Fast cars played an important role in the culture of boomers. However, even the earliest Baby Boomers were too young to be of driving age when hot rods enjoyed their heyday. The term “hot rod” originated in the 1920s as a shortened version of “hot roadster.” Men were customizing cars for racing; most notably, Ford Model As and Model Ts, because the cars were available, inexpensive and easily modified. By the 1940s, the car of choice for customization was the 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe, which went on to become the quintessential hot rod in the minds of early boomers. This is exemplified in the song, Little Deuce Coupe, a hit for The Beach Boys in 1963.
Meanwhile, hot rods and racing continued to thrive up to World War II. After the War, men picked up where they left off, but hot rodding got a boost in three ways. The first was the growing number of people who became involved in the newly formed car clubs across the country. Secondly, innovations in technology developed during the war offered more performance and customization options. Thirdly, military installations that cropped up during the war were now vacated. That left vacant airport runways and space for testing and racing cars.
People were experimenting with all sorts of body shapes beyond the Deuce Coupe, especially using military surplus items that could be bought cheaply, like airplane fuel tanks. Still, hot rods were mainly intended for racing, but they starting finding their way onto city streets as hot rodding encompassed customized stock autos that were used for daily driving.
In 1948, the first Hot Rod Exhibition took place in Los Angeles, which also marked the launch of Hot Rod magazine. In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association was formed. By the beginning of the 1950s, it was a popular weekend activity for car clubs to show off their customized vehicles to devotees and an amazed public. Increasingly, hot rods became stripped of everything non-essential in order to reduce weight and increase aerodynamics, including fenders and windshields. Car frames were chopped to reduce the center of gravity and allow for larger engines and transmissions.
By the 1960s, the era of the hot rod began to fade. At the same time, the major car companies saw the desire for speed and performance. They ramped up their offerings as the number of cars purchased and on the road steadily rose. These high-performance vehicles could be ordered with options direct from car dealers; thus the muscle car was born. The first muscle car is considered to be the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, which was followed by a host of others in the ’50s and ’60s, including the 1955 Chrysler C-300, 1959 Plymouth Sport Fury, 1962 Dodge Dart, 1962 Dodge Polara 500 and 1964 Pontiac GTO. Nonetheless, the heyday for muscle cars was the 1960s and ’70s, perfect timing for attracting boomers hitting their late teens and early twenties.
American muscle cars were called ponys, for the sports car size (usually) and kick in horsepower. Coming out of a tradition of racing, Pontiac introduced the GTO as an option for their 1964 Le Mans model. It was from the GTO that boomers learned words like “tri-power,” indicating the triple carburetor that was covered by an air scoop on the hood. That same year, Ronny & the Daytonas released Little GTO, which went on to sell over a million copies. First introduced in 1964, Ford offered two high-performance Mustangs in 1966 — the GT and Shelby. That same year, Chevrolet introduced the 1967 Chevy Camaro. Dodge had brought out the Charger in 1964, but it wasn’t until the restyling of the 1968 model that the public took notice. Another now-classic of the era, the 1967 Pontiac Firebird, shared many parts with the Chevy Camaro. In 1970, Plymouth came out with the Duster, billed as a high-performance coupe version of the Plymouth Valiant.
Here is the classic car chase scene from the movie Bullitt (1968), in which actor Steve McQueen drove a 1968 Ford Mustang GT390 Fastback through the streets of San Francisco. Click here to view on You Tube.
Mister Boomer had his indoctrination into the world of muscle cars through his brother and neighborhood kids. Brother Boomer had a 1965 Mustang that he customized (see: Boomers Loved the Ford Mustang). He actually traded the car in for a new jet-black 1970 Plymouth Duster muscle car, a move that deeply disappointed Mister B. One of his brother’s neighborhood friends had a turquoise GTO with a chromed triple carb. Sporting a rolled and tufted white vinyl interior, shiny turquoise paint job and high-performance engine that roared every time it left the neighbor’s garage, the whole street knew it was a force to be reckoned with.
Gas prices rose dramatically in 1973 due to the shortages resulting from the OPEC oil embargo. At the same time, insurance companies began charging more for muscle cars, which coupled with the increased crackdown on street racing in cities across the country to spell the end of the line for most of the American muscle cars. That didn’t stop many boomers from buying them second-hand, though.
Did you love hot rods and muscle cars, boomers? Did you own a muscle car?