By Julia Witteman
Hot Rods: A Cultural Phenomenon
When some people think about traditional hot rods they imagine headlights that glare menacingly and elegantly shaped radiators that elicit gasps of awe. They envision an exposed engine with intricately knotted metal workings. They imagine a gleaming bright red exterior emblazoned with eye-catching flames that leap from swollen chrome bumpers and sweep around the body of the car. The interior boasts modern-day comfort yet conforms with the stylish retro gauges and steering wheel. While the car is a representation of the past, the Golden Age (Ken 5), it exhibits speed and style that someone from the past could never dream of. This is the work of a hot rodder, to create a car that embodies the past yet transcends the limitations of speed and performance characteristic of classic cars. The hot rodder creates a whole new vision of a motor vehicle, one that many picture as a flame-adorned Ford Model A equipped with an oversized engine. Yet the world of hot rods is more diverse than that. It is a culture comprised of countless experimental visionaries creating distinctive works of art that combine classic car features with modern-day technology.
If anyone knows about the story of hot rod culture, it’s Dave Ackleson. Ackleson enjoys his retirement years building hot rods as a hobby at his cozy, bright blue home in the Oregon countryside. The first thing I notice about Ackleson is his tee shirt featuring three beautiful wooden sixties surf-era hot rods. “All my shirts are car tee shirts,” he says in a deep, calm voice. “So it’s no surprise I am wearing this today.” Ackleson ducks into the back room and returns with an old grainy photograph of himself at about seventeen, standing proudly in front of a light blue car with a mostly exposed engine. I’m curious what inspired Ackelson to build the car. “It was a moment of insanity,” admits Ackelson, his blue eyes sparkling. He had seen the rusty Model A body in a friend’s yard, towed it home and got to work (Ackelson). “I had no money, so I found whatever I could,” says Ackleson. He found the front axle of a ’32 Ford in the woods one day, along with some brakes and wheels, and assembled them onto his car to create the bare bones of a car body. The back was the rear of a ’52 Pontiac (Ackelson).
“Why did I use such an eclectic combination of body parts? Because I found them!” exclaims Ackelson. Merging the cars seems an odd choice, something that could have never happened if the builder did not have Ackelson’s creative spirit. “After graduating from college, I was an electrical engineer, but I focused on computer design. You get a job and figure out how much you don’t know,” (Ackelson). Like engineering, car making is a learning experience. “Once you start, there is so much you still don’t know,” says Ackelson.
The evolution of hot rod culture is a colorful one. Ackelson explains that early hot rods were “slapped together with whatever you could find.” Hot rodding started in the 1940s when people took original 1930s cars and altered the engines to make them faster (Ackelson). Hot rodding popularity soared in the 1950s when people primarily created hot rods out of old Fords. To compete with Ford and integrate themselves into the business, Chevy began to make and sell readily engineered parts (Thom 14). This was the beginning of aftermarket car parts. As the business grew, the first hot rod shops popped up in California (Taylor 26). In 1957, pioneering hot rodder Jim McLennan opened one of the first speed shops in San Francisco. Even now, the car market is improving as more people become interested in classic cars (Taylor 36).
The fascination with hot rods is closely linked to the passion for automotive racing. Since speed and competition are often considered a Western preoccupation, it is not surprising that racing developed almost immediately after the invention of the first cars around the turn of the century (Brazendale 151). Since the beginning of the automotive era, individuals attempted to create cars that out-perform others. Initially, competitions were attempts to go as fast and far as possible to test the car’s speed and endurance. Amédée Bollée won the first car competition when he raced his steam-driven L’Obéissante from Le Mans to Paris in 1875 (Brazendale 151). Later in the 1950s, hot rod racing emerged. Competitions like “The World’s Quickest and Fastest Chevy” sprang up around Southern California. In 1959, McLennan and his partner, Ted Gotelli, hosted the “Half Moon Bay Race” at a drag strip in Bakersfield, California (Taylor 27). There were “so many people they closed the ticket booths and just collected the money people threw into the ticket booths!” (Taylor 27). The thirst for automotive speed continues today after more than a century.
Since the goal of many hot rodders is to create a car with immense speed, a high performance engine is the most important part of the process. “Face it, the heart of a hot rod is its engine,” writes hot rod expert and prolific author, Dain Gingerelli. “Even the name ‘hot rod’ suggests that it’s about the engine first; everything else is just secondary in importance” (Gingerelli 90). Ackelson agrees that a high-performance engine is essential for building a superior hot rod. Fortunately for Ackelson, his friend had a Ford that didn’t work but the engine still ran, so he gave the engine to Ackleson for his hot rod. The engine is a 1950s Y block V8, a unique design by Ford Motors (McMaster). Some of Ford’s most famous models, the Thunderbird and the Mercury, used the Y block engine. Y block engines were popular in early hot rodding because they reached speeds of over 180 miles per hour (McMaster). The Y block engine differed from traditional designs because it stacked the pistons horizontally instead of vertically. This unconventional stacking system was a disadvantage because it caused the oil to clog and prevented the upper ends from being properly lubricated (McMaster). Despite this drawback, however, the Y block engine delivered 275 horsepower, impressive for its time (McMaster).
At the end of a three year restoration process, Ackleson deemed the car “drivable” and decided he was done. Although he took a hiatus from hot rod building, Ackelson’s first hot rod will always serve as a memory of youth and creativity for him (Ackelson). “In the early 70s, I got married and sold the model A because it had just been sitting in my garage. But in the early 80s, I got the bug again,” says Ackleson. Since then, hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t have a wrench in his hand. Ackleson has worked on many different cars over the years, ranging in styles and purposes.
Today, Ackelson shares his latest creation. He opens the garage door slowly, revealing a crystal clean workspace. Colorful neon signs reading “Hot Rod Shop” cover the walls. Front and center sits Ackelson’s prized hot rod, a 1930s Nash sedan. The car sits surprisingly close to the ground. Laughing, Ackleson explains that he opted for air suspension when he created his car. “Air suspension is like an airbag that gets filled with air pressure. They’re an accordian type of thing,” says Ackleson. “ Air suspension is supposed to give a nicer ride–maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but I chose air suspension so my car height could be completely adjustable. This creates a unique low-riding car that looks incredible when driving down the road. With hot rodding you’ve got an infinite amount of creativity and flexibility,” says Ackleson.
The Nash’s color, a bleak matte gray, seems anything but creative, but Ackelson reassures me that the gray is only the primer color. The final color will be a rich maroon. A huge metal clip holds the car and makes it easy to raise for body work. At first glance, the car looks almost finished other than the hollow windows. Dave has devoted a lot of time to his hobby. He has been working on his car for seventeen years, every day for a few hours. He says that he still has a few years left to work on it. To an observer, the car seems pulled from one of the old black and white photos of the thirties and forties. With four-doors, the Nash provides ample room for a family of four. I imagine what it would be like for a family from that era to get into the Nash and drive across town or to the movies. Eager to open the doors and sit inside, I discover that there are no handles. I push but the door won’t budge. Suddenly, the door opens easily. Confused, I look at Ackleson who is holding an electric key and laughing. “I built the car with sheer doors to create a clean line and then decided to wire up the car so that a modern electric car key can remotely lock, unlock, and open the doors automatically,” Ackelson explains.
Before getting into the car, I admire the beautifully finished the doors. Ackleson explains how he spent countless hours aligning the doors and getting the fenders perfect. The car originally had many wood parts. By the time Ackleson acquired it, the wood had bent and rotted away, distorting the dented metal doors. As a result, Ackleson reshaped many of the parts when he put the car back together. This process includes spraying on four to five coats of polyester filler to replenish any holes or dents (Ackelson). “I sand and shape each fender and door until it is perfect,” says Ackleson. He continues sanding until everything is impeccably smoothed and contoured like a sculpture. This process is like creating a work of art.
It is a work of art worthy of a powerful engine, which is the Nash’s most important component. Mechanically speaking, the engine is the most complex part, but it is also the most artistically beautiful. Ackleson has graduated from finicky Y blocks to a brand new 350 Chevy crate engine that has 300 horsepower. The engine is paired with a Holley 670-cfm carburetor. “You can never have too many carburetors on a hot rod engine,” car expert Dain Gingerelli says. “Nope, in fact, the more the merrier, and for years hot rodders have lived by that adage” (Gingerelli 102). When I ask Ackleson how fast his engine can go, he smiles and says, “it can go over 100 miles an hour, depending on how brave you feel.”
After admiring the Nash and discussing its virtues at great length, we decide that it’s time to get into the car. Visually, the inside seems very bare bones. Technically, however, it is intricately wired with automatic windows and a beautiful dash. While the engine tends to be the most exciting part of a car, the interior is the part we experience most intimately. Grasping the wheel, I feel like one of the classy gangsters in old movies. I only wish I had a string of pearls. The car sports comfortable leather seats from a Chrysler 2006 Sebring. The classically beautiful steering wheel is from an original 1930s Nash sedan, but it is wired with modern power steering. Dain Gingerelli believes that the interior is a very underrated portion of a hot rod, saying, “In terms of real time spent with a car, most of it brings you in contact with the car’s interior. . . For the most part, . . . when we plant our fannies on the driver’s or passenger’s seat, we’re there for the duration of the ride” (Gingerelli 64). Ackelson has created quite a ride. His Nash is a perfect example of a hot rod that combines classic design with modern technology.
Many wonder why people choose to build hot rods. Hot rod mechanics are extremely complicated, parts are expensive, and building the cars can take years of manual labor. Also, modern cars are faster and more sophisticated than a car one can build oneself. “I think what drives hot rodders is having something unique. Building a hot rod is an opportunity to create a completely custom and original car,” says Ackleson. Hot rods often feature both new and old parts. It is not unusual, for example, to put new Chevy engines into old cars from the 30s and 40s (Ackelson). By choosing an engine from a 350 Chevy for his restoration, Ackleson is creating a car that embodies both the past and the future.
Building the Nash involved many trials and tribulations. The biggest issue was the air suspension which has been “a plague since day one and added two years to the project,” remarks Ackleson. “Every time I needed to make a change, I had to lift the body up by its hinges and readjust it when I put it back on the ground.” But the creative process is part of the joy for Ackleson, who says, “If you don’t like the process just buy a car.” Indeed, the creative magic and joy in the process are the very reasons people build hot rods. “In the long run,” Ackleson says, “the whole process is worth it.” In looking back at the seventeen years of hard work he invested in the creation of his car, Ackleson says proudly, “Look what I did. That looks pretty damn good.”
For decades, the irresistible allure of building custom hot rods has captured the hearts and minds of hot rodders. Enchanted by the magic of combining classic car features with modern-day technology and powerful high-speed engines, hot rodders are a unique and creative breed of innovators, visionaries, and artists. Dave Ackelson is a quintessential hot rod builder. Like his fellow hot rodders, he embodies the creativity, perseverance, artistic daring, and passion for innovation that defines the broader culture of hot rodding. Hot rod building is an ever-evolving cultural phenomenon with a rich history and a promising future.
Ackleson, Dave. Personal Interview. 10 Oct. 2015.
Brazendale, Kevin, and Enrica Aceti, eds. Classic Cars. New York: Eter, 1976.
Gingerelli, Dain. Hot Rods: Roadsters, Coupes, Customs. Minneapolis: MBI, n.d.
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McMaster, Tim. About The Y-Block Ford. Y Block Guy. N.p., 2008. Web. 20 Oct.
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Witteman, Katherine, Adult Editor. “Hot Rods: A Cultural Phenomenon” by Julia Witteman. Portland, Oregon, 2015. Print
Reese, Rick, Adult Editor. “Hot Rods: A Cultural Phenomenon” by Julia Witteman. Portland: Oregon Episcopal School, 2015. Print
Julie Sikkink, Adult Editor. “Hot Rods: A Cultural Phenomenon” by Julia Witteman. Portland: Oregon Episcopal School, 2015. Print