For a good half-century now, the hobby of hot-rodding typically meant taking a cheap car, taking out any body part that didn’t matter (i.e. roofs, hoods, bumpers, fenders, seats, and other such nonsense), modifying the engine and/or dropping in a bigger one for greater performance (often protruding upwards from the hood), and fattening up the tires for extra traction.
The term is still as accurate as ever. In fact, not even the cars in question have necessarily changed: one very typical image of a hot rod is a muscle car straight from the 1960s (the so-called muscle car golden age), restored to all its glory and then some. It’s not uncommon to take the great ancestors of cars we know today (Mustang, GTO) or ones forgotten by all but a few (Plymouth Barracuda), and send the output of its V8 soaring to 600 horsepower and above. Hot rods can be just as much about customizing as weight-saving (think of flaming paintjobs), and price isn’t necessarily an object: one notable Barracuda (“Hemi Cuda” in hot rod speak) on the cover of a major-name hot rod magazine had every body panel and interior item customized to its owner’s desire. For $340,000.
As for hot rods’ relation to American culture, the link is quite strong. Nearly all hot rods are American and almost always rear-wheel-drive. In our culture, quarter-mile times make the man. Enthusiasts who spend as much time in the present as the past also pay close attention to modern-day production cars like the new Mustang, and the upcoming 2009 Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger are currently headline news.
Of course, no rule ever said it had to be a car, per se. Muscular + American seems to add up to enough; Jeep’s Grand Cherokee SRT-8 seems to be a hot commodity, no doubt due to the street cred of its 425-horsepower modern-day Hemi V8. Even the new Chevy Tahoe gets attention.
But some define the genre on their own terms, creating the occasional aberration. One individual dropped a turbocharged-and-NOSed Buick V6 right under the hood of a Geo Metro, for crying out loud. If you can burn through the quarter-mile in 9.3 seconds at 147 MPH, who cares how you get there?
If hot rods are to be defined as speed on the cheap, count on it being a part of our culture as long as Planet Earth has fuel.