History of the Hot Rod


“I don’t even like old cars,” the great author J.D. Salinger once said. “I’d rather have a goddamn horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.” He may have been right about that, but the vast majority of his countrymen would most likely disagree (which would have suited Salinger just fine). Indeed, publications like Hot Rod magazine were in circulation as long ago as 1948, with Motor Trend and others coming online in the early ’50s. In the span of less than a decade, the Big Three auto makers began putting out cars that were tailored specifically to a muscle-car-hungry public.

Early hot rodders would have scoffed at such a thing – paying thousands of dollars for an assembly-line vehicle and calling it a “hot rod”. The first young men who were interested in maxing out the horsepower had come home from World War II with spending money and a thrill-seeker mentality, and in some case with plenty of mechanical wherewithal. They came home to find nothing but old cars for sale – the car companies had been busy making planes and tanks instead. The competition for more speed became, for some, an obsession.

Old School

The old flathead V8, which had been around awhile at that point, gave those neolithic hot-rodders the ammunition they needed. It wasn’t anything particularly new, but those with the tools, the bank accounts and the time took great delight in squeezing more power out of those old engines than the stock vehicles could ever hope to produce. While the culture took root in Southern California, the mania spread quickly, with every high-school kid hoping to one day have his (or her) own hot rod – and happily racing their parents old Coupe in the meantime.

When the classic car shows come to town this year, one might want to ponder the history of those first enthusiasts, who didn’t care about surf music or spinner hubcaps or fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. Their wants and needs were simple – to hear and feel the roar of their engines, of their tires on the ground, of the wind in their ears… In other words, all the comforts of home, which included Salinger’s right to gripe about whatever he wanted.

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