I’ve been enamored with cool cars for as long as I can remember. Growing up in SoCal during the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was the drag cars that got my attention early on. To me they just looked cool, but the sound of these cars was what really pulled me in. As I got older, I became curious as to where the term “souped-up” originated. I figured it was probably coined back in the ’50s when guys would “beef up” or “hop up” the engines in their hot rods to make more horsepower. And with soup (like Mom’s) having so many interchangeable ingredients, the term made perfect sense to me as it relates to how early hot rodders would modify their engines with a little of “this” and a little of “that” to add more “kick.” Which leads me to a more common term: “hot rod,” I’d really like to know how that one came about.
Being that I still reside in Southern California—the birthplace of hot rodding—I easily could have gone to any number of local veteran car guys who would have gladly given me their take on how the term came about. But, instead, I chose to go with the “trusty” Internet—certainly not as accurate in the factual department, but I’m on deadline and this could be quite entertaining.
My first stop was urbandictionary.com. Wow! You don’t even want to know what comes up first when you look up “hot rod” there. Trust me, it has nothing to do with cars. Moving on to a more traditional search, I looked up “hot rod” on merriam-webster.com, and the definition came up as “an automobile rebuilt or modified for high speed and fast acceleration,” with its first known use being some time in 1943. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Although the origin of the term is sketchy at best, someone on wikipedia.com claims the installation of a hotter cam in a Flathead V-8 having much to do with it. So, I envision a few young guys hanging out in a garage, and after a few hours wrenching on a Flathead, they popped the tops off a couple chilled Schlitz’s when one of them takes a long pull off his brew, wipes the corner of his mouth, then turns to his fellow gearheads, “With this souped-up engine, I’ll bet we have the keenest hot rod in town.” One of the others follows up in agreement, quietly confirms, “Yep, this is one cool hot rod.”
Hey, you can’t fault me for having a vivid imagination, and it’s probably a stretch as far as how it really went down. But being the fact that hot rodding in the early ’40s was on the verge of exploding (in a good way), the reality is that there were two forward-thinking hot rodders paying close attention to this cool new automotive movement: Robert E. Petersen and Wally Parks. Petersen went on to found Hot Rod magazine and brought on Wally Parks as the groundbreaking publication’s first editor. A few years later, Parks went on to form the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), and Petersen, riding the momentum of the mega successful Hot Rod magazine, built a magazine publishing empire.
Today, a lot of guys—myself included—use the term hot rod quite loosely. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that only cars of a certain era, build style, or brand can be accepted as such. Hell, even John Force refers to his 330-mph Funny Car as a hot rod.
I’m sure many people would recognize my 1971 Camaro as a Pro Touring muscle car—which it certainly is—but with its souped-up, 600hp LS3 engine, I’d have to say it’s one badass hot rod.
Photography by Nick Licata