In Feb. 3 IssueBy Ron Cowell, Columnist
A lot has been written about the origins of the hot rod and the development of the culture that gave rise to them and then grew up around them.
I place the defining origin point for hot rods and hot rod culture as the end of World War II. A number of factors came together at one time -- the period between the end of the war in 1945 and the beginning of the 1950s -- and mainly in one place -- southern California -- to create a unique environment in which the hot rod and its culture were born.
At the end of the war, young men returned to America with plenty of cash in their pockets and a sense of freedom and excitement bred by their experiences in the war. With a period of peace and the steadily increasing prosperity of the country as a backdrop, these young men had a "can-do" attitude and a desire to express themselves in ways that their time in the military had stifled. And, all of a sudden, there were a lot of inexpensive used cars available. For five years Detroit had basically been in the business of supplying the military. Now all that production capacity was turned to creating a stream of new cars to satisfy the general public that had scrimped and saved throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s and the sacrifices of the war years. Men who'd stayed behind to work in America's offices and factories had a lot of savings and they were ready to get rid their older cars from the 1920s and 1930s for gleaming new models offered by the Big Three. Their trade-ins became the starting point of the hot rodder's, and came to define the way they were built and how they looked.
These factors dictated the core of the classic American hot rod. It was the later Model T's and the plentiful early-30s Fords and Chevys that became the raw material for the young men who created hot rodding and hot rod culture. The basic performance and engineering elements of the hotrod came together in these cars. More power, less weight and a look derived from these things leading to chopped tops, channeled bodies, pinched frames, dropped axles and, eventually wide tires
A lot has been written about the question of why southern California became the seed-bed for so much cultural change in the second half of the twentieth century. Part of it was Hollywood, part simply that the western part of the country had reached a critical mass of prosperity and population sufficient to establish itself as a new center of culture distinct from the old center in the northeast. But a few factors made southern California the right place for the birth of hot rodding. One was the climate: with year-round perfect temperature and little rainfall, young men of little means could work outside on cars that had few creature comforts themselves. More important, Los Angeles was the first city truly shaped from its beginnings by the automobile: There were more roads, and new ones there. Mainly most importantly, was the dry lake beds just east of L.A. that became a magnet for the chopped and stripped-down speed machines. Here the hot rodder's found miles and miles of hard, glass-flat surface upon which to run their machines
The 1950s were the Golden Age of hot rodding and, for a while, there was only hot rodding -- not the different strains of car-craziness that it gave birth to. In the beginning, there was no distinction among the cars that kids played with as a form of street-running self-expression, the drag racing car, the customized work of art; there was just the hot rod, the amateur automobile art form. But the seeds of hot-rodding's were growing during that time.
Hot rod culture sat at an intersection between the hipsters of the late 40s and 50s (think of Dean Moriarty's relationship with cars in Kerouac's on the road and "Big Daddy" Ed Roth's goatee, the lower-class of kids from the wrong side of the tracks in a country with rising economic expectations. Think of the menace of Dennis Hopper's "Goon" in Rebel Without a Cause and the general development of a "counterculture" of individuality and free expression. For a time, the hot rod became a central symbol of youth and creativity in America, and was as cool as anything around. But by the mid-1960s, the wave of the counterculture had moved on and, although many of the "show car" artists of the time incorporated things like peace symbols and images of long-haired guys in patched bell-bottoms in their work, the days when hot rod culture was part of the "crest of the wave" were over.
By the early 1960s the various different lines of hot rod culture were well defined, had separated and then begun to interact in new ways. The two most important elements of this for me were the "show rod" phenomenon and muscle cars. The "Kings of Custom" had been working for a while now, and their ideas were seeping out to a larger audience, while at the same time the the classic hot rod kids was coming alive. Southern California, had moved on, and "teen rebellion" was heading into the full-blown counterculture. Greasers and hipsters gave way to hippies and yippies.
For three generations the hotrod has been a uniquely American symbol of individuality and mobility, of speed and creativity. Some points in hot rod culture have become icons. The yellow Ford deuce coupe in American Graffitti is an instantly recognized symbol of a time and a place and an attitude and serves as a visual reference for a whole host of other things: music, values, a time of transition in American life. For those in the notion of the hot rod, it serves as a focus of creativity and, for a lot of aging Baby Boomers, is becoming again a symbol of a time when they yearned for the freedom of adulthood.
Like jazz, the hot rod is pure American, rolling to the beat of a big country with wide-open roads and people who put things together from wherever they can find what works.
That's it once again for this week. Till next time "Keep Cruisin" and "Think Spring."