Factory Cars Challenge the Popularity of Hot Rods and Custom Cars in the 1960s
The decade of the 1960s was a strange period for hot rods and custom cars as both would witness a demise in popularity. Many factors created the right climate for nearly ending customizing and hot rodding, and much of it had to do with what was going on in Detroit.
Production cars were becoming more stylized, with thinner roofs, shorter body sections, and more sculpturing than anything that had been available through most of the 1950s. With slim, tall fins; lots of glass; and tighter body sections, they took on a look that was a natural progression of American automobile design. The look was hard to match by custom cars based on 1940s and early '50s cars.
The AMX-400, built in 1969, was Barris Kustom's attempt at melding the muscle car with the custom car.
Even the radical customizing trick of body sectioning -- mostly seen on 1949-51 Fords because of their slab sides -- couldn't change the heavily crowned fenders, tops, and body sections that looked old compared with the latest from Detroit.
As production cars became more modern in appearance, they were also developing a wallop under the hood. The auto manufacturers were fighting it out in NASCAR and drag racing, and they met the challenge with increasing cubic inches and engine configurations that were previously available only through speed shops. With the dawn of the muscle car era, you could drive off the showroom floor and take on anything, including the average homebuilt hot rod.
Besides muscle cars, Detroit began offering "personal luxury" cars -- personified by the Buick Riviera, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Ford Thunderbird -- that also grabbed attention from hot rods and especially custom cars.
In addition, numerous new-car options became available that were unheard of just a few years previous, swing-away steering wheels, disc brakes, and eight-track tape players among them. These items seemed futuristic from a 1950s perspective, but they were widely available on new cars in the '60s.
On the track, drag racing was becoming more sophisticated, and therefore more expensive. The era of the dual-purpose hot rod that served as both daily transportation and a race car was over.
To stay competitive at the dragstrip, many hot rods were modified to the point that they could no longer be driven on the street. This was especially true in the Gasser classes, which originally came about for hot rodders who couldn't afford the more expensive race-car-only classes that required racing fuel and supercharging or fuel injection. But this wasn't the only turning point for hot rods in drag racing.
In 1965, the American automakers changed drag racing, as well as the perception of their products by young fans, in a big way. In the Modified Stock category, the factories battled it out a quarter-mile at a time. In the interest of speed and better weight distribution, they altered the wheelbases of their factory entries, supercharged the engines, and modified or sometimes completely eliminated stock frames and suspensions.
This ultimately produced the Funny Car, which took the limelight away from the older cars running in the popular Gasser and Fuel Altered classes.
Soon after the introduction of the Funny Car, the Gasser classes started allowing late-model bodies. Many of the more popular Willys, Austins, and English Fords were switched over to sleeker and more Funny Car-like Ford Mustangs, Chevy Camaros, and Plymouth Barracudas. It was another sign that the old was fading.
Custom cars and hot rods were, in part, a reaction to the bland fare coming from Detroit in the 1940s and early '50s. But by the '60s, U.S. automakers were creating machines that matched or exceeded custom cars in terms of looks and hot rods in performance. And while it was once a problem for a younger person to afford expensive equipment, young men of the '60s had easier access to credit and could therefore buy new cars.
For those with gasoline running through their veins, other automotive interests emerged that pried them from the seats of their rods and custom cars. Volkswagens and their offshoots, dune buggies, became popular beginning in the mid 1960s.
Hot Rod and other enthusiast magazines ran ads selling fiberglass kits and how-to articles to go along with them. Some have likened the air-cooled VW engine to Ford's flathead because of its simplicity and the proliferation of aftermarket parts that became available.
Volkswagen was also partially responsible for another automotive diversion: the van craze. It started with VW "hippie vans" and spread to their American counterparts. The van movement wouldn't really take off until the 1970s, but it definitely began in the '60s.
Other factors would contribute to the rapid decline of custom cars in the 1960s. We'll cover those in detail in the next section of this article.
The Decline of the Custom Car
By the late 1950s, car shows had become popular with custom car owners, and their interest spawned the show car circuit of the '60s. But even in the '50s, a car wasn't eligible to compete a second year unless it had new modifications that distinguished it from its previous iteration.
As a result, many of the wonderful customs of the '50s were slowly degraded from a styling standpoint with unnecessary changes in the name of competition. Canted headlights and more baroque styling features were turning the once beautiful cars into overdone statements that should have been left alone. This, too, began a general decline of the custom car genre.
But it didn't stop there. As the decade progressed, wacky show rods proliferated the show car scene. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was one proponent of the genre with his wild fiberglass creations. As Ed tried to outdo himself each show season, his custom show rods went farther over the top, though they usually held some charm.
Other rod builders got into the act, too, which led to ever-stranger creations. By the 1970s, this would manifest itself in such odd concepts as motorized toilets, Coke machines, and pool tables.
Another factor in the decline of custom cars in the 1960s was Hollywood. Some of the famed customizers of the '50s moved slowly away from building custom cars for individual customers to the more lucrative television and movie work.
George Barris was the most notable of these, but Dean Jeffries also did customizing and stunt work for Hollywood, especially after moving his shop next to the Hollywood freeway adjacent to Universal Studios. Larry Watson actually became an actor, appearing in more than 150 television shows from the 1960s through the '80s. Even Von Dutch got into the movie scene, doing two cars for the Steve McQueen movie The Reivers and setting up timed explosives for numerous movies. These were four of the key figures from the 1950s custom car era.
This radical 1962 custom car by Bill Cushenberry, dubbed the Marquis, had a drastically modified front end.
Not everyone had abandoned the traditional custom car. In the Midwest, Darryl Starbird and the Titus brothers (Jerry and Elden) produced custom cars based on both newer and older cars throughout the 1960s. In Northern California, Art Himsl and Rod Powell customized cars and did elaborate custom paintwork, carrying on the traditions of two other Northern California customizers from the 1950s: Joe Bailon and Joe Wilhelm. But the custom car was slowly evaporating from the car scene.
The enthusiast magazines provided perhaps the greatest evidence of the custom cars's decline. By the late 1960s, only Rod & Custom magazine was featuring any sort of custom car, and the majority of these tended to be modified Corvettes with flared fenders, extended duck tails, and bubble hoods.
Some of the last custom cars featured were based on later Rivieras and Chevrolet Impalas, but it was questionable whether they actually improved upon the stock designs. It seemed as if the end of the custom car was near.
Meanwhile, the hot rod world was changing with the times even though its numbers were dwindling. The overhead-valve engine, headed by the small-block Chevy V-8 that had made its debut in 1955, had pretty much eliminated the Ford flathead and even some of the earlier overhead-valve engines. Automatic transmissions were getting lighter and more efficient, and were finding their way into more hot rods. As the trends changed to thinner white sidewall tires, hot rodders followed as well.
As the decade progressed, stylistic changes in drag racing, like the use of magnesium wheels and raised front ends for weight transfer, appeared on street roadsters and coupes. A similar phenomenon had happened in the 1950s when Indy roadster characteristics such as hairpin radius rods and larger meter tires in back and smaller in front were adopted by hot rodders.
On the club scene, groups like the L.A. Roadsters, Bay Area Roadsters, and Early Times found their way into Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding, and especially Rod & Custom magazines with their high-quality cars and club gatherings, now called rod runs. Some of these club runs were combined to produce larger gatherings like the Roadster Roundup, which still continues today.
Over the years, members of each of these clubs worked at numerous West Coast hot rod publications. This helped keep the hot rod fires fanned even as actual participation in rodding waned.
As the decade drew to a close and drag racing became more of a professional endeavor, engine and chassis builders and component manufacturers started businesses to cater to the latest speed equipment and service needs.
Many of these businesses also made hot rod components. Kent Fuller, Dragmaster, Andy Brizio, Cal Automotive, and Speed Products Engineering (which would later become The Deuce Factory, specializing in street rod components) all supplied drag racing components or services, and advertised T-bucket kits.
Others offering T-bucket kits were Ted Brown, Bird Engineering, and Total Performance in Connecticut. Some of these enterprises would lead off the second coming of the hot rod in 1970.
Though the 1960s ended on a down note, some new and exciting developments were in the works for the hot rods of the '70s, while the custom car would slowly begin to make a comeback as its old self.
A new era and a new generation of enthusiasts were about to burst onto the scene to remember and preserve the old and bring on the new. In the next section, get detailed information on the hot rod's rebirth in the 1970s.
Hot Rod Revival in the 1970s
The 1970s could arguably be considered the most exciting decade in the history of hot rods, while the near-dormant custom car was showing signs of rebirth in its original '50s idiom.
There are many reasons for the hot rod revival, but they all lead back to a refocused Rod & Custom magazine. Most of the traditional magazines that featured hot rods and customs had moved away from that segment into drag racing coverage, muscle cars, more technical fare, and in the case of R&C in the '60s, everything from minibikes to plastic models to slot cars.
The California Kid, Pete Chapouris' chopped 1934 Ford coupe, was one of the most significant hot rods of the 1970s.
Now, through the staff's efforts, two developments organized the hot rod scene and ensured its numbers, then and well into the future.
In 1969, the R&C staff decided there should be a national event sponsored by the magazine to bring together as many hot rodders and their cars as possible. Besides the fun factor, it would give R&C an opportunity to acquire features on cars from other parts of the country, not just Southern California. Since they didn't have the budget to fly cross-country to photograph cars, they tried to meet car owners halfway.
A single, central event would also give the editors an opportunity to talk with their readers and to make contacts for potentially more features. They could take the pulse of what was happening elsewhere, and learn of new trends, shops, and personalities.
The editors decided to locate this event in the center of the country, and the town of choice was Peoria, Illinois. After contacting the city, locating a local club to help with logistics, and flying to Peoria to meet with the mayor, R&C proclaimed "All Roads Lead To Peoria" in the June 1970 issue.
Parallel to the event planning were ongoing discussions between the R&C staff and concerned rodders about a potential national organization. The goal was to form an organization to help fight pending state and national safety-equipment regulations, legislation related to the safety of homebuilt vehicles, and smog-control devices for hot rods, or "street rods" as they were now called.
Also, many rod owners were finding it difficult to get insurance. An organized group, it was surmised, would attract a national company to insure street rods.
It became apparent that the best place to attempt to start an organization would be at the upcoming event, now dubbed the Street Rod Nationals. So, the National Street Rod Association, or NSRA, was conceived on the eve of the Nationals, just in time to sign up members from all over the country.
More than 600 pre-1948 rods came out for the first Street Rod Nationals on August 14-16, 1970. They showed off their cars and took part in games, but mostly came to party and celebrate the largest gathering of hot rods yet assembled.
"Street Is Neat" was the slogan conceived by R&C's Tom Medley, and with a successful event and the beginnings of a national organization, the street rod scene was looking neat indeed. Attendance at the second Nationals doubled, and in recent years, the event has grown to attract more than 14,000 cars. The NSRA has more than 50,000 members today.
The Nationals became a springboard for several milestones that would make street rodding what it is today. A number of publications dedicated to street rods emerged. Street Rod magazine first appeared in late 1971, followed by Street Rodder and Ray Brock's Rod Action in '72. These publications would help spread the word and spotlight new companies and their products.
What about custom cars? Well, 1971 would mark the end of the continuous string of custom cars to be featured in magazines since 1948. Milo Broz's sectioned '50 Ford coupe was the last custom to be featured. It appeared in Rod & Custom, which was the last magazine giving customs any recognition.
For the most part, the few custom cars that did exist were from the 1960s. And the few being built were either '50s or '60s relics late in their completion, or they were the work of enthusiasts who didn't much care about the current trends.
A couple custom car trends did linger, though. Corvettes were somewhat popular with customizers because their fiberglass bodies easily took to modifications. And pickups were being lowered with an occasional rolled pan. But the traditional custom car was dormant.
If there was a significant customizing activity in the early 1970s, it had to be the predominately Hispanic lowriders. They could be found on the streets of East Los Angeles, the San Fernando or San Gabriel Valleys of suburban L.A., parts of Arizona, and in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
They tended to be late-model Chevrolets, Pontiacs, or the occasional Oldsmobile or Cadillac. Lowered with dressed-up engines, aftermarket wheels, and wild custom paint jobs, they exhibited excellent craftsmanship -- like 1950s customs.
Generally, lowriders had velvet or velour interiors with features like swivel seats, cocktail bars, TVs, and/or elaborate stereos. About all they lacked compared to traditional customs were body modifications, though some had them. They also differed stylistically. Many wore original badges and trim, and they were frequently festooned with such accessories as sun visors, fender skirts, bumper guards, fog lamps, and headlight visors.
To avoid problems caused by the lingering Southern California ride height laws from the 1950s and '60s, most also used hydraulic suspensions that could lift or lower the whole car in a matter of seconds. The hydraulics utilized lift gate rams from large trucks attached to the suspension components, and they were powered by an army of batteries in the trunk.
But within the next few years, interest in custom cars would be ignited by a popular movie. Continue to the next section to learn more about the custom car's newfound popularity.
Custom Car Interest Rekindles
Just as the custom car seemed to fade completely, developments took place in 1973 and '74 that would help rekindle an interest in '50s custom cars.
George Lucas' movie American Graffiti was released in 1973 to an enthusiastic audience that connected with the film's nostalgic depiction of teenage activities in the summer of '62. Central to the story were cruising customs and hot rods. For car enthusiasts, what could have been more perfect than the Deuce coupe, chopped Merc, and '58 Impala that were central to the story? American Graffiti got people's attention, but there was more to come.
Once again, the magazines played a part. In 1973, Hot Rod, not known for featuring custom cars, ran an article that espoused 1950s customizing as an art form. Examples were included along with a pullout poster by artist Robert Williams. Titled "A Devil With a Hammer and Hell With a Torch," the poster celebrated the accomplishments of George Barris and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and showed real and imagined '50s- and '60s-style custom cars.
Then, Street Rodder devoted its November 1974 issue to chopped Mercs. Bang! The magazine devoted almost entirely to street rods was featuring a custom Merc on its cover. It was all coincidental, but the 1950s style custom car was being celebrated in different media. Slowly, '50s style customs were coming back.
Back on the street rod scene, numerous fledgling companies were manufacturing components exclusively for hot rods by the mid 1970s. Included among them were Pete and Jake's Hot Rod Parts, The Deuce Factory, TCI, Total Performance, and Super Bell Axle Company. They made kits for engine and transmission installations, suspensions, and disc brakes. The Deuce Factory even had a completely new, stamped 1932 Ford frame.
These products made constructing a street rod a lot easier and safer. The components were well-made and engineered, and the new rodding magazines, as well as the Street Rod Nationals, provided the means for effective marketing.
As early Ford bodies became more and more rare, fiberglass companies started manufacturing everything from fenders to complete coupe and roadster bodies. Existing businesses expanded their lines, and more companies sprang up to manufacture more sophisticated equipment such as independent suspensions and air conditioning systems.
From these companies emerged another hot rod milestone. Shops began specializing in constructing hot rods. Customers could buy any service from chassis fabrication to upholstery to wiring, or opt for a complete "turnkey" rod. Dan Woods' Contemporary Carriage Works, J&J Chassis, Andy Brizio, and Pete and Jake's Hot Rod Repair all were doing hot rod construction and fabrication by the mid '70s.
Soon after Jim "Jake" Jacobs finished this 1934 Ford coupe hot rod in 1973, he teamed with Pete Chapouris to open Pete and Jake's Hot Rod Repair.
These were the beginnings of the huge street rod aftermarket industry. It was a slow and steady progression, and an obvious outgrowth of the Street Rod Nationals and the NSRA.
Custom cars were slow to this party, and when they finally arrived, it was in a different way than hot rods. The custom car movement had grown from its rebirth in this decade, but the ideas applied to the custom car hadn't changed significantly from the 1950s.
The same cars were being customized, the shoebox Fords and 1949-51 Mercs for example, and these cars had more complicated bodies and components than hot rods, making aftermarket bodies and parts less feasible to produce. Aftermarket bodies for typical '50s custom subjects weren't needed anyway because these cars were still readily available and relatively affordable.
Also, most custom car modifications have always been unique and labor intensive for each car. Whereas almost every hot rod needed suspension components, making them lucrative to manufacture, custom cars couldn't benefit from as many aftermarket components because it was too difficult at the time to manufacture custom bodies and the market for such products was much smaller.
It also made little sense to make a chopped top for a Mercury or a hood with rounded corners, for instance, because each custom car is a personalized statement, often with different treatments for the various custom modifications.
In the mid to late 1970s, early custom car pioneers, like Gene Winfield and Joe Bailon, noticed an increased demand for their '50s-style customizing services -- things they hadn't done in maybe 10 or 15 years. Dick Dean, who had been doing customizing work since the '50s, started specializing in chopping the tops of anything, like new pickups, and late-model cars, as well as traditional custom car subjects. He advertised in the magazines and became known as the "Top Chop King."
Back in the hot rod world, a new look had taken hold, that of the "resto rod," so-called for its use of original components such as lantern-style cowl lights and accessory trunk racks.
This gave restorers two reasons to dislike hot rodders. First, rodders were "ruining" original cars by cutting up the frames and bodies and installing late-model engines, air conditioning, and the like. Second, the resto rodders were robbing restorers of their prized original components like headlights, accessory clock mirrors, and greyhound hood ornaments.
Original-type mohair upholstery and even stock two-tone paint jobs were showing up with regularity at rod runs and in the magazines.
By the end of the decade, the typical hot rod was a clean, simple traditional or resto rod with modern advances like independent suspensions, disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, power windows, power brakes, and tilt steering columns. Like they often had in the past, junkyards provided the components that builder incorporated into their hot rods, only now some different parts were chosen.
The quality of street rods was on the rise, and so were participation and the street rod industry as a whole. But a styling shift was on the horizon. The look had its roots in the 1970s, but it wouldn't manifest itself until the '80s.
And while the custom car had begun to return to its 1950s roots in the '70s, it was still loosely organized with very few shows to galvanize its following.
The '80s would change that, as several events and organizations would emerge to give custom fans a place to congregate and celebrate. We'll cover these in the next section.
Billets Change the Look of Hot Rods in the 1980s
It had always been fairly costly to build a hot rod or custom car, but young car enthusiasts had always been able to scrimp and save enough to get their projects done. Beginning in the 1980s, though, more money was flying around than ever before.
Those dollars ramped up the level of build quality, components availability, and professional building services. Nearly every aspect of the hot rod and custom car scene benefited.
There are several possible reasons for the change. Many of the guys who couldn't have a cool car in high school were now older and had the money to build that car -- only better. For the first time, there were shops and aftermarket businesses all over the country that could build great cars and excellent components for those cars.
Friendly competition played a part, too. Many wanted to prove "I can build one better than yours." Whatever the reason, it was definitely a new era for hot rods and a renaissance for the '50s custom car.
The new design trend in hot rodding could be summarized in one word: billet. Though it was a decidedly 1980s phenomenon, it had its roots in the '70s. In 1976, Funny Car constructor John Buttera built a Model A roadster based on ideas submitted by designer Harry Bradley. It was new and contemporary, and it differed greatly from the way hot rods had been built.
The main difference was Buttera's use of machined billet aluminum for some of the suspension components, as well as the windshield posts, rearview and side mirrors, and gauge cluster.
John Buttera fabricated an aluminum independent suspension for the Kolmos Phaeton, built in 1985.
Dan Woods had dabbled with machined aluminum in the early '70s with ball-end milled firewalls for T-buckets and Buttera had even made some machined aluminum parts for his own '26 T a couple of years earlier. But this was the first time that new machined aluminum components, including exterior parts, were used extensively on a hot rod. John's white roadster was also completely devoid of chrome -- another deviation from the norm.
John's friend Boyd Coddington took careful notice. Boyd was a machinist at Disneyland in the 1970s who had built some outstanding hot rods in his garage. In '79, he built a small shop behind his house and went into the business of building cars full time. Boyd and John teamed up to create a couple of billet parts for the car Boyd was finishing, a 1932 Ford Vicky.
The Vicky was really a resto rod with a billet instrument panel, but the next car out of Boyd's shop, Vern Luce's '33 Ford coupe, helped define the new era of billet "smoothie" cars. Smoothie referred to the elimination of all the "barbs" associated with older cars, items such as hinges, door handles, windshield frames, body seams, and in some cases, overlapping body panels (like the doors on a Model A).
Though Buttera's Model A roadster hinted at it, the Luce coupe really cemented the look for the high-tech hot rod of the 1980s. The design was a refined amalgamation of Jim Ewing's fenderless orange '34 Ford coupe and Jake Jacobs' '34 highboy coupe.
The Luce coupe came at a time when the landscape was ripe for a new trend, making it extremely influential. Many future rods would follow its design cues.
From there, the billet fad took off, and billet parts are still incorporated into new hot rods today. The difference is that today numerous manufacturers create billet parts that can be purchased with a phone call and a credit card.
Billet turned into probably the biggest thing in hot rodding since the tire. And it has even transcended hot rods to become prevalent on custom motorcycles, especially Harley-Davidsons.
For Boyd Coddington, the Luce coupe was only a preliminary step in the billet arena. Again with the help of John Buttera, Boyd came up with a three-piece billet wheel that would start the aftermarket billet-wheel trend. The first billet wheels appeared on a roadster version of the Luce coupe built for Jamie Musselman. That car received a great amount of magazine coverage, and won the first of many America's Most Beautiful Roadster honors at the Grand National Roadster Show for Boyd Coddington.
A form of this type of wheel had previously been manufactured by Center Line Wheel Corporation, but those wheels utilized cast or stamped centers. The billet center allowed Boyd to program a mill to cut an infinite number of different designs. Boyd turned his wheels into a whole separate company.
Interiors got the modern treatment too, with gauge clusters made of billet, integrated instead of screw-on armrests, and elegant designs for the door panels and seats. No tuck and roll could be found in these contemporary "smoothies."
The interiors were following the latest styles from Detroit, with instrument panels and window frames painted low gloss colors to match the interior. Interiors were now integrated, instead of making the separate pieces stand out with color or chrome.
Under the skin, electronic fuel injection was finding its way into many hot rods, as were four-speed automatic overdrive transmissions, and elaborate, custom-fabricated independent suspensions. Engine blocks were now ground smooth before being shot with paint to make them as shiny and smooth as the outside of the car. Valve covers, air cleaners, spark plug wiring looms -- virtually everything in the engine compartment was available in billet.
In the next section, find out how other '80s trends -- and even MTV -- played a role in hot rod evolution.
New Ideas and Looks for Hot Rods and Custom Cars
While Boyd Coddington was changing the way hot rods were built in the 1980s, another hot rod was spreading the word to a new audience. Owned by Billy Gibbons of the rock band ZZ Top, the Eliminator coupe was a '33 Ford built in Paramount, California, by Don Thelen in 1983.
At the time, a cultural revolution of sorts was taking place on television with the growing influence of MTV. The coupe was incorporated into four ZZ Top videos that saw a lot of airplay. The exposure introduced the hot rod to a new generation.
ZZ Top members pose with their famed hot rod, the ZZ Top Eliminator coupe.
Two other trends that began in the 1980s on hot rods and custom cars were pastel colors and the pro street look. Pastels and neon-look colors were popular in mainstream culture and fashion, and these hues spilled over into the automotive world.
Pro street cars emulated the Pro Stock class of drag racing. They had huge slicks in the rear, which necessitated moving the rear portion of the frame inward and fabricating huge sheetmetal or aluminum wheelwell "tubs." Skinny tires were run up front, and the cars were lowered as far as was practical, and sometimes further. Big, powerful motors and, in some cases, roll cages completed the look.
In the custom car world, a few enthusiasts with a historical perspective began to seek out and restore original customs from the 1940s and '50s. A lot of the custom car treasures were lost forever, but a surprising number that had been stuffed into garages for 30 or 40 years began to see the light of day.
Kurt McCormick, of Webster Groves, Missouri, who has a bloodhound nose for seeking out original custom cars, began to find success locating historic cars in the 1980s. But the significant original customs were few and far between. That didn't stop other crafty custom car fans who began to build clones of their favorite customs from the past, as Jack Walker did with the Hirohata Mercury.
While the NSRA had given street rodders a national organization and plenty of events to attend in the 1970s, custom car fans felt left out. Street rodding events often cut off participation at the 1948 model year, excluding most customs. That began to change in the '80s thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated custom car enthusiasts.
Jerry and Elden Titus formed the Kustom Kemps of America (KKOA) in 1981 and hosted a national car show in Wichita, Kansas. Former Hot Rod magazine editor Terry Cook began to produce a yearly custom car gathering and 1950s happening called Lead East in '82. And in California, the West Coast Customs club hosted its inaugural custom car show in Paso Robles in '82.
These three events welcomed custom car owners and gave them the opportunity to attend a show without having to drive too far. They may not have rivaled the NSRA Nationals in terms of size, but for the custom car owner, these were "must attend" events.
Most of the attendees were older. They were the guys who had either been part of the custom car scene in the 1950s and '60s as young adults or who had admired it as youngsters. Their renewed participation in the '80s represented the revival of the custom car scene.
In 1987, a new organization that welcomed both hot rods and custom cars was created. Founded by ex-NSRA honcho Gary Meadors, the Goodguys Rod and Custom Association continues to put on events and has since expanded to include cars up to '72. Even with this new association and its events, the NSRA's Street Rod Nationals still grew each year.
As the street rodding scene grew, so too did demand for pre-1935 Fords, which were still the subject matter of choice for hot rodders. But as more pre-'35 cars were built, the prices for original cars or components rose. Suddenly, post-'35 cars seemed like bargains, and their styling began to look appealing as well. Thus began another trend of the 1980s, the acceptance by hot rodders of "fat fendered" cars from the late '30s and '40s.
With this new interest came new products, led by Pete and Jake's in 1985 with a line of fat-fender suspension components. Some of the parts aftermarket companies had been making adapted well to the later cars, while others needed to be newly tooled. The components combined with a seemingly unending supply of available Ford and Chevy sheetmetal to keep interest high in the fat-fendered hot rod.
Also in the mid 1980s, the Specialty Equipment and Marketing Association (SEMA), the organization that supports the automotive aftermarket, set aside a portion of its massive annual trade show in Las Vegas for street rod component manufacturers. Since most were and still are "mom and pop" operations, the new "Street Rod Alley" represented major recognition. It effectively said that street rod parts makers had grown to become a major part of the two-billion-dollar-a-year automotive aftermarket industry.
While not a trend per se, another development of the 1980s was the use of professional designers to draw plans for hot rods, and eventually custom cars. Boyd Coddington, John Buttera, Roy Brizio, and others enlisted Steve Stanford, Harry Bradley, "Mr. Hot Wheels" Larry Wood, and eventually, Larry Erickson. These designers, all hot rod enthusiasts, conceived ideas or put down on paper what the customer wanted to help guide ever more involved (and expensive) projects.
Most of these projects involved hot rods (like the Luce coupe at the start of the decade), but later in the decade, Cadillac Design Studio alum Larry Erickson designed a custom called CadZZilla™.
Commissioned by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and built by the crew at Boyd Coddington's shop in Stanton, California, the car was a contemporary iteration of an "aeroback" or fastback 1948 Cadillac sedanette. It was the first really new type of custom since the heyday of the 1950s.
The design language of the top, hood, side window openings, and front and rear ends was completely new and different from anything that had gone before it. CadZZilla™. created a stir and was instantly recognized as one of the all-time great custom cars.
By the end of the decade, custom car show participation had grown considerably, and CadZZilla's™ debut pointed the way to new possibilities in custom car design. Meanwhile, hot rodders were busy building new types of cars with new kinds of parts. It was a vibrant time for rod and custom car fans.
Next, find out how custom cars and hot rods finally hit the mainstream in the 1990s.
Hot Rods and Custom Cars Go Mainstream in the 1990s
In popular culture, there is usually a 40- to 50-year lag time from when something was first popular to when it is rediscovered. That held true for the hot rod that became known in the late 1990s as the "rat rod." Some like the term, some don't, but it has stuck.
While it is hard to classify any type of art form, rat rods take on the rougher look of 1940s and '50s dry-lakes cars. Stripped down and grimy, they look like they were just driven off the dirt and dust of El Mirage. There is usually no paint, just primer. They have minimal interiors, spotty body work, and may or may not have a hood. Exposed welds are quite welcome.
The engines are vintage, and they often have rare vintage speed equipment that is probably scarce because it got shelved early on when it didn't work all that well. Fixing, nursing along, and messing with the old iron is part of the deal.
One of the main reasons for the initial growth of rat rods was a series of books containing vintage photography from the personal collections of many early rodders and drag racers. The books were authored by an early rodder and drag racer himself, Don Montgomery. With Don's books, the newer rodders interested in the wheres and what-fors of the early years now had candid shots of the era to reference. Early speed equipment, car configurations, and the general way they did things were all chronicled and accessible.
The rat rod scene soon became a culture, not just a hot rod building style, for a new, younger breed of hot rodder. Go to any rat rod show today, and you'll see it has its own art, music, and fashion, all revolving around 1940s and '50s styles. Tattoos are quite popular with this group; the more the better. Tattoo parlors often display their work at rat rod gatherings. Rockabilly and swing music can be heard from live bands at rat rod shows like Billetproof (no billet aluminum parts allowed) and The Blessing of the Cars -- where a priest is on hand to bless cars with holy water.
Rat rods brought about a resurgence of car clubs, too. Some of the earlier clubs, such as the Choppers of Burbank, California, and the Shifters of Orange County, California, started early in the 1990s and adopted club names inspired by names from the past. Some of these clubs welcomed both rod and custom car owners, all in the "rat" style, of course. With the clubs came parties and social gatherings, just like back in the 1950s.
Rat rods also came about as a reaction to the expensive, pro-built cars that were being churned out with ever higher levels of fit and finish. By the mid 1990s, Boyd Coddington's shop had become a big business, with its hand in many segments of the hot rod and custom car worlds.
Coddington was no longer the little guy, and to some, his style had become too prevalent. They felt the best way to beat him was to change the rules. Rat rodders were the most obvious and radical shift away from the fiberglass and billet creations that had become street rodding's state of the art.
While the modern street rod was experiencing a bit of a backlash, the modern custom car was flourishing. Two Northern California customizers, John D'Agostino and Richard Zocchi, helped spur interest in the custom car scene.
The Nadean, with voluptuous contours and an understated paint job, was one of the modern custom cars of the 1990s.
The duo began receiving recognition for showing customs built to their designs in the late 1980s. By the early '90s, they had made it a practice to debut their cars each year at Oakland's Grand National Roadster Show. For custom car enthusiasts, seeing the latest from D'Agostino and Zocchi became an anticipated part of the show.
Both gentlemen's cars are in much the same idiom. They combine vintage custom styling cues with contemporary paint blends, suspensions, interior touches, and wheels. Their efforts have influenced many custom car aficionados, carried on the tradition of the 1960s show custom, and boosted interest in custom cars in general.
While D'Agostino and Zocchi were raising awareness of custom cars through their beautiful designs and prolific output, another phenomenon gave the custom car scene a boost in the 1990s, that of the high-end, high-profile custom car.
In 1989, CadZZilla™ led off a string of envelope-pushing, highly publicized custom cars. CheZoom followed in late '92, Frankenstude was finished in '96, and Scrape debuted in '98. All of these cars received publicity beyond the traditional custom car media, introducing a mainstream audience to custom cars.
At the other end of the spectrum, the youth-oriented rat rod scene inspired a revival of late 1940s/early '50s-style "in-progress" leadsled custom cars. Builders took pride in leaving the cars in primer or bare metal to better show off the modifications and craftsmanship.
Back in the hot rod world, rodders also began exploring new/old forms of hot rodding, like lakes modifieds, for the first time in years. Interest in restoring historical cars, presaged by Rod & Custom staffer Jim "Jake" Jacobs and the NieKamp roadster back in 1970, was peaking.
The prestigious concours at Pebble Beach even got into the act by introducing a hot rod class for the '97 Concours d'Elegance. Reviews have been mixed regarding hot rodders' inclusion in an upscale arena they never dreamed of entering (or perhaps even cared about), but a hot rod or custom car class has returned every other year since that first show.
Hot rodding was maturing, too. Companies like Petersen Publishing, Hilborn Fuel Injection, and Edelbrock were celebrating 50 years of service. Some of the icons of hot rodding and custom cars were leaving us as old age crept up. Guys like Rich Guasco, who won the 1961 Grand National Roadster Show and who later piloted the Pure Hell Fuel Altered, were restoring their cars and using them in retirement like they had as young adults.
The introduction of a breakthrough product would soon fuel the modernization of vintage custom cars.