The history of hot rodding, just like the definition of a hot rod, is subject to as many opinions as there are hot rodders. But we do know for a fact that the American Automobile Association was recording speed records on the desert lakebeds of Southern California in the early '20s. And although it would be a while before the type of cars setting those records would be called hot rods, that's what they were. When the SCTA was started in 1937, it wasn't to invent a new hobby, but to help organize the already-popular pastime. By the '40s, the activities taking place on the dry lakes and streets around L.A. had become nationally known.
The style of those earliest hot rods never lost its appeal, and many hot rodders are dedicated to keeping that style alive. We're not talking about rat rods, we're talking about authentic hot rods, carefully built and faithfully following the look of the cars built prior to, and just following, World War II.
Four such hot rods belong to Logan Davis, Tyrell Pennington, Timothy Cicora, and Matt Winter, members of the Reelers Car Club. The focus of the Reelers is building hot rods typical of the cars that raced at the dry lakes and Bonneville in the '40s and early '50s. Since none of the Reelers have personal memories of that period, they've studied books and magazines, and talked to older rodders who actually were there, to build their cars as close to the era as possible.
Since the oldest member of the Reelers was born in the '60s and the youngest was born in the '80s, we wondered why they felt such nostalgia for an era they'd never personally experienced. They talked about things like returning to the roots of hot rodding, the innovation and ingenuity of the pioneers of the hobby, and the challenge of building a car before the advent of the Internet and a vast automotive aftermarket. "Those are the guys we are inspired by and the guys we try to follow," Matt says.
For Logan, part of it is the passion those early hot rodders had for their cars. "I'm also passionate about my cars because I built them," he says.
The Reelers will tell you up front that theirs aren't "period-perfect" hot rods. Look hard and you'll catch a detail or two that deviates from the old days. Components like butt splice connectors, hose clamps, tie-wraps, and some fasteners would be unfamiliar to a time traveler from the '40s, but reflect the fact that these hot rods have been built in the true traditional fashion: at home, by their owners, without much money, using parts collected from swap meets, friends, and from around the garage. These aren't museum pieces, they're functioning hot rods that get driven a lot, sometimes every day and sometimes on road trips hundreds of miles long. Their perfection doesn't come from 100 percent correct parts; it comes from a 100 percent correct traditional approach to hot rodding.
The Reelers have done a lot of research to identify the styles of '40s and early '50s hot rods-styles you'd want to follow when building a period-style hot rod today.
Body: The majority of cars racing on the lakes were Ford roadsters. Any year that looks good without fenders and running boards lends itself to an authentic traditional project. That would generally include T's to '34s, with Model A's predominating. An authentic car would feature an original body with modifications kept simple. Exceptions to that rule would be lowered aftermarket headlights and custom taillights, and '32 grilles on Model A's.
Paint: wasn't flashy in that era, partly because flashy paint didn't make a car faster. Cars were running the original paint or were repainted in low-key colors. Photos show black, dark blue, and dark green paintjobs-and considering that the cars most likely to be photographed were the nicest-looking ones, that's probably about as showy as it got.
Chassis: Many Model A's ran on stock frames in the early '40s. Deuce 'rails started gaining in popularity in the late '40s and early '50s. These frames were stronger than Model A frames so they became favored when Flathead V-8s (and then OHVs) started replacing lighter four-bangers as desirable engines. Solid axles, split wishbones, reversed-eye buggy springs, tube shocks, and hydraulic brakes (or mechanical on an earlier prewar car), nail the look of this period. Most cars would've featured a closed driveline and a banjo rearend and possibly a quick-change.
Tires and wheels: For '40s-looking rolling stock, keep it skinny. Photos from before the war show a lot of wire wheels. Later, solid steel wheels were more readily available and had the advantage of being stronger. Big 'n' littles gained popularity after the war as well. Tires were hard to come by during the war so rodders used what they could get. You'll see whitewalls in photos, but a lot more blackwalls. Dirt track tires or motorcycle tires in front also fit the style.
Engines: In the '30s and early '40s, Ford Model A and B four-cylinder engines, running two- and four-port conversions, were beating V-8s on the dry lakes. They'd been around long enough for racers to get them dialed in and to generate a lot of speed equipment. By the late '40s, Flatheads had become more common, but their popularity lost ground to the OHVs by the '50s. All three types of engines are represented in the Reelers' cars. Superchargers were rare, but were seen on the lakes. A pair of Strombergs or Holley 94s are a good choice for a traditional car today.
Interior: Upholstery, like everything else, was simple. Bomber buckets are popular today, but stock seats were more common back then. Two-tone vinyl was not the look yet; natural-colored leather, canvas, or fabric was more prevalent. GI blankets were frequently used as cheap replacement seat covers. In the dash, stock or early Stewart-Warner gauges suit the look.
Sources for the '40s
We can only skim the surface of '40s styling, but there are many resources for hot rodders interested in learning more. The Reelers acknowledged several books that served as guides to the style and culture of '40s hot rods. The Birth of Hot Rodding by Robert Genat and Don Cox is one of the best. Another is Dry Lakes and Drag Strips by Dean Batchelor. Check www.motorbooks.com or other online booksellers for these. Don Montgomery's excellent series, including Hot Rods in the Forties: A Blast from the Past, Hot Rods As They Were, Hot Rod Memories: Relived Again, Authentic Hot Rods, and Old Hot Rods Scrapbook are available from www.montgomeryhotrodbooks.com.
Jeff Norwell's cutaway '28-29 Model A demonstrates many of the characteristics typical of a '40s-era hot rod. Many other variations existed on rods of this period, but this example would've fit right in at Rosamond, Muroc, or El Mirage dry lakes or on the salt at Bonneville.
Fenderless Model A roadster body
'32 Ford grille
Louvered hood top
Dropped I-beam axle
Split wishbone radius rods
Solid steel rims with center caps
Piecrust bias-ply tires
Simple tuck 'n' roll interior
Fuel pressure hand pump
'40 Ford steering wheel