LOOKIN' EAST: ART AND IMAGINATION OF THE AMERICAN HOT ROD
While many of us may not know anything about hot rods, just about every American knows one when we see one, even if we are more likely to hear it first. There is an unmistakable look that makes it instantly recognizable, but it is also true that no two hot rods are completely alike, and that is because they are the result of individual passion and competitive spirit rather than a product of companies. At its core, hot rodding is essentially taking a vehicle and improving it as much as possible while imparting an owner’s individual flair on it in the process. Basic improvements in performance, of course, start with removing weight and adding horsepower, but with hot rods there is also a crucial element of style to it all, and that style was born out of a certain set of circumstances that helped differentiate it from other performance endeavors in the automotive world. In fact, hot rodding predates most automotive subcultures.
The clear birthplace of hot rodding was Southern California in the later 1930s. Young men from the area, often without much extra cash, found second-hand cars, typically Fords, and made them faster. They removed items like fenders then tuned the engine to be more powerful, or sometimes fit another engine entirely. Naturally, that ever-present human drive to compete proved irresistible, and they took to the dry lake beds outside of Los Angeles to see who was fastest. It is not clear when the term hot rod was first used or even what exactly it means, but regardless, the hot rod was born.
Most of the young men who were the pioneers of this new hobby were swept into service by the Second World War, so just as hot rodding was really starting to get going, it had to be put on hold. But it was this pause in activity that actually turned hot rodding from just a regional pastime into a national institution that is as American as baseball and apple pie. During the war, Californians served with other Americans from all walks of life. While some of them longed for wives and girlfriends left behind, others carried pictures of their custom cars and yearned for the excitement of racing again. They shared that passion with whoever would listen, and many did.
The idea of customizing attainable old cars for straight-line speed caught on in the imaginations of those dreaming of life after the war. Many men received technical, mechanical, or metalworking training while in the service, also adding to their desires. In the late 1940s, men went back home with more mechanical knowledge, a fired-up imagination, a sense of danger, and often a little money in their pockets. There was also a semi-infinite supply of cars and parts with which to get creative. That same competitive spirit boiled over all across the country, as these new hot rodders did not only want to build cars but also wanted to race. Not everybody had a dry lake bed, but in plenty of regions there were unused airstrips that the military no longer needed and were just begging to be raced on, not to mention the strips of pavement between traffic lights. One of these regions was New England, already a center of creativity and innovation.