Hot Rods Today – The Democracy of Customization

Hot Rods Today - The Democracy of Customization

by Pete Evanow

Today, the term “hot rod” has many a different interpretation. Let’s call those interpretations “factions.” And within each faction, there are subcategories.

Naturally, everything is open to individual opinion. However, most hot rod enthusiasts do agree that the sport, field, industry, hobby — whatever one wants to call it (a passion, perhaps) — is mostly democratic; everyone simply does whatever they want to their cars and all vehicles peacefully coexist, whether they are true originals, street rods, rat rods or high priced “retro” custom reproductions.

To Each His Own

As for a true definition of what a hot rod is, well, that certainly is up for debate. According to many sources, there isn’t any real answer to who coined the term “hot rod,” nor when it originated. However, the general consensus is that the hot rod itself has roots going back to the 1930s when people discovered how to “accessorize,” or, more to the point, modify their car so that it would go faster.

1932 Ford Custom Highboy Roadster - Street Rodder Magazine
1932 Ford Custom Highboy Roadster

But hot rodding really became popular essentially after World War II, with its strongest protagonists in California; people who were seriously transforming old Fords (primarily) into powerful, lightweight, volatile racing machines, some with flames adorning the hoods and doors, some left black and menacing, all an individual expression of personality and horsepower. The sport/fascination/habit became mainstream as mechanics matured into entrepreneurs, developing parts, techniques and businesses that allowed enthusiasts to convert these once abandoned or seriously neglected roadsters and hardtops into viable vehicles for the street and track. As time went on, the phenomenon also became a valued art form.

Fast forward to today and the ’32 Deuce with its famous Ford flathead is now 75 years old — the subject of many books (Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum Executive Director Tony Thacker’s among the best of them), celebrations and honors. Hot rodding has been around for a long time, but has taken on many permutations and transgressions.


The price for admission, however, has seen the most serious modification. For some, it’s still about a cheap thrill; hence, the birth of the rat rod. For others, it’s all about a mid-range six-figure ride, a.k.a. the “trailer queen.” In between, there are those restoring cars and pickups from several eras, ever mindful of cost, period authenticity and practicality, while others want to add modern elements to their creation — a crate motor and 22-inch wheels — thus, the street rod.

Hot Rod Business

And the industry itself? Thanks to these separate, yet equally successful silos, it has never been better. Nor more crowded. With a number of restorers, designers and “motor architects” enjoying national and international success, due in part to several high profile television shows on a wide variety of cable networks (The Learning Channel?!), hot rodding is enjoying a well-deserved new breath of life as well as a new round of entrants. This time, it’s both baby boomers who have the bread to buy the iron they couldn’t afford when they were younger, and a new generation of young adults who revere a different era, one populated in part by the tough kids of ’50s movies and TV — Brando, Dean, Marvin, even McQueen — who reflected a certain outsider’s point-of-view; individual, wary, cagey. They mix this with primer, tattoos and red lipstick and bring in a whole new, equally acceptable look. “The guy with a rat rod usually has dirt under the nails and any money in his wallet goes for beer and smokes and keeping his ride going,” wrote one blogger in describing the genre of participants. Another wrote, “The rat rod is a daily driver that is out of the ordinary and has a certain ‘owner’s flair’ to the build.” Perhaps it could be said that it is a hot rod in its purest, or rawest, form.

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