The 5 Most Important Cars in the Evolution of the Hot-Rod
The world today is full of all kinds of incredible hot rods. Open the pages of any magazine, and you’ll see everything from low-buck, stripped-down street thrashers that specialize in straight-line acceleration, to mega-dollar, high-tech dyno queens set for glory on the autocross. You might see a brand-new fuel injected Camaro side-by-side with a primer-gray Chevy Nova, or a chromed-out rail job parked next to a monochrome musclecar. On the surface, these vehicles seem to share very little in common, other than the fact that they’re all hot rods.
This hobby has evolved quite a lot over the years; it’s split and schism’d enough times to have a real family tree, with each modern hot rod having a distinct genealogy of its own, True, some of the branches of the family tree wound up pretty short. But other progenitors went on to sire long and proud family lines.
Here’s my list of the most important hot rods of all time; the ones that changed history, created new forks on the family tree, and left a bit of their DNA behind in all that would follow.
Continue reading for the full story.
Fifth Place, Tie: David Freiburger Cheap Thrills Dart and Jeff Smith Pro Touring Malibu
Say what you will about recessions, but they do have a way of realigning priorities. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were two basic kinds of hot-rodding: "Expensive" and "Really Expensive." The trend of spending more and more money on going fast had been building for some time, and saw perhaps its ultimate expression in the Greedy ’80s.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were two basic kinds of hot-rodding: "Expensive" and "Really Expensive."
It was during this era that society seemed to have decided as one that the guy with the coolest car was the one who spent the most money on it. Whether that meant OCD Concours restorations or pure billet Pro Street, a car’s worth in this time period was measured almost entirely by...its worth.
All that changed in the early 1990s, when a little-known off-road enthusiast named David Freiburger took over the helm at "Hot Rod" magazine’s failing sister magazine, "Car Craft." Furby’s first order of business: to change "Car Craft" from a rip-off of "Hot Rod" into the flagship magazine’s dirty little brother. With its new "go Fast for Cheap" tagline in place, "Car Craft" debuted in 1994 what is still considered one of Freiburger’s most infamous hacks: the Cheap Thrills Dodge Dart. Built for less than $2,000 and intended to turn in 12-second timeslips, this Dart shook up the hot-rodding world with the kind of back-yard butchery that street racers had been doing since the dawn of time. The Dart’s most notable feature: a large hose clamp used to hold the transmission to its crossmember.
At the exact same time Freiburger was busy making cheap hot rods cool, a colleague of his was helping to shift the entire performance paradigm. "Chevy High Performance" first featured editor Jeff Smith’s corner-carving Malibu in 1994 — shortly after friend and collaborator Mark Steilow’s Tri Tip 1969 Camaro competed in the 1993 One Lap of America. Steilow’s Camaro made big waves at One Lap by hammering on much newer European exotics. But Camaros were always made to be road racers.
Not true for the Malibu/Chevelle, which had always been a straight-line musclecar to the bone. However, when Smith re-engineered the car’s suspension and slapped on some stunning-for-the-time low-profile tires, he turned his Malibu into one of the greatest freakshows on Earth: a musclecar that could stop and handle. This all-around performance approach quickly caught on among musclecar enthusiasts, driving those fat tire, straight-line-only Pro Street cars into extinction almost as quickly as Nirvana did Hair Metal. From then on, the mantra of the ’90s became "Pro Street is dead — long live Pro Touring."
Fourth Place: Steve Collison’s Mean Mr. Mustang
For those who remember hot-rodding in the ’80s and early ’90s, it seemed dark things loomed on the horizon, brooding like a storm cloud from "Terminator." The Machines were coming, Skynet was on the way, and computer controls would forever wipe out our go-fast fun.
At the time, electronic fuel injection seemed like an alien minefield of confusing sensors, inscrutable computers and systems that were far too difficult and expensive to ever work in a hot rod.
Of course, we know now that that didn’t happen, and that computer tuning is one of the best things to happen to hot rods since the Holley double-pumper. But at the time, electronic fuel injection seemed like an alien minefield of confusing sensors, inscrutable computers and systems that were far too difficult and expensive to ever work in a hot rod. Apart from a few notables like the 1982-1987 Buick Grand National, fuel injection and the coming emissions laws seemed to herald the death of hot-rodding — and perhaps the birth of the dreaded "sealed engine compartments."
The landscape looked even bleaker when in 1986, "Mustang Monthly" installed a set of steeper 3.55-to-1 gears on a Mustang GT, and reported the car had actually slowed down. They blamed it on the fuel injection computer readjusting performance parameters, which ultimately wasn’t true — but it was a terrifying sign for enthusiasts.
However, somewhere under the dark skies of New Jersey, a hot-rodder and editor of the (now defunct) "Super Stock and Drag Illustrated Magazine" was working on a plan. He bought a stripped out 1987 GT and proceeded to apply age-old hot-rodding techniques to it. He pulled the air silencer, iced the intake, played with the timing, swapped computers, and experimented with pulling vacuum lines and plugging off EGR valves. And not just Steve, either. He was joined by Tony DeFeo of "Cars Illustrated" (with his own GT), and thousands of readers who pitched in with ideas, time and money to science the secrets of speed out of fuel injection.
After months of trial and error, and what can only be described as the team effort of an entire magazine readership, Collison’s Mean Mr. Mustang turned 12.7 seconds at the dragstrip while getting 22 mpg, and ferrying Collison himself 200 miles a day. That might not sound too impressive now, but it was absolutely stunning back when people believed it might be literally impossible to hot rod a fuel-injected car. More impressive still when you realize Collison never even took the heads off the engine. The entire block, including the cam, was bone stock. This was the world’s first bolt-on 5.0-liter Mustang, and proof that the future of hot-rodding was secure.
Collison, DeFeo and their two Mustangs later went on to found "Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords Magazine" — the largest single-make auto publication in America today.
Third Place: Eastwood & Barakat ’32 Ford Sedan
The 1982 Eastwood and Barakat ’32 Ford wasn’t the first primered hot rod to make it big in America — after all, we’d had "Two Lane Blacktop," among many other movies, for some time before then. But those were always niche cars, movie cars that nobody really went out of their way to build or drive. And they were usually the way they were because they were unfinished. Not so here.
At the time, these cars had become basically rolling showrooms for billet aluminum, chrome and over-the-top paint jobs.
The late ’70s and early ’80s were tumultuous times for hot rodding. As I talked about above, the primary competition in auto enthusiast circles revolved around who could throw the most money at his car; a trend that itself was catalyzed by the next cars on our list. For better or worse, America had fallen in love with the idea of just throwing as much money possible at every part of an automobile in a bid to come up with the gaudiest display of expenditure possible. But hey, it was the ’80s, and no car was the victim of more wallet measuring than Duece coupes. At the time, these cars had become basically rolling showrooms for billet aluminum, chrome and over-the-top paint jobs.
The E&B Sedan was the deliberate opposite of all of that. It started out as a 1932 body shell purchased for $300; which even at the time was insane cheap. Credit the fact that the car had been lying upside-down in a ravine for the past few decades, and had half rusted to nothing. But the hot-rodding duo of Eastwood and Barakat got the thing together in one piece, and dropped in a small-block Chevy, Turbo 400 transmission and a 9-inch rear end from a 1957 Ford station wagon. Mostly because those were the parts they had lying around.
A mere 12 weeks later, the E&B Sedan was born — without an interior, but with a permanent primer brown paint job, this Anti-Coupe reveled in its cheapness and spat in the billet aluminum eyes of every six-figure hot rod out there. And it wasn’t just cheap; it was stupid fast. While deep 11-second timeslips aren’t terribly uncommon on street-driven cars today, that was psycho quick for a legit street car in 1982, and a lot faster than the vast majority of the million-dollar Chromesters dominating magazine covers at the time.
This was in fact the very first primered car to see the front cover of "Hot Rod" magazine, and came to spawn a trend of building deliberately cheap, nasty and gloriously low-tech hot rods. Legendary "Hot Rod" writer Gray Baskerville called it a "Rusto Rod," though today we’d call them "Rat Rods." That is, cars built for very little money, visibly relying almost entirely upon the skill and ingenuity of the builder. Where Freiburger’s Dart made going fast for cheap a viable alternative to just throwing money at cars, the E&B Sedan made having fun without money legitimately cool in an era known for its gaudy excess and consumerism. That trend has resurfaced as a political and social statement time and again over the years, even among people who can afford something much nicer. Rat Rods are democratic defiance defined, and have been proving one thing above all others since 1982:
That the tree of hot-rodding must, from time to time, be refreshed with the tears of checkbook chumps.
Speaking of whom...
Second Place, Tie: Scott Sullivan Nova" and "Rod Saboury Corvette
Scott Sullivan and Rod Saboury weren’t them. With all the derision levied thus far toward the Checkbook Chump crowd and the Pro Street movement they adopted, you might expect some serious disrespect coming to the progenitors of that movement. Surely, the guys who helped to turn hot rods into overpriced and under-performing caricatures would fall in line with the people they inspired. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In 1979, a certain Chevrolet Nova built by an unknown Rhode Island man named Scott Sullivan was voted Street Machine of the Year. Sullivan would later go on to even greater fame as The Man Who Killed Chrome; his award-winning, orange-and-tan Cheez Whiz Bel Air had not an ounce of shiny stuff, relying entirely on painted surfaces and monochrome trim to offset the car’s otherwise cartoonish proportions.This slick and subtle styling went on to influence everyone from GM to Toyota, who quickly began dropping the costume jewelry. In truth, the Cheez Whiz Bel Air deserves at least an honorable mention on this list for exactly that reason — so here it is.
While this wasn't the first car to stick a giant blower through the hood or use massive rear tires, it was the first well-known street car to tub the rear wheel wells and tuck those monstrous meats all the way up under the car's body.
But that car owed it cartoonish proportions to Sullivan’s Nova. While this wasn’t the first car to stick a giant blower through the hood, or use massive rear tires, it was the first well-known street car to tub the rear wheel wells and tuck those monstrous meats all the way up under the car’s body. Recall, prior to this, builders desiring large tires would normally just "stinkbug" the rear of a car, jacking up the suspension and giving the body a huge forward rake angle.
But Saboury, taking his cue from contemporary Funny Cars, enlarged his car’s wheel tubs, narrowed the rear end, and got all of those massive rear tires to fit completely under the car. Combined with a massive scoop sticking out of the hood and skinny front tires, you’d think this car might be a little over the top. But just as with the Cheez Whiz Chevy, Saboury balanced the car’s architectural craziness with a shaved-down and almost stock-looking body and paint job.
A big part of that decision was pure practicality. Sullivan wasn’t rich and never had been. He built the Nova on a budget, relying almost entirely on his own fabrication skills and smart part sourcing to make it happen. At the end of the day, he just didn’t have the time or cash left for crazy body mods or paint; which he probably wouldn’t have done anyway.
The same can’t be said of Rod Saboury, who two years later debuted his take on Sullivan’s new "Pro Street" look. Rod quickly launched to equal degrees of fame and infamy. Fame for the car’s incredible look, over-the-top body modifications and the fact that it generally looked like a full-scale Hot Wheels car. Infamy for the fact that he hacked up a perfectly good 1963 Corvette split-window coupe to do it. This act of utter sacrilege triggered outrage among many who saw Saubury’s build as the complete destruction of a car that should have been in a museum.
When does a car become so valuable as a piece of history that the owner has a moral obligation to protect it as such?
Oh, the car was undeniably cool — but it did spark a heated debate that continues to this day. To wit: When does a car become so valuable as a piece of history that the owner has a moral obligation to protect it as such? Rod’s "excuse?"
It was the only car he had.
Like Sullivan, Rod was a long way from rich. In fact, he put most of his life savings into building this car; mortgaging his house and sacrificing everything he could do without to make his vision a reality. That very nearly cost Rod his wife and kids, who while proud of Rod’s vision and talent, found life slightly more difficult without money for anything. The fact that Rod hacked this particular Corvette wasn’t a result of his deliberately hunting down a classic car to hack. He’d bought the car several years earlier when they were fairly cheap, and Rod couldn’t afford to buy a second off-year Corvette to build into his dream.
But after years of hard work and sacrifice, the Rod Saboury Corvette hit the world. With its extreme body mods, graphics and Pro Street stance, it immediately became the bedroom pinup poster of gearhead kids everywhere. Originally, the car used a supercharger and a black-with-stripes paint job as pictured here. However, since then, Rod’s rebuilt it with an even more insane paint job, and a pair of massive turbos that push it to 60 mph in one second, and through the quarter mile in the deep 6s. As of 2015, Rod’s turbocharged ’63 is said to be the quickest road-legal street car in the world.
Yes, it is true that bankers, hedge fund managers and Checkbook Chumps of all kinds would spend the next couple decades simply throwing money at cars in an attempt to imitate Sullivan and Saboury’s masterpieces. And yes, the Rat Rod movement was a direct response to their popularity, and the fact that they’d started an all-out spending war among wanna-be hot rodders with seven figure bank accounts and not a wrench to their names.
But the godfathers of Pro Street themselves paid to make their dreams happen with dedication, sacrifice and bottomless amounts of pure talent.
The Bugs and the Kookie Kar
Most of the last century of hot-rodding has been a conflict of style vs substance — going fast vs looking good. And that’s been true almost since the dawn of hot-rodding itself.
Some people think of modern hot rods as going back to the pre-war days, when performance was measured according to one’s top speed at Bonneville or on Daytona Beach. And that is true, if you’re looking at the raw definition of a hot rod as being modified for better looks and performance. But there is a little more to it.
If there were a sixth spot on this list, it would go to the 1910 Model 60 Buick Bug — America’s first purpose-built race car, and the direct predecessor of all hot rods, Grand Prix cars and top-speed racers that would follow. The Buick Bug (driven by no less than Louis Chevrolet) deserves at least an honorable mention as being the first of the first, and the last universal common ancestor of hot rods everywhere.
However, as brilliant and important as the original Bug was, it wasn’t really a "hot rod" in the technical sense. It wasn’t modified from its original form; the Bug was always a purpose-built race car.
Up until about 1950, top speed was the primary focus of hot rodding. But as dragstrips and stoplights came to replace dry lakes and beaches, attention slowly began turning to acceleration. It was this new performance metric — quarter-mile drag times — that would later come to define hot-rodding and hot rods in general. Lightweight, stripped down, dangerous, overpowered and nasty; in a display of utmost weirdness, it was a second Bug that would come to define all that.
This one was built by a fellow named Dick Kraft in the late 1940s. It started out as a 1908 Ford Model T based lakes roadster, destined for top speed competition like the majority of cars of its day. The transformation came when Kraft stripped the roadster’s body off, taking it down to little more than a bare frame, a place to sit and a steering wheel. You’ll note that, in the manliest of all pictures ever taken, Kraft seems to be racing his Bug without a shirt on — according to Kraft, it was all part of the weight cutting. Though in truth, it probably didn’t hurt his popularity with female racing fans, either.
Back in the early days of drag racing, success was still measured by top speed instead of quarter-mile time.
In any case, Kraft campaigned this first of the "rail job" T-Bucket dragsters all over the country. It was still a top speed racer, running 109.9 mph at Santa Ana — a new top speed at the nation’s first dragstip, located on an old runway at the Orange County, California airport. Back then, in the early days of drag racing, success was still measured by trap speed instead of quarter-mile time. But that focus shifted pretty early on, in no small part because Kraft’s lightweight and hard-accelerating Bug put on such a good show. It was always the first across the finish line, and going faster than everyone else when it got there.
It didn’t take long for word of Kraft’s success to spread, and pretty soon everyone was building open-wheel "rail jobs" like The Bug. As you’d expect, the style quickly spread to the street, and the popular T-Bucket movement was born. Today, T-Buckets stand nationwide as the quintessential hot rod, thanks mostly to a fellow named Norm Grabowski.
An exposed V-8 engine and headers, fenderless steel wheels with dog-dish hub caps, a rakish stance, multiple carburetors, chrome everywhere and of course -- a flame job!
Grabowski’s take on the T-Bucket, built in 1957, is what most people today consider the definitive hot rod. While Kraft was responsible for the rail job concept, Grabowski refined it into something beautiful and iconic. In this car, you can see the genesis of many of our most classic hot rod styling cues. An exposed V-8 engine and headers, fenderless steel wheels with dog-dish hub caps, a rakish stance, multiple carburetors, chrome everywhere and of course — a flame job!
This was Grabowski’s personal car, but it got its unusual name on its rise to fame. Shortly after it was built, someone from Warner Brothers saw the car cruising around Southern California.
They paid Grabowski the princely sum of $50 a day to borrow his car, which would serve as the signature ride of Edd "Kookie" Burns on their detective drama 77 Sunset Strip. The Kookie Kar, as it came to be known, quickly became a fan favorite, and helped to spread California hot rod style nationwide.
Pretty soon, everyone was cloning The Kookie Car, and stripped-down, chromed-out T-Buckets became the performance cars of their day. From then on, those early T-Buckets would remain the standard against which all future hot rods would be judged.
From musclecars to dragsters, primered duece coupes to full-chrome show cars, Dodge Darts to Pro Street Corvettes — all of them and every hot rod since owe serious debts to these two Bugs, and a Kookie.
And that makes them the important hot rods of all time — the founding fathers, and the very core of hot-rodding’s century tall family tree.