I found myself "talking"—which nowadays could very easily mean bouncing emails back and forth—when the topic came up, "What makes a hot rod iconic?" The logical extension is, "Can you build an iconic hot rod?" A good friend and hot rod industry mogul and I were making our best pitch to the other on just what it takes to make a hot rod worthy of such lofty recognition. We also questioned whether or not you could build a car from the start with the intent of it being an icon.
For starters, what does icon mean? If you break out the ol' Merriam-Webster you will soon learn that the word has a long and storied history that originally meant "…a pictorial representation of a religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians."
Well, the great religions of the world may not look upon hot rodding in such a light but there are plenty of hot rodders who take their lifestyle pretty seriously. Some might say with a reverence befitting a religious experience. Over the course of time the word icon has grown to encompass people of extreme or uncritical attention such as three of my favorites: Sophia Loren, John Wayne, and Dale Earnhardt (the original #3). It doesn't end there but you get the picture. (Did I just give away that I am not of any generation born after the introduction of the catalytic converter?)
Over the ongoing course of time the almost daily use of the word icon has nearly caused the word to lose its importance. Power up any computer and icons will appear, generally relating to the most mundane of tasks. However, we still like to attach reverence to the word and as such a person, a place, or a thing can be referred to as iconic.
So, what makes a hot rod iconic? I'm not sure I can give a neatly packaged answer but I can tell you I know one when I see it. The McMullen roadster is most assuredly as fine an example of an iconic hot rod as one could find but there are plenty of others. What about the Doane Spencer roadster, the "California Kid" coupe, and the list continues. While the term, like most, is used a bit too freely and frequently, there are hot rods that may be iconic to some and not to others—but that's OK. Once again, no one other than yourself has to enjoy looking at your hot rod. (Caveat: If you are married it does help if the wife believes in your passion!)
Then comes the real question, is the car an icon or is the owner or builder an icon? It's my opinion, so take it for what it's worth, but you can't build a car with the intent of it being an icon. It's something that happens. Of the so-called iconic cars in our hobby I can tell you that the owners built the cars the way they wanted and then happenstance and life turned the cars into something special. For instance, the McMullen roadster is called an iconic hot rod. Well, McMullen sure as heck didn't build the car thinking it would be an icon. McMullen at the time wasn't the well-known magazine owner/publisher he became but he was a well-known hot rodder and he and the roadster's exploits graced many a magazine page. The car was driven at record speeds both on the 'strip and on the dry lakes. The black paint resting beneath the flames and the over-the-top pinstriping gave the roadster an appearance that defied any comparison. It was a one-of-a-kind and in time the combination of accomplishments at the hands of McMullen and his larger-than-life actions made the roadster iconic in stature. Of course, selling for $700,000 at a Mecum auction added to the lore. Here one could say McMullen's exploits accelerated both he and the car toward icon stature.
Pete Chapouris and the "California Kid" is another example of hot rodder and car combo where both benefited from the others success. The actions of both unquestionably drove the coupe to hot rod icon status. Here Chapouris will forever be known for Pete & Jake's Hot Rod Parts, SO-CAL Speed Shop, and the famous coupe. But it would be fair to say that the movie, The "California Kid" with up-and-coming movie star Martin Sheen, catapulted the coupe to icon status. There can be little doubt that Chapouris built the coupe in an "expected" theme of the day but once a movie actor and the silver screen became part of the car's heritage there was no denying that the "California Kid" would become an icon.
Another example of what came first, the owner or the car, is the ZZ Top coupe. This Ford coupe was a very, very nice hot rod for its day. However, ZZ Top and, possibly, more specifically Billy Gibbons made the car an icon because of the fame garnered by the hot rod through the music videos and appearances with the group. The likelihood of the car becoming an icon based on its innovative design or engineering wouldn't have brought the car to its lofty position but to be associated with one of the world's most recognizable rock bands didn't hurt.
So, when building your next hot rod don't worry about anything but having fun. The rest will take care of itself.