The Hot Rod Reader (Book Review)

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America’s purely original art forms are rather limited. While American poets, play writes and painters have left their marks on art and society, their crafts were not of purely American invention.

America’s greatest contributions to popular culture and art are undoubtedly film, jazz and the automobile. Jazz of course, is seen as purely and uniquely American, and while film developed in several countries, the early days of Hollywood set the standard for the world in film.

Link to Book:  The Hot Rod Reader

The Sport of Hot Rodding

Perhaps just as important though, is the American car. The car provides a unique illustration of the American way of life, and a particular style of car defines America. A particularly great aspect of American cars and car culture is hot rodding.

Extremely difficult to define, hot rodding remains a very recognizable part of the identity of the American car. While car enthusiasts argue over exactly what makes a hot rod, The Hot Rod Reader brings together stories and articles from nearly 70 years of the odd blend of engineering and art.

Featuring articles pulled from magazines such as Hot Rod, Popular Mechanics and even Life, gives a valiant attempt at explaining the unexplainable world of the American hot rod. Editors Peter Schletty and Melinda Keefe teamed up to produce this compilation.

Racing, Paint and Custom Bodyworks

The Hot Rod Reader shows the varying aspects of hot rod culture, from racing to paint to custom bodyworks. Articles in the compilation include features on legends such as Ed Roth, the creator of several amazing custom cars, as well as the psychotic Rat Fink, the deranged Mickey Mouse of hot rodding.

Roth himself contributes a fascinating piece, pulled from a 1995 book about his customs, on a particular car known as the “Beatnik Bandit.”

The car began life as a project for “Rod and Custom” magazine and Roth explains the various places that he looked for inspiration. Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” car lent the inspiration for the futuristic bubble top. The paint received a yellow tint courtesy of some ground fish scales from a taxidermist.

The book is divided into sections based on a particular part of hot rod culture, whether art, racing or building. A “Car Craft” magazine interview with pinstriper Von Dutch lends some genuine hilarity to the book as Dutch, who claims to have no other name, explains his unique methods while constantly forgetting the name of the reporter.

However, humor aside, the article provides a very comprehensive look into one of the men who made car painting a legitimate art form.

Rise of the Youth Culture

The book also offers commentary on the social climate surrounding hot rodding. A section on the history of hot rodding gives a variety of interesting statistics about the rise in youth culture. In 1953, the top songs of the year were pulled from musicals or sung by traditional singers such as Lee Baxter.

By 1959, music of course was greatly youth foucused, and teens in particular were now a huge part of the economy, albeit spending their parents’ money. Hot rodding, too, was beginning to become a central part of American culture. Also noted is the importance of the car in the social life of teens.

With the newfound access to a variety of cars, teenagers provided a market for performance parts and modified cars.

On the technical side, the story of the Ardun overhead valve kit details one of the most important products in automotive history. An immigrant from Belgium, Zora Arkus-Duntov established an engineering firm and developed an overhead valve conversion for the Ford V-8.

Originally intended for industrial vehicles that experienced overheating due to the flathead design, the Ardun kit turned the engine into the must have performance powerplant. Duntov later became a lead designer at General Motors and helped bring about the Corvette.

Another somewhat technical article covers the rise of street rodding. As drag races became more and more competitive, a car built for both the street and track became uncompetitive in racing. Therefore, a shift towards a street focused vehicle occurred in hot rod circles.

Today, very few hot rods are raced at all, even those with performance in mind.

Hot Rodding and Drag Racing

Though hot rods no longer make up large parts of drag racing, early hot rodders built drag racing into the sport that it is today. Of course, Wally Parks, editor of Hot Rod as well as the founder of the NHRA drag racing body, had perhaps the most influence of all.

Parks brought hot rodding from a fringe or borderline outlaw hobby into the legitimate and huge business that it is today. He also provided a great public relations image with the NHRA and the idea of sanctioned and legal racing. Interestingly, the National Hot Rod Association began as a car club and didn’t branch into racing until the early fifties.

However, the club’s first event in southern California drew 15,000 people. The organizers had only set up 200 seats — the potential for huge business was born.

Art, Engineering and Driving

The Hot Rod Reader provides a diverse and informative look on the various and quite different aspects of hot rodding culture and explains how each comes together for the uniquely American hot rod experience.

From art to engineering to driving, the hot rod brings together a plethora of talents and skills and this book brings together the stories.

See Also – Book Review – Porsche: A History of Excellence

Matthew Keegan
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