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.
Robert S. McNamara
You may remember Robert S. McNamara as the Secretary of Defense under U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, but McNamara was also a moving force in the auto industry, where he worked at Ford from 1946 until 1961. McNamara is a nexus between world politics and the auto industry—and the timing of his work as president of Ford Motor Company interests us here. During the 1950s, when Detroit was moving toward larger, gaudier, more expensive cars, McNamara was an advocate of smaller, safer, more fuel-efficient cars. One of the last things he did before moving on to Kennedy’s cabinet was to bring the Ford Falcon into existence in 1959 as a 1960 model.
What It Caused:
As any good gearhead knows, the Falcon was the platform on which the ’64 Mustang was built. Inexpensive, lightweight, and powered by an optional V-8 engine, the Mustang singlehandedly started the ponycar revolution and became the basis for today’s performance recipe of a V-8 in a lightweight, affordable car. Without McNamara, there is no Mustang, no Camaro, no Firebird, and no ’Cuda. After McNamara became Secretary of Defense in 1961, his logistical expertise was used to preside over the escalation of the Vietnam War, raising the troop count from a mere 900 advisors in 1964 to nearly 535,000 combat troops by June 1968. Would we have been better off if McNamara had stayed at Ford?
Chrysler “Hemi” Aircraft Engine
Nothing spurs innovative engineering like wartime, and World War II was no exception. There are probably hundreds of technical innovations from WWII that indirectly made a mark on hot rodding, not to mention the social and economic conditions that made hot rodding thrive, but some of them are more iconic than others. While arriving too late to have a big impact on the war, Chrysler’s IV-2220 “Hemi” aircraft engine was designed to push internal combustion aircraft to new levels of performance. The experimental 2,500hp liquid-cooled inverted V-16 aircraft engine was designed by Chrysler and was Chrysler’s first “Hemi.”
What It Caused:
The Hemi is arguably the most iconic hot rod powerplant in existence, thanks to the war effort. This aircraft Hemi engine technology would eventually make its way into Chrysler automobiles in 1951 (which lasted until 1958). It then made a comeback in 1964 in its most storied 426ci variant, going on hiatus once again in 1972. Then in 2002, the third-generation Hemi appeared in its current form, where it once again ruled the road. And while much about the Hemi has changed since WWII, the basic power-producing concept of a hemispherical combustion chamber is still proving valid.
1967 Federal Clean Air Act
While there had been federal legislation to control pollution prior to 1967, it was the 1967 Federal Clean Air Act that first put high performance on notice: Clean up your act, or get off the road. In response to a marked deterioration in air quality, especially in urban areas, the new law was the first to put strict limits on auto manufacturers for hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions.
What It Caused:
No longer would automakers get a free pass to make cars heavier, engines larger, camshafts longer, compression ratios higher, or exhaust plumes dirtier. The Big Three would have to deal with these engineering challenges head on. Through the years, federal legislation has “forced” OEMs to come by new horsepower honestly, and these efforts have yielded watershed technologies such as electronic fuel injection, exhaust catalysts, cylinder deactivation, turbocharging, stratified combustion, regenerative braking, aerodynamic styling, low rolling resistance tires, and more. The cumulative effect of these technologies has resulted in vehicle performance and power completely beyond the comprehension of a 1967-era hot rodder.
Clean Air Act Extension of 1970
The EPA banned the use of tetraethyl lead in 1976 as a result of the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970. No more great-smelling gas, but a bunch more “forced” technical improvements to engines and fuels. Researcher Herbert Needleman had found that higher blood levels of lead in children were correlated with decreased school performance. Needleman was repeatedly accused of scientific misconduct by individuals within the lead industry, but he was eventually cleared. Of course, today we know that lead poses a serious health threat beyond its use as a fuel antiknock additive and valvetrain protectant, but the fight all started with leaded gas.
What It Caused:
Though the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 required the phaseout of lead tetraethyl, it wasn’t without a fight. A back-and-forth court battle between the Ethyl Corporation and the EPA dragged things out until lead phaseout could start in 1976. Lead phaseout forced manufacturers to develop other technologies with which to protect valve seats and stave off compression-related knock. If it weren’t specifically for the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970, we wouldn’t have hardened valve seats, quench-optimized combustion chambers, high-swirl ports, and all the extra horsepower that comes from them. Unfortunately, the improvement in school performance that Needleman hoped for hasn’t manifested itself.
German GM-1 Nitrous System
When World War II hit, the Germans had the best air power on the planet. It was years before the Allies caught up, but by then the Luftwaffe had already made their biggest contribution to hot rodding in the form of nitrous oxide injection. The GM-1 (or Göring Mischung 1) was the first-ever bolt-on nitrous kit, and was used extensively in Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Ta 152H fighters to boost high-altitude performance. It was Jerry engineering—not Yank ingenuity—that first introduced the world to the slogan, “gas ’em and pass ’em!”
What It Caused:
After WWII, jet engines replaced internal combustion engines as the powerplant of choice in fighter aircraft, so nitrous as a power-boosting technology was shelved. Then in 1978, Mike Thermos and Dale Vaznaian formed Nitrous Oxide Systems, and devoted their efforts to doing nitrous the right way in a hot rod setting. Today, NOS and others offer many automotive nitrous systems that provide a significant and safe form of power adder at a price-to-performance ratio that can’t be beat.
The Space Race
There’s nothing like a little friendly rivalry to spur technical achievement. That’s exactly what happened on October 4, 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik 1. The 183-pound satellite broadcast a steady beep that could be heard by ham radio hobbyists all over the U.S. That steady beep wouldn’t be taken lightly, and the U.S. government dramatically increased spending on scientific research and education. Then on April 12, 1961, the Russians got another first, putting the first man in orbit. It was on like Donkey Kong!
What It Caused:
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy vowed to congress that America would put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. But getting there wouldn’t be easy. It would require a commitment to develop a huge set of technical competencies, some of which hadn’t even been invented. The Apollo moon program that resulted gave modern hot rodding a brand-new set of tools that we take for granted today, such as composites, gas dynamics, exotic lightweight alloys, finite element analysis, synthetic lubricants, computers, and carbon fiber, to name a few. To this day, the Russians have yet to field one decent muscle car!
1997 Kyoto Protocol
The concern by scientists (and wealthy land owners living in shoreline houses) over the increase in average global temperature has led them to look for a scapegoat—that being man-made greenhouse gases. Although there is still only anecdotal proof as to why global temperature is rising, scientists and politicians have decided to hedge their bet by agreeing to reduce man-made greenhouse gases in a document called the Kyoto Protocol. Simply put, signatory countries to the protocol (called Annex 1 countries) must report greenhouse gas production and reduce emissions by 5.2 percent relative to a 1990 baseline. They can do this through actual reductions, or by cap and trade, whereby a company can buy credits from factories in signatory countries that produce reductions in excess of their target.
What This Will Cause:
Irrespective of ones view about the underlying premise, or whether the U.S. should ratify the document, the Kyoto Protocol will impact hot rodding at some point in the near future. Look for more efficient engine technologies, as well as really awesome hybrid and electric engines to power our muscle cars and hot rods. This, however, doesn’t address the disparity in cap-and-trade between China and developed Western nations, which gives China (and to a lesser extent, India) a huge running start that will deliver a knockout economic punch to the “cleaner” signatories of the protocol. In the simplest terms, the Kyoto Protocol may extract such a high cost that it turns wealthy countries into poor ones. What good is a high-tech hot rod if nobody can afford one?
Of course, there are always unintended byproducts to new rules. Will the greenhouse gas gremlin be eclipsed by a crisis in the electrical grid or by ground pollution from the toxic metals from batteries? Will accident scenes become contaminated cleanup zones? Will the increased demand for rare metals and the reduced need for crude oil create new geopolitical conflicts that we’re better off without? All we know is that hot rods will be there to take advantage of whatever new technology evolves!
Let It Fly!
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