Life growing up in the 1950's had its virtues
. Sure the girls weren't supposed to give it up
, and the skirts were long, but the American economy was generally prosperous.
And there were cars
In the 1950's cars were well on their way towards transition toward modernity. By the end of the decade body-on-frame construction would give way toward unit-body, a form of monocoque. Engines would move toward modernity, with the first Chrysler Hemis and the high compression Cadillac V-8 mills leading the way. They were cheap, with lots of serviceable stuff left over from the thirties and forties, incuding Model T and Model A ford bodies. Lots of engines too. The cars were relatively simple and easy to work on. The big Detroit motors put out lots of grunt, though they weren't so optimised as the more complex and refined European cars used in road racing. Which meant even more power could be had. Plus if you needed help, Dad was always there. America was still semi-rural, with a lot of kids growing up working on tractors. And World War II had trained a lot of mechanics, as skills gained working on tanks and trucks could be readily applied to Flathead Fords.
Drag racing was getting started in America with guys like 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits were building dragsters that could top 160 MPH in the quarter mile! Smoking tires the whole way. There were lots of back roads to race, and if you Mom had a big Olds V-8 or your dad a Chrysler 300B you could race. Because the cars benefitted so readily from modifications, your old '49 Flathead V-8 might actualy whup a 300B after you you put on Edelbrock heads and a brace of Strombergs. And maybe a bit of soup as well.
Thus began the street rod, as a way for normal people and kids to put together a car that would go fast and win races. All the boys wanted one, and pictured themselves at the track, with Bettie Page flagging their race. They wanted the status and attention a hot rod would bring.
Plus it was fun. Those old V-8's produced monster torque and a really great sound. Take the flathead out of your crapped out '41 Ford and drop it in an old Model T to drop a thousand pounds, and make your car faster. Strombergs, new heads, Isky cams and you were rolling. The idea was speed more than looks, but those who could made their rods sharp. The Custom Car industry was born.
Of course, most kids couldn't afford to play back then. Mom and Pop might not let you, for one. For another it was hard to save for college when you were pouring bucks into your rod. And in this era most families had only one car. Cars required a lot more routine maintenance than they do today. Most of the kids who wanted one couldn't play, or if they played at all just dabbled.
Now fast forward to 1980. These same kids have graduated from college and become professionals. Their kids are out of college, and they have a garage and money to burn. And so they look back with nostalgia to that rod of youth and ask themselves "Why not?"
Todays street rods differ in some important ways from their predecessors. First of all, nice T or Model A chassis are rare today. Fortunately they have brand new frames and bodies available, often with independent suspension in the front and disk brakes. That's a big improvement as the old rods may have gone like hell in a straight line, but they didn't handle or stop worth a damn. As a group, they still don't, but at least they don't have to be death traps any more. Almost all are nicely appointed, with the kind of interior treatment that got you into Hot Rod magazine fairly common.
There are three basic types of street rods, Hot Rods, cruisers, and vintage.
Hot Rods are more direct descendents of the beasts of yore. Their owners want to go really fast, in a straight line. They have big, thumping V-8's, with radical cams, and often superchargers, usually the same belt driven GMC 6-71 blower that became the staple of top fuel dragsters. They may have parachutes, and unless you're really serious you don't want to drag these old antiques. A blown 455 or 426 Hemi in an Anglia body is a very, very serious thing, particularly with twenty-first century go-fast stuff.
Cruisers like a bit of rumble, but that's all. They want a comfortable, sharp looking rod with flame paint, chop and channeling, a modern V-8, good stereo and comfortable seats. These cars are meant to be seen and not felt. As opposed to the ground poinders above. Nevertheless, these guys produce some really pretty rides, with marvelous paint and a higher wife acceptance factor. They're much more reliable, and comfortable on the road.
The vintage rodders have truly gone retro. They build the car they wanted to build back in 1954, with the same carburetors, engine mods, brakes and wheels. If you go to a cruise in, these guys look rather plain jane compared to the other cars out there, with plainer, less glossy paints and moon hubcaps. But their cars are a slice of history, althogh they all tend to build flathead Fords as the big Mercury sixes and Olds motors are much rarer, even unobtanium, and much less obviously retro. Still, when you see a vintage car, you're seeing life as it was.
Street rods tend to be limited to the cars from 1962 and earlier, with the much more modern muscle cars of the later sixties somewhat disdained, though the stigma is easing lately. Model T and A bodies abound, but anything from the accepted years will find a willing audience.
Today they have a national street rod association with thousands of members. They hold cruise ins, and even national meets that can draw hundreds of cars. They have one in my home town of Columbus, Ohio almost every summer, and it's worth going to the fairgrounds to check them out. Many of these cars are wonderfully detailed, some professionally prepared. Many are trailer queens, many driven to the event. They are truly rolling art, with a nasty rumble. A lot of the members know each other, and friendships form at these meets. After all, many of these people are the same age, and shared the same fantasy as kids. Only now they have the means to make it true.
the GMC 6-71 supercharger came off the 6-71 diesel engines that were installed in the M4A2 version of the M4 Sherman Tank, and a lot of buses as it was produced until 1980. They were good motors, except for the oil bath air cleaners, and cheap and plentiful after the war. Lots of surplus in hot rodding.