How did hot rods get started? Beyond the innate human urge to tinker with everything, hot rod culture got its roots in the “moonshine cars” bootleggers used to transport concealed alcohol during the U. S. Prohibition. These bootleggers or rumrunners used their heavily-modified autos to stay ahead of agents & law enforcement, while getting the contraband where it needed to go in as discreet a fashion as possible. The drivers required machines with more power and better handling capabilities than the standard automobiles of the day in order to elude authorities safely when speeding down rocky trails and curvy backroads.
Adding carburetors and new intake manifolds, swapping out engines, or modifying the existing engine were some of the ways engineers of the day could squeeze more power out of a car without changing its outer appearance too much. The engineers were very careful to maintain a stock appearance on the exterior of the modified vehicles: the number one rule was not to attract any attention! This was a high-stakes endeavor: both the creation and the transportation of the liquor were illegal, so the bootleggers attempted to prevent detection and prosecution through any means possible.
Beyond increasing the power of the vehicle, other popular modifications included removing back seats or even floorboards to make more room for the booze, extra suspension springs to handle and disguise the increased weight of all that alcohol, and protective plates in front of the radiator to keep back road gravel and dirt from causing damage. Some of the more inventive modifications wouldn’t seem out of place in a spy movie: flipping license plates, toggle switches to disable the car’s tail lights so that car couldn’t be followed at night, or even concealed tanks built into the frame of the car that could be filled with moonshine.
As the outlaws modified their cars for increased speed and handling, law enforcement had to upgrade their vehicles to keep up. The Ford Flathead V-8 engine introduced in 1932 quickly became popular with police and criminals alike. John Dillinger himself even wrote Henry Ford to compliment him on the speed and reliability of the V-8 engine, crediting it with helping him get “away from the coppers in that Wisconsin Minnesota Case.”
The performance modifications and skilled driving required for successful bootlegging also turned out to be just plain fun! Rumrunners and folks who appreciated a fast car would gather on country backroads to test their skills and wheels against each other. Eventually, fair promoters caught on and started selling tickets; soon those secluded dirt paths were traded for permanent tracks with built-in spectator seating. In addition to igniting hot rod & custom car culture, the bootleggers of the Prohibition also brought forth another American stalwart pastime: the National Association of Stock Car Racing, or NASCAR.
Even after Prohibition officially ended, production and transport of illegal alcohol continued on for years afterward as folks tried to avoid the high prices, high taxes, and red tape of legal alcohol sales. Several future NASCAR drivers got their racing start by bootlegging illegal Moonshine in the 40s, including NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson. Fans of the performance car modifications also formed the National Hot Rod Association in 1951 with the aim of “creating order from chaos” and instituting safety rules that made the thrilling drag races a little safer. The hot rodders of the time later found an ally in Detroit as car manufacturers introduced the first muscle cars, following the pattern established by the bootleggers of taking a high-performance engine and installing it into a “normal”-looking car.
Prohibition is long gone, but the ingenuity of the rumrunning engineers lives on in car culture today.