained popularity recently is the practice of taking “undesirable” cars and making them into show pieces. While the hot rod scene is ripe with hallmark cars (T-buckets, Model As, ‘32 three-windows, etc.), not as many of these prime hot rod examples are available anymore, and if they are, they’re befitting of a budget far bigger than those just branching into the industry can afford.
That’s why you’ll find more and more four-door, mom and pop sedans being converted into traveling pieces of artwork. They may not be your grandfather’s hot rods, or even your father’s, but the point of hot rod culture is self expression and vehicle enjoyment, and with these new additions to the scene, more and more generations are finding their true passion in the hot rod scene.
While the rat rod and “undesirables” have become more and more popular recently, a subculture that made its appearance first in the 1940s has remained popular. Of course, we’re talking about lowriders. While this subculture stereotypically encompasses bouncing 60s, 70s and 80s vehicles, more and more people are making lowriders out of their street rods.
After all, what more could you want than a vintage street rod that can be slammed to the ground while parked, but rise to proper ride height to overcome obstacles like speed bumps and potholes found on our roadways today? Plus, with interiors and exteriors ranging from the mild to wild, the lowrider community offers something for just about everyone’s taste, allowing for a greater diversity in cars and enthusiasts.
Speaking of diversity, being a female in the industry myself, I find stories of women in the hot rod community especially inspiring. That’s because most of these women overcame great odds and ridicule back in the day to become the fixtures in the community they are today.
Females like Mendy Fry aka Nitro Kitty (daughter of the late Ron Fry, famous NHRA driver and member of the “Nostalgia Top Fuel 250mph Club”), Jo Coddington (all-around car gal and hot rod enthusiast who eventually married Boyd Coddington and helped rebuild Coddington’s business ventures and reputation before his death), and Angie Johnson (dedicated gearhead, partner in Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop, and 2012 Goodguys Woman of the Year award winner), just to name a few, should be seen as prominent players in the industry. Unfortunately, even searching for women hot rodders or female hot rod builders online will more times than not take you to pages of pin-up girls and scantily clad females sprawled over the hoods of cars.
While we won’t pretend females have inundated the industry, there are more to females in the hot rod industry than traditional car models. Just like everyone’s taste is different, females see, build and enjoy hot rods differently, bringing a unique force to hot rod culture and should therefore be proud and widely accepted additions to the hot rod scene.
Hot rod culture is defined by many subcultures, but more than that, it’s defined by the very people who whole-heartedly dedicate themselves to the scene.
Whether you’re just starting in the industry or a long-time member, the hot rod world offers something for every taste, walk of life and budget. The only thing you have to decide is where you fit in best!