This week’s entry is a bit more philosophical than our past Top 11 lists. We thought about the things that really made the car hobby what it is today, and put quite a bit of effort into ranking them from 11th to first in importance. We know you’ll disagree, or at least we hope so. Here goes.
The Top 11 Greatest Influencers of Hot Rodding
11) The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: The plans for a paved system of roads linking together the entire country had been a government focus since the ‘30s, but only after WWII did it become a priority as a national defense mechanism for transit of war goods. President Eisenhower saw it that way and finally secured funding with the Federal Highway Act of 1956, then started building the system in earnest. The building of the national highways led to the support of hot rodding in three ways: 1) It wiped out the need for Route 66, which led to a many-decades-long love of that road and its automotive history. Had Route 66 simply evolved, it would not be the hot rodding cultural icon that it is today. 2) The national highway system made it possible and practical for racers such as Don Garlits and countless others to become national heroes through their ability to tour. 3) Finally, and most importantly, the highway system boosted the popularity of cars themselves and required the manufacturers to refine them so that they could more readily handle long days on the road at high speeds.
10) Zora Arkus-Duntov: Perhaps we’ve ranked Zora lower than you’d expect. His influence was both at the aftermarket level (Ar-Dun cylinder heads) and at the OE level (as a GM engineer), yet his biggest impact was focused on influencing General Motors to understand performance and the youth market via his famous memo to management. His affect on the development of the Corvette also cannot be overlooked. The reason he does not rank higher is that both Henry Ford and hot rodders in general were his influences, so those forces go higher on the list.
9) Bill France Sr.: As the founder of NASCAR, one might also expect this guy to score better on our list. However, despite the huge, mega-million-dollar industry that Stock Car racing has spawned, we can’t help but feel that those fans and even those racers are somewhat removed from what we view as mainstream hot rodding. I don’t feel that NASCAR had as much influence on homegrown hobbyists as others on this list.
Henry Ford: We’re talking about the man who is essentially responsible for industrializing this country, and that influence cannot be understated. Focusing more on the rodding industry, it’s notable that Ford raced the first car he ever built and that he was always interested in performance with every subsequent product. He likewise focused on interchangeability, a factor that made his products the most popular for hot rodders in the early days of the hobby. And Ford didn’t invent the V-8, but he certainly made it mainstream and affordable.
7) WWII: World War II popularized hot rodding by gathering America’s youth into barracks and foxholes where they often had little to do than discuss their dreams, and many of them had dreams involving cars, so enthusiasm spread. The War took those same kids and showed them mechanical skills and instruments of extreme horsepower while also teaching them focus. When the war ended, the leftover runways dotting the country gave youth a place to race, and the surplus vehicles and components gave them junk to build cars with. Without the War, the culture of hot rodding would have an entirely different character than it does now.
6) The Big Three and AMC: The interstate system and the returning vets all had a huge influence on the car manufacturers, as did the NHRA National drags moving to Detroit for 1959. Without those events, we may never have had musclecars. Yet the creation of those musclecars and the engines that came about as a result certainly made the street-machine hobby what it is today. Essentially 100 percent of hot rodding involves a component and an image that started as a product of one of the Big Three or AMC.
5) Wally Parks: As the earliest named editor of Hot Rod magazine, Wally had a direct influence on the opinions and direction of the hobbyists that is unmatched by any single person before or since. Imagine being the guy in charge of the sole news source in the world, then using it to advance your agenda. That’s essentially what he did, and his agenda included launching the National Hot Rod Association and its racing plan that certainly made the hobby drag-centric. And, as stated above, Wally’s influence with the Big Three (often conveyed via Ray Brock) certainly brought hot rodders and drag racing to the attention of auto corps and, in my opinion, led directly to the creation of the musclecar.
4) Robert E. Petersen: While I feel that Robert Petersen was never as involved in cars personally as Wally Parks was, Pete gets the higher position on our list because he’s the man who gave Wally a voice in his founding of Hot Rod magazine. And that was just the beginning. With magazines such as Motor Trend, Car Craft, Rod & Custom, Sports Car Graphic, 4-Wheel & Off-Road, and tens of dozens of others, no single man provided more mass communication for hot rodders than Robert Petersen. His empire spawned valuable competition, as well.
3) The California Dry Lakes: Harper, Muroc, Rosamond, and El Mirage. They are all just dry, dusty, flat patches of desert, but they are where hobby-level hot rodding began as Southern California gearheads headed to the high desert to use these areas as law-free high-speed zones as early as the ‘30s. Top-speed racing on the dry lakes led to street racing and then to drag racing. Road racing is older, but straight-line events in California created rodding as we know it, and it was those germs that infected the world after WWII.
2) Pop Culture: Film and Music: A hobby will always remain niche if were not for broad advertising, and TV, movies, and music gave that to hot rodding in the ‘50s and ‘60s as cars became pop culture. This spread the images and the enthusiasm for customs and horsepower to a far bigger audience than would have ever discovered the hobby on its own.
1) Government: An odd pick for number 1? Not really. It was government that led hot rodders to escape the law and go to the California desert. It was the government who sent those kids to war and showed them mechanics and power and that therefore created hot rodders. But recall that our list here is for “influencers” of rodding, and that does not mean just positive things, and no other single force has had a more negative impact on hot rodding that the government with its smog regulations, insurance regulations, warranty regulations, speed limits, local sound regulations, and its impact on the nature of OE-level car building itself. Some of those “negative” regulations have spun into higher technology that has created better, cleaner, more reliable, higher-horsepower cars and trucks than would have ever been created otherwise. But no matter how you look at it, pro or con, nothing has had a bigger impact on hot rodding that government intervention.