TodayApril 16, 2022

Hot Rod Milestones by Ken Gross

Ancestor Hot Rod cars

Historic hot rod cars are hot…interest in what Boyd Coddington calls “our ancestor cars,” is on the rise. Hot rods will grace the Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance, Amelia Island, and the Concours on Rodeo. Record-breaking sales of historic hot rods like the ex-Ricky Nelson/Tony La Masa 32 roadster at Barrett-Jackson. You can see fresh restorations of significant cars like the ex-Jim Khougaz lakes roadster and the ex-Joe Nitti and Pete Henderson 32s inspire other collectors and the entire hobby.

Serious rodders today are actively seeking out old cars to restore, and if they can’t find them, they are building vintage-style hot rods out of authentic old parts. As the late Bill Burnham, hot-rodding famed cracker-barrel philosopher liked to say, “nostalgia never goes out of style.”

Robert Genats and Don Cox’s award-winning book, “The Birth of Hot Rodding” underscores this point. People want to see where we’ve been so they can plan where they’re going. Even the most contemporary AMBR and Ridler award-winners borrow from the past and reinterpret it. That’s why today’s hot rodders often look in their rearview mirrors for inspiration.

Enthusiasts all want to know about the cars and personalities that helped shape more than a half-century of hot rodding. It started getting serious in the 1940s, and it all began with the cars in this exciting new book.

In “Milestone Hot Rods,” were present an all-star selection of the best-known, coolest hot rods ever built. Each car chosen represents a clear vision, usually from one talented person. Virtually every builder here took an old car, stripped it down, souped it up, and in many cases, took it to the dry lakes, or to a drag strip, to “see what she’d do.”

These cars are the real deal…in the 50s we’d have said, “finest kind.”

The 40s and 50s are my favorite era because that’s when I became interested in hot rods. These timeless coupes and roadsters, appearing each month in Hot Rod, Hop Up, and Speed Age, and later in R&C, Car Craft, and Rodding and Re-styling, represented a never-ending parade of creativity, color, chrome, and speed. Most were nationally known. These cars achieved fame virtually overnight when they were built, and/or raced, almost as soon as they were featured in existing and long-forgotten rodding magazines.

They were and are hot rod icons.

These hot rods truly set the standards; their features were sincerely imitated, and when they made show appearances, they were coveted and revered. Guys clipped their pictures out of the “little books” and tacked them on the wall like pin-ups. They were our reference points, for a hobby that continues to be a blend of traditional, contemporary, and futuristic – and they still are…

As hot rods became more clearly defined, the hobby evolved from a backyard effort, from cars built mostly with junkyard parts to a more professional approach. Hot rods utilized increasingly improved speed equipment available directly from dozens of manufacturers and local speed shops. Even fifty years ago, hot rodding was beginning to evolve from that earlier time when many guys could do it all, from metalwork to engine building and machining, even paint, and upholstery. Ray Brown built his 32 roadster week by week while he worked at Eddie Meyers shop in West Hollywood. It was his daily driver and his dry lakes racer. The early guys used their cars. Doane Spencer drove his roadster to the Indy 500. Fran Bannister drove his roadster to Bonneville from Massachusetts.

This was also the start of the period when, if you street-drove and also raced your roadster at the Lakes or the drags, chances are it wasn’t top-line competitive much longer. Full-on racers took home the big trophies, so a few legendary competition cars are represented here, like the Pierson Brothers, So-Cal, Chrisman, and Mooneyham & Sharp coupes. Early on, the Piersons proved that coupes could be as aerodynamic as modified and lake stars. Soon, chopped tops and track noses found their way onto street machines. Many of these cars were the pioneers that started those trends.

Every car in this book has unique elements. They were (and are still) memorable examples of the hot rodders’ art. The late Dean Batchelor, himself a roadster racer who later helped develop the first internationally known hot rod streamliner, wrote that hot rodding exemplified American ingenuity at its best. Robert Genat and I wanted to present a selection of timeless cars that have long influenced hot rodders, from the start of the sport to the present day.

Wherever possible, we’ve included everyone’s all-time favorite hot rods, freshly presented in one handy volume. Ace lensman Robert Genat went to great efforts to shoot them, aided by Tom Glatch, Bob Andreson, and our Editor, Steve Hendrickson.

Where nearly every car is concerned, I’ve tried to find new material and to correct old mistakes. Writers were fast and loose with facts in the early days of hot rodding, and that’s compounded by the fact that many of the pioneers still with us are in their eighties, and their memories have faded. For this book, we’ve tried to dig a little deeper, and not simply repeat everything we read.

We’ve double-checked the details, taken some time with the elder rodding statesmen who were all-too-willing to speak with us, and produced the definitive, updated story on each of these great cars. As a result, this book contains some material that’s never before been published. The period photographs are the best we could find, showing each car the way it appeared when it was first built.

While this book will primarily appeal to dedicated rodders aged 40-to-65 to, who remember these great cars, it will also be especially useful for all hot rodders engaged in restoring historic cars as well as those younger enthusiasts building so-called “retro-rods” and rat rods.”

We hope you’ll enjoy Hot Rod Milestones as much as Robert Genat and I enjoyed putting it together.


Ken Gross

Author, Ken Gross has been an automotive writer since 1972 and his work has appeared in numerous automotive magazines. He also served as Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum from 1996 to 2000. Author Robert Genat, who lives in San Diego, Calif., is the author of numerous books on the history of automotive performance.

Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.