The History of Hot Rods: From the Streets to the Lakes

Hot rods have been an iconic part of American culture since they first appeared in Southern California in the late 1930s. Learn more about their history from illegal street racing to customizing high-performance cars.

The History of Hot Rods: From the Streets to the Lakes

Hot rods have been a staple of American culture since they first appeared in the late 1930s in Southern California. People competed with modified cars on dry lake beds northeast of Los Angeles, under the rules of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and other groups. Often called a street rod, a Hot Rod is a classic American car with an oversized engine modified for speed. It is this powerful engine that gave the hot rod its name, as it comes from the connecting rods of the high-powered or “hot” engine. Veda was “the glue that held hot rodding together during the war years,” according to Hot Rod cartoonist Tom Medley.

The ability to spend money on a sleek car wasn't the only way to achieve status; you could create a hot rod and customize it with both hands to provide even more superior power and performance. After serving in the South Pacific in a squadron of high-speed PT ships, Medley fantasized about going even faster when hostilities ceased. In the 70s, hot rodders made an effort to change their reputation to earn respect for their customization of high-performance cars. When the sleek Vern Luce Coupe appeared in 1981, it was everything a high-end, tailor-made, handmade hot rod could be. 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. He later wrote critically acclaimed books about Ferrari, Porsche and racing pioneer Briggs Cunningham, along with the definitive story, The American Hot Rod, completed the night before his death.

After soups gained notoriety after the Great Depression, hot rod popularity skyrocketed in California. A few years later, Parks went on to form the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), and Petersen, building on the momentum of the mega-successful Hot Rod magazine, built a magazine publishing empire. Hot rod culture branched out into several subcultures, including street bars for illegal street racing, dragsters for drag racing, and custom cars with elaborate cosmetic upgrades. After the war, he became the first person to write a hot rod book, publishing Hot Rod Pictorial and Dry Lakes Pictorial. Hot rodding began as a cult movement in the 1920s, and flourished in Los Angeles first with illegal street racing. It then moved north and west of the city to the endless Mojave Desert, with devotees competing in dusty beds of dry alkali-based lakes such as El Mirage and Muroc.

The Chet Herbert Competition Chambers were created, along with a succession of record-setting “Beasts” that used their hot camshaft designs. Across the wide world of hot rodding and customization, it was difficult to classify Ed Roth because he always followed his own path. The hot rod was a major attraction during such terrible times when car lovers had almost no money to spare. At the higher end of the spectrum, specialty street bars with elaborate customizations can cost thousands of dollars.