When things evolve slowly it’s easy to overlook the distance that’s been covered. For example, you might not notice the changes in the mirror every morning, but your high school friends at your reunion will. In the same respect, sometimes to be able to appreciate just how amazingly advanced hot rodding has become in the past several years it requires taking a step back and looking with fresh eyes.
Much like the tech industry at large, revelations, discoveries, and applications of technologies to create new and improved products and custom cars come so steadily nowadays that overall most of us remain largely unimpressed by the latest news. It’s just another hot rod with high-end parts, right? That ennui is unfortunate because the people working to advance the hot rodding industry do it out of passion, and that really shouldn’t be taken for granted. These guys just want to help us all build better cars.
The result of that pursuit has created a shift in the hot rodding hobby over the past few years; the scope and refinement of the products, parts, and services has become exponentially more sophisticated. That’s why we say the greatest and most capable hot rods are being built now. And since you can’t stop the forward march of progress, we can only see it getting better. In more than one way, the future really is now.
CUSTOM STEEL BODIES!
Less weight = more speed!
FEA = stronger parts
Precision hot rod parts!
Show car parts you can buy!
CAD = BETTER ENGINEERED PARTS!
CAD = BETTER ENGINEERED PARTS!
1. More Shops, Better Shops
The best and most innovative hot rod shops that have ever existed aren’t lost to the past, they’re out there right now continuing to push the limits. And they’re not few and far between any longer. SoCal may have been the cradle, but hot rod shops capable of turning out incredible cars have cropped up everywhere. These days, the next great car that sets the hot rodding community on fire is just as likely to come out of any given geographic region. That makes our job harder, but it also makes them better and the cars more diverse.
On top of that, in the not-so-distant past even the biggest hot rod shops were mostly modest in size and made use of traditional machines that had been around for decades. In today’s modern shops, both the scale and the technology are on the upswing. There’s a large push toward embracing the latest and most advanced technologies to refine builds because while humans are great artists and designers, computers are much more precise. Even the most old-school builders who still hate email are now often directly or indirectly enlisting digital aid during some phase of their projects.
Check out the production floor for The Roadster Shop (our lead image) where many of their custom chassis for hot rods and muscle cars are made. The scale and scope of their operation is impressive by any standards, and the floor is bristling with precision machinery like the CNC Plasma Table, which can quickly and repeatedly cut accurate parts. Once a rarity or purely an outsourced item, state-of-the-art CNC machines are becoming common in-house equipment. Someone has to operate all that stuff, which brings us to another important trend.
2. Staying In School
It wasn’t long ago that hot rodders tended to be along the lines of the self-taught type. But in the same way a toolbox and some driveway experience turning wrenches won’t get you a job servicing new cars today, if you want to work with the best shops you need to come armed with more than a love for cool cars.
Learning by doing certainly isn’t going away, but to rise in the hot rodding industry now requires coming in armed with much less learning to do. Believe it or not, hot rodding is becoming a destination for highly educated and experienced gearheads, and degrees in engineering and related fields are common. The hot rod industry is actually attracting some of the country’s brightest minds.
That’s both the genesis and the foundation for the increasing quality and complexity in parts on the market. Love the increasingly wide selection of beautiful billet bits like wheels, valve covers, and drive assemblies? Before any of that can happen, someone has to design all aspects of the part on a computer followed by a well-trained technician creating the program and monitoring the CNC (computer numerically controlled) machining. Multiple levels of expertise are required to make an aesthetically pleasing, functional, and safe part, and it’s increasingly moving in-house rather than being outsourced. That means it’s a major growth section for anyone looking to get his foot in the door. But actually, that’s just brushing the surface of what’s coming for future hot rod parts development and production—more on that later. Increased competency is having definite repercussions on the cars that roll out.
3. Blurring of Genres
The imagination, metalwork, performance, and parts in pretty much anything that rolls out of today’s shops is literally light-years beyond what was possible, or conceivable more than a decade ago. Cars that might have taken “Best In Show” at a prestigious event in the past wouldn’t even be in the running today. Perfection is becoming the new standard; check out the gaps and perfect symmetry running from nose to interior on the ’69 Talladega Torino Rad Rides is building for George Poteet. And this is actually just a track car by their admission. When we say that the greatest hot rods and muscle cars ever built belong to this generation, we mean it.
To continually raise the bar and stand out among the masses of new shops also trying to gain recognition, builders have to use everything at their disposal to create cars that are along the lines of prewar coachbuilt classics. The parts and style may be different, but the goal is still the same: uncompromised quality. That’s led to increasingly blurry distinctions between genres. There was a time not long ago when you could point at a car and easily name its style of build, but it’s not always so easy when track cars are built like show cars and muscle cars are beginning to get street-roddish treatment.
So is the average guy going to be left in the dust? That’s not what we’re seeing; there’s a rising tide effect with the level of projects being created in enthusiasts’ garages often coming in on par, and occasionally better than what would have been considered magazine worthy not that long ago. We see it all the time at events like Goodguys; Bob Bertelsen’s ’72 TA that graced the Dec. ’10 cover is a prime example.
4. One-Off Cars = Custom Parts For You
Some manufacturers build cars to promote their parts or services, but traditionally hot rod builders focus on the cars themselves, designing and building one unique creation after another and sourcing or building components as they need them. In the past few years though, we’ve noticed top builders looking to capitalize on their hard work and make the plunge into manufacturing parts tied to their creations. It’s actually smart marketing; a big part of the success of any new part is strong promotion and creating the desire to buy, and there’s not much that does a better job than an incredible car that gets lots of media exposure.
The first time we remember really taking note of the ability to buy a distinct part off the shelf from a high-end hot rod was the Ringbrothers’ Reactor Mustang. Countless hours went into crafting a body kit unlike any Mustang ever built, and they thought ahead to make molds. Initially, it was just to save weeks of work should Reactor sustain damage, but the parts were eventually made available to the public. The full kit is still available on their website for those looking for the cure for the common Eleanor, though the slick new offering is the ’69-70 body kit from Ringbrothers’ ’70 SportsRoof known as Dragon. If you need a way to stand out among the swell of ’69-70 SportsRoofs, this is the ultimate answer.
The July Issue of PHR actually had a double header of high-end cars that spun off parts. The slick ’69 Camaro crafted by Alan Johnson featured a gorgeous handcrafted interior. It was so well received, that Alan is working to bring the door and rear quarter-panels, dashpad, center console, and sill plates to market for those wanting to class up their Camaro as well. Have you ever wished you could get some of those awesome cut down and fitted bumpers for your Camaro? Johnson plans to have those available as well (shown, below).
Another example is the ’69 Mustang from Bodie Stroud (featured on our July ’11 cover), which was hiding a 494ci Can-Am engine underhood and a completely custom full-frame chassis beneath. While most of the details will remain unique to that car, that custom chassis will actually be going into production.
For our part, we hope to see this trend gain steam. Parts spin-off won’t sully the exclusivity since you still won’t be able build clones of the original cars, but it does allow the rest of us to get a piece of those dream cars. Speaking of dream cars, they’ve never been more available.
5. New Steel Bodies
It all started with the hot rods that started it all: Model As and ’32 Fords. Fiberglass reproduction ’32 Ford roadster bodies came out back in the 1960s and developed a mild following, but it’s when As and Deuces came out in steel decades later that hot rodders really took note. It changed the hobby forever; guys ready to spend big money on the street rod of their dreams didn’t have to deal with overpriced, rusty vintage bodies.
With the ever increasing shift toward the muscle car era for high-end builders, it was only a matter of time before someone stepped up to fill the need. In 2005, Dynacorn released the very first reproduction ’69 Camaro body—a convertible naturally. Some weren’t sure if it was a smart move, after all, aren’t first-gen Camaros readily available? Sure, 42-year-old ones in mostly questionable condition. Perfectly clean cars fetch top dollar and don’t make much sense for guys who want to tear everything out to upgrade to the latest engines, chassis, and more. The rest of us were left patching hidden rust and accidents, spending thousands and burning oodles of hours along the way.
Needless to say, they set the hot rodding world on fire, and it wasn’t long before we had ’67-69 Camaro hardtops and convertibles, ’67 convertible and ’69 hardtop Firebirds, and ’70 Chevelle convertibles and hardtops for sale. Shortly thereafter Ford fans got ’67-69, and ’70 Mustang fastbacks and SportsRoofs. Hard to believe, but some of the most popular muscle car body styles ever are just an order away—and there’s more coming. Mopar fans can rejoice since Dynacorn unveiled their soon-to-be-available ‘70 Challenger hardtop at SEMA 2010, where they also hinted that ’Cudas could be in the pipe as well, since Chrysler has licensed both marques.
But it doesn’t end there; those new bodies are leading to a whole new industry: custom versions of muscle cars ready to order. The Harbinger Mustang featured in this issue is a prime example: just add your drivetrain and go racing. And remember the perfectly chopped roof and widened quarters we raved about on The Real Thing Mustang from Bodie Stroud Industries? Freshly sliced Dynacorn bodies are available for order right now on BodieStroud.com.
In the succession of perennially popular hot rods, something important was missing: the Tri-Five Chevy. And while Experi-Metal has had ’55 and ’57 convertibles available since 2007, hardtops and sedans are the ones that most hot rods are built from. One of the most iconic and loved styles of all time and the platform that introduced the world to the small-block Chevy hadn’t yet found someone willing to invest in creating complete coupe bodies. That is until this year.
Real Deal Steel from Woody’s Hot Rodz has filled the gap with complete bodies assembled stateside of pretty much any ’55-57 Chevy you could want. Up first are ’57 hardtops and convertibles, with ’55s and ’56s coming very shortly. More of the sedan type? No worries, Woody’s will have you covered with options for all three years. Prefer a full roller? Woody’s has Art Morrison packages for performance handling, Hot Wood chassis for cruisers, and Full Wood gasser-style chassis. We know these things have us pondering what we could do with a clean slate. How about a featherweight Tri-Five that handles? Make it look like Two Lane Blacktop, but ready to run One Lap of America. Sound good?
6. Lose Weight, Gain Performance
You’ve heard that old saying, “only steel is real.” Well, that may true, but only composites and alloys are light, and decreasing weight is just as good as adding horsepower. Actually, for those of us who like corner carving, it’s better, since it makes all aspects of performance easier. That’s one area where muscle cars have historically had a disadvantage: weight.
As the interest in bringing modern handling to vintage steel has increased, so has interest in shaving weight—namely aluminum and carbon fiber. That mix is part of what makes the ZR1 Corvette such a formidable performer. Once thought to be limited to high-end builds or race cars, high-end aluminum and carbon-fiber parts for muscle cars is now a burgeoning industry.
Auto Metal Direct and Classic Industries both carry aluminum hoods for ’67-69 Camaros, and even full front clips with bumpers for ’69s. From what we hear, that whole front end only weighs 54 pounds, or about as much as a stock hood and bumper. That’s a lot of weight off where it counts the most.
On the composite side, Anvil Auto has a fast-growing line of carbon-fiber body panels for Camaros, Chevelles, Novas, Firebirds, and Mustangs, as well as carbon/fiberglass blends that save significantly on cost. Either way you go, the weight savings is dramatic.
Lexan, another weight-saving material, previously thought of as “race only,” is appearing much more on street cars. The Harbinger Mustang in this issue has it, as does Rad Rides’ ’69 Talladega Torino, and CorteX Racing’s Mustang, both in the July ’11 issue. Glass is heavy stuff, and so is the mechanism in the doors to get it up and down. Sure, due to its propensity for scratching and lack of security, it’s still best suited on limited-use cars, but for anyone who likes to hit the track on a regular basis, it is an extra edge.
It’s not just for sprung weight either. Decreasing unsprung weight can have a dramatic affect on how well a car performs as well. We can actually thank the ZR1 Vette once again for this emerging product: carbon ceramic brakes for muscle cars. Wilwood’s new CC rotor not only shaves huge amounts of weight versus steel, it also has better fade characteristics under hard use. For now, 15 inchers (stock ZR1) are the only size available, but there are rumblings of creating more widely appealing 14 inchers.
7. Drag Racing: Not So Dominant
Hot rodding wasn’t born on the dragstrip, but there’s no doubt that it’s been a major driving force behind the culture of making cars faster. Some might even rightfully argue that the rise of quarter-miles across the country and the formation of the NHRA did more to advance the burgeoning culture than any other industry. For several generations the biggest factor behind guys getting under the hood in their garage was the pursuit of quicker straight-line acceleration.
But things are drifting in an undeniable direction. Telltale are SEMA surveys that continually show that the top items on the list for rodders to swap out on projects (or even daily drivers) are the wheels and tires. For several years now, wheel manufacturers have told us that the majority of their sales are in the 17- to 20-inch diameter range. And tire manufacturers tell us that it’s the Ultra High Performance Summer tires that are the fastest-growing segment.
Combine that with the general trend toward parts designed for handling and overall performance, the continual decline of attendance at dragstrips and closures, and the large surge in interest and attendance at autocross, open track, and rally type events, and it’s clear the tide is changing. It’s not just our opinion or provincial sphere; when we speak to shops about what they’re building, and what customers are asking about, 99 out of 100 are looking for all-around cars that take corners.
It’s becoming a badge of honor as well. Goodguys Street Machine of the Year competitors are required to run through an autocross course, not a dragstrip, and events like the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational are becoming the places to be seen and prove yourself. We can blame OEM manufacturers for this. To be perfectly honest, in stock form, drag racing was really all that muscle cars and hot rods excelled at. OE chassis evolution means that even the lowliest 10-year-old commuter sedan has better dynamics and can out-corner just about anything offered pre-1980.
That has created elevated expectations among hot rodders, most of whom have late-model daily drivers or have at least taken a turn behind the wheel of one. Cruising on vintage suspension that wallows around corners can drain the fun out of cruising in a classic. From our standpoint it seems clear: autocross, road race, and Pro Touring have become the benchmarks for hot rod style and performance.
Does that mean drag racing is uncool? Never! That’s why we built our big-block Ford-powered Project Fox. Low e.t.’s will always equal bragging rights, but we speculate quarter-mile specialized cars will be in the minority in the future. Feel free to email us your thoughts/hate mail!
8. Green Power
There’s no doubt that when it comes to making horsepower, it’s never been easier or more plentiful. These days 500 hp is the new 400, and 300 is not even in the game unless it’s a V-6. Some claimed EPA restrictions would be the death of performance, but so far it’s been nothing but onward and upward with a nice helping of good fuel economy on the side. There’s never been a better time in history to be swapping bigger and more powerful modern engines into vintage steel.
Actually, those same emissions regulations have led to a heretofore unheard of move from an OEM manufacturer: GM’s E-Rod program. Smog-era malaise is a now a nonissue, since a properly installed E-Rod provides a clear path to 430 naturally aspirated horsepower that idles peaceably, gets respectable mileage, and blows EPA-approved air from the pipes. We took that path for our EcoNova project with an LS3 package straight from GM’s Corvette assembly line. Can you say perfect daily driver muscle car?
Want more? We’ve even heard of rumblings about homologating certain 50-state parts from the Camaro to also be legal on E-Rod swaps when properly installed, since there’s effectively no difference beyond the wrapper. Yes, that could mean emissions-legal blowers and turbos in muscle cars. Packages like the E-Rod (and a similar program that may eventually be offered through Ford Racing based on the Coyote) will be important assets down the road as emissions regulations get more restrictive. Even more importantly, the fact that these programs even exist and are getting OEM support represents an important shift in how the hobby is being viewed by the outside world.
9. Boutique Power
On the flip side of the Green Power coin, we’ve got the biggest boom in classic boutique power ever seen. PHR’s Engine Masters Challenge gives us a front seat to the innovation and modernization of vintage engines, and we’ve been noticing a distinct resurgence in popularity of fringe engines. And more importantly, new parts with design tweaks are letting them make real power and living to tell the tale afterward. Some of the best developed are John Kaase’s Boss 429-based Fords (shown here), which don’t actually use a single FoMoCo part, and range up to 1,000 streetable horsepower. Dart has even recently breathed life into the perplexingly powerless GM 8.1L with a new set of heads and intake that should clear up most of the biggest big-block’s woes. For the ambitious, new blocks are even available with the typical round of Dart strengthening.
Hot rod shops are noticing the swing in interest toward boutique power and are responding with everything from first-gen Hemis and modernized Y-blocks, to Nailheads, Ford SOHCs, Pontiacs, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Chevy “W” power, and even a sampling of European exotica V-12 powerplants. Old iron is making a big comeback, and it’s never been more powerful or reliable.
10. Self-Learning EFI
What’s the worst part about upgrading to EFI? Tuning it, of course. Complicated software with dozens of parameters and tables is much more esoteric than the familiar screws and jets on a carb. That fact has been the number-one reason most rodders have stayed away from EFI, but that’s all changing; plug-and-play self-learning is finally bringing EFI to the masses.
The latest crop of self-learning EFI systems requires no professional tuning whatsoever; they really are just bolt-on and crank. Some systems may require a few brief easy questions answered, like engine displacement, but when it comes to making it run spot-on, that’s all handled by the software and your right foot. The learning comes from the computer adjusting parameters based on engine demands and your driving style.
They’re not just for cruiser cars either; today’s self-learning systems—like the Holley system shown on the next page—can handle even aggressive performance engines making big horsepower. Like weekend corner carving or quarter-mile blasts? No problem; FAST tells us that their EZ-EFI system can handle the needs of the vast majority of their enthusiast customers. You even get two flavors: standard port injection style with fuel rails, or throttle body style for the ultimate in stealth. Check out the special feature in this issue (see “Ingenious Injection,” p. 54) for the lowdown on this growing EFI trend.
11. CAD and FEA
Remember what we were saying about staying in school if you want to be at the forefront of the future of hot rodding? Here’s a prime example; use of both CAD and FEA is rapidly on the rise in the top tiers of the hot rodding industry. Computer-aided design has been an indispensable tool for engineers needing to create precise 2-D and 3-D models of parts before production for a couple decades now, but what quickly became common at the OEM level was still quite uncommon to hot rodding until recently. Now, it’s exploding with just about every new part. On top of that, we’re also seeing hot rod shops increasingly employing CAD to design specific parts for projects—especially if those parts may also go into production afterward.
Perhaps ironically one of the biggest beneficiaries of the technology has been full-frame conversions for muscle cars. With the demise of the Crown Vic’s Panther chassis, OEMs have officially abandoned the full frame for passenger cars. Hot rod shops, however, are fully embracing and improving it. The Roadster Shop, for example, creates each new application for their new and expanding Fast Track muscle car chassis line in CAD, then uses their CNC plasma tablet to cut the rails from four pieces of 10-gauge steel. The same chassis that was under The Roadster Shop’s phenomenal flat gray ’70 Challenger (PHR July ’10) is the same one seen in the design here.
Partnered with CAD, there’s also a move toward using Finite Element Analysis on some high-end components. FEA helps designers predict the life of a material or structure by showing the effects of cyclic loading. The main application that is making a difference for hot rodders is allowing the simulation of extreme loads and shocks to find where potentially catastrophic defection or twisting occurs. Think spindles, wheels, and other suspension components.
12. The Rise of Rapid Prototyping
Besides being badass, there was an ulterior motivation for choosing the Agent 47 Harbinger Mustang for an issue where we’re looking into the quickly evolving hot rod industry. Thanks to its association with a large-scale rapid prototyping company, some fairly high-tech processes were used to create various parts of the car. Most of these processes aren’t really new to the manufacturing industry in general, but the fact that they’re now being employed to turn out hot rod parts is.
The benefits of rapid prototyping are easy to nail down: less fabrication time, more precise output, and easy design tweaks. It’s fringe now, but much like how advanced CNC machines have become commonplace, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more creative hot rod parts arising from them in the not-so-distant future, since they can dramatically reduce the hours required to go from concept to reality. Rather than subtractive manufacturing methodologies, such as traditional machining like CNC, these processes are known as additive manufacturing, since they build layer upon layer to create parts. It’s CAD to reality in short order.
13. Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA)
Stereolithography uses a vat of liquid UV-curable photopolymer resin (DSM 18420 Protogen resin, in this case) and a UV laser to build physical objects one cross-sectional layer at a time, typically 0.05 mm to 0.15 mm. The laser causes each layer to cure, solidify, and adhere to the previous layer. When needed, a blade sweeps across with fresh resin to create another layer. Eventually, a complete part emerges from the goo, ready for testing.
Wonder what’s spilling out of the finished airbox prototype in the photo? Stereolithography requires support structures to maintain the form and position of the layers of resin as the laser is curing it into solid form. The tiny triangular mesh is generated automatically during the design phase and broken out of the part after it’s completed. If you really want your mind blown, check out the video of the Harbinger’s airbox being created in Forecast3D’s SLA 7000 machine on PopularHotRodding.com!
14.Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) .
What looks like a finely cast badge actually started as powdered metal that was literally built up 20 microns at a time. After another fine layer of powder (DirectAlloy 718 for the badge) is laid down by a sweeping blade, a 100-watt laser sinters the metal along the X and Y axes into a solid layer. Much like SLA, a supporting structure is often built along the part that later gets removed. It’s all about time here as well; DMLS can create complex metal parts using a wide array of alloys in days versus weeks. Because of that, it’s slowly becoming the preferred method over CNC machining or investment casting for prototypes.
Bryan Rogers at Agent 47 admits that they have been using DMLS for five years and people still get caught with their noses to the glass mesmerized by the process. Check out the process in action for yourself in Forecast3D’s EOS GmbH M270 machine on PopularHotRodding.com.
15. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
What DMLS is for metal, SLS is for plastics. SLS also has a few advantages over SLA: the ability to build parts without a support structure, a stronger nylon base material, and most importantly, the ability to work on all axes during the build process, as opposed to SLA, which only operates on the X and Y. That versatility allowed Forecast3D to create optimally shaped brake cooling ducts for the Harbinger Mustang’s front splitter.
16. Room Temperature Vulcanizing Tooling (RTV)
The Room Temperature Vulcanizing Tool (RTV) was used to create the Harbinger Mustang’s headlight/taillight buckets, taillights, center console, shifter arm, vortex generating quick jack access ports, center caps, horn button, push-button starter, and armrests/door pulls.
Forecast3D actually developed in-house an innovative take on RTV tooling, dubbed ProCast, that it uses to create parts. RTV usually begins with a model made from SLA, which is then used to create molds from various epoxies, urethanes, silicons, or even medical-grade materials. Typically RTV is used for short-run parts, since the molds will quickly degrade, but considering the wide appeal of the parts created for the Harbinger, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more permanent molds created. Those headlight and taillight buckets, for example, are less than half the weight of originals, while fitting like stock.
In The End …
To survive changing times, interests, and generational culture shifts, businesses, and even hobbies, have to evolve to mirror society at large. From our view, hot rodding as a whole is moving in the right direction—toward better handling, better built, faster, and safer cars with the highest levels of creativity and technology ever seen. The future of hot rodding really couldn’t be brighter!