Post War Hot Rods (Part 1)

Since before World War I, hot-rodding as a concept of automobile construction has existed. The early attempts of the pioneers who invented the vehicle bear a strong resemblance to hot-rodding, but they do not fully fit the mold because they were not using used, mass-produced parts. Only until the moving assembly line enabled Ford to mass produce Model T’s in previously unheard-of quantities and at prices that made motoring affordable to the public did the primary component of hot-rodding emerge. Once those affordable new Fords became affordable old automobiles, the ground was set for the beginning of the hot-rodding period.

Speedsters probably originated in the Midwest, where racing on abandoned horse tracks had been a popular activity. The distinction between the earliest speedsters and a stripped-down race car would have been purely cosmetic. However, because drivers of Fast Fords, as they were commonly referred to during this era, did not want to appear to be riding around on garbage, numerous bodywork began appearing on the Model T chassis. At its most basic, those “body” comprised of a pair of bucket seats, a fuel tank, and a toolbox — reminiscent of the pricey Stutz Bearcat and Mercer Raceabout sports cars of World War I. Speedsters became increasingly advanced as the Twenties progressed.

On the street, race-bred hardware such as RAJO, Laurel/Roof, and Frontenac overhead valve conversions became popular. At low speeds, wood wheels were either covered to imitate disc wheels or replaced with disc or wire wheels. Wires such as those manufactured by Houk/Buffalo or Dayton were much sought after for their light weight, smooth ride, and superior handling. Of course, even at this early stage of development, hot-rodding was not limited to the Tin Lizzie. Chevrolet’s 490 and Superior series automobiles, as well as Dodge Brothers’ automobiles, were all excellent candidates for speedsterization. While Model T mechanicals continued to be a popular basis for hot rods well into the 1940s, the introduction of the all-new Ford Model A in late 1927 heralded the dawn of a new era.

Job on a 1926 Ford

The Era of the Gow Job With nearly twice the horsepower of a T in a package that was nearly identical, the new Model A engine piqued the interest of speed enthusiasts and the aftermarket. Between December 2, 1927, when the Model A was introduced, and October 29, 1929, when the stock market crashed, the Model A drew substantial attention from hot-rodders and makers of performance parts. Those hopping up Model A’s frequently did not completely strip them down. That approach spread to those still making Model Ts—imagine a speedy chassis with a stock roadster or touring-car body (the latter was sometimes reduced to just the front seat area), sans fenders. Additionally, the new style required significantly less labor and price than a speedy body.

The advantage of building a Model T between 1927 and 1935 was that the T was highly advanced, owing to race and street technology developed during the speedster era, but the sudden interest in the new Model A among the well-heeled of the era meant that Model T speed parts were not only readily available, but also significantly less expensive than they had been when new. Additionally, the gow job era witnessed the introduction of extensive engine swapping among enthusiasts.

Once Model A’s began to appear in junkyards, gow jobbers quickly combined A engines with T chassis or, more typically, T bodywork with A chassis to create a machine that was instantly more capable than each car in its pure form. In the mid-1930s, the gow work style began to dwindle. The Model A engine and its successor, the 50-hp Model B of 1932–1934, progressively displaced the increasingly obsolete Model T as the primary force in hot rodding. The affordable Ford V-8 of 1932 sparked popular outrage, but junkyard supplies did not catch up until around 1936. Through the mid-1940s, the “bangers,” as the T, A, and B engines are now referred to, remained a hot-rodding mainstay.

Ford Hot Iron 1932

The Iron Age The continuing Depression wreaked havoc on the aftermarket parts business. Many of the speed parts developed during the initial wave of Model A enthusiasm had brief initial manufacturing runs, while others, like as the Miller OHV conversion, received second and third runs with different manufacturers. In 1935, the economy began to improve, and there was a resurgence of interest in hot-rodding. The majority of this zeal had now transferred to California, where the dual-purpose street/race automobiles thrived. Where the weather was harsher in the Midwest and on the East Coast, race cars became increasingly specialized machines, and fewer individuals modified street cars for enhanced performance.

One notable exception was the Automobile Racing Club of America’s astute racers, who, in the lack of a huge network of imported automobiles, constructed road racing specialties from salvaged American and European parts. However, on the dry lakes of California, where gow occupations evolved, things took a different turn. While the basic design remained unchanged—a stripped-down Model T or A, with an increasing number of ’32s—technology and style became increasingly akin to the popular postwar hot rods. Early 21-stud flathead V-8s began to appear in automobiles, and a slowly resurgent aftermarket developed for both the V-8 and the Model A and B engines.

The Indianapolis 500 was another source of inspiration and technology. At the direction of new owner Eddie Rickenbacker, the Brickyard has reverted to its roots. For the 1930 race at Indy, a production-based formula was reinstated. Considerable attention was expended on Hudson, Buick, Hupmobile, Studebaker, and, of course, Ford V-8 engines. Late in the hot iron era, the Chevrolet four-cylinder also had its moment in the sun, with builders demonstrating what could be done with a Chevy block, an Oldsmobile head, and some ingenuity mixing and matching junkyard parts inside.

Dry-lakes racing began as a hybrid of acceleration and top-speed competitions, but gradually evolved into a one-car-at-a-time event with the sole objective of maximum velocity (under the auspices of the Southern California Timing Association, founded in 1938). Today, we refer to this as land-speed racing. Acceleration contests remained popular, though, and became a growing concern at Southern California’s drive-in restaurants and other teenage hangout spots.

They would later evolve into drag racing, a sport that helped popularize hot rodding nationwide, albeit with some assistance from a four-year halt caused by America’s entry into World War II. The War Years Following Pearl Harbor, America required tire conservation. Automobile racing was formally prohibited (though some illegal lake meets occurred throughout the war), and other forms of transportation were severely restricted as a result of gas rationing. Numerous hot irons were placed on blocks for the duration as their owners commuted to defense factories or enlisted in the military forces via streetcar, bus, or carpool. Enlisting and getting drafted allowed hot-rodders to interact with the general public in ways that were previously unattainable during the Depression years.

They acted as ambassadors to other Americans, disseminating tales of mechanical entertainment and demonstrating their technical prowess through hands-on expertise with high-performance engines. Technical training, both in the military and in defense plants, aided in the growth of hot-rodding. When they came home, individuals who remained interested in automobiles applied the discipline and critical thinking skills they’d acquired to their own vehicles and to their ventures as aftermarket providers of performance parts. The Hot Rod Golden Age was about to begin.

Ford Hot Rod 1930

The Hot Rod’s Golden Age The 1944 G.I. Bill was famous for providing returning servicemen with educational and home ownership opportunities. Unknown is the 52/20 clause, which provides unemployed veterans with $20 every week for 52 weeks. While many found work immediately, this safety net enabled others to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors like as manufacturing speed parts.

While new automobiles were scarce, money and skills were not. Even people who had no intention of racing on the dry lakes could see the benefit of driving a Model A or ’32 Ford—especially if it had been boosted to the point where its performance was comparable to or exceeded that of new automobiles. The Golden Age of the Hot Rod coincided with the peak of the Ford flathead’s popularity. From 1939 until 1948, the V-8, particularly its 24-stud variations, dominated the aftermarket for Ford and Mercury automobiles.

Numerous newer automobiles, such as the 1936 and 1940 Ford coupes, received speed equipment as well. Indeed, hot-rodding as a whole was moving beyond the roadster bodies it had always favored—a development that aided in expanding its appeal throughout the country, where closed bodies had been more popular since the 1920s. The 1949 debut of Cadillac and Oldsmobile overhead-valve V-8 engines signaled the end of Ford’s dominance in the hot-rodding scene. When new automobile supply caught up with demand, the motivation to refurbish a 15-year-old car diminished significantly. By 1953, the Ford flathead’s final year on the American market, the writing was on the wall. Hot rods in the traditional sense had evolved into a kind of self-expression.

Ford Hot Rod 1940

Fragments That Are Hot-Rodded Whether you drove a Deuce roadster with a supercharged flathead or a brand-new Rocket 88, you were certainly intrigued about how it performed—particularly in comparison to other cars you considered comparable. You were essentially limited to challenging other drivers to acceleration contests on public streets during the immediate postwar period. This created a massive public relations problem for hot-rodding, particularly in Southern California. What was marginally permissible during the low-density prewar era has become forbidden and wildly unsafe as a result of the postwar population explosion.

The plethora of now-abandoned airstrips built for the war across the country appeared to offer a solution. Drag racing surged in popularity, and the National Hot Rod Association was founded in 1951 with the goal of formalizing it and making it comparable to what the SCTA did for land speed racing. Beginning in 1954, the NHRA’s “Drag Safari” crisscrossed the country, assisting local organizations in establishing safe, sanctioned drag races and improving their image and public view of hot-rodding in general. Drag racing aided in the revival of street/strip hot rods. Not only were early cars accepted, but it also served as a showcase for those with hopped-up late models to display their wares and compete against similar vehicles.