In continuing my series on the hot rod, I'd like to turn my focus to how hot rodding became more mainstream. While I won't jump to George Lucas' first truly big movie, American Graffiti, the movie's subject is telling. Hot rodding couldn't survive on dry lakes alone. There were a number of die hards that lived and breathed speed records on the salt, but for most people, a lake bed racer required too much work for a product that was very good at getting one thing (speed) but not another thing crucial to every young male (girls). For that, hot rodders had to turn their attention to aesthetics and streetability in the city. With these changes came new types of vehicles, but old social mores kept the presence of racing (in some form or another) a part of the hobby and many of the modifications continued to find their origins in lake bed cars.
In cities like Los Angeles, young teens and twenty-somethings desired the same things in the 1950's, 60's and 70's and they do now (and I'm pretty sure that young ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and even cavemen are no different here): girls and thrills. Cars, since their inception, have provided both, but usually at a high monetary costs. What hot rods did was bring this cost down somewhat. The basis was the same as I have mentioned before, mostly pre-WWII Fords and Chevy's with simple flathead V8s (not too many Chryslers were used because they often only had inline sixes). As time moved on, people began to use newer cars that had trickled onto the used market, namely 1949 and 50 Mercury Coupes.
The modifications where similar to those done by the lake bed boys, dropping the cars down to the ground by chopping, channeling, and sectioning the cars (also see the previous post). Unlike before, however, looks were key. Cars were smoothed out and polished and items that detracted from the slick lines of the car, such as door handles, trunk handles, and other elements were eliminated or 'shaved.' Headlights were inset in the body work, or 'frenched.' Paint was liberally applied in bright pearlescent colors (so called because early pearlescent paints got the glittery shine from crushed sea shells). Chrome was usually liberally applied with toothy grills, elegant trim lines, or heavy bumpers. Engines were usually worked over as well with the usual exhaust and head cover replacements combined with occasional flame thrower pipes. The resulting product, called a 'Leadsled,' a 'Deuce,' a '3-Window,' or any other of a host of names (depending on the make, model, and mods performed) tended to be an outright expression of personal taste, rebellion, and an individual's idea of a chick magnet (as with fish and birds, brightly colored shiny things seem to be what men think girls love).
Guys would cruise the streets in their ride, which was often also their daily driver and only car. This meant that while the car was being fabricated, they had to drive the unfinished wreck around, so a finished car was something to be proud of. Boys being boys meant that just looking pretty wasn't enough. While there were certainly competitions for whose car was the best looking, whose car was the fastest was also important. Next time I'll take a look at how racing moved from the lake beds to the cities with drag racing.
Pictures, clockwise from lower left, are of the 1929 Ford Model A Roadster "Tin Man," the 1951 Mercury "Knight Cruiser," a 1932 Ford Model B SoCal Deuce Roadster, a hot rod being built, a flathead Ford V8 with Offenhauser heads, and a 1929 Ford Hot Rod Roadster driven by Elvis Presley in Loving You.