Street rod culture in Americana

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orange street rod
The 1935 Chevrolet street rod was built and modified for cruising
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Street rod culture has a fascinating place in the history of Americana

Street rod culture is a relatively new addition to America’s social history. What first developed in the 1970s in response to the decrease in the performance of manufactured cars has evolved with each decade since. For many, street rod culture is an essential piece of Americana, influencing fashion, films, music and the perception of driving as a leisure activity.

The term “street rod” originally referred to a car manufactured before 1949 and later modified. The cultural history of street riding is closely tied to hot rodding, to the individualistic tradition of making things with your hands for the pleasure of practicing quality craftsmanship. Street rod enthusiasts take pride in their vehicles, and there is a large industry supporting their investment in car body and engine parts, accessories, and - of course - protective car covers.

The Street Rod in Pop Culture

Street rodding became popular across the nation for its aesthetic and attitude. The 1973 George Lucas film “American Graffiti” and “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) raised the profile of modified cars and portrayed what it was like to live in the car-obsessed culture of the 1950s-1970s.
Today, numerous local street rod clubs preserve the history and carry on the street rodding lifestyle. References to the ‘greaser’ images in classic car movies like 'Grease' and 'Rebel without a Cause' still confuse the identity of street rodders with hot rodder. The easiest way to identify a street rod is with one question: Was this car modified for racing. For the most part, only hot rods are built or modified for speed. Street rods are family cars built for long afternoon drives on empty roads.

To understand where the passion and mechanical skills of street rodders first came from, it helps to know a little about the hot rod and the differences between the two. Here’s a highly abbreviated history of hot rods and street rods:


As early as the 1920s, teenagers in southern California bought the lightest, cheap cars available, the Model T-Ford, and began modifying them for speed. This process involved removing all unnecessary parts to reduce weight and replacing the engines with faster ones. Racing was done on dried lakes, deserted back roads and open fields.


Lightweight cars were introduced in the 1930s. Ford’s ’32 “Deuce”, still considered the quintessential Hot Rod, featured high speed potential, style and a solid foundation for modifying. Speed races increased and a series of fatal crashes led to a media frenzy portraying hot rods as a ‘menace’ to society. The Southern California Timing Association formed to create safety standards and make races organized events.


By the early 1940s, Hot Rodding had grown into a cultural scene with more respectability and magazines reporting hot rodding news. Growth was brought to an abrupt end with the 1942 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Hot rodders were called to serve in WWII. The service men who came through southern California on their way to the Pacific saw the regions car-culture first hand. This, combined with vocal GIs from the area exposed and peaked the curiosity of a large number of young men.


The booming economy brought time and money to spare to former GIs – not to mention mechanical skills acquired while in service. The newly formed Hot Rod magazine fed their curiosity of equipment and modification techniques while promoting safety and organizing races. The National Hot Rod (NHRA) formed to monitor and sanction drag racing.

Having lived through the war, young men starting families were eager to enjoy life. Working on hot rods was a form of self-expression and enabled them to have a social life. Racing satisfied a new hunger for adrenaline, and ‘cruising’ streets or parking at the drive-in were favorite activities.


Hot rodding culture faded in the 1960s as ‘muscle cars’ were introduced from Detroit. These lightweight cars had the tight bodies and style racers looked for without all of the work involved with building them.


A decrease in automobile craftsmanship led to a hot rod revival and the beginning of street rodding. Many street rodders grew up with the mechanical skills from hot rodding and the appreciation for personalized style. They had the desire to build and work on classic cars without the need for speed.

From the romanticism that still inspires people to drive Route 66, to the thousands of people who attend street rod car shows every year to appreciate the quality of something first constructed over 70 years ago, street rod and hot rod culture has left a permanent, fascinating imprint on America's history and style.

Hot Rod: History
National Street Rod Association

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