There are a bunch of watershed moments within the hot rodding world that changed the course of the hobby, but how much did larger national and world events play in how our hobby was shaped? We like to think we’re firmly in control of our own destiny—it’s as much a part of our Yankee psyche as hot rodding itself, but sometimes events are so big, you just gotta ride the wave and see where it takes you.
Our list of 10 historic events that changed hot rodding include a lot of stuff far removed from the hobby itself, but one thing that is common to many of them is that whether intended or not, they all have been a positive force on hot rodding. When you ask why this is, you can only come up with one good answer: Hot rodding is driven by invention, necessity, ingenuity, and vicarious curiosity. If you try to keep us down, we’re going to teach you a lesson about Yankee ingenuity!
The Fall of Communism
The watershed year of 1989 saw revolutions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Tiananmen Square in China. As communism crumbled, it resulted in billions of people joining the free market economy. Ironically, it was the failed revolution in China that had perhaps the biggest impact on hot rodding. When Hu Yaobang, a reform advocate and protégé of Deng Xiaoping died on April 15, one million people gathered in Tiananmen Square.
What It Caused:
The Tiananmen Square revolt was crushed, but not without a significant change in the way the Chinese government did business. As the last major bastion of Communism in the world, the Chinese would now have to do business with the rest of the world if they wanted to survive economically. Call it capitalism lite. That means cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Tianjin now pump out hot rod parts by the freighterful. Without the fall of the Iron Curtain, we’d be buying ’69 Camaro bodies stamped in Norwood instead on Nanjing—or maybe we wouldn’t be buying new Camaro bodies at all.
Presidents’ Day 1979
Call it the perfect storm of coincidence. For the first time in history, a major broadcast network (CBS) aired the entire Daytona 500—live. The decision was fortuitous because it coincided with a major East Coast snowstorm that put much of the country in whiteout. Millions of wannabe rednecks were stuck on the couch watching something called NASCAR. On the final lap, race leader Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough made contact several times and crashed. The two got out of their cars and started arguing. When Donnie’s brother, Bobby, arrived on the scene, a fistfight broke out.
What It Caused:
The spectacle of redneck racers knocking the crap out of each other after smashing their cars at nearly 200 mph was just too good for ordinary folk to pass up. NASCAR became a household word overnight. NASCAR’s new popularity allowed Detroit to cash in; the Big Three built many stock car–themed packages, including the Monte Carlo SS, the Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2, the Ford Thunderbird Turbo and Super Coupes, and the vaunted Buick Regal Grand National. Thanks to a freak snowstorm and a bored network programming exec, a new NASCAR nation gobbled up NASCAR rods by the millions.
Unsafe At Any Speed
Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe At Any Speed, was published in 1965, and presented a damning view of the U.S. auto industry. Its questionable critique of the Chevy Corvair’s suspension was the most memorable insult to car guys, but the book also took issue with many styling and engineering practices in Detroit, including the use of chrome, the proliferation of different shift patterns, no reverse lockout, and styling that took a back seat to pedestrian safety.
What It Caused:
Nader’s book spelled death for the Chevy Corvair, which hastened the development of the forthcoming Camaro, the car that would take the place of the Corvair in Chevy’s sporty compact position. Simply put: If the Corvair had survived and thrived, there would’ve been no Camaro, at least as we know it now. We also have Nader’s book to thank for the standardized “PRNDL” shift pattern, and reverse lockout.
As a footnote, GM undertook a massive harassment campaign on Nader that was eventually exposed in congressional hearings, in which GM was forced to publicly apologize. This paved the way for Nader to successfully sue GM. The resulting multimillion-dollar payoff largely funded Nader’s successful lobbying efforts for the Clean Air Act of 1967 and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
1973 Yom Kippur War
Between October 6 and October 25, 1973, a military coalition of Egyptian and Syrian forces invaded Israel during the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday. In the proxy war, the Soviet Union secretly supported the coalition, and the United States backed the Israelis. What the U.S. didn’t know is that two months prior to the attack, Egypt and Saudi Arabia had secretly agreed to hold their oil hostage as an economic weapon.
What It Caused:
The 1973 OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo was designed to punish any nation that backed the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War (that’s us). As a result, the price of oil quadrupled almost overnight. Say hello to long gas lines and good-bye to big-block Camaros, Boss Mustangs, and Hemi ’Cudas. On the positive side, the OPEC embargos (there was another one in 1979) forced OEMs to build lighter-weight cars with overdrive transmissions and more efficient engines—stuff hot rodders couldn’t live without now.