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
'28 Ford Model A roadster
Logan Davis says his passion for his cars comes from the fact that he builds them himself. "To start with a pile of parts and end up driving it on the road a year later is what inspires me as much as the era itself."
He found the' 28 body through a friend of a friend. The guy who sold Logan his rusty old '28 roadster body told him that it came from a Colorado River bed. At the '10 Grand National Roadster Show, the car won the Best Roadster awards from the Jalopy Journal and the Shifters Car Club.
No modifications were made to the original '28 sheetmetal, although Logan did add a '32 grille, vintage Arrow headlights, old trailer taillights, and the '32 Chevy hood sides that make the A stand out. Jerry Armstong did much of the bodywork and shot the custom blue paint.
The original '32 frame came from a farm near the Kern River in central California. The 'rails were modified with a Model A rear crossmember. The frontend features an I-beam axle and '39 Ford spindles. Logan uses '32 springs in front and Model A springs in the back, with tube shocks and Lincoln brakes at both ends. Big 'n' little Firestone tires-5.50s and 7.00s-are mounted on '40 Ford 16-inch solid wheels with rings and caps.
Engine Machine Services in L.A. bored the '46 Ford Flathead 0.080-over to 270 ci. Logan did the assembly work using Egge pistons, 8BA rods, a Mercury 4-inch stroke crank, and a Clay Smith cam. The engine features 24-stud Evans heads and a two-belt system (one for the water pump and generator, and one for the fan). A Weiand high-rise intake manifold and a pair of Stromberg 97 carbs provide air and fuel, lit by a crab-style distributor. Red's Headers and Speed Equipment in Thousand Palms, California, provided the headers; glass pack mufflers provide the tone. Logan built the '39 transmission, using Zephyr gears, a stock shifter, and 9-inch clutch. A shortened torque tube spins 3.54:1 gears in a safety-wired '39 rearend.
Logan installed the dash from a late-'20s-era Oldsmobile and built a custom insert for the gauges from a war-era Chevy pickup truck. The '34-35 Chevy steering wheel was mounted on a '32 column. The bench seat came out of a '47 pickup and was narrowed to fit the roadster. Vic's Upholstery in Castaic handled the black leather pleated upholstery. Period aircraft belts finish the look.
"I try to build time machines," Logan says. "I love it when I'm driving down a road with no other cars, and no indications of the time period. It's like reliving a different era, experiencing what somebody would have experienced at that period.
"I know that I have reached my goal with the car when I'm at an event or a gas station and some older guy asks me, 'Is this so-and-so's car? He drove this in high school. It's good to see it out again!' When I hear comments like that, it makes it all worth it. The fact that somebody would confuse my car with one that came from that day makes me know that I'm doing something right."
Culver City, California
'28 Ford Model A roadster
Matt Winter has been hot rodding since he was 13, and credits Logan Davis with influencing him in the traditional '40s style, and in teaching him a bit about period-correct roadsters. He has also been influenced by his grandfather, "who was a Model A guy," and by his father, who helped teach him do-it-yourself skills.
Of course he's been influenced by the generation of early hot rodders whom he calls innovators and builders. Following their example, he did the bodywork and paint on the '28. The body and custom aluminum hood came from an actual race car that ran on the dry lakes in the late '40s and at Bonneville in the '50s. Even the decklid louvers date back to the '40s. The headlights are Arrows from the '30s and taillights are teardrops from a '39 Ford. The windshield was chopped and laid back. Matt's father made the leather belt straps for the hood. Matt added a '32 grille. He shot the drab green-gray paint to give the appearance of buffed-out original paint.
The Deuce 'rails were built up with motor mounts for the overhead and a rear spring saddle. Matt also runs a pair of tube shocks in the rear, and '36 side-mount friction shocks and Model A buggy springs at the front dropped axle. A '39 pedal assembly is used with '40 Ford hydraulic brakes. The steering box is from a '39. For rolling stock, Matt chose 16-inch '40 steel rims combined with 5.00x16 and 7.50x16 World War II-era motorcycle-style tires.
OHV V-8s got the attention of hot rodders in the late '40s and early '50s. This '49 Olds Rocket 88 is the only OHV engine of the four Reelers roadsters. Machine work was originally done at Iskenderian's in Culver City, California, and the mostly stock engine runs an Isky cam. Matt runs Stromberg 97s on an Edmunds 2x2 intake manifold-and no mufflers on the custom-built exhaust. The Olds is backed by a '39 Ford top loader and cut-down torque tube driveline with a 3.78:1 '39 Ford rear at the other end.
He replaced the original dash with a '33 Pontiac dash with a '36 Packard insert and gauges, behind a '40 steering wheel. Manuel's Body Shop helped him cover the homebuilt bench seat with tuck 'n' roll leather. The lap belts are from a World War II fighter plane.
Matt says the roadster has provided him with a lot of experiences he wouldn't have had otherwise. "One of the most memorable was driving the car through the desert in the middle of the night on my way to the dry lakes for the first time. There are too many to think about, but one in particular was being able to show my father my car displayed at the Grand National Roadster Show before he passed. Seeing his eyes light up when he looked at this piece of art I'd built with my own hands using the tools he taught me how to work with was great. I'd like to pass this roadster onto my own kids when I have some-after they've built a car of their own, of course."
Travis Air Force Base, California
'30 Ford Model A roadster
Tyrell Pennington got into the hot rodding hobby through his dad, Don. Both are members of the Pasadena Roadster Club. "My dad, who was a teenager in the late '50s, would tell me stories about drag racing on Van Nuys Boulevard. He didn't have a lot of money, but he had a car. He built it himself and it was fast enough for him. Something about that made sense to me. Those guys were innovative and imaginative in creating ways to go faster. I'm trying to do the same thing they were doing. I'll run a part for a while and if I think I could do something better, I'll take it off and find something new to try to improve it somehow."
He started planning for this roadster when he was 14 and started building when he was 18. He was driving the car in patina'd finish when he met Matt Winter at the Pasadena Reliability Run several years ago. They discovered their mutual interest in World War II memorabilia and early hot rods, and Tyrell was soon a member of the Reelers. After blowing up the first motor, a '41 Merc, he rebuilt the whole car and painted it.
Tyrell runs the roadster without a windshield, emulating the look from the dry lakes when racers would've removed all extra street equipment, including fenders and running boards and headlights to eliminate weight. Tyrell keeps the BLC headlights in place; taillights came from a '47 Kaiser. The '32 grille shell is filled with an N.O.S. insert. The shiniest of the Reelers' cars was painted by Don and Tyrell, using PPG single-stage black paint.
The stock Model A 'rails were strengthened with the K-member from a '32. Period suspension parts include a '32 front axle, '40 spindles, split 'bones, and Model A springs with reversed eyes. Rear leafs were de-arched. Brakes come from a '40 Ford.
A set of 16x4 '40 Ford rims roll on bias-ply Firestone rubber. The rear tires measure 7.00x16 and the front dirt track tires are 5.00x5.50s.
The 24-stud Cyclone head Flathead is a '46 59L. Jim Grubbs in Valencia, California, did the machining. It's been bored and stroked, balanced, and blueprinted, and displaces 276 ci. Internals include a '49 Merc crank and rods with 11.0:1 Ross pistons. The cam is an original Howard M-12. The ignition is a Lincoln V-12 converted Harmon Collins with braided cloth covered wires. The dual Stromberg 48s with chrome scoops feed an original Evans intake. Tyrell built his own headers from 2-inch flex tubing and left off the mufflers. A '39 swan shifter shifts the gears in a '39 Ford, with an 11-inch Ford truck clutch. Torque is delivered through a shortened Model A driveshaft to a Halibrand Culver City quick-change with 3.62:1 gears.
The only roadster in the club without a bench seat, the '30 has buckets from a '29 New Standard barnstormer biplane, created from steam-formed wood, using bomber lap belts. Stewart-Warner curved glass instruments were added in the stock dash and in a lower panel. The steering wheel is from a '32.
Although the roadster is primarily owner-built, Tyrell gives credit to his dad, his brother Sean, and to Jerry Armstrong for their contributions to the car.
Culver City, California
'28 Ford Model A roadster
Timothy Cicora's four-banger '28 Model A is the earliest-styled of the Reelers' cars, and built with "a lot of stuff I had hanging around the garage." Timothy is an East Coast transplant who, thanks to his father, grew up around cars. After moving to the Los Angeles area, it didn't take him long to get involved in the traditional hot rod scene.
"I was at a restaurant with my chopped '34 coupe. Matt saw it and stuck a business card on my coupe, with a note complimenting the car. I called him and we started hanging out. I met Tyrell and Logan through Matt and we started talking about a car club."
Not long ago, Timothy was driving a full-fendered '29 phaeton, but was looking for a prewar-style dry lakes roadster. His friend, builder Steve Beck, had a roadster but was looking for a tub, so they swapped bodies. A few body panels were in need of repairs but changes were kept to a minimum. The windshield was chopped 2 inches and the posts leaned back 5 degrees. The grille is the original '28 Ford piece. Manuel's Body Shop in Culver City performed some pre-paint bodywork and shot the gray primer sealer.
Timothy had done much of the chassis work when the car was still a phaeton. He added subrails to the original frame. It has a T spring in the rear to lower it approximately 4 inches. The front is lowered with a de-arched Model A buggy spring with reversed eyes, and a 2-inch dropped Model A axle. The frontend has stock spindles and a draglink steering setup, and rides on '39 shocks with aircraft-style tubular shocks in back.
The '32 Ford 18-inch wire wheels also contribute to the roadster's earlier, prewar style. He put 6.50-18 Firestone piecrusts on the rear and 5.50-18 Excelsiors up front. Brakes are '39 Ford.
The powerplant is what earns the roadster the most attention, and what provided the biggest challenge to Timothy. He built up the 0.060-over '32 four-banger was with an early cast-iron Winfield head with crow's foot chambers and a Winfield "R" cam. The Rajo-type manifold was machined to fit a pair of Winfield S-AA-D carburetors and Model B ports. Setting up the dual Winfield carbs was a lot of work, but a success. A Hallock exhaust manifold feeds into the unmufflered exhaust pipe. A '32 trans with a Model A clutch replaces the model A gearbox, and the Ford Model A rearend is geared 3.54:1.
The inside door panels were finished with the same brown vinyl as the modified Model A bench. Timothy made the steering wheel from a stock Model A wheel and a 15-inch swap meet donor. The leather cover was stained and laced by Reeler Matt Winter. The instruments are a mix of stock and Stewart-Warner.
Timothy told us about an experience he had driving the roadster with his father that captures the passion he has for his car. "My father was visiting from the East Coast and we were out in the roadster. The sun was coming up just as we began heading over the top of the hills into Pomona [California] and I said to my dad, 'What we're doing right now is what everyone wants to do.'"