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The Business of Speed

The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915–1990

David N. Lucsko

Publication Year: 2008

Since the mass production of Henry Ford’s Model T, car enthusiasts have been redesigning, rebuilding, and reengineering their vehicles for increased speed and technical efficiency. They purchase aftermarket parts, reconstruct engines, and enhance body designs, all in an effort to personalize and improve their vehicles. Why do these car enthusiasts modify their cars and where do they get their aftermarket parts? Here, David N. Lucsko provides the first scholarly history of America’s hot rod business. Lucsko examines the evolution of performance tuning through the lens of the $34-billion speed equipment industry that supports it. As early as 1910, dozens of small shops across the United States designed, manufactured, and sold add-on parts to consumers eager to employ new technologies as they tinkered with their cars. Operating for much of the twentieth century in the shadow of the Big Three automobile manufacturers—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—these businesses grew at an impressive rate, supplying young and old hot rodders with thousands of performance-boosting gadgets. Lucsko offers a rich and heretofore untold account of the culture and technology of the high-performance automotive aftermarket in the United States, offering a fresh perspective on the history of the automobile in America.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

Technically, this project dates back to the early days of my graduate studies, when I first began to contemplate a dissertation project about hot rods. But in a broader sense it dates back much further. Back to a childhood spent playing with Hot Wheels replicas, sketching sports cars on the backs of my school notebooks, and faithfully tuning in to the Dukes of Hazard, Knight Rider, and Magnum P.I. each ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. 1-12

By the age of twenty-four, Robert E. Petersen was well on his way. 1 The ambitious Barstow, California, native had left his desert home at the end of World War II, hoping to find a job in the bustling L.A. area. Within a few months, he had landed an entry-level position at MGM Studios in Hollywood, and by the end of his first year there, he had earned a spot on the company’s team of publicists. ...

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ONE: Faster Flivvers, 1915–1927

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pp. 13-39

In the 1910s, automobile production, sales, and use in the United States began to grow at a feverish pace. Total domestic production swelled nearly tenfold between 1911 and 1917, and new automobile registrations rose by more than 400 percent. Per capita automobile ownership doubled every two years, and from New York to Los Angeles, new dealers, service stations, and parking garages cropped...

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TWO: Westward Ho, 1928–1942

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pp. 40-64

By the mid-1920s, the Model T was out of date. Sales were slipping, and Chevrolet, whose cars were more expensive but also far more modern and better equipped, began to outsell Ford. In the spring of 1927, Ford therefore announced that it planned to replace the universal car with a new model. For six months engineers wrangled over the design of the new car and struggled to retool the firm’s facilities ...

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THREE: From Hot Rods to Hot Rodding, 1945–1955

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pp. 65-84

During World War II not a single roadster stormed across the dry-lake beds of Southern California. Area clubhouses stood vacant, as did prewar hot spots like George Wight’s speed shop in Bell. From time to time the rumble of a cut-out exhaust echoed here and there as servicemen on leave fired up their A-V8s for old time’s sake. But for the most part, Los Angeles was abuzz with war materials ...

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FOUR: The California Hot Rod Industry, 1945–1955

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pp. 85-102

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, as hot rodding spread throughout the United States and grew increasingly diverse, so too did the high-performance automotive aftermarket. Going into the war, a couple of dozen tiny backyard Southern California businesses were the core of the industry; heading into 1946, the same was true. But by the end of the 1940s, there were nearly one hundred ...

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FIVE: Factory Muscle, 1955–1970

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pp. 103-122

What Navarro witnessed in 1955 was the onset of the “horsepower race.” Using tuning tricks long common among hot rodders, mainstream American manufacturers like Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler began to compete for performance-minded customers by tweaking their overhead-valve V8s for more horsepower. By the end of the decade, passenger cars’ horsepower ratings had reached an ...

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SIX: Bolt-on Power, 1955–1970

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pp. 123-143

In 1955, prior to the OEMs’ initial foray into the high-performance market, there were fewer than 200 speed equipment manufacturers in the United States. Fifteen years later, there were exactly 750, many of which were located outside of California. 1 Writing in 1969, the publisher of Hot Rod, Ray Brock, reported, “Eighty percent of the nation’s population is east of the Rockies and that’s where ...

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SEVEN: The Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association

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pp. 144-159

“The Detroit super car is dead.” So mourned Lee Kelley, the editor of Popular Hot Rodding, in October 1971 as the OEMs curtailed their production of high-performance automobiles for 1972. Gone were a number of performance icons, including Pontiac’s GTO and Oldsmobile’s 4-4-2. 1 Within another year, Ford’s 351 HO Mustang was arguably all that remained of the muscle car era, and by ...

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EIGHT: “Ink-Happy Do-Gooders,” 1960–1978

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pp. 160-181

Back in 1960, American automobility was at its zenith. Car ownership was at an all-time high, the American automobile industry was prospering as never before, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Project was well underway, and auto-centric architectural and land-use patterns had become the norm in metropolitan areas across the United States. Cheered by many Americans as evidence of postwar ...

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NINE: “This Dreadful Conspiracy,” 1966–1984

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pp. 182-208

Long before the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, tentative measures to combat urban air pollution through the regulation of automobile emissions had already emerged at the local and federal levels. Pioneered in California, most of these new regulations targeted the products of the OEMs exclusively, at least at first. But in the mid-1960s, some began to seek ...

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TEN: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times, 1970–1990

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pp. 209-234

During the 1970s and 80s, the speed equipment business boomed. Year in and year out, individual high-performance parts manufacturers posted record sales, as did speed shops, wholesale distributors, and retail chains. The industry’s rate of growth was lower than it had been in the 1960s, but still, nearly everybody’s bottom line improved each year. SEMA’s ranks grew too, as did the number of ...

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pp. 235-245

In 1991, aftermarket sales, which had been on the rise for decades, actually fell by 4 percent. It was only a temporary dip, however, and sales picked up again in 1992 and have risen dramatically each year since. Thus, particularly with the benefit of fifteen-plus additional years’ worth of hindsight, 1991 seems to have been at most an aberration, a brief lull associated with the economic recession that...


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pp. 247-315


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pp. 317-326

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 327-333

When the inexpensive paper used in magazines approaches thirty to fifty or more years of age, it begins to rot. Magazines produced on newsprint-grade stock tend to deteriorate much faster than those on glossy stock, but eventually, unless they have been sealed in little plastic sleeves since the day they were printed, all of them will slowly turn to dust. Their pages will fade from white to yellow and from yellow to ...


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pp. 335-343

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402741
E-ISBN-10: 1421402742
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801889905
Print-ISBN-10: 0801889901

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 25 halftones
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology