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The Evolution of the Hot Rod Market

A brief look at the specialty-parts industry segment that provided early growth.
Thursday, November 1, 2007 - 00:00

A brief look at the specialty-parts industry segment that provided early growth.

The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) has reported that the specialty auto parts market has grown to more than $37 billion dollars in annual sales. One of the key specialty-parts market segments is hot rods, and this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Deuce—the 1932 Ford—which is significant for two major reasons.

One, it was a pretty car in all variants and it has become the traditional, classic example of an iconic American hot rod. The second factor was that it was available with a V-8 engine. The flathead was the first V-8 available in a popularly priced automobile, and an entire industry was founded on building high-performance equipment for the Ford V-8 engine.

Yes, there were racing and high-performance products available for earlier vehicles, such as the Ford Model A and even the Model T and some Chevrolet vehicles. But, it was the 1932 Ford and the Ford flathead V-8 that spurred industry growth.

In this issue, we feature two examples of the classic 1932 Ford; Roy Brizio's highboy roadster, which was built nearly 20 years ago, and Jim Moore's more modern highboy. As Brizio points out, he still uses many of the same methods and equipment today. Why? Because they are proven and continue to work. Brizio's '32 highboy has more than 60,000 miles on the odometer.

FEELIN' THE FLATHEAD

Brizio's highboy is fitted with a 351 Ford Windsor V-8 and Moore's highboy has a more traditional small-block Chevy, but the Ford flathead V-8 was the engine that fueled the growth of the specialty-parts industry.

From the early days though the 1960s, the Ford flathead was the hot rodder's engine of choice. Then the small-block Chevrolet took over. It remains the most modified engine even today.

The Ford flathead was special because when consumers modified it, they could feel and measure the improvement. When they installed what was then called a ¾ cam, or a second carburetor, it made a difference they could actually feel. When consumers installed an exhaust system, the vehicle sounded better and ran better. If they installed a chrome dress-up part, the vehicle looked faster right away.

The specialty auto parts industry grew up around the hot rod and the Ford flathead. Originally hot rods were built using whatever parts ingenious backyard engineers could find in wrecking yards from discarded old cars. After a while, hot-rod entrepreneurs figured out there was business to be had in designing, building, and selling products that made hot rods look good, run faster, and stop and handle better.

Starting at the top, chrome air cleaners were designed, then multiple carburetors (usually Stromberg 97s), then intake manifolds to handle the extra carburetors. Cam grinders, such as Ed Iskendarian, began to "grind" camshafts that would allow the flathead to rev higher and make more power.

IMPROVING TECHNOLOGY

One improvement led to another. Better camshafts required better valves and valve springs. With more air getting into the engine, it was necessary to find a better way for exhaust gases to escape. Dual exhaust was one method; tuned exhaust headers were even better. The Ford flathead had a "siamesed" center exhaust port so exhaust headers of the time had what appeared to be only three exhaust ports per side.

Backyard engineers, such as Vic Edelbrock, Sr; Barney Navarro; and others, redesigned the cylinder heads, which were made of aluminum for lighter weight and had improved port design for more power. Hot rodders of the day could even buy chrome-plated cylinder-head acorn nuts for improved appearance.

Transmission technology was yet to come, so hot rodders improvised. Many times they simply used a manual transmission from a larger, more powerful car to stand up to the modified Ford flathead engine. By today's standards, a modified Ford flathead's horsepower and torque output would not be a challenge, but in those days, many hot rodders used later-model transmissions from the same marque or the famous LaSalle three-speed manual transmission found in many classic hot rods. Today, hot-rod enthusiasts can purchase a heavy-duty manual transmission with six or more speeds forward or a modified automatic transmission that can handle as much torque as the engine can deliver.

Oftentimes, hot rodders used newer parts from cars of the same brand to upgrade. One of the most recognized upgrades was the switch to hydraulic brakes. While the styling and availability of the low-cost V-8 engine made the car an icon, the famed 1932 Ford came with mechanical brakes. Today, a mechanical brake system resembles a scary Rube Goldberg-looking array of cables and levers that was not all that reliable or predictable.

However, in 1940, Ford Motor Company upgraded to hydraulic or "juice" brakes for their cars, so hot rodders quickly adapted the better hydraulic (still drum front and rear) brakes to get stopping power as close as possible to the "go" power. Soon, hot rodders could purchase hydraulic upgrade systems to update their earlier-year hot rods. Today, hot-rod enthusiasts can purchase from a large selection of precision disc brake systems for both their vehicle's front and rear.

Rear ends were another weak point. The 9-inch Ford rear end and GM 12-bolt may be the staples of the hot-rod market today, but the early Fords had closed drivelines and antique suspensions. It was hot rodders who developed the split wishbone, four-bar suspension, and adapted coil-over suspension designs.

The specialty-parts business has evolved over the years and, in many cases, has led the development of many significant automotive technological breakthroughs. Many hot rods were equipped with seat belts in the 1940s, but it wasn't until 1961 when passenger cars sold in the U.S. were required to be fitted with seat belts. In the early 1950s, disc brakes were adapted from aircraft to hot rods.

Many of the so-called engineering "breakthroughs" used by automobile manufacturers today came from the hot-rod industry. For example, low-resistance roller tappets and variable valve timing were originally used by hot rodders to improve performance. Today, those engineering techniques are used by automobile manufacturers to improve both power and fuel economy.

Sure, we know trucks are hot and parts for trucks and SUVs are big sellers, but don't overlook the segment that started it all—the hot-rod market; it can be a significant base for your expanding specialty-parts business.

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