Nobody knows who first invented the term “hot rod,” but the classic definition is simple: It’s a car that’s been stripped down, souped up and made to go much faster.
And throughout their history, hot rods have always had a way of attracting free thinkers and risk-takers who tend to be good with a wrench.
Hot rodding began as a cult movement in the 1920s, and flourished in Los Angeles—first with illegal street racing, then moving north and west of the city to the boundless Mojave Desert, with devotees competing on dusty, alkali-based dry lake beds like El Mirage and Muroc.
When WWII vets returned home with saved-up combat pay, new cars were in short supply, so guys who wanted to go fast in a cool-looking car simply built and modified their own. Military training helped these backyard mechanics to hone their engine-building and fabrication skills. The advent of Hot Rod magazine spread the gospel of speed across the country. Faster competitors established their own speed-equipment businesses, and their myriad talents spread to racing of all types.
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Hot rodding was an outlaw culture—until it wasn’t. In the late 1940s, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) helped legitimize the sport, and the Speed Equipment Manufacturer’s Association (SEMA—later called the Specialty Equipment Marketer’s Association) unified the manufacturers who began to supply Detroit’s “Big 3” as well as enthusiasts everywhere. Nationally sanctioned drag racing attracted major sponsors and most outlaw activity ceased.
The 1973 film American Graffiti celebrated the street-rod scene and encouraged nostalgia hot rodding. When custom cars faded, their creators built wild creations for Hollywood. Hot rodders influenced sports cars—think Carroll Shelby and his Cobras—and provided countless Indianapolis and Championship Car mechanics and drivers, including Phil Hill, Phil Remington and Dan Gurney. What started as a pack of thrill-seekers, racing one another in home-built old cars, exploded into a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Looking back to the mid-century, here are just a few of the many speed-minded men and women who legitimized and grew hot-rodding from packs of street-racing hoodlums to a billion-dollar bonanza.
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Bill Burke: Belly Tank Pioneer
Bill Burke typifies the all-American ingenuity that powered all the hot-rod pioneers. He’d raced at the dry lakes before the war, in a hopped-up Ford roadster. Serving in the South Pacific in a high-speed PT boat squadron, he fantasized about going even faster when hostilities ceased—but he knew a square-rigged Ford roadster had its aerodynamic limitations.
Looking at the auxiliary fuel tanks in warplanes such as the P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightning aircraft, Burke imagined dropping one of these aerodynamically perfect aluminum containers onto an auto frame, fitting a modified engine and breaking records. These sleek “Belly Tanks,” as they came to be known, soon became affordable war-surplus items. Burke and his talented buddy, Don Francisco, began with a small-sized tank, but its exposed engine negated the streamlined effect. Using a larger 385-gallon belly tank, the intrepid duo built their first lakester (a fenderless high-speed car with a home-built body that was not from a car manufacturer), set many records and influenced other early hot-rod stars.
The courage it took to drive one of these aluminum eggshells on wheels at high speeds is almost unimaginable. Burke raced all his life, driving a long succession of faster and more sophisticated streamliners, looking to top 300+ mph with partner Clark Cagle and their sons and daughters. In the process, they landed repeatedly on the cover of Hot Rod magazine, and set records at Bonneville Salt Flats, a racing mecca in Utah. He raced competitively for half a century before he died at age 97.
Veda Orr: One Fast Lady
Karl Orr, an early L.A. hot rodder, had a fast lakester and a reputation for being ornery. Nobody messed with Karl, so when his wife Veda pulled on a crash helmet and proved she had the right stuff behind the wheel, the Southern California Timing Association tossed aside its “no lady racers” rule. The first female member of SCTA, Veda set several records in the Full-Fendered Roadster competition in the late 1930s.
The Orrs established one of Southern California’s first speed shops, in Culver City, where Karl helped accelerate the changeover from modified 4-cylinder engines to hopped-up flathead V8s. During World War II, with most hot rodders in the military, Veda took over writing and distributing the SCTA Racing News, sending copies for free to racers overseas. Hot Rod cartoonist Tom Medley, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, would say, Veda was “the glue that held hot rodding together during the war years.” After the war, she became the first person to write a hot-rod book, publishing Hot Rod Pictorial and Dry Lakes Pictorial.
Chet Herbert: A Profile in Courage
Look at the cover of Hot Rod magazine in December 1952, and you’ll see Chet Herbert, welding up a roll bar on a Bonneville streamliner chassis. Look more closely: He’s in a wheelchair. Afflicted with polio at age 20, Herbert survived, paralyzed from the waist down. But that didn’t stop him from building an unbeatable Harley-Davidson, naming it “the Beast,” and hiring a brave rider to drag-race it.
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Herbert’s ultimate speed secret was his roller tappet camshaft, a device that controls the timing of a cylinder’s valves. When he couldn’t find anyone to grind a cam for his first racing car, he bought a lathe at Sears and taught himself. Chet Herbert Competition Cams came into being, along with a succession of record-setting “Beasts” that used his hot camshaft designs. For that Hot Rod magazine cover and “Beast III,” Herbert retained aerodynamicist Rod Schapel to develop a sleek body in a wind tunnel. Right off the trailer, “Beast III” was the fastest car at Bonneville in 1952.
Later inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, Chet Herbert built record-setting cars and engines until he died in 2009. “Despite the fact that he had polio and was in a wheelchair for much of his life, he never let that stop him from doing anything,” said his racer son Doug. “He…taught me that, no matter how tough something may seem, if you fight hard enough, you can overcome it.”
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Dean Batchelor: Renaissance Car Man
There’s a reason that, at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the nation’s premier collector-car competition, the permanent historic hot rod class-winning trophy is named after Dean Batchelor. A car designer, driver, mechanic, legendary automotive journalist and hot-rod historian, Batchelor did it all.
An active hot rodder before World War II, Batchelor served in a B-17 in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was shot down over Munich in 1944, and became a POW for a year. With his postwar degree in industrial design, Batchelor designed the innovative, record-setting So-Cal Streamliner (with Alex Xydias, founder of the So-Cal Speed Shop) and survived a terrible 150-mph crash when it flipped at high speed. He also made his mark designing the winning Hill-Davis and Shadoff Special Streamliners. These cars, which set FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) records, were hand-built by backyard California hot rodders and were faster than the vaunted pre-war land-speed-record cars built by Germany’s Auto Union.
His post-racing career included work as a mechanic, as a historian at the National Automobile Museum in Reno and an influential car journalist, including a stint as editor at Road & Track. Later he wrote critically acclaimed books on Ferrari, Porsche and racing pioneer Briggs Cunningham, along with the definitive history, The American Hot Rod, completed the night before he died.
Don Garlits: Faster Than Them All
The first to top 200 mph and 250 mph in the quarter mile, Floridian Don Garlits, a.k.a. “Big Daddy” or just “Big,” was always the man to beat. His signature rod? A series of Hemi-powered dragsters he called “Swamp Rats.”
Garlits raced purpose-built slingshot dragsters, racers stripped of virtually everything but a frame, an engine set way back in the chassis, and a small fuel tank—a design that dramatically decreased elapsed times and increased speeds. After attracting considerable attention for winning the first NHRA “Safety Safari” meet in 1955, Garlits would cement his reputation by winning the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships in 1965, 1967 and 1971, with the unheard-of feat of engineering, building, driving and serving as his own mechanic on a steadily advanced series of self-designed “Swamp Rat” dragsters himself.
After an engine explosion in 1970 cost him part of a foot, Garlits designed “Swamp Rat XIV,” a radical, rear-engine car that became the model for the sport. Over time, he set a staggering series of records—with innovations like the hypoid rear end, extended wheelbase, a four-disc clutch and port injection, winning countless titles. In 2014, at age 82, he ran 184 mph in a battery-powered dragster.
Shirley ‘Cha Cha’ Muldowney: The First Lady of Drag Racing
Shirley Muldowney’s husband Jack, an excellent mechanic, taught her to drag race early on, but she had the essential talent: the inherently quick reaction times of a champion. So she competed and won major titles in a sport dominated by men for decades.
Her career began in 1958 and she turned pro in 1965. It was an era when women were considered decorative “pit popsies” and not taken seriously in the upper echelons of the sport. But rivals quickly learned “Cha Cha” was fast, fearless and very competitive. As drag racing evolved, Muldowney switched to Funny Cars, which had nothing funny about them. Essentially an altered-wheelbase dragster with a fiberglass body, Funny Cars were scary, blindingly fast and inherently unstable, demanding lightning reflexes and nerves of steel. Muldowney had them both.
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The ultimate level in dragster competition was Top Fuel—extremely powerful, ground-shaking cars powered by Chrysler Hemi V8 engines, running a literally explosive nitro-methane fuel mixture. Shirley won three NHRA Top Fuel Dragster National championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982 (the first woman to do so), competing in a pink-liveried car, and winning against the fastest teams in the sport. Don Garlits always said “she was the racer he had the most respect for,” and their rivalry drew immense crowds.
After a severe accident in 1984, and despite multiple operations, she returned to race competitively until 2003. Bonnie Bedelia played Muldowney in the 1983 movie Heart Like a Wheel. Always feisty, she reportedly wanted Jamie Lee Curtis to play her, but she said she thought the film was “very, very good for the sport.” So was Shirley Muldowney.
Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth: Dali-esque Car Designer
If you grew up as a car enthusiast in the 1950s and ’60s, you couldn’t miss the irrepressible Ed Roth. His crazy custom-designed and -built cars graced the covers of all the top rod and custom magazines; he starred at major car shows in California and nationwide; and chances are, you owned something—a T-shirt, a keychain, a model car, a pen, even a wastebasket—that bore a wild Roth illustration.
Across the broad world of hot rodding and customizing, it was hard to classify Ed Roth because he always went his own way. A highly creative artist with a pretty decent grasp of mechanics and electrics, he pioneered the use of media like plaster of Paris, Vermiculite and fiberglass to build his cars, so he could pursue shapes and concepts far beyond anything other customizers had achieved. (For one bubble-topped creation, he heated a sheet of plastic in a pizza oven.) More intrigued with producing rolling art statements than mechanical function, Roth nevertheless produced bizarre vehicles that actually worked. They had names like the “Druid Princess,” a cartoonish royal carriage originally designed for the TV show “The Addams Family” (a coffin in back held the battery and gas tank), the hyper-elongated, hyper-angular “Yellow Fang,” and “Mysterion.”
Author and cultural critic Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) closely studied the custom-car culture of Los Angeles in 1965, deeming Roth’s creations “pure art.” Wolfe called him “the Salvador Dalí of hot rodding.”
Boyd Coddington: Smooth Operator
Boyd Coddington started as a talented machinist at Disneyland in the early 1970s. He later became a hot-rod designer and fabricator renowned for his smooth-lined, elegantly sculptural bespoke designs, which earned him the coveted “America’s Most Beautiful Roadster” award an unprecedented seven times.
Coddington’s first cars were heavily influenced by his friend, “Li’l” John Buttera, one of the first hot rodders to literally “carve” custom engine and suspension parts from chunks of billet aluminum. Deploring fussiness and excess, Buttera reduced complex forms and components to their basic elements. The two would inspire and work to one-up each other. When Coddington admired a contemporary-looking ’27 Model T Ford sedan Buttera had built, he responded with a similar ’26 T. Buttera then responded with an ultra-modern ’29 Ford Model A roadster, which in turn inspired Coddington to create a counter-car known as the “Silver Bullet.” Street Rodder magazine, applauding its “striking blend of traditional styling, contemporary rodding and innovation,” splashed it on its cover in April 1978.
Vern Luce, a wealthy would-be patron, saw the Model A and retained Coddington to build him a ’33 Ford coupe. The commission, which allowed Coddington to quit his Disneyland job and open his own shop, produced a car that soon drew national acclaim as a seminal billet rod. When the smoothly styled Vern Luce Coupe appeared in 1981, it was everything a hand-built, bespoke, high-end hot rod could be. Coddington leapt to industry leadership, began manufacturing billet aluminum wheels and parts, and went on design all those award-winning roadsters. One of his masterpieces, a slinky ’48 Cadillac custom rod called CadZZilla, is owned by ZZ Top rocker, Billy Gibbons.
Former Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Ken Gross is a 29-year Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Chief Class Judge and a member of the Selection Committee. The author of 23 catalogs and books, Ken’s curated exhibitions have appeared at many major fine art museums. A lifelong hot rodder, he owns an award-winning 1932 Ford roadster.