Oldsmobile Super 88 1955
Purchased Rodding Domestic automakers became embroiled in a series of “horsepower wars” beginning in 1949. Manufacturers who offered perhaps two engine options in the 1950s were supplying a multitude of engines with outputs up to 400 horsepower by 1957. Fuel injection, supercharging, and multiple carburetors were no longer exclusively associated with hot rodding. Indeed, it was nearly absurd to invest time and money in a 100-hp flathead when a 210-hp Chevrolet V-8 could be easily switched in. Following factory improvements, the 265-cubic-inch engine could be boosted to 240 horsepower, and the aftermarket was keen to push those numbers even higher. One does not even need to remove the engine from its original location, since a hopped-up ’55 or ’56 Chevrolet quickly became a hot-rodding standard alongside the ’32 Ford.
However, this was merely the beginning. Following a brief hiatus following the AMA’s 1957 racing prohibition, factory performance vehicles saw a meteoric rise beginning in 1961. The era of muscle cars has come.
Chevrolet Gasser 1957
Automobiles Muscle The muscle car period can potentially be traced back to the National Hot Rod Association’s stock classes. These workshops served as a showcase for manufacturers’ ingenuity and served as an essential avenue for attracting America’s all-important teenage market. Drag racing was second only to NASCAR in terms of motivating domestic automakers to improve their products’ performance.
It wasn’t long before the top drag racers became so high-strung and exotic that they were unsuitable for regular transportation. Detroit solved the problem with the 1964 GTO—civilized street manners in a car that was almost the same size as a mid-1950s full-size and had an exceptional power-to-weight ratio. While muscle vehicles were detrimental to the prewar automobiles that had served as the psychological backbone of hot rodding, they created a fresh new and far greater opportunity for aftermarket companies.
Few muscle car owners could resist personalizing their vehicles. Speed components, mag wheels, and upgraded shifters were all considered necessary for a young muscle car owner. From the mid-1960s through the early ’70s, this, combined with the application of muscle-car technology to used automobiles from the ’50s, was the most popular kind of hot-rodding.
Malaise? When the muscle car period came to an end in 1973 due to the 1973 oil crisis, new safety and environmental rules, and the fury of insurance companies, it appeared as though hot-rodding had come to an end. While the neutered “muscle” automobiles from Detroit could be hopped up in the same way as their predecessors, doing so was not only deemed irresponsible, but also illegal in a number of locations. Simultaneously, older cars lost appeal due to their ravenous consumption of gasoline.
Through those gloomy days, street-rodding, as the driver-oriented part of the sport had become called, held the torch. This was the era of the “resto rod.” Resto rods combined historical automobile styling with ’70s Brougham sensibility and just enough current technology to maintain performance on par with new cars. A typical combination would be a full-fender Model A phaeton with a Buick V-6 under the hood, a stock front axle, elevated white-letter radials put on current wire wheels, and a Jaguar IRS in the rear. The emphasis was on cruising, road tripping, and appearing cool—not on speed.
The origins of the present traditional hot-rodding movement may also be traced back to this era. Hot-rodders who had abandoned the hobby 20 years ago suddenly had enough free time and money to recreate their childhood. While some of these former rodders welcomed the resto-rod movement, others found or recreated vintage hot cars and preserved them as time capsules. The Era of the Billet The entrance of nostalgia into the hot-rodding community sparked a backlash.
Since the 1920s, the cutting edge of hot rodding has always been about innovation and remaking old cars look and function like new. Resto rods mostly contradicted this, as did preserved and reproduced 1950s hot rods. Neither was capable of competing with the greatest muscle vehicles of the preceding era, and neither adequately portrayed the post-Watergate 1970s modern aesthetic. John Buttera and Boyd Coddington are two guys who would permanently alter the face of hot-rodding. Buttera was a racecar fabricator in California, and he knew Coddington. When Buttera created a resto-rod style ’26 Ford Tudor using CNC machines to carve various components from billet aluminum, Coddington recreated it. When Buttera created a Model A roadster, Coddington outdid himself by creating “The Silver Bullet,” a vehicle unlike anything anybody had ever seen. For the following two decades, Coddington, in particular, would mold street-rodding (which was now defined as a street-driven hot rod based on a 1948 or earlier car).
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, smoothed out lines with everything shaved from door handles to hood trim, copious amounts of machined metal, and monochrome color schemes or outrageous patterns were the norm of the day. The engine, which was once the most significant component of the hot rod, was virtually invariably a Chevrolet 350 connected to a TH350 transmission.
The post-1948 generation was mainly interested street machines, an offshoot of hot-rodding muscle vehicles in their infancy. Drag-race aesthetics prevailed, particularly a movement known as Pro-Street, which included huge bug-catcher scoops and as much tire as could be crammed on either side of the differential.
Chevrolet Camaro SS 396 “Day Two
Today If 1950s hot rodding was fractured, it is far more so today. Beginning in the mid-1990s, a counter-revolution against the smoothie/billet style developed in street-rodding. A group of younger hot rodders was adamantly opposed to stripping antique automobiles of everything that defined them as old cars. A renaissance of 1950s hot-rodding occurred, using all the bad-old technology that modern rodders believed they had abandoned—Stroberg carburetors, flathead V-8 engines, bias-ply tires, and even primer as paint.
The influence gradually spread, and even modern street rods frequently replicate the old style. One need only look at the nominees for America’s Most Beautiful Roadster over the last few years to understand how much historic hot rods have inspired the modern street rodding industry. Meanwhile, street-rodding aesthetics and sensibilities have crept into what was formerly known as the street-machine scene. Interiors with sculpted leather, billet aluminum pedals, smoothed-off door handles, and other swoopy gimmicks are just as likely to be found in a ’69 Camaro as they are in a ’34 Ford these days. For many, technology is paramount, with contemporary fuel-injected crate engines from Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler virtually omnipresent in current-style builds.
Finally, we cannot overlook the resurrection of old technologies, especially in the muscle car scene. What was formerly dominated by pure-stock restorations or wild street machines has evolved into an appreciation for the “Day Two” concept—a muscle car treated to a tasteful variety of desirable period aftermarket equipment. Hot-rodding is constantly evolving in new areas. To the hot-rodder, electric motors, hydrogen fuel cells, and, who knows, even self-driving technology are all fair game. Simultaneously, period-correct hot rods and restored cars from the same era are gaining new acceptability.