The History of Hot Rods: From Greasers to Bonneville Salt Flats

The term hot rod has been around since 1943 but its origin is still unclear. Learn more about its history from greasers to Bonneville Salt Flats.

The History of Hot Rods: From Greasers to Bonneville Salt Flats

The term hot rod has been around since 1943, but its origin is still unclear. According to the Hot Rod Industry Alliance (HRIA), the term has changed its meaning over the years, and it has less to do with the vehicle and more to do with attitude and lifestyle. Hot rods were greasers' favorites, and they were used as the theme of Lightning Rod, a roller coaster from Rocky Mountain Construction in Dollywood. Hot rod music was largely a product of several surf music groups that ran out of ideas for new surf songs and at the same time shifted their lyrical approach to hot rods.

Hot rod music would turn out to be the second phase of a progression known as California Sound, which would mature into more complex themes as the decade passed. Dean Batchelor, in the driver's seat of the So-Cal Streamliner, in a 1949 cover image of Hot Rod magazine, was named after him at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the nation's leading collector car competition. Coddington's first cars were heavily influenced by his friend, “Li'l John Buttera”, one of the first hot rodders to literally “carve custom engine and suspension parts out of bits of billet aluminum. He later wrote critically acclaimed books about Ferrari, Porsche and racing pioneer Briggs Cunningham, along with the definitive story, The American Hot Rod.

For that cover of Hot Rod magazine and “Beast III”, Herbert hired aerodynamic Rod Schapel to develop a sleek body in a wind tunnel. Using a larger 385-gallon tank, the intrepid duo built their first Lakester (a fendless high-speed car with a homemade body that wasn't from a car manufacturer), set many records, and influenced other early hot rod stars. As some hot rodder runners also ran on the street, a need arose for an organization that would promote safety and provide places for safe racing. Many hot rods would upgrade brakes from mechanical to hydraulic (juice) and headlights from bulb to sealed beam.

In the process, they repeatedly appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine and set records at Bonneville Salt Flats, a racing mecca in Utah. Look at the cover of Hot Rod magazine in December 1952 and you'll see Chet Herbert welding a roll bar to an aerodynamic Bonneville chassis. As cars offered by major automakers began to increase in performance, the appeal of hot rods began to decline. There are also TV shows such as My Classic Car, Horsepower TV, American Hot Rod, Fast and Loud and Chop Cut Rebuild that feature hot rods.