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Hot Rod History

A lot has been written about the origins of the hot rod and the development of the culture that gave rise to them and then grew up around them. This is my own personal take on the subject, and I'm sure others with more detailed knowledge (including the many who were there) might well disagree with my thoughts. With that caveat, I place the defining origin point for hot rods and hot rod culture as the end of World War II. A number of factors came together at one time -- the period between the end of the war in 1945 and the begining of the 1950s -- and mainly in one place -- southern California -- to create a unique environment in which the hot rod and its culture were born.

At the end of the war, a legion of young men returned to America with a wad of demobilization cash in their pockets and a sense of freedom and excitement bred by their experiences in the war. With a period of peace and the steadily increasing prosperity of the country as a backdrop, these young men had a "can-do" attitude and a desire to express themselves in ways that their time in the military had stifled. And, all of a sudden, there were a lot of inexpensive used cars available. For five years Detroit had basically been in the business of supplying the military. Now all that production capacity was turned to creating a stream of new cars to satisfy the pent-up demand of a civilian population that had scrimped and saved throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s and the sacrifices of the war years. Men who'd stayed behind to work in America's offices and factories had a lot of savings and they were ready to ditch their aging cars from the 1920s and 1930s for gleaming new models offered by the Big Three (and the others who are now gone, like Wilys and Kaiser). Their trade-ins became the starting point of the hot rodders, and came to define the way they were built and how they looked.These factors dictated the core aesthetic of the classic American hot rod. It was the later Model Ts and the plentiful early-30s Fords and Chevys that became the raw material for the young men who created hot rodding and hot rod culture. Here's a picture of a '32 Ford Roadster, a contemporary car, but one built on the style of those first hot rods. The basic performance and engineering elements of the hotrod came together in these cars: More power, less weight and a look derived from these things leading to chopped tops, channeled bodies, pinched frames, dropped axles and, eventually wide tires. And why southern California? Again, a lot has been written about the question of why southern California became the seed-bed for so much cultural change in the second half of the twentieth century. Part of it was Hollywood, part simply that the western part of the country had reached a critical mass of prosperity and population sufficient to establish itself as a new center of culture distinct from the old center in the northeast. But a few factors made southern California the right place for the birth of hot rodding. One was the climate: with year-round perfect temperature and little rainfall, young men of little means could work outside on cars that had few creature comforts themselves. More important, Los Angeles was the first city truly shaped from its beginnings by the automobile: There were more roads, and new ones there. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, was "the lakes," the dry lake beds just east of L.A. that became a magnet for the chopped and stripped-down speed machines. Here the hot rodders found miles and miles of hard, glass-flat surface upon which to run their machines.


GOLDEN AGE


The 1950s were the Golden Age of hot rodding and, for a while, there was only hot rodding -- not the different strains of car-craziness that it gave birth to. In the beginning, there was no distinction among the cars that kids played with as a form of street-running self-expression, the drag racing car, the customized work of art; there was just the hot rod, the amateur automobile artform. But the seeds of hot-rodding's progeny were growing during that time.

The "lakes" were breeding a number of different kinds of cars aimed at faster and faster top speeds at the expense of driveability and, eventually even roadability. The famous "drop tank roadsters" exemplified these early forefathers of the machines that would some day exceed the speed of sound on the ground, built from war surplus military aircraft fuel tanks.

Meanwhile, the true "drag strip" was born. The National Hot Rod Association was formed in 1951 to impose some safety standards on "those speed-crazed kids" and the NHRA, now the governing body for drag racing in the the U.S., held its first sanctioned event in southern California in 1953.

Finally, the pure aesthetics of hot-rodding began to be expressed in the metalwork of exterior modifications to later, post-war cars. This gave rise to the "kustom" culture of cars that were increasingly works of pure visual art. Later, this gave rise to the show car world of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s (detailed below.)


But for a time, it was all one thing -- just young people exploring a new form of American individuality through the ultimate American experience, the road.


HOT ROD CULTURE


During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the southern California scene connected with hot rods gave birth to a whole host of related cultural phenomena. The stars of custom car building, like Ed Roth and George Barris, became celebrities in the hot rod scene and some, like Roth and Von Dutch became visual artists in a weird and adolescent genre that had a life of its own apart from the cars. More than half the middle-aged men (in 2003, when I'm writing this) in America probably had some kind of Rat Fink image in their room when they were a kid. Many may not have realized the connection to the greasy hot rodders of a decade before. For a look at where this visual art is today take a look at this gallery (warning, it's not for the faint of heart).Then there was the music. At first, hot-rodding was associated with rockabilly, the first form of true rock and roll. But, just as hot rod culture became a defninable space in the general lanscape of American life, a different connection developed. Here it's not possible to separate the connection with a broader southern California scene, known by the often-inapplicable term "surf music." Most folks probably think of the Beach Boys and titles like "Little Deuce Coupe" and "409," but there were many other musicians who were mining the hot rod experience for subject matter. Jan and Dean come to mind, and the Ventures (with their album covers adorned with "wild" T-buckets), and the incredible Dick Dale, whose music to me is the sound of hot rodding.

Hot rod culture sat at an intersection between the hipsters of the late 40s and 50s (think of Dean Moriarty's relationship with cars in Kerouac's On the Road, and "Big Daddy" Ed Roth's goatee), the lower-class aspirations of kids from the wrong side of the tracks in a country with rising economic expectations (think of the menace of Dennis Hopper's "Goon" in Rebel Without a Cause) and the general development of a "counterculture" of individuality and free expression. For a time, the hot rod became a central symbol of youth and creativity in America, and was as cool as anything around. But by the mid-1960s, the wave of the counterculture had moved on and, although many of the "show car" artists of the time incorporated things like peace symbols and images of long-haired guys in patched bell-bottoms in their work, the days when hot rod culture was part of the "crest of the wave" were over.


Show Cars

By the early 1960s the various different lines of hot rod culture were well defined, had separated and then begun to interact in new ways. the two most important elements of this for me were the "show rod" phenomenon and muscle cars. The "Kings of Kustom" had been working for a while now, and their ideas were seeping out to a larger audience, while at the same time the milieu of the classic hot rod kids was mutating rapidly. Southern California, the memetic engine of mid-century America, had moved on, and "teen rebellion" was morphing into the full-blown and politicized counterculture. Greasers and hipsters gave way to hippies and yippies. A great portrait of this time can be found in Tom Wolfe's very first bit of journalism, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his 1965 portrait of the "kustom kar show" world.

The work of Tom Daniels exemplifies the era of the show rod perhaps better than any other. Daniels had a huge influence on the hot rod aesthetic of my generation through his work for the plastic model kit maker Monogram (later acquired by Revell). I recently discovered Tom Daniels' website, and the flood of memories unleashed by the images there was amazing. I'd insert some here, but Daniels has a blood-curdling warning about his ownership of the work there, so I'll suggest you go by his website, especially the page devoted to the box art for the kits he designed. Off the top of my head, I can well remember building the "Red Baron", the "T'rantula" (probably the two most influential on my own personal hotrod aesthetic), the "Pie Wagon," "Beer Wagon," "Garbage Truck," "Paddy Wagon" and "Sand Crab." Interestingly, note that all of these kits were issued in 1968 or 1969, when I was 11 and 12 years old. I think these designs came along at a time when my automotive aesthetic was being forged for a lifetime. To see many of Tom Daniels' kits built by great modelers (along with others mainly from that era of "outrageous show rods"), visit Show Rod Rally. Presumably Daniels' prohibition on use of images doesn't run to photos of the kits themselves, so here are the first two mentioned.

Interestingly, most of these cars never existed except as model kits; few were ever built as real, driveable automobiles. I suppose this highlights as much as anything else the fact that the hot rod's power is as much that of image and idea, rather than as transportation.

Here's a very good brief description of the show car phenomenon of the 1960s and early 1970s:The 1960s saw the pinnacle of one of America's most unusual native art forms. Flowing streamlined designs, radiant colors, and amazing craftsmanship blended together to develop a new concept - - Show Cars.

Show cars evolved from the custom car, which was basically a modified version of an existing vehicle. Early pioneers of auto customizing in the 1950's began changing and improving their wheels for speed, originality, and a cool look. During these times, cars were "chopped, tubbed, raked, and hopped-up." These basic customizing techniques continued to become more elaborate until custom cars were being designed from scratch or by heavily converting existing vehicles into unbelievable designs. True show cars were distinguished by being one-of-a-kind originals, built from the ground up. It seems a paradox that their engines were extremely powerful, yet they rarely touched the road. In other words, these cars were meant to be looked at, not driven. The men who created them were true artists, and their creations were true art. Show cars belong to the genre of sculpture, and for those of us who couldn't afford the originals, there were always the model kits.

Probably the most famous custom car designers are George Barris and Ed Roth. Barris was one of the pioneer customizes and has personalized automobiles for many celebrities. An avid model and toy collector himself, Barris started making hobby kits of his cars with Revell in 1957, the first being a 1956 Buick. He is better known for his special cars however, and when AMT made a model kit of his 1960 Ala Kart, a whole line of kits designed after Barris' award-winning custom cars began.

Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, reached cult status on auto show circuits and teen modeler circles with his outrageous cars and Rat Fink character. (More can be found on Roth in the Freaks, Geeks, and Oddballs chapter.)

In 1967, Monogram and car designer Tom Daniel started a partnership that would produce 60 kits and last nearly a decade. Daniel had previously worked for George Barris where he helped design the Munster Koach and Dragula. One of Daniel's designs, the Red Baron, proved to be so popular that Monogram released it in a larger 1/12 scale.

Other heavy contenders on the show car circuit included Daryl Starbird, Carl Casper, and Bill Cushenberry. By the end of the 1970's though, the show car craze declined in popularity. Even though many wild rods are still being produced today, they sure don't make 'em like they used to!

Muscle Cars

A muscle car is a high-performance automobile. The term principally refers to American models produced between 1964 and 1971.

The term muscle car generally describes a mid-size car with a large, powerful engine (typically, although not universally, a V8 engine) and special trim, intended for maximum acceleration on the street or in drag racing competition. It is distinguished from sports cars, which were customarily and coincidentally considered smaller, two-seat cars, or GTs, two-seat or 2+2 cars intended for high-speed touring and possibly road racing. High-performance full-size or compact cars are arguably excluded from this category, as are the breed of compact sports coupes inspired by the Ford Mustang and typically known as pony cars, although few would dispute a big-block pony car's credentials as a muscle car.

An alternate definition is based on power-to-weight ratio, defining a muscle car as an automobile with (for example) fewer than 12 pounds per rated hp. Such definitions are inexact, thanks to a wide variation in curb weight depending on options and to the questionable nature of the SAE gross hp ratings in use before 1972, which were often deliberately overstated or underrated for various reasons.

Another alternate definition involves a car's original design intents. Muscle cars are factory produced automobiles that have a larger engine than was originally planned for in the design and production phase of the original car. Examples of this trend can be found throughout American, Japanese, and European cars of all designs. This includes many cars that typically are not labeled as muscle cars, such as the B13 (1991-1994) Nissan Sentra SE-R, and excludes other cars typically labeled as muscle cars, such as the Dodge Viper.

Although auto makers such as Chrysler had occasionally experimented with placing a high performance V-8 in a lighter mid-size platform, and full-size cars such as the Ford Galaxie and Chevrolet Impala offered high-performance models, Pontiac is usually credited for starting the muscle car trend with its 1964 Pontiac GTO, based on the rather more pedestrian Pontiac Tempest. For 1964 and 1965, the GTO was an option package that included Pontiac's 389 in³ (6.5 L) V8 engine, floor-shifted transmission with Hurst shift linkage, and special trim. In 1966, the Pontiac GTO was no longer an option, and became its own model. The project, spearheaded by Pontiac division president John De Lorean, was technically a violation of General Motors policy limiting its smaller cars to 330 in³ (5.4 L) displacement, but it proved far more popular than expected, and inspired a host of imitations, both at GM and its competitors.

It marked a general trend towards factory performance, which reflected the importance of the youth market. A key appeal of the muscle cars was that they offered the burgeoning American car culture an array of relatively affordable vehicles with strong street performance that could also be used for racing. The affordability aspect was quickly compromised by increases in size, optional equipment, and plushness, forcing the addition of more and more powerful engines just to keep pace with performance. A backlash against this cost and weight growth led in 1967 and 1968 to a secondary trend of "budget muscle" in the form of the Plymouth Road Runner, Dodge Super Bee, and other stripped, lower-cost variants.

Although the sales of true muscle cars were relatively modest by total Detroit standards, they had considerable value in publicity and bragging rights, serving to bring young buyers into showrooms. The fierce competition led to an escalation in power that peaked in 1970, with some models offering as much as 450 hp (and others likely producing as much actual power, whatever their rating).

Another related type of car is the car-based pickup. Examples of these are the Ford Ranchero, GMC Sprint, GMC Caballero, and one of the most famous examples, the Chevrolet El Camino.

Pre-runners

Some of the terminology associated with prerunners & desert race vehicles is pretty far removed from the mainstream of off-roading. While this is not a complete listing of all the terms associated with these vehicles, we hope it will further your understanding of them, and of the sport of off-road racing in general.

Vertical Wheel Travel - Amount of wheel travel measured from the center of the axle at full droop to the center of the axle at full compression

Lever Ratio - Shocks & springs can be mounted in several locations, and at various angles. If a shock were to be mounted vertically atop the axle, it would be said to have a 1 to 1 lever ratio - i.e. 1 in. of vertical shock travel = 1 in. of vertical wheel travel. If the shock is mounted at a 45 deg. angle, it will move 1/2 in for every inch of wheel travel. As such, it would be said to have a 1.5 to 1 lever ratio.

Velocity Sensitive Shocks - Many prerunners & race vehicles use velocity sensitive shocks. Their monotube design is lightweight, affordable, and provides a significant "bang for the buck". VS shocks are rebuildable, & use a series of stacked flexible washers to determine their valving characteristics. Adjustments are made by disassembling the shock, and changing the stack of washers to a stiffer, or lighter configuration. VS shocks use up to 200psi of nitrogen gas to combat foaming at high temperatures & shaft speed. further cooling capacity often comes from remote reservoirs, though they are optional on most models. It is common to se several VS shocks mounted together, and valved lightly, reducing the workload per shock. <>Coilover Shocks - These shocks serve as a mounting point for a coil spring. Unlike "overload" shocks found in auto supply houses, "Coilovers" are extremely high performance units, used in 3 & 4 link suspension applications. The coil springs are removable from the shocks for replacement & tuning, and the shock is fully rebuildable / adjustable for compression & rebound dampening. Coilover shocks are mounted to the chassis via spherical rod ends, rather than bushings to minimize unwanted deflection, and provide maximum streingth to the load bearing assembly. Coilover Shocks most always come with a remote reservior to aid in fluid cooling.

Remote Reservoir - Found on 9 out of 10 race shocks, Remote reserviors provide the shock with increased fluid & gas capacity, allowing for increased cooling, less "shock fade", and longer maintenance intervals. These aluminum & steel canisters contain a piston which separates the hydraulic fluid from high pressure nitrogen gas. They are attached to the shock absorber by a custom length of braided steel hose, or high pressure hydraulic line, and can be attached anywhere on the vehicle.

Bypass Shock - Bypass shocks are the pinnacle of shock technology. The goal of a bypass shock is to provide light valving in the initial movement of the wheel (to keep the wheels in contact with the ground over smaller bumps), progressively stiffer valving throughout the midrange of travel, and finially very stiff valving at the uppermost reaches of a shocks stroke to resist bottoming. Using a series (usually 2-4) of "bypass tubes" welded to the shock body, valving becomes externally adjustable via metered "jets". The bypass tubes provide precise oil flow through the shock, minimizing cavatation due to heat or unequal pressure, and together with the metered "jets", make for near infinite compression / rebound dampening possibilities. The latest developments in bypass shock technology have led to the development of "internal bypass" shocks. While the general principle of bypass remains the same, internal bypass shocks locate the bypass tubes inside the shock body, making them suitable for use in a coilover configuration. The sheer size of bypass shocks is impressive, but they aren't built that way for their looks. Rather than ounces, the fluid capacity of Bypass shocks is better measured in quarts, translating directly into a cooler running, nearly fade-proof assembly. Shaft sizes begin in the 7/8 in. range. Bypass shocks are always mounted via spherical rod end, as the loads generated would quickly destroy rubber or ploy bushings. These are the shocks commonly seen on (but not limited to) the Trophy, Pro & Class 7 & 8 trucks of SCORE.

3 Link Suspension - the "link" in 3 link refers to the number of mounting points on the rear axle. Used with torsion bar, 1/4 elliptic leaf springs & coilover shock arrangements, the 3 link uses 3 "control arms" to locate the axle & position it as it moves throughout it's range of travel. The standard configuration for a 3 Link is one arm (per side) mounted slightly below the axle, with a forward attachment point at the frame or custom built crossmember. Centered above the axle is a 3rd mounting point, using a triangular shaped arm (usually built of tubular steel), which attaches forward on the frame, or crossmember. 3 Link suspensions have been built & tested with up to 38 inches of "Vertical" wheel travel, and provide tremendous amounts of wheel articulation. Many prerunners, and even some race trucks use bushings for the mounting of the forward sections of the control arms, but the rear (axle) mounting points are often spherical rod ends. The spherical rod ends are a stronger assembly, and are less binding, offering a free and greater range of movement.

4 Link Suspension - a 4 Link is identical to the 3 Link except for using two upper control arms rather than one. these upper arms are mounted from a near center position (each aside the differential) and angled outward to the frame or custom built crossmember. Like the 3 Link, The 4 Link is capable of incredible vertical wheel travel, but articulation is slightly less.

A-Arm Suspension - usually found on the front of non Ford vehicles, the A-Arm suspension uses an upper & lower "A" shaped arm & a coil or torsion bar springing. A-Arms are a simple & popular suspension, and can achieve respectable (aprox 13 in.) wheel travel when used with stock length arms. On mini / mid size trucks, wheel travel is limited by the shorter arms & can be in the 9-11 in. range. Long travel A-Arm suspensions require longer / redesigned arms, and can involve relocation of the engine / K frame to achieve sufficient clearance. Further mods include spherical rod ends, modified ball joints, and redesigned spindles. Depending on the configuration, travel in the 28in.range is achievable, but at far greater cost than other suspension designs.

Twin "I"Beam - TIB / TTB suspensions consist of 3 main parts. The I beam (which mounts the spindle / brake assembly), the radius arm (which runs parallel to the frame, attaching at the I Beam in front, and a crossmember in the rear), and the coil spring, or coilover shock. This front suspension has been in use on Ford Trucks since the 60's, and has been transplanted to just about every other vehicle in existence. The reason for it's popularity is simple. There's an old desert saying that says "12 in. of Ford travel is worth 15 in. of anything else". Secondly, the cost of a 15 in. TIB or TTB system is well under $2000, making it the best value per in. on the market today. The Twin I Beam (and it's 4wd counterpart the TTB-Twin Traction Beam) is a far stronger design than the traditional A-Arm, and is ridiculously easy to extract usable travel from. A stock F-150 approaches 10 in. of travel, & with a few simple mods, 15 in. of wheel travel is there for the taking. Extreme examples measuring in at 32 in. are not unheard of, but 26-30 in. is common in race vehicles. Variations on the TIB can be found on such diverse vehicles as Glamis bound sand buggies, Polaris & Yamaha snowmobiles, and even the Toyota Land Cruiser that Ivan Stewart uses to prerun the courses of the SCORE / Laughlin desert series!

1/4 Elliptic Suspension - 1/4 elliptic suspensions use a 3 or 4 link configuration, and replace the coilover springs with leafs. An ellipse is a full circle. 1/4 elliptic rear takes it's name from the shape & configuration of the leaf springs, which, not coincidentally, resemble the arch of 1/4 of a circle. Mounting the leafs can take many forms, with a roller or spherical rod end, being the 2 most common types. In the rear, A pivoting "clamp" holds the springs in place, while a NASCAR style "Weight Jack" allows the builder / tuner to adjust ride height.

Torsion Bar Suspension - can take many forms. Commonly, torsion bars are used in conjunction with A-Arms in front suspension applications, due to their simple design, ease of maintenance, and light weight. TB suspensions are occasionally found in custom rear suspension applications, controlling a 3 or 4 Link set up. Torsion bars are often used to supplement coil or leaf suspensions, acting as a "secondary suspension".

Secondary Suspension - Used most often on race trucks & "top shelf" prerunners, secondary suspension systems allow for very light primary springing (to allow the truck to effortlessly absorb smaller bumps & obstacles), and only come into play in the final inches of wheel travel. The 2 most common forms of secondary suspension are Pneumatic (air / nitrogen) & Torsion bar.

Pneumatic Bump Stop - Used in place of, or in conjunction with a poly bump stop, pneumatic bump stops function similarly to an air shock. High pressure nitrogen allows the stop to be tuned to a specific degree of resistance, and some suspension set ups, can act as a form of secondary suspension (by providing a dramatic but controlled increase in effective spring rate during the last few inches of travel).

Spherical Rod End - AKA: "Hiem Joints". SRE's are a high strength solution to extreme angle woes. Available in sizes from 1/8 in. to well over 1 in. SRE's have found use at the ends of control / radius arms, tie rods, A-Arms, and many other parts throughout both prerunners & race trucks. Recently, aftermarket lift kit manufacturers have begun incorporating SRE's into the Jeep TJ / XJ / ZJ model lines, as well as the Dodge Ram.

Parker Pumper - While Parker Pumper is a brand name, it has come to be as interchangeable as "Xerox" in the off road community. The pumper is an air filtration system consisting of a chassis mounted blower that ducts filtered air to a specially modified helmet, allowing the wearer breathably clean and cool air in the dusty desert environment.

Suspension Seats - Produced by several manufacturers, suspension seats utilize an nylon/canvas "base" to cradle the foam padded seating area. This "base" is in turn attached to a tubular steel seat frame by an elastic cord, creating a seating surface that is "suspended". Major advantages to suspension seating include smoother ride, reduced potential for back (spinal compression) injury, and improved vehicle control.

Low riders

When the lights go up at today's huge lowrider shows, hundreds of cars gleaming with triple-dipped chrome and gold plating, elaborate candy and metalflake paint jobs, rolling on custom-spoked wire rims featuring the finest spinners money can buy, fans throughout Aztlan (Chicano slang for the American Southwest) and all America, to Japan and Europe, gasp with appreciation and envy. As lowriding has taken the world by storm, it has also taken the mainstream automotive industry by surprise--no one seems to know where the world's number one auto trend came from. Some automotive enthusiasts like to write the sport off as the new cruiser on the block, eyeing hoppers and their high performance hydraulics somewhat suspiciously.

Other custom car historians dig a little deeper, tapping out a few lines about the late '70s, the television show Chico and the Man, and the first few issues of Low Rider Magazine evidence enough that lowriders have enjoyed at least a decade or two on the streets. But, lowriding's roots reach far deeper into history than that, the result of two very different traditions, California car culture and Mexican cultura coming together in Southern California. Lowriding has always had a distinct Mexican flavor, hotter than hot rods and lower than customs.

Throughout many Mexican-American neighborhoods, called barrios, from East Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas, cruisers have been dropping Chevrolets to a sidewalk-scraping stance since the late 1930s. It was part of the "zoot suit" fashion, a trend popular among teenagers from every culture. Mexican-American zooters, cool from slicked back hair to highly polished shoes, called themselves pachucos. They cruised beautifully restored, older Chevys, decked out in their oversized zoot suits for a night on the town. Often just the back of the Chevy was temporarily lowered, using sandbags hidden in the trunk beneath strategically placed planks of wood, or permanently dropped all around, the springs shortened by cutting the top few coils or heated until they collapsed to a proper cruising height. They cruised through the streets, honoring a custom that may have been practiced since the heyday of the Aztlan Empire.

The paseo, still honored today in many small Mexican towns, is a tradition where young, unmarried villagers walking around the village's central plaza, young women in one direction, men in the other, blushing and making eye contact. According to legend, the cruise is merely an automotive extension of this ancient tradition, practiced in Southern California long before it was ever a part of the United States.

After World War II, America's economy was booming. Southern California' the '30s its comparatively strong economy during the Great Depression had attracted immigrants from the dust bowls of the Central United States and Northern Mexico--was ready to roll. Prior to the war, most "customizers" were interested in speed, not looks, making inexpensive modifications under the hood while removing heavy, "useless" extras like the fenders and roof. Early custom and lowriding (although the word would not come into use until the 1960s) enthusiasts, however, in particular the pachucos, were more interested in looks, class and style.

It was all on a Depression-era budget, but the seeds were being sown for modern custom trends. After World War II, the hard-driving economy fueled a new generation of automotive enthusiasts, these early styles began branching out, racers, now called hot rods, joined by lakesters, street rods, roadsters, customs, cruisers and finally, lowriders, each new style owing a debt to the cars that came before it.

By the late 1950s and early '60s, what we would now consider lowriders were finally hitting Whittier Boulevard in great numbers. Such fine rides wouldn't appear overnight, however. California car culture and Mexican-American cultura would both develop and grow, each enriching the larger American culture with every passing decade.

Pachucismo: Lowriding's Well-Dressed Roots California, along with Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as parts of Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming, were part of Mexico until the 1830s, when Mexico ceded the huge territory to the U.S. Many Mexican-American and Spanish families remained on their ancestral lands, continuing to speak Spanish and retain a distinctly Mexican cultura. Later, from about 1910 to the mid '20s, a wave of new Mexican immigrants--approximately 10-percent of the Mexican population--fled the bloody Mexican Revolution and settled in many major urban centers of the Southwest, in particular, El Paso, Texas, and East Los Angeles. They came, like so many others to this nation of immigrants, seeking stability, peace, and a better life for their children. It was difficult, as it was for refugees from Eastern Europe or Ireland, but many managed to carve out a decent life for themselves in the land of opportunity.

Professor Ruben Mendoza points out that one of their means of surviving in the U.S. might be the basis of modern day car clubs. "After the Revolution, Mexicans were brought over to the United States to work in the mines, railroads and farms; many of these new workers were exploited, and without any type of job security or insurance, an illness or other calamity could destroy their lives. Many of these immigrants formed 'mutual aid societies,' or social clubs, where they would meet and socialize on a regular basis. The purpose of the group, however, was survival.

They would all contribute money, and if any of them got sick or in trouble, that could be used to help the ailing member out. That same type of organization. Within a single generation, the English-speaking children of these first immigrants were feeling more a part of American life. Part of the American dream of the '30s and '40s was owning a car, and when the family finally saved enough for that ride, it became almost a member of the family. Most of the cars cruising the barrios were second hand, and Chevrolets, less expensive and easier to repair, as well as more stylish compared to practical Fords, became the cars of choice.

The desire to be different was no less apparent in Mexican-American communities than anywhere else in the country, and they, too, customized their cars to look unique. Rather than the fast looking "California rake," these young pachucos would drop the back of the car for a sleek, mean look that turned everyone's head. "They were family cars, but we used to fix them up," remembers former pachuco and United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez. "We fixed up several. The one that we had for the longest period of time was a '40 Chevy. In those days you went the opposite [of the hot rodders]--low in the back. We lowered the rear springs, had fender skirts, two side pipes. It was mostly cosmetic stuff in those days. You had to have two spotlights and two antennas, and a big red stop light in the back.

Hubcaps, oh, they used to steal hubcaps. The ones that we had, had just one bar across, and big wide whitewalls. When we got out of the car, we had a screwdriver to take off the hubcaps and lock them in the trunk. When we got back we would put them back on." There were plenty of modifications for specific Chevys becoming popular in the barrios. The "alligator hood" looked great on models with hoods hinged down the center, like the '39 Chevy. Originally, the hood would open up like wings, but this was converted to open from the front, like an alligator's mouth.

For pachucos still customizing Fords, the bumper soon became a problem. Original Ford bumpers had a dip in the center that scraped the ground after the coils were cut or, by those with tougher bottoms, removed. The owner would either flip the bumper, remove it entirely, or switch it. "The most popular to switch was the '37 DeSoto bumper with the five narrow ribs that matched the grille and chrome horn covers on the front fenders," reminisces lowrider historian David Holland. "The '37 DeSoto was a stupid looking car, but it sure had bad bumpers. Also, the '41 Ford bumpers were popular." still exists today in disenfranchised communities, as neighborhood groups, gangs and car clubs."

Lowrider style has changed a great deal over the past 50 years--although you still have to take extra care of a car sporting a nice set of rims--but, as Cesar Chavez pointed out, Chicano cruisers have always customized their cars very differently from the speedier sets. "Lowriders do happen to alter a car in a way that makes it almost the precise opposite of a style long favored by Anglo car customizers," noted Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker. "The California rake, which has a jacked up rear instead of a lowered one, outlandishly wide tires instead of tires that seem much too small for the car, and a souped up motor instead of one that has been filely ignored." The "East L.A. rake" was part of a new style that was developing.

These cars not only looked clean, but they were also a way of showing defiance against the mainstream culture. The young pachucos cruising these beauties on Whittier Boulevard, the main strip in East Los Angeles, or on Boulevards throughout the Southwest, had also developed their own style of clothing and hair, which was stirring things up a bit. The zoot suit craze had been spreading across the country throughout the late '30s, popularized by movie stars like Clark Gable. Blacks in Harlem, New York, popularized the look, an enormously oversized jacket over baggy pants with pegged legs. Young Mexican-Americans called them drapes, and often dropped the fancy fedora altogether. There was some concern on the part of the mainstream about the refusal of these young people to assimilate.

Older, more conservative Mexican-Americans also worried about their children's new look. "I started wearing zoot suits when it became and issue," Cesar Chavez explained. "The Chicano community was divided about the dress. Some people just wouldn't wear them, because they thought everybody who did was no good. The girls also wore their trapos, even though people would say, 'you're no good.' You see, the people that wore them eran los mas pobres, guys like us who were migrant farm workers."

Patricia Alcala, who allowed the PBS documentary Low and Slow cover her daughter's lowrider quincianera, had a similar experience. "Back in the '40s, we couldn't wear tight skirts, dangly earrings, or speak Spanish. If you did, you were labeled 'bad.' " But, like so many young cruisers of their generation, Chavez and Alcala continued to wear the pachuco fashion and speak Spanish, at least when their teachers weren't around. The car, the clothes and the language were all badges of pride for a generation caught between cultures, struggling to find their own identity.

What frightened many Southern Californians, however, was not just the pachucos' rough and ready reputation. It was their ability to move through traditionally Anglo areas with ease. "Being strangers to an urban environment, the first generation tended to respect the boundaries of the Mexican communities," writes historian Carey McWilliams of the pachucos' first lows. "But, the second generation was lured far beyond these boundaries into the downtown shopping districts, to the beaches and, above all, to the glamour of Hollywood. It was this generation of Mexicans, the pachuco generation, that first came to the general notice and attention of the Anglo-American population."

The attention that the pachucos got, with their cars, clothes and street slang, called calo, was notorious. "We went to the movies--we were just waiting outside--and the guy wouldn't let us in with a pass," said Cesar Chavez. "The cops came and then stood us against a wall and searched us. They ripped our pants--can you imagine? In those days the one that I had was a sharkskin suit and it cost me $45, a lot of money in those days--we're talking about 1942 or '43." Cesar wasn't the only one. "I was just hanging out [on the corner of 5th Avenue and Glendale Avenue] with my homeboys in a zoot suit, when a city of Glendale placa [police car] drove up and called me over," Noni Maldonado told "El Danny" in an article for Barrio Breakthrough Magazine. "Our zoot suits, to us, were firme trajes, to go to dances and hang out with the pleve. We weren't into gangs or pachuco fighting. We just automatically got stereotyped because of our clothes and our hair style, but that was us!"

Drift cars

What Is Drifting?

Basically, drifting is getting your car sideways down a road. It doesn't sound very hard does it? Sounds a lot like power sliding huh? Well it isn't. It's much more complex. Instead of a drifter causing a drift and then countering to straighten out, he will instead over-counter so his car goes into another drift. That is the reason many drifters do it in the mountains, because there are many sharp turns strung together. So in essence a good drifter has the ability to take five or six opposing turns without having traction at any point in time.

How is it done?

There are two ways to start a drift. The first is the clutching technique. When approaching a turn the driver will push in the clutch and shift his car into second gear. Then rev the engine up to around 4000-5000 rpm and then slightly turn away from the turn and then cut back towards it hard while at the same time popping the clutch and causing the rear wheels to spin. At this point the drifter has a loss of traction and is beginning to slide around the curve. Now comes the hard part. You have to hold the drift until the next turn. To do this you must keep your foot on the accelerator while at the same time adjusting your car with the steering wheel so you don't spin out. It's not as easy as it sounds. Then as the drifter reaches the end of the turn and approaches the next turn which is in the opposite direction he must cut the wheel in that direction and in some cases, if the previous drift was to slow and they start to regain traction, they must pop the clutch again to get the wheels spinning. And that is how you drift a rear wheel drive car.


The second technique is used by a few drifters in rear wheel drives, but is the only way you can really drift a front wheel drive. You have to use the side brake. A front wheel drive can not whip its tail out because the tires are being driven in the front as opposed to the rear. So when approaching a turn you pull the side brake to cause traction loss. And the rest is pretty much the same except that it's much harder to take more than one turn with a front wheel drive.

What Cars Do They Use?

There are seven cars most commonly used for drifting. The first is the AE86 Levin / Trueno because of it's rear wheel drive lay-out and the fact that it's relatively inexpensive it is probably the most common drifting car. The second and third are the Silvia S13 and S14, which come in two different models: the turbocharged K's and the non-turbo Q's. Because of their high horse power and free-revving engines they are excellent drifting cars. The third is the 180SX, related mechanically to the Silvia, the only difference is in the body style and the fact that is lighter and has a better front/rear balance ratio. The fifth is the FC3S RX-7. The Cefiro is another excellent drifting car. It has a powerful RB20DET engine and good handling characteristics. The last is the Laurel which is also powered by the RB20DET. Another good drifting car is the Skyline GTS-T which you don't see very often. It has a rear wheel drive layout and boasts a 260hp engine.

Making a Car Drift

The first drifting technique a driver needs to master is actually a regular racing technique. Heel-and-toe shifting lets a race car driver downshift smoothly and quickly (to increase rpm) while simultaneously braking (to shift the car's weight forward). The goal of this shifting technique is to maintain equilibrium between engine speed and wheel speed so the drivetrain doesn't jolt while downshifting. To heel-and-toe downshift while your right foot is on the brake, you depress the clutch with your left foot, shift to neutral and release the clutch. Then, keeping the ball of your right foot on the brake, you move your right heel to the gas pedal and rev the engine until the rpm matches up with wheel speed (usually an increase of about 1,500 rpm per one-gear downshift). Once you reach the proper rpm, you get off the gas pedal, still applying the brake, push in the clutch again and downshift. Once a driver can execute proper race-style shifting, she's ready to master some drifting techniques. Drift racing offers a real difference over other motor sports. What do you think of it? Tell us here.

Clutch-based techniques

Clutch-kick drift - Approaching the turn, the driver holds in the clutch, increases rpm and downshifts. She then releases the clutch, causing a power surge that makes the back wheels lose traction. This is a basic drifting technique.

Shift-lock drift - Approaching the turn, the driver downshifts and drops the rpm to slow down the drivetrain. She then releases the clutch, causing the back wheels to immediately slow down and lock up so they lose traction.

Brake-based techniques

E-brake drift - The driver enters the turn and pulls the emergency brake to lock the back wheels. She steers into the turn, and the back end swings out into a drift. This is a basic drifting technique.

Braking drift - The driver enters the turn and applies the brakes to push the car's weight to the front wheels, causing the back wheels to rise and lose traction. She then uses a combination of braking and shifting to hold the drift without the back wheels locking up.

Long-slide drift - On a long straightaway approaching a turn, at high speed (up to 100 mph / 161 kph), the driver pulls the emergency brake to initiate a long drift and maintains it into the turn.

Other techniques

Power-over drift - The driver accelerates into and through the entire turn to make the back end swing out as the weight shifts on exit. This technique requires a lot of horsepower.

Feint drift - The driver steers the car to the outside of the turn on the approach, pushing the car's weight to outside wheels. She then quickly steers back into the turn. When the car's suspension kicks back, the weight shifts so quickly that the back end flicks out to initiate a drift.

Jump drift - Entering a turn, the driver bounces the inside rear tire over the inner curb to shift the car's weight to the outside wheels and induce traction loss, initiating a drift.

Dynamic drift (Kansei drift) - Entering a turn at high speed, the driver suddenly releases the gas pedal to shift the weight to the front wheels, initiating a drift as the rear tires lose traction.

Swaying drift - A swaying drift is a lot like a feint drift except that it begins on a long straightaway approach to a turn. Once the car starts drifting, the driver uses steering to maintain the drift in the form of a side-to-side swaying of the car's back end.

Dirt-drop drift - The driver drops the rear tires off the race course into the dirt. This technique helps initiate a drift, maintain speed to hold a drift through multiple turns or increase the drift angle (see the next section) during a single turn. For detailed explanations and instructions for each of the techniques mentioned here, check out Drift Session: Drift Techniques.

As you can see from the above techniques, drifting is not the most natural thing for a car to do. To get a car in good shape to drift and to keep it in good shape as a drifting car, there are some additions or modifications that a lot of drivers make. These can include adding horsepower and upgrading the engine's cooling system to handle the increased stress and power needs, tightening the suspension (MacPherson strut is a preferred type) to help with the weight-shifting drift techniques, and installing a limited-slip differential so the driver can control the car while drifting through more than one turn. A limited-slip differential lets the car transfer torque to whichever wheels have traction, whether that's one or all four. (See How Differentials Work to learn more about limited-slip.) The driver will usually disable any traction control and/or anti-lock-brake systems so the tires can more easily lose traction, as well as inflate the tires to about 10 psi above normal pressure to decrease their grip on the road. Since the rear tires on a drifting car can get burned up in just a handful of drifting runs, drivers typically put good tires on the front and cheap tires on the back. Tires are by far the biggest expense in the sport of drifting.

Unless you're buying a whole new car to drift, that is. When considering a good drifting car, you're basically looking for a rear-wheel drive, lightweight car that's relatively inexpensive (cars can get pretty beat up on the drifting circuit). Other qualities that make a nice drifter include a high front-to-rear weight ratio, good horsepower and a light flywheel so the engine revs easier. Some of the more popular drifting cars include the Toyota Corolla AE86 GTS, the Nissan Silvia S13 or S14, the Nissan 180SX, the Nissan Skyline GTS-T, the Nissan Sil-Eighty and the Mazda RX-7 (Japanese cars tend to be lighter in the rear than others).

You'll actually find a pretty wide range of cars at drifting events, including European and American models. Most pros will tell you that with the right level of skill, you can make any car a drifter, and in addition to the common drift cars, you'll see everything from Ford Mustangs to BMWs at competitions.


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