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America's History in the Making

Postwar Tension and Triumph

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Bruce Meyer.

 

Bruce Meyer chaired the Peterson Auto Museum board of directors for its first ten years. Among Meyer's vast collection of historic automobiles is the So-Cal belly tank, which he recently restored with the help of Alex Xydias and Pete Chapouris. Meyer was interviewed at the So-Cal Speed Shop in Pomona, California.

Q: What was your first hot rod?

Meyer: I've been a car guy my whole life. My mother wrote in my baby book "mother's first observations: Bruce loves anything with wheels," and that has never changed. But my parents were dead-set against me having anything that resembled a hot rod. My first real hot rod was a '32 Ford. And as much as I wanted one when I was in high school—when they were around $50 or $100—I didn't get one until the late '70s, when I decided that I was never too old to have a happy childhood.

Q: What is a hot rod?

Meyer: "Hot rod" is short for "hot roadster," but it has expanded well beyond the roadster. For me, it's a car that's been modified in its appearance and its power train to give it more enthusiasm and life. And they generally have paint jobs that are eye-catching.

Q: How did the hot rod craze grow out of the end of the war?

Meyer: When the fellas came back from the war, it was a chance for them to express themselves: They built cars that symbolized who they were. And unfortunately, a lot of the cars were just in primer, because the fellas didn't have the money to paint them. But the cars excelled mechanically. There were hot-rod clubs all over, hundreds of them. People didn't judge the cars by how pretty they were; it was all about how fast they went. Southern California was kind of the birthplace of hot-rodding. It was a climate that was conducive to 12 months of driving, and I think Californians back in those early days had a more welcoming attitude for trying new things, different things. It was a very up-spirited time and an up-spirited place.

Q: Where did most of the racing take place?

Meyer: Just east of Los Angeles are the dry lakes, and they were a great place for young men to take their cars and just go flat out. They'd take off the fenders and the hubcaps and strip them down and go as fast as they could, and this was very popular through the '40s and '50s.

Q: How much of that stripping down was for weight, and how much was just for show?

Meyer: I would say the parts that they took off the cars were mostly for aerodynamics and somewhat for weight, too. They used to drill out brackets, and they'd save five pounds here and ten pounds there, and then they'd put a 190-pound guy in to drive it. I always got a kick out of that.

Q: Alex Xydias, the founder of the So-Cal Speed Shop, was well known for his belly tank. What's the story behind that hot rod?

Meyer: When the fellas were overseas, they looked at the belly tank of an airplane—the auxiliary fuel tank—and thought, "Now, this is a perfect aerodynamic shape," and this was large enough to put an engine in and go fast. Alex, who was in the Air Corps, put all of his knowledge together and went out to put together a lakes car to set records in. He picked the drop tank as the perfect shape. He and Bill Burke put it together and did a beautiful job.

Q: Why do you think the WWII vets would choose to customize their own cars, as opposed to coming back and buying the new shiny ones off the showroom floor? It seems so contradictory to what we think of in the Cold War period.

Meyer: After the war, there were really two camps. There were the hot-rodders; and there were more the custom guys that would take a new car that was all shiny and perfect, lower it, and customize it more for show than go. But the hot-rodders were more interested in the go part of the equation. So you had these two dynamics working. And for me, the hot rod was the most significant because it had the most, you know, technical part of it and the most thrilling part.

Q: What does that tell us about how we were converting from the home industry to a post-war industry?

Meyer: The mass-produced cars after the war, the production cars, were rather Spartan to start with, because we didn't have the resources and we hadn't really geared up. But as things progressed, we got more chrome, more fins, more glitz, and more extravagance; and it went right on into the '50s and '60s that way. And perhaps that change in cars reflected our lifestyles as well: the bigger homes. Everything just seemed to be on a much grander, fancier, shinier scale. It had to reflect where we were going as a society, and you can see all the way through the ages how the automobile reflected our tastes and how we wanted to be seen. After the war, the United States really owned the auto industry. I think in some ways, it kind of burned itself out in the late '60s and early '70s—when we just kept adding more American flash, while the Japanese and the Germans were going more for substance. And maybe we were just telling the world that, "We're here; we're great; we're shiny and beautiful and big." But the automobile industry today is suffering from that lack of content.

Q: Was there a golden standard for the hot rod in the post-war era?

Meyer: The wonderful thing about hot-rodding is it's just a personal expression. But I think hot rodding generally tries to portray a little attitude, a little bad boy, perhaps a little bravado. The nice thing about hot-rodding is everything goes, and there's no right or wrong. It's just as you see it, and that's the wonderful expression of hot-rodding.

Q: What things did they change on a car to make it a hot rod?

Meyer: Hot-rodding is generally done by taking things off a car, by lowering the roof line, taking the chrome off, taking the door handles off. It's a rather insignificant way of lightening the car for performance, but it gives it a look. Fundamentally, when you hot-rod a car, you start with the stance, the wheels, and the way the car sits on the ground—that can add the attitude to the car. And then working on the engine, of course, is really important to add power and performance.

Q: Were there women hot-rodders?

Meyer: The role of women in the hot-rod culture was rather limited. Bob Peterson, in his early books, used pin-up girls to stand by the cars; I think that for the most part, that's about where the woman fit into the lives of these young hot-rodders. There were very few women hot-rodders. Vida Orr was one, but you could count these women on one hand. The guys that came out to the dry lakes slept under their cars or in their cars, and they had it all spread out on the dirt. It wasn't like Indy speedway, with hospitality suites. It was real hard-core.

Q: So they'd get out there on Friday, and what would happen over the course of the weekend?

Meyer: They'd get to the dry lakes on Friday, and they'd start to disassemble their cars. They'd take off the hubcaps, the tops, the windshields, the fenders, and if you look at the early pictures, there were just piles of parts next to the cars. They'd run on Saturdays and Sundays, and then assemble it all back Sunday afternoon and drive it home and drive it to work on Monday.

Q: What kind of statement do you think these guys were trying to make when they came back from the war in terms of status or attitude?

Meyer: The notion that you are what you drive probably motivated a lot of these young men as to the kinds of cars that they built: whether the car had attitude; whether it was woman-friendly or had the bad-boy look. The early hot-rodders were really outlaws, so to speak. One of the early clubs in California was called the Booze Fighters, and they were the genesis of the Hell's Angel type. The hot-rodders weren't so violent, but they definitely had an attitude; and they definitely were beyond the law. It wasn't until the late '40s that the hot-rod clubs came together with the police department and kind of called it a truce, and they had a great coming together and a big reunion. I think a lot of that came about with the development of drag racing, because the dry lakes were really too far to go to see whose car was faster. So the drag strip created the opportunity right here in town where you could have a contest to see whose car was the quickest.

Q: What is the historical importance of the hot rod or the hot-rod clubs? What's been the lasting impact in our society?

Meyer: It generally is where most men that run our automotive world today started. The Low Fliers included Stu Hillborne, the father of fuel injection; Phil Remington, who was probably the most important man in Carol Shelby's Cobra and Dan Gerby's all-American racers; Jack Engle the great cam maker. Travers and Coon (TRACO), who are phenomenal engine builders today. Out of these hot-rob clubs sprang enormous technologies that largely brought us to where we are today in the way of technology and the automobile. Hot-rodding is important to the history of the automobile, but the whole hot-rod culture also extended to dress, attitude, how low you wore your pants, how tight the t-shirt was. The hot-rod hairdo was just a little longer than the military cut. That whole look spread beyond the guys that had the cars. It was a look of the day: the Levi's and the t-shirt. I think hot-rodding still has a great impact today. It's an American art form like baseball, like jazz, and it's a wonderful way for people who enjoy the automobile to express themselves.

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