When you think of hot rods, shiny coupes and surfing music might come to mind. That’s the hot-rod aesthetic of Southern California, romanticized by movies like “American Graffiti” and “Grease.” But it’s just one part of automotive culture.
“Lookin’ East,” a new exhibit at Brookline’s Larz Anderson Auto Museum, celebrates the history of hot rodding in New England. The region’s own topography and ingenuity shaped a unique genre of cars customized for speed and performance over any style. But the resulting bare-bones appearance of many modified cars became a look unto itself.
“We wanted to present this story, because outside of New England hot rodding circles, it is a little-known, but important part of New England motorhead culture,” said Sheldon Steele, the museum’s executive director. “The clubs, car builds, former hot-rod venues, and the community of still-active hot rodders are a vibrant and cohesive group still, even today.”
Hot rodding was born in California in the 1930s, with speed-hungry drivers heading out to dry lake beds near Los Angeles. It evolved into an entire look and culture.
One of the cornerstones of the hot-rod world is the flat-head Ford Coupe from the 1930s (think Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe.”) The museum has plenty of examples of flat-head-powered hot rods, including: a 1930 “Boattail,” a 1931 Ford Model A roadster, two 1932 Ford roadsters, a 1933 Model 40 three-window coupe, a 1935 Ford five-window, and two 1936 Ford coupes.
Some vehicles go for minimal style changes, like the 1940 Ford “Woodie” wagon on display. It is a perfect example of a sleeper, featuring plenty of added performance without looking too different from stock.
Then there is the 1951 Ford Shoebox, which is a prime example of “lead sled,” cars that have their roofs and suspensions lowered to make them look more dramatic.
“These are not store-boughts, but individual expressions of creativity, mechanical ingenuity, and, of course, in many cases, style,” Steele said.
One of the most unique cars on display is the 1924 Track Speedster, which looks more like one of the cars from the old “Wacky Races” Saturday-morning cartoons. Unlike many hot rods, it’s a four-seat, two-row car, and the attention to detail is incredible. It features dramatic chrome suspension components, pushing the wheels out to all four corners, intricate pin-striping, and is capped off with a devil hood ornament.
“These cars are, in essence, folk art on rubber,” said Steele. “If you were to look up the definition of folk art you would find that hot rods meet the proof test to be perceived as art.”
One amazing blend of form and function is the customized 1953 Kurtis 500S roadster. While the typical Kurtis (well, typical for the 36-car production run) features a smooth, cigar-like central fuselage, the model on display has its cowling removed, allowing a massive blower to rise above the V8 engine.
The hot-rodding experience goes well beyond the cars themselves. The museum displays period-correct attire. In addition, some of the cars are owned by people that live the look. “The new guard of 30-something hot rodders—such as Eli English—are not only owners of the cars, but in many cases, are living the total mid-twentieth-century hot-rodding aesthetic,” said Steele. “Every genre and niche of automotive culture has individuals like English, that live the look and carry the torch for that look.”
Whether it’s form or function that leads a custom project, the work done to these vehicles makes them incredible standouts. Eli English owns the Number 5 Buddy Hinman Ford coupe, which features custom touches like seat cushions made from Hinman’s mother’s couch.
As Steele puts it, the men and women that put their sweat and tears into these rides are, “a very authentic community of committed individuals.”
“Lookin’ East” is on display now through April, 2019, at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum, 15 Newton St. in Brookline.