Art is anything that human beings do obsessively. Hot rods are a distinctly American art form. More akin to ceramics than to painting or sculpture, it is democratic to its core and utterly untainted by academia. Last weekend we went to the Kruzers Car Show in Prairie City Oregon.
Today I will give a few clues to understanding hot rods as art. If you wish you can check my bona fides as an art critic, you can go here and here
Although almost anything with a motor can be hot rodded, there are some general rules. It is usually based on a mass produced automobile and certain years and models are strongly favored.
The art lies in the infinite variations each builder plays on the chosen archetype. The classic hot rod from before WWII is almost always a Ford. After WWII and especially after 1955 is is a Chevy.
Sometimes restraint is the motif with a flawless paint job in factory colors and aftermarket wheels and that's all.
Two cars can be superficially similar but distinctly different to the connoisseur. Fifty-four Chevy vs fifty-five, factory colors vs custom color, period correct custom wheels vs modern wheels.
The differences may seem trivial but builders devote a lot of thought to each detail. A fifty-seven Chevy is considered by some to be the ultimate hot-rod sedan and the owner of this one took a very conservative approach to body modifications although this paint job probably cost more than the car did when it was new.
This 59 Chevy shows why these cars from the late '50s and early '60s represented a high water mark for American automobiles. The combination of cheap gas and no competition gave Detroit the room to do things that today's competitive environment would not allow. The deep relief in the shape of the rear fenders and the compund curves in the windshield are both very difficult feats in mass production manufacturing. In spite of fifty year's refinement in automobile manufacture, I don't know of anything like this being made today. And yet the Chevy was an entry-level car, affordable to just about anyone who had a job in nineteen fifty-nine.
On the other hand, this pre-war Chevy is considered much less desirable than the Fords of the same era. This is partially due to the fact that the Ford V8s had better performance than the Chevy 6s and to the fact that this Chevy's styling is boxy and stiff compared to the Fords. The owner of this car probably disagrees with me on most of this.
And then we have the paint jobs. One of the reasons I enjoy going to roadster shows is for the riot of vibrant colors and the elaborate and extremely labor-intensive paint jobs on display there.
Post '50s pickups are a relatively new genre. They were uncommon in the first era of rods but they have become very popular in the past ten or fifteen years. Note that although this truck has flames, they are almost completely different from the flames on the red Chevy a few pages back.
A distinctive feature of the hot rod aesthetic is the emphasis on do-it-yourself. Although one can hire someone to do the fabrication and many do, it is always better when the owner and builder is the same person and the appeal of owner fabrication can compensate for a certain amount of roughness in execution.
The definitive hot rod, the one that started it all, is the '32 Ford. This was because when hot-rodding began these cars were cheap and plentiful with good-looking lines nd with some simple modifications could be a fairly fast car for their day. With some simple modifications one could make a fairly fast car for its day. Fashions change, the flat black and red paint scheme and the painted exhaust headers say this is a contemporary build. Twenty years ago it would have been candy-apple red with chrome headers.
The latest trend in hot rodding is the rat rod, a reaction against the gem-like polish and refinement of some show cars. This is a vaiation of the rat rod theme with what appears to be a model A engine modified to run on propane. Here, the lack of polish is an aesthetic statement and the mechanical ingenuity makes it even cooler.
Everyone has their favorites, but this is my pick for the best looking of the pre-war Fords, the 1934 model. Everything about its design fit together into a stylish whole.
In rodding a distinction is usually drawn between rods and customs. This Lincoln Continental is more of a custom. There is no hard and fast rule but customs are more focused on appearance while in a rod the mechanical aspects are of equal importance. The thing that makes this definitely a custom is the fact that no attempt is made to display the engine.
Modifying an old car to improve the performance and appearance is hot rodding. Restoring an old car to original condition is not. Making minimal modifications to make an old car driveable on today's roads falls somewhere in between. I don't see any attempt to modify this car's appearance so while it may be interesting, it falls outside the hot rod aesthetic.
Now this is a true hot rod. Starting with a 1941 Plymouth coupe. Converted from a coupe to a convertible, top & windshield lowered 3 inches, '47 Plymouth grille, 39 Ford taillights, '54 for headlights, '66 mustang radiator, '68 VW windshield wiper, '70 Chevy Nova subframe, '71 Pontiac differential, '72 Nissan heater,'78 Cadillac steering column, '80 Mustang master cylinder, '90 Chrysler top latches, aftermarket carb and manifold, electronic ignition, '98 Toyota power seats, 383 Chevy v8, Chev auto transmission, and exhaust headers. Much better performance than the original, pretty cheap for a bespoke automobile and I think it looks good.:w
This is an edge case. A modern vehicle that has been modified with aftermarket bits for better performance and appearance. I don't see enough creativity here but I have seen cases where a bit of trim can change the look of a car.
Here is another edge case. This is a re-creation of a car that appeared on a TV show. Bringing fantasy to life is what art is all about but I have to deduct points because the doors aren't welded up.
The hot rod aesthetic reaches its peak in the engine compartment.
Sometimes they are meticulously polished and sometimes they are rough and basic, but they are always crucially important to the presentation.
Some engines are professional masterpieces that are raced regularly and so highly tuned that they would not live for sixty seconds at full throttle. Some are chrome-plated fakes that have never driven a mile. They must be interesting in some manner to be hot rod engines.
The art lies in achieving the balance of appearance and performance that perfectly complements that particular car.
Sometimes an original flat-head v8 win some minimal dress-up items is exactly what is called for.
Sometimes the ruggedness of a factory performance engine is the right touch.
And sometimes the engine compartment is a place for flights of fancy. And it always comes down to a matter of taste.
Interiors are another area where each builder can express their creativity.
For some, beauty is nostalgia and making it look like it was 1958 again.
For others, it is the shock of the new inserted into the shell of the old.
Pinstriping is another stylistic motif peculiar to custom cars. This was the only example I saw in Prairie City but it is a whole art form into itself and it wouold take more space than we have to go into it here.
As with any art, defining exactly what does and does not qualify is difficult. This was presented as an 1887 homebuilt. I have some doubts about the provenance but it is outside my field of competence. I'll use the critic's cop-out &x22 interesting.&x22 While you're at it, check out the walking stick.