1912 Ford Model T Speedster
1912 Ford Model T Speedster. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Upgrading a vehicle’s performance by adding speed equipment became known as hot rodding, apparently a contraction of hot roadster. The usual routes were more carburetion, higher compression and freer exhaust. But hot rodders seldom stopped there.

Hot rodding didn’t become really well-known until after the Second World War. The appearance of a new publication called Hot Rod magazine in January 1948, launched by struggling young Californian Bob Petersen, gave the sport the voice and coherence it needed to flourish.

But it had been going on informally almost from the turn of the century. Starting in the Midwest, the heart of the auto industry (Henry Ford gained his original publicity with speed record activities and even held the land speed record for ten days in 1904), the movement spread quickly. It found its soul in Southern California, where a benign climate, burgeoning car culture and availability of smooth dry lakes for speed runs made it a natural environment.

In its early days hot rodding was a chaotic, unsupervised activity where impromptu drag races on public roads were common. Publicized by a sensation-loving press, it gave the sport a decidedly unsavoury reputation.

Although the history of hot rodding is long, a major turning point came in 1937 with the formation of the Southern California Timing Association. It aimed to get racing off the streets and conduct it under supervised, formalized conditions.

Although other makes were used, the preferred hot rod engine was the Ford V8, which was introduced in 1932 and made spirited performance available to everyone. A 1932 Ford “Deuce” Roadster with the engine hopped up, fenders removed and a dropped front axle (to lower the front end) became the quintessential hot rod.

But in hot rodding’s early days, before the Deuce, the most popular car around was the Model T Ford, even though a Model T hot rod sounds like an oxymoron. A tall, spindly “Tin Lizzy” that could barely top 72 km/h (45 mph) in stock trim seemed like the furthest thing imaginable from a performance car. But it was cheap and available, and thanks to the use of vanadium steel, it was stronger than it looked.

Ford-based hot rods of their day were known as Model T Bugs, Raceabouts or Speedsters. They were for those who yearned after the pricier Mercer Raceabout and Stutz Bearcat performance on a Model T budget.

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