Monday, May 25, 2009

History of Hot Rods & Customs

The timeline for hot rods and custom cars starts before World War II. Teens itching to tinker with cars and go fast were racing cheap Ford Model Ts on Southern California's dry lakes and street racing in Los Angeles even in the 1920s. The Harper, Muroc, and El Mirage dry lakes -- all 50 or so miles north of Los Angeles -- saw racing activity from the '20s up to World War II. Racing at El Mirage continues today.

This hot rod, called the Elvis Car because it was The King's ride in the 1957 movie Loving You, started out as a Model A Ford

Speed junkies could jump in their hopped-up, chopped-down Model Ts and be at one of the dry lakes in less than three hours. Or, if the need was urgent, they could find a deserted back road or open field. At the lakes, the cars were timed with handheld stopwatches and placed in a class determined by the resultant time.

The vast majority of the cars being run were four-cylinder Ford Model Ts or their successor, the four-cylinder Model A. The cars were cheap, plentiful, lightweight, and easy to work on. They responded to simple "hop ups" like higher compression, ignition and timing adjustments, additional carburetors, and more radical cam grinds.

The drill was fairly simple: Buy the nicest roadster you could find (because roadsters were the lightest); strip off everything not needed to go fast, like the fenders, headlights, hood, and top; find some cheap used tires to replace your bald ones or to mount over your existing tires for a little extra tread; and go racing.

Paul Chappel's Speed Shop on San Fernando Road in Los Angeles and Bell Auto Supply in neighboring Bell were the first stores in the country devoted exclusively to supplying speed parts for those who wanted to run with the fast pack. Performance parts included high-compression heads, exotic overhead-cam conversions, and radical cams (also called "sticks").

The Ford flathead V-8 was born in 1932 and with it a new opportunity to go fast. Though slow to be accepted by hot rodders, more 65- and 85-horsepower flathead V-8s found their way into junkyards as the '30s progressed and thus began the transformation from four-bangers to flatheads. Also released in 1932 were the lightweight '32 Ford or "Deuce" frame and roadster body. The combination was unbeatable in terms of performance potential and looks. To this day, a flathead-powered Deuce roadster is the quintessential hot rod. That engine and frame combination would also provide an excellent foundation for many types of bodies, or sometimes hardly any body at all.

As interest in racing grew, kids began to try out their "gow jobs" more often on public streets. What was mostly good, clean fun could get ugly -- and it often did. "Speed contests," as the police called them, were occurring with greater frequency and more dire consequences. Casualties were described in detail in local newspapers, branding the hot rodder as a social menace requiring increasing control or, better yet, elimination.

More hot rodders were finding the dry lakes a safer, less public alternative to racing on the streets. But this "detour" was having its own problems. Multiple casualties were reportedly occurring during the middle of the night on the dark racing courses of the dry lakes. Hot rodders ran unmonitored, without thinking that a like-minded racer could be coming from the other direction. The result was sometimes catastrophic.

Help was on the way, though. In 1937, the Southern California Timing Association was formed. The SCTA formalized classes, developed more sophisticated timing systems, and made racing safer and more organized. Then, in 1941, a monthly publication called Throttle Magazine was created to track racing results, feature some of the better cars, and report on new safety and speed issues. The scene was starting to gel, but after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. became involved in World War II, hot rodding would have to wait.

The custom car craze also began before WWII. In fact, its roots go back even further -- to before World War I. Individualizing or "customizing" cars was popular with the well-heeled in the U.S. and Europe as far back as the development of the automobile. The most expensive cars of the 1920s, like Duesenbergs and Rolls-Royces, could be purchased as chassis only, to be custom-bodied by the shop or "coachbuilder" of the owner's choice.

Coachbuilders had actually been established in the late 1800s to build custom bodies for horse-drawn carriages. With the development of the automobile, shops such as Brewster, Hibbard and Darrin, and LeBaron (Dietrich) in New York; and Bohman & Schwartz, Coachcraft, Earl Automobile Works, and Don Lee Cadillac in Southern California, were building bodies for high-end cars.

Some rather flamboyant automobiles were created from those stock Duesenbergs, Hispano-Suizas, Packards, and Pierce-Arrows for Hollywood actors such as Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and Clark Gable. With their long, low proportions and ostentatious styling, these custom cars went beyond the coachbuilders' typical stately and elegant offerings. They demanded attention wherever they rolled.

The desire to have a standout automobile among the moneyed Hollywood elite filtered down to lesser actors and others who were not as wealthy but had just as much desire to drive unique cars. As dictated by income, their custom cars of choice tended to be less-expensive production cars like Fords, Mercurys, DeSotos, and Studebakers. With chrome emblems removed, fake pipes leading from the hood sides to the fenders, padded convertible tops, and "flipper" hubcaps, these relatively common cars took on a unique, expensive, custom look.

How Hot Rods and Custom Cars Became Popular

As the 1940s began, the hot rod and custom car fad continued to trickle down to car enthusiasts throughout the Los Angeles area. Now it involved older used cars that were transformed into "mystery cars" through sometimes minor, sometimes major body modifications. But it remained a relatively small and localized fad before many of the participants in this trend were called into service in WWII.

Southern California wasn't the only place you could get custom car work done. As early as the late 1930s, Harry Westergard was customizing '36 Ford cabriolets and coupes out of his home garage in the Northern California city of Sacramento. Westergard chopped tops, incorporated grilles from more expensive cars like Packards and LaSalles, formed custom hoods, and lowered suspensions. He also shaved door handles, then added Buick solenoids to open the doors.

Harry Westergard created cutting-edge fadeaway fenders for his 1940 Mercury custom car.

Westergard would forever perpetuate the art of customizing through his influence on locals Dick Bertolucci and especially George and Sam Barris -- all of whom started performing custom bodywork in the 1940s. George Barris worked for Westergard for a while, but then moved to SoCal and opened his own shop in '44. Sam Barris joined his brother in '46, and together they built what would become the most famous custom shop of all time. Meanwhile, Bertolucci started out of his father's garage in '48.

While the Barris brothers had both NorCal and SoCal ties, Los Angeles had other customizers of its own. Jimmy Summers had been doing pioneering custom car work on more pedestrian production cars out of his Melrose Avenue shop since the 1930s, as had Roy Hagy from his Hagy's Streamline Shop on Vermont.

Also on Vermont was none other than the Carson Top Shop, which created the iconic padded Carson top in 1935. Link Paola was doing typical custom car work just east of Los Angeles in the Montrose/Glendale area, as were the Bistagne Brothers.

By the end of the decade, Gil and Al Ayala were doing custom body work and paint from their East Los Angeles shop on Olympic Boulevard, and Bill Gaylord was customizing bodies and upholstery from his Lynwood shop. Even racing legend Frank Kurtis did custom work in L.A. between his racing activities.

Though any car was fodder for the customizer's torch, the popular choices were Fords and Mercurys from 1935 through the current models. Typical modifications involved trim removal; lowering the body by cutting or heating the springs; adding glass-pack mufflers to get that "burble" sound; frenching headlights; rounding the corners of the doors, hood, and trunk; chopping the top; and sectioning the body.

Custom cars were usually finished with white tuck and roll interiors, deep dark lacquer paint jobs, and a choice of wheelcovers that included aftermarket "spinners" or production-car items like Cadillac "sombreros."

Custom cars from this era, ranging to about 1955, are considered to be the really classic examples of the genre. As customizing grew in popularity in the mid '50s, the cars started to receive baroque modifications with the introduction of dual and/or canted headlights, complicated trim, and scoops and vents anywhere from the quarter panels to the hood.

Customizing of the late 1940s and early '50s was about integrating the separate fenders and tops into the body, eliminating the little trim pieces like badges and head- and taillight surrounds, and giving a car a simple, singular look as opposed to the stock appearance that could look like a bunch of different components bolted together.

Two things happened to spread the gospel of hot rods and custom cars during World War II. First, many servicemen were filtered through California on their journey to the Pacific. There, they witnessed firsthand America's car-culture capital, with its unique customs and stripped down hot rods ripping through the streets. It must have left quite an impression on many.

Second, many GIs from Southern California spread information and pictures of hot cars to any soldier with time to spare. The racing and cruising activities must have seemed cool and exciting to any young soldier. Simple exposure must have been enough to spark the interest of young soldiers.

So once the seed was planted, it had to be nurtured, and for that we can thank Robert "Pete" Petersen and Hot Rod magazine, which came on to the scene in 1948.

After the war, the economy boomed. Young veterans had a bulletproof attitude after facing the horrors of combat, and they now found themselves with excesses of time and money, along with mechanical skills learned in the service. The postwar energy helped hot rodding and customizing grow more than it ever had in Southern California, and Hot Rod spread the word nationwide.

Hot Rod picked up where Throttle left off, the latter never returning after its one-year run in 1941. The fledgling magazine touched on all aspects of the car-enthusiast arena, covering hot rods, custom cars, drag racing, and even circle-track racing.

Hot Rod also informed readers about the latest speed equipment, and taught them how to perform engine and body modifications. Hot Rod was in a good position to promote safety, and to help organize early drag racing and car shows, all of which helped promote and organize hot rodding itself. Speed-parts manufacturers and custom and performance shops had a place to advertise. It was a win-win situation for all involved.

As the end of the 1940s approached, hot rods and custom cars were poised to become not just a trend but a lifestyle. Postwar adolescents were discovering the freedom and social significance of driving a unique automobile on the streets of Downtown, USA.

As we will see in the next section, many of the styles and innovations born in the '40s and refined in the '50s would forever change the way automotive enthusiasts spend their free time and present themselves to the outside world.

The 1950s: The Golden Age of the Hot Rod and Custom Car

It's a summertime Saturday night in the 1950s, and the Southern California suburbs are hopping with hot rods. In the San Fernando Valley just north of L.A., ex-GIs are bent over their crude roadsters doing last-minute checks before heading out at midnight to one of the dry lake beds east of Los Angeles.

Their goal is to be first in line for the heads-up racing that starts at dawn. Soon they'll aim their headlights for the excitement of speed and the camaraderie that goes with running the straight, dusty courses. But first, a few of them conduct impromptu light-to-light races down San Fernando Road to check out the clutch and size up the competition.

In 1952, Dr. Leland Wetzel had this '32 Ford roadster equipped with a Ford flathead V-8 engine.

Over in the bedroom communities of Lakewood, Lynwood, and Compton a few miles west of L.A., cruisers in their late teens and early 20s are "drive-in hopping." It's a ritual that takes off from The Clock drive-in in Bellflower, then heads down Pacific Coast Highway to The Clock on Sepulveda in Culver City, over to Tiny Naylor's in Hollywood, onto the freeway to Toluca Lake and Bob's Big Boy, over to Bob's in Pasadena, a straight shot west to Nixon's on Whittier Boulevard, and finally back to The Clock in Bellflower.

For those low on gas money, there's always cruising the boulevard. Chopped 1949 ­Mercs dressed in either in dark, organic colors or multihued primer, roadsters and coupes with hopped-up flatheads, and groups of buddies in dad's four-door sedan drive up and down Bellflower and Whittier boulevards slowing for girls, friends, and maybe even a short stoplight race. It's all in the name of blowing off steam.

The drive-ins play host to a traveling circus of "show boats" flaunting their polished custom cars. These hangouts are perfect for setting up some side-by-side racing along Sepulveda Boulevard or over by the oil derricks outside Whittier in Santa Fe Springs. Drive-ins all over Southern California are the social-activity "command centers" for the hot rod and custom car culture.

Occasionally, street racing accidents end up on the front page of the Orange County Register in grisly detail. There is safer, organized racing in Orange County, too. It's the abandoned airstrip, which is considered the first organized drag racing venue in the country -- Santa Ana Dragstrip.

It's the golden age of the hot rod and custom car, and Southern California is the place to be. Decades from now, these scenes will be relived and recreated thousands of times. Hot rods and customs from this period will be revered, copied, and restored to preserve for all time this magical era in automotive history.

It could only happen now, under these circumstances, only in this place, only for a while. It is the convergence of many factors, tangible and intangible.

How had World War II contributed to this phenomenon?

World War II Vets, Hot Rods, and Custom Cars

Why the hot rod and custom car craze came about had much to do with what was happening on this side of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but also a lot to do with what lay beyond them. World War II changed the world and laid the foundation for the American car-crazy phenomenon that exploded in the 1950s.

Once the hostilities in Europe and Asia had ceased, those lucky enough to make it back wanted to enjoy living the way they couldn't while serving Uncle Sam. Finally home, ex-GIs couldn't get enough of cool cars, all-American burgers and fries, and the girl next door who had grown up since they left. Building a hot rod or custom car was a method of self-expression, and for many, the cars provided the means for the social life they desired.

Many GIs also found it hard to let go of the adrenaline rush of enemy action. Something inside them yearned for a little bit of that thrill, but without the potential wartime consequences. Getting behind the wheel of a cool hot rod or custom car fulfilled those conscious and unconscious desires. And with many coming back from the war with some money saved and a job waiting, they had the means to acquire what they wanted.

Also consider that young car enthusiasts were presented with a broadening array of speed and customizing equipment, new-car offerings, and magazines that hadn't been available before the war. Hot Rod magazine had been around since 1948, but Motor Trend, Car Craft, Hop Up, and Rod & Custom also sprang up in the early '50s, spreading the word about new products and the cars people were modifying.

The venerable flathead V-8, the engine of choice for hot rodders, was still around, but it had evolved and found its way under the hood of what many consider to be the quintessential custom car: the 1949-51 Mercury.

Wally Welch chopped a 1950 Mercury coupe to create this custom car masterpiece.

These Mercurys were the final evolution of the low fender, high beltline school of design. The new 1947 Studebakers, '48 Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, and '49 Fords and Chevys all raised their fenders in line with their beltlines, forever changing automobile design. These cars laid the groundwork for the radical Chrysler, GM, and Ford products of 1955 that would incorporate an uninterrupted body without fender, hood, or trunk definition.

The 1949-51 Mercurys at least partially held on to the earlier body design language, making them familiar to customizers, and therefore popular as modern versions of the old school of design. This resulted in some of the most memorable custom cars of all time.

Many of the famous Mercs were created, or at least updated, at the Barris brothers' shop in the early to mid 1950s. They included the '49 coupes of Sam Barris, Louis Bettancourt, and Jerry Quesnel; the '50 coupes owned by Buddy Alcorn and Wally Welch; Ralph Testa's '50 convertible; the '51 coupes of Dave Bugarin, Bob Hirohata, and Frank Sonzogni; and Freddy Rowe's '51 convertible.

It is a short list to be sure, especially when you consider that this small group of Mercury custom cars influenced such a large contingent of custom car aficionados that have loved these cars ever since. Imagine the impact they must have had when they were first introduced to the world in the early 1950s.

Meanwhile, for hot rodders, the Russetta Timing Association, established in 1948, and the Southern California Timing Association, which had formed in '37, were still holding speed events at the SoCal dry lakes. Classes were established based on characteristics such as a car's weight, body style, aerodynamics, engine displacement, and number of cylinders.

For those who wanted to go even faster, racing on the vast salt flats at Bonneville in Southern Utah was catching on. The first National Speed Trials for hot rodders was held there in '49, and participants liked the longer runs and faster times.

While Russetta and the SCTA had given structure to the dry lakes, it was becoming apparent that a body was needed to organize, monitor, and sanction the heads-up racing called "drag racing." Hot Rod magazine and its editor Wally Parks, under the auspices of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), stepped up to fill the void. Wally founded and became the first president of the NHRA in 1951, all the while handling his editorial chores at Hot Rod.

The NHRA's mantra was to get it off the streets and race safely at an organized dragstrip. Wally eventually left Petersen Publishing Company (Hot Rod's publisher) in 1963 due to the increasing demand for his time at the NHRA.

The NHRA brought respectability to a sport that some viewed as dangerous and even rebellious. In the next section, learn more about hot rod "attitude" and custom car clubs.

Hot Rod Organizations and Custom Car Clubs

In the 1950s, the formation of hot rod organizations like the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was an important step toward respectability, but much work needed to be done. When night fell and cruisers gathered at the drive-ins, the scene often became loud and rowdy, and sometimes got out of control.

This caused concern for city fathers, police, and neighboring residents. Street racing was a frequent occurrence, and so were accidents. It was illegal, dangerous, exciting, and fun -- a sure cocktail for disaster. But this wasn't the only thing drawing the ire of parents and the constabulary.

Some hot rodders and custom car owners adopted a look, brought back with them from the war. They wore leather jackets, blue jeans, and T-shirts with cigarette packs rolled into sleeves. It has become a cliché, but at the time it was meant to convey an antisocial, edgy distinction from what was acceptable. The look was part of the point of the whole hot rod and custom car phenomenon: To create a different lifestyle for adolescents from that of their parents. It was teenage rebellion. It was the beginning of the youth culture.

Though similar in appearance and ideology, there were differences between hot rodders and custom car owners. Hot rodders bought their parts from speed shops and performed most of the work on their cars themselves. The custom car crowd sought out the expertise of shops that performed mild-to-wild body alterations. And therein lies the difference and the rub.

Some rodders felt disdain for custom cars because they were "low and slow" and most of the work was performed by outside shops, not the owners themselves. They derided custom cars as "lead barges" or "lead sleds" due to their sometimes abundant use of lead as a body filler.

Custom car owners shot back at hot rodders with names like "shot rods" and "Ricky racers." Rodders tended to be "gearheads" that weren't as interested in the aesthetics of their cars as custom car fans. Custom guys concentrated on looks and cared little for performance. These two groups are intertwined in our modern view of their activities, but they were actually quite different and could be antagonistic toward each other.

Some feel that the custom car was a direct offshoot of the hot rod. That view doesn't jibe with the vastly different approaches the two factions had toward their cars. Yes, some rodders drove custom cars and vice versa, but it wasn't the norm. Owning two cars was beyond the reach of most hard-working young men. And the abilities required to master engine and chassis modifications, as well as body customizing and fabrication, were rarely found in a single person, or even among a whole peer group.

That's where the custom car shops came in. Barris Kustoms was the best known of the early custom shops. Located in Lynwood, California, the shop was in what some call "the nest" for its concentration of custom-related enterprises. Gaylord's Custom Upholstery, which specialized in Carson-type tops, was just around the corner from Barris Kustoms, and Larry Watson, Ed Schelhaas, and Dean Jeffries were also located within the nest.

Also in the L.A.-area were Link Paola, Jimmy Summers, the Carson Top Shop, Gil and Al Ayala, and Valley Custom. Northern California had its players, too. Gene Winfield operated out of Modesto, and Joe Bailon and Joe Wilhelm worked in the Bay Area.

By the mid 1950s, Dean Jeffries, Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Junior Conway, Dick Jackson, and Larry Watson were all plying their custom painting and/or pinstriping talents either at Barris' or within the nest. Some, like Von Dutch, were already established names, and the rest would become famous in the custom car world as the '50s progressed.

Jack Chrisman's Model A Sedan, with its Chrysler 354-cid Hemi engine, was a formidable force in early drag racing.

For the hot rodder or drag racer who wanted performance beyond the means of a shade-tree mechanic, some of the shops in the nest also catered to hot rodders and drag racers. The Chrisman clan, which included brothers Art and Lloyd and uncle Jack, started their engine building and racing careers in Lynwood, as did Keith Black, who pioneered the development of the Chrysler Hemi engine in drag racing's early days.

Back on the streets, car clubs formed all over the L.A. basin with names like Renegades, Road Runners, and Night Riders. They were fraternities of like-minded rodders or custom car owners.

Toward the end of the decade, a distinction even developed among dry-lakes racers, drag racers, and the "street" hot rodders who were organizing clubs like the Pasadena Roadster Club and L.A. Roadster Club. Some members of the street roadster clubs raced, but the main point was to bring together owners with similar tastes and to change the public's perception of them as riotous renegades unable to stay within the bounds of the law and accepted behavior.

The clubs also organized social events for their members and hosted car shows that allowed members to showcase their cars to the general public.

With car club-peer recognition, car-show competition, and magazine coverage rewarding the best cars, the level of craftsmanship ramped up greatly. For the most part, hot rods and especially custom cars were well-built, attractive cars that met or exceeded anything coming out of Detroit.

Competitive drag racing would soon take off -- on both coasts -- with the help of the NHRA. Go to the next section for more details on the national racing scene.

East Coast vs. West Coast Hot Rod and Custom Car Styles

On the hot rod and custom car competition side, salt flats and lakes racing were finding limited participation due to their need for flat, barren landscapes. With the topography being unique to only a few areas, there was no possibility for expansion. Thus, this type of racing maintained its tradition of amateur participation, and does so even to this day.

With the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) help, however, drag racing took off. Expanded classes, evolving safety procedures and equipment, and new tracks helped it grow, but even more important was the professional presentation.

In 1953, So-Cal Speed Shop turned a 1934 Ford coupe into this dragstrip terror.

New, high-compression overhead-valve engines were introduced in Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles in 1949, and this engine design became available in most cars from the Big Three by '55. These faster, more reliable powerplants found favor with hot rodders, especially those who drag raced, and led to the development of new speed equipment and more speed shops to sell it.

Typical early drag racing speeds hovered around 100 mph at the dawn of the dragstrip in the early 1950s, but by the end of the decade speeds were exceeding 180 mph. Events were literally moving quite rapidly in drag racing's development, and not just on the West Coast.

Dragstrips were opening in both the East and Midwest too, helped along by the NHRA's Safety Safari -- a group of men paid to organize dragstrips under NHRA sanction. By 1955, the first NHRA "Nationals" was held in Great Bend, Kansas, with drag racers across the country participating.

As the decade progressed, an unspoken, accepted look developed for hot rods and custom cars, and that look was slightly different for the East and West Coasts. East Coast custom cars tended to sit higher than their West Coast counterparts due to the bad roads and harsh winters Easterners faced. East Coast cars also tended to be less radically modified, but they took on more baroque styling themes when they were heavily customized.

Channeled hot rods found greater favor in the East as owners strived for more sports carlike proportions. Closed coupes and sedans were also built in greater abundance in the East, again because of the more severe weather.

Highboy roadsters and coupes that adopted the look of the prewar lakes racers were more prevalent on the West Coast, as were more radical custom cars inspired by greater competition at car shows. The West drove the trends for hot rods and custom cars due mainly to the location of the magazines that catered to these cars, but also due to the abundance of craftsmen located in California.

Later in the decade, a number of East Coast magazine titles emerged to better cover the local scene, and this only helped spread the popularity of hot rods and customs nationwide.

With a burgeoning national scene, the car show phenomenon also spread across the country. Hollywood, California-based Rod & Custom magazine acknowledged this fact as early as 1953 by featuring an article on a prominent West Coast custom car -- the Hirohata Mercury -- driving cross-country for the annual Indianapolis Custom Show held in conjunction with the Indy 500.

During the winter months, these indoor rod and custom car shows intensified interest while racing and cruising all but disappeared due to the weather. They also helped spotlight regional speed shops, mechanics, and body shops that catered to the hot rodder or custom car owner.

As the decade drew to a close, custom cars transitioned away from 1940s and early '50s coupes and sedans with moderate-to-radical body modifications. The new look, featured on late '50s finned hardtops and convertibles, utilized paint techniques and relatively little custom bodywork. Customizing was now in a paint gun.

These "mild custom cars" were popularized by painter Larry Watson and his brand-new, widely publicized 1958 Ford Thunderbird. Custom cars were still in their prime, but with the sweeping changes Detroit made in automobile design -- the canted headlights, high fins, thin roofs, and large expanses of glass -- mild custom cars became distinctive enough with just panel painting or scallops, lowering, cool wheel covers, and some well done tuck-and-roll upholstery.

Detroit was designing beyond the need to customize, but teenagers and custom car enthusiasts still needed to stand apart from their parents and peers.

Hot rods were ending the decade on a high note, too, but they would face a number of challenges over the next few years as America entered the dawn of the factory "muscle car" era.

Hot rods and custom cars seemingly came out of nowhere at the beginning of the decade to become a cultural phenomenon that encompassed the whole United States. Hot rods and custom cars appeared in movies, advertising, and television shows. They affected laws and city policies. Their influence reflected the changing importance that the teenage culture would take on as the decades progressed.

The car scene didn't just grow in the 1950s. It became a subculture with its own clothes, language, businesses, magazines, events, shows, competitions, and more. It was the golden age of the hot rod and custom car.

Detroit's muscle cars had a direct effect on the hot rod's popularity in the 1960s.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...