-Intro by Bob Freudenberger
When I was a boy, two of my favorite magazines were HOT ROD and Car Craft. Of course, with the wherewithal of a typical farm kid, all I could do was dream about the cars I’d like to build (not own — there’s a difference), but they were pleasant fantasies through which I learned quite a bit about how engines work and how they were modified.
Many years later after stints as a Ford dealership mechanic and an associate on the Motor’s Manuals, I became the editor of Speed Shop Magazine (100K circulation through — you guessed it — speed shops). One of my main memories of that sojourn was being driven around the NHRA Summer Nationals in a golf cart by Linda Vaughn (“Miss Hurst”) while I took photos of notables such as Don Garlits and Grumpy Jenkins.
Other recollections of that era revolve around how cheaply you could dramatically improve the performance of ‘60s and ‘70s domestics. You could bolt a “Duntov” 350-horse cam into a 250/327 for maybe 25 bucks, and just hundreds spent on a high-rise, big Holley, solid-lifter cam, and headers could put a 428 Cobra Jet solidly into the 12s.
About that time, a friend found his dad’s collection of Car Crafts from the 1950s, which he gave me. What a trip! All those souped-up Ford flathead, Olds, Cadillac, and Lincoln V8s, not to mention Chrysler Hemis, powering everything from mean-looking gassers to street rods, lakesters, and “slingshot” rails, really got my imagination churning. The colorful terminology of the era included three-quarter cams, chopped and channeled, three deuces, stroked and bored, welded spiders, adjustables (lifters for flatheads), ported and relieved, and planed heads. Since stock motors were mostly stodgy during that decade (with a few incredible exceptions, such as the blown ‘57 T-Bird 312), there was tremendous potential for increasing horsepower, even on a tight budget.
I’d thought of that as the beginnings of the uniquely-American hobby of hot rodding, but I was way off. After becoming the tech editor, then editorial director, of Motor Service magazine (R.I.P.), I discovered a copy of the premier issue from September, 1921 in the archives. In it was an article entitled “I Make ‘Em Jazz,” illustrated with a clever stick drawing of one Model T eating the dust of another as they were racing up a hill. It seems that the writer owned a shop that specialized in “regrinding” those heavy iron fours, and installing racing pistons and rings. It was a successful business with many repeat customers. From elderly people I talked to then, I’m speculating that bootlegging during Prohibition had a lot to do with the desire to get more power out of stock engines — outrunning “revenooers” was a financial imperative.
Of course, NASCAR’s beginnings had some of the same incentives. The prospect of making profitable “moonshine” runs prompted mostly southern hill-country boys to figure out how to make a car go fast and still hold together. Some of them got so good at it they went into the business of building legitimate race cars rather than “tanker” hot rods.
Where did the term “hot rod” come from, anyway? One etymological theory for its source holds that a “rod” was a nickname for a camshaft, while another says it came from “hot roadster.” Regardless, it probably became current after WWII when returning vets with a little extra money and lots of skills started having fun modifying cars.
Now, of course, the business of wringing more power out of factory iron (aluminum?) is another whole smoke. We’ve actually become scientific about it, the parts and equipment involved are seriously high-tech, and spending $20K on an engine is nothing unusual. Yes, I feel nostalgia for the low-bucks old days, but I’m also very impressed by how far we’ve come.