Monday, May 25, 2009

Modernizing Vintage Custom Cars and Hot Rods

Feeling that they had explored the fringes of modernizing hot rods with the smoothies of the 1980s, many rodders built rods in the '90s that looked and sounded like rods from the past. Flathead engines started showing up more often in newly built roadsters. As a result, speed equipment that hadn't been produced in decades returned to parts catalogs.

And new twists on old hot rod staples were becoming more common. For example, electronic fuel injection units were hidden in '60s-style mechanical fuel-injection intake manifolds and '40 Ford-style drum brake backing plates now hid modern discs. Everything old was new again.

Then, a breakthrough product appeared, and it made quite a splash. Brookville Roadsters in Brookville, Ohio, came out with an exact reproduction 1932 Ford roadster body in 1997. While '32 Ford bodies had been available for decades in fiberglass, this body was significant because it was made out of steel, just like the originals.

Apparently, a lot of people had been waiting to find a reasonably priced steel body because hundreds laid out the cash for a Brookville body and made plans to build a '32 roadster.

In addition to the bodies, tires that hadn't been manufactured in decades were now available from specialty tire suppliers like Coker. Combining the best of the old and the new, Coker offered radial tires with wide white sidewalls. What seemed unimaginable only a few years earlier was now possible. A hot rodder could buy a new version of almost any old speed part.

As more enthusiasts were initiated into the fold in the 1990s, they in turn exposed others to the hobby, and thus even more joined the bandwagon. The Street Rod Nationals grew to 14,000 pre-1949 hot rods, making it one of the largest car shows in the world.

To see just how mainstream the hot rod had become, look no further than Detroit. After Mitsubishi supplied the driveline for Boyd Coddington's Aluma Coupe in 1991, Chrysler quietly developed a hot rod-style show car, the Plymouth Prowler, for the '93 auto-show season. The Prowler received a positive response, and Chrysler introduced a production version for the '97 model year. Annual production continued until 2002 at about 3500 units each year.

Traditional hot rodders complained that the V-6 wasn't true to the hot rod spirit. Still, the Prowler served as a symbol of how far the hot rod had come in 50 or so years -- from stripped down Detroit castoff to limited-production "halo" vehicle.

High-end hot rods caught the interest of Japanese automakers, too. In 1994, the Q29 Infiniti Flyer became the first Oakland Roadster Show America's Most Beautiful Roadster winner with a Japanese engine. Based on a '29 Ford, the car was built by Art and Mike Chrisman for Joe MacPherson.

Infiniti didn't pay for the project, but Nissan's luxury division did supply many parts and much technical support. The yellow roadster utilized the engine and transmission, as well as other components, from an Infiniti Q45. It was quite an engineering feat.

A couple of years later, Toyota's luxury arm, Lexus, ventured into the hot rod arena with a one-off highboy roadster show car based on the venerable 1932 Ford. The car incorporated the drivetrain and some suspension components from a Lexus GS400. The marriage of the old and new looked natural.

The Cole Foster '54 is a chopped 1954 Chevy hardtop whose traditional styling pays homage to custom cars of the 1950s.

Hot rods and custom cars had traditionally been preoccupations for young men, but in the 1990s it became obvious that the age of the participants was increasing. Actually, the hot rod and custom car fans of the '90s were many of the same participants from the hobbies' earlier incarnations in the '50s and '60s.

By now, their children had left the nest, they had ascended to higher income tax brackets, and they had more spare time. They were looking for a hobby that also had a social aspect, and a return to the hot rods and custom cars of their youth fit the bill.

The hot rod and custom car hobby was going strong at the end of the millennium, but it had yet to hit full stride. While the rat rod scene had begun to attract a new, younger crowd, another development would soon introduce hot rods and customs to an even wider audience.

Television and Trends for Hot Rods and Custom Cars in the 2000's

So far, we've discussed the evolution of the hot rod and custom car over the last 75 or so years. Besides the physical evolution, you've read about its growth and steady increase in popularity. So, by the start of the new millennium you might imagine that its image was set in the hearts and minds of America and that exposure was at its peak.

Not so.

Television, that vapid wasteland of sitcoms and teleprompter news readers, can popularize a pastime faster than you can say "nitro-burning Funny Car." In 2001, the Discovery Channel documentary Motorcycle Mania took viewers into the world of Long Beach, California, chopper builder (and former Boyd Coddington employee) Jesse James.

The documentary spiked ratings, and a second documentary on Jesse and his shop followed. That program saw excellent ratings as well, and the success begat Monster Garage in 2002.

Monster Garage was conceived as a weekly program about building a crazy car or truck in five days. Several automotive personalities have been guests on the show, including myself. Concurrent to Monster Garage, American Chopper, a show about a dysfunctional family building choppers in New York, also garnered excellent ratings for the Discovery Channel.

Following the success of these shows, Discovery looked for the next big thing, and that honor fell to the hot rod and custom car. In 2004, Discovery launched American Hot Rod, a show that follows the workings of Boyd Coddington's shop.

Also in 2004, The Learning Channel (TLC), a sister to Discovery, introduced Overhaulin'. Starring hot rod and custom designer/fabricator (and another former Coddington employee) Chip Foose, the show follows the building process at Chip's shop as he turns guests' project cars into modern rods and custom cars.

Hot rods and custom cars also began appearing in the TV documentaries that had formerly been devoted to classic or exotic cars. With the popularity of these and other television shows, it's a sure-fire bet that hot rods and custom cars have found new recruits eager to build or just own something like they have seen on TV. While television has not changed hot rod and custom car styling trends, it could very well affect their popularity for years to come.

As for those trends, building styles continue to evolve. Today, anything can be seen at a rod run or custom car show. Many of the more-contemporary components and equipment developed since the mid '70s -- by companies such as Pete & Jake's, Super Bell, TCI, and the Deuce Factory, and later Magnum Axle, Chassis Engineering, and the So-Cal Speed Shop -- can be seen on hot rods and custom cars today.

Jimmy Shine, fabricator at So-Cal Speed Shop, might keep his '34 Ford pickup hot rod unpainted.

Some of those parts have fallen out of favor, though, as a few of the styling trends of the 1970s, '80s, and even '90s have been abandoned for a more traditional look. Many of today's hot rods are highly detailed and look like they may have come from any era.

The difference between the rods and custom cars of the past and those that emulate them today is detail. From fabrication to execution, these new nostalgic cars are rolling art. Today's builders have taken the construction of hot rods and custom cars to heights that the builders of the 1950s couldn't have fathomed. Heck, they've taken them to heights that builders of the '80s couldn't have imagined!

The flathead Ford engine has experienced a resurgence in popularity, but the cars they end up in today are usually more detailed and better built than those of the past.

Some of this interest in vintage styling has come from rat rods, but it also came about as a backlash against the ever more computer-controlled engines and drivelines in today's new cars.

The use of modern drivetrains in hot rods and custom cars complicates construction and maintenance. As a result, a lot of builders are going back to simpler ways to build cars to keep the fun factor in their projects. If a project requires an engineer to package the engine, transmission, computers, and electronics, and another one to keep it all running, the fun's gone.

The rat rod genre continues to add more recruits. These cars often incorporate more-radical customizing and hot rodding elements. Severely chopped tops, drastically channeled bodies, and radically equipped vintage engines all provide striking looks. And there is no segregation of the rods and custom cars -- if it's cool and primered, it's welcome.

From the looks of things, the participants seem to be having fun, which is what it is all about. Rat rods are often stripped down without a lot of detailing and finish, making them quick to build and worry-free. In some ways, owners of highly detailed rods and custom cars must be envious.

I doubt that many high-tech hot rod owners can park their cars and walk away without worrying about what may befall their cars in parking lots or on city streets. Rat rodders don't have that problem.

What does the future hold for hot rods and custom cars?

The Future of Hot Rods and Custom Cars

As we dig back into the past for hot rod inspiration, many are finding that their past may not be the same as their friends' or contemporaries'. The older fellows might like '40s and '50s styles, while younger guys might relate better to the '60s. As a result, we are now seeing interest in the '60s styles -- things such as bubbletops and exotic fiberglass rods like those from Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

These types of cars appear from time to time at car shows and rod runs. There may only be a handful due to the expertise required to make a body from scratch, but their inclusion points to styles from the past coming back, seemingly in chronological order.

Along these same chronological lines is the new interest in the Gasser look. Gassers were the stock-bodied hot rods of drag racing's golden days of the mid-1960s. To aid weight transfer, they were jacked up in front with big slicks in back. The Gasser look is finding its way back into hot rodding in increasing numbers. It had to happen: As cars got lower, there would inevitably be an opposing trend.

So we see that styles from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s have returned. It hasn't happened yet, but we may soon see a groundswell of interest in resto rods of the '70s, and then who knows, maybe even the smoothie style of the '80s. You may not want to think about saving that hard-edged billet mirror for the nostalgic smoothie rod you might be building in 2020, but things could be heading that way.

The Ritzow Deuce, Goodguys' 2004 Street Rod of the Year, has a look rooted in the '40s coupled with­ state-of-the-art technology.

With the number of magazines and events that existed in the '80s, a lot of youth were exposed to rods and custom cars at the time. In the future, adults who remember those cool billet windshield wipers or independent front suspensions may strive to create something similar for themselves.

Most of these trends affect hot rods more than customs. While the custom car will certainly never go away, it may become a shadow in the midst of hot rods, as well as other enthusiast subjects such as muscle cars, Volkswagens, tuner cars, pickups, you name it.

As stock automobiles from the 1940s and '50s become increasingly rare and more expensive, it becomes a little harder to take a torch to one. And for those who do, there is no turning back. It's best to be versed in the intricacies of custom metal fabrication or face the task of saving it if that chopped top goes awry.

In recent years, many good-looking newly built custom car have appeared at events throughout the country. That's a good sign, but their numbers are only a fraction of the hot rods touching asphalt for the first time. Currently, brand-new Model A roadster, 1932 Ford roadster, and three-window coupe bodies are produced in metal -- and just about any body style and year of Ford is available in fiberglass.

There are also reproduction metal 1969 Chevrolet Camaro and 1947-54 Chevy pickup bodies, with '67-68 Ford Mustangs not far behind. No shoebox Ford or 1949-51 Mercury body has been produced in metal, though, which speaks to their demand. Though fiberglass Mercury bodies are available from longtime customizer Gene Winfield, they don't seem to be making it onto the street.

As hot rodders and custom car enthusiasts act and react to current and past trends in building styles and components, one thing is for sure: Hot rods and customs are an American phenomenon -- one that participants are proud to carry on. The cars are creative, interesting, and just plain cool.

They are a celebration of the last 75 or so years of innovative backyard efforts, some of which have turned into multimillion-dollar industries. Many rodders and customizers have become heroes or icons to other enthusiasts. In all cases, the cars have thrilled owners and onlookers.

It takes vision, determination, and the skill of a metal virtuoso to take on the challenge of making an old car handle, run, ride, and look better. These qualities seem to be innate in many American men and women, and they have been for years.

Though its roots were with the postwar youth, those original participants are aging to the extent that one might expect the whole phenomenon to fade with their memories.

But the state of the hot rod and custom car hobby is as strong and vibrant as it has ever been. It appears that this marvel of American ingenuity and imagination will remain for future generations to prize and admire -- possibly forever.

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