Last Updated: 17 July 2012

Custom culture, part 1: Reinventing the car

Ever since the beginning of time, Man has been possessed with an irrepressible urge to move faster. With the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century, this evolution was greatly accelerated – and as soon as there were cars, there were people who wanted to make them to go ever faster.

The history of the custom car culture seems to have begun sometime in the 1930s, when old Model T Fords were stripped of anything unnecessary by young Americans who wanted to make their cars go faster. The hot rod was born – although the term was not commonly used until the 1950s.

Getting hotter

It wasn’t until after World War II that car customization became a widespread trend in the U.S. American soldiers returning from duty in Europe had experienced fast European sports cars – and many had also been trained in tuning and rebuilding engines. Back at home, they were eager to use their skills.

A new hot rod favourite was the Ford Coupe, which had been America’s first affordable V8 car in the 1930s. People could also pick up V8 engines from wrecks in the scrap yard and fit them into other cars.

The late 1940s to early 1960s were the golden age for customized cars in the hot rod style. Young men had money – and they wanted to have fast, hot cars, streamlined for speed.

In California, the number one state for custom cars, some customizers became famous outside their arena. Most famous were perhaps the brothers George and Sam Barris, who created the Batmobile for the 1960s flannel-clad Batman.

Factory-built muscles

From the early 1960s on, U.S. car manufacturers saw the value of creating cars for a young target group who wanted maximum power for their money.

Large engines were fit into medium-sized frames that were meticulously defined to attract the young buyers. The term “muscle car” was coined and the cars from this era have become classics – Cevrolet Camaro, Dodge Charger, Ford Mustang … These cars became huge successes, as they, unlike their European counterparts, were affordable to middle-class Americans.

Meanwhile, the hot rod culture became more of a show business – and a part of pop culture. The 1973 movie “American Graffiti,” set in the early 1960s California street scene, spawned a renewed interest in customization and retro cars all over the world.

Hot rodding today follows the same basic concept: the cars are stripped to their bare essentials, the engines are highly-tuned, and they make 0–100 at about five seconds.

The classic Fords are still the most popular cars for hot rodding. It’s almost impossible, however, to get your hands on an original, unmodified 1930s Ford. To solve this issue, companies started creating replicas already in the seventies, and today there’s more 1930s Fords on the streets than ever.

Unlike newer cars, an old Ford can be rebuilt in numerous ways – and that’s really what hot rodding is all about: You never really want the work to be finished.

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