Over the years, I’ve not received much mail from those who love street rods and hot rods, which takes in quite an array of automobiles. There’s a common misconception amongst car enthusiasts concerning the venerable “Hot Rod” that populated the highways and byways beginning in the 1940s. Many modern day enthusiasts of collector and performance cars feel the street and hot rods from the booming 1950s and 1960s are being displaced by more modern collector vehicles, especially the muscle cars of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Although this writer admits that the 1961 to 1973 muscle cars are probably the most popular segment of collecting at this time, there is a renewed interest in the good old hot rod and street rod from days gone by, a vehicle that comes in so many shapes and sizes it’s hard to pinpoint what an actual hot rod is.
From the ultra popular “Rat Rods” to true blue hot rods, enthusiasts nowadays can build anything from the older steel bodied ’32 Ford to magnificent and high dollar retro rods, like the 1939 Ford pictured. This ’39 Ford begins life as a complete fiberglass kit rolling chassis followed by the many choices of how an owner wants to complete the beauty and join the ranks of the hot rod and street rod club. It’s all up to size of wallet and creativity, be it fiberglass kit or real, all-steel 32 Deuce Coupe. Anything is acceptable.
Having grown up in a small coal-mining patch called Ranshaw, Pa., there were no hot rods driving through our little town to see in person in the early 1950s. So, this writer’s first experience with hot rods came from the cars that appeared on television back in the 1950s, most notable Kookie’s hot rod from the TV series “’77 Sunset Strip.” Kookie, played by Edd Byrnes, was “Mr. Cool” on that show, and his T-Bucket hot rod was always in tiptop shape. Some time dated and non-praiseworthy movies, like “Hot Rods from Hell,” portrayed the hot rodders as juvenile delinquents, but the cars were still ultra cool.
By the 1970s, things in Hollywood changed and the perception of the hot rod was now semi-positive. Perhaps the most renowned Hollywood big screen hot rodder was John Milner, played by actor Paul LeMat, who drove his yellow ’32 Ford in “American Graffiti” and “More American Graffiti.” These movies were big time productions and also featured soon to be ultra famous producers like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, respectively. The “Graffiti” movies spurred new interest in hot rods, and to this day cars like Milner’s yellow 32 Deuce, be it original or replica, attract big crowds when they appear at car shows USA.
Not surprisingly, hundreds of aftermarket companies have appeared that deal with hot rods and street rods. From complete rolling chassis to interior and mechanical parts galore, manufacturers are churning out pieces even for the original Ford Flathead V8, which was the hot rod engine of choice in the early 1950s. We’re happy to recognize the venerable street rod and hot rod, and enjoy the grand mixture of originality that goes into these creations. But most of all, these hot rods and street rods continue to showcase ingenuity, just like it was in the 1950s.
I can’t end this saga without giving a pat on the back to Speedway Motors in Lincoln, Nebraska. Thanks to the late founder, “Speedy” Bill Smith, the hot rod and street rod enthusiast has had a place to go since 1952 when Smith and his wife opened the business with just a $500 investment. Today, it’s a one stop gigantic hot rod extravaganza and worthy of a visit in person. (See www.speedwaymotors.com).
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes reader input on collector cars, auto nostalgia and auto racing at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)