SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
April 24, 1961
To many persons the automobile is a status symbol. To 1.5 million hot rodders, however, the car is the cornerstone of a cult with its own lingo, totems and heaven. The cats range from wild to mild, but the fuzzy world they live in can be far out, man, far out
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April 24, 1961

The Car Cult From Rumpsville

To many persons the automobile is a status symbol. To 1.5 million hot rodders, however, the car is the cornerstone of a cult with its own lingo, totems and heaven. The cats range from wild to mild, but the fuzzy world they live in can be far out, man, far out

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The lingo with which hot rodders ordinarily communicate with one another is a melange of bop talk, beat talk, teen talk and garagese. "Bear" means car, and so does "beast." A "pig" is a car "that's like nothing, dirty." A "Sally Rand" is a car with "no radio, no heater, no nothin'—stripped." A "gook wagon" is a car with tabooed ornamentation, and it is driven either by a "choke" (a slob) or a "squirrel" (a dangerous character, derived loosely from the frowned-upon foxtail). A Chevrolet is a "stove," and a Ford is a "can." A "deuce" is a sporty 1932 Ford, probably the most desirable machine.

"Scooby-doo" means sharp or good, to "shack" is to live, and to "shuck" is to talk. "Mother," always spelled and pronounced "mutha," generally has a connotation of endearment as in "Look at that mutha go!" (A hot rod club in the Midwest used to call its president "head mutha.") "Fuzz" and "heat" mean police. When I told a hot rodder I had been talking to police, he exclaimed to a friend: "Hey, man, this cat's been dancin' with the heat!"

Around all this jazz, daddy-o, revolves hot rod culture. There are hot rod movies like Hot Rod Gang showing "Crazy to a wild rock 'n' roll beat!" There are hot rod novels like Street Rod: "Ricky Madison was going too fast to do anything but watch the highway. How good it felt to split the night like the point of a knife, pipes blasting against the road. Speed...speed...speed. Tonight he'd find out what his rod could do!" There are records like Transfusion by Nervous Norvus on a Dot label, which sold 950,000 copies and goes in part:

Toolin' down the highway doin' 79
I'm a twin-pipe poppa,
and I'm fee I in' fine.
Hey, man, dig that!
Was that a red stop sign?
(Sound of crash)
Transfusion! Transfusion!
I'm just a solid mess of contusions!
Never, never, never gonna speed again!
Slip the blood to me, bud!
Jump in my rod about a quarter to nine.
I gotta make a date with that chick of mine.
I cross the center line.
Man, you gotta make time!
(Sound of crash)
Transfusion! Transfusion!
Oh, man, I got the cotton pickhin' convolutions!
I'm never, never, never gonna speed again!
Shoot the juice to me, Bruce!

The ultimate in records are those put out by Riverside Records in New York which contain only the sounds of the engines themselves. Riverside has recorded a whole sonic gamut of automobilism, ranging from the "brrraappp" of a Formula Junior racer to the "vroom" of a Corvette, but of all these the three hot rod records have sold the best. "The exciting thing in listening to a hot rod engine," says Bill Grauer, Riverside president, "is when it has reached its peak and starts that undulating wail, 'ooma, ooma!' This is a hell of a bit of mass culture."

The spread of the hot rod cult and culture has caused all sorts of reactions. The California legislature has passed a law prohibiting hot rodders from lowering any part of the car body below the rim of the wheels. (Hot rods were getting snagged crossing railroad tracks, and one hot rodder with a flat backed up traffic for miles on a Los Angeles freeway when he was unable to get a jack beneath his beast.) Last year the United States Information Agency dispatched a hot rodder and his car to Germany to explain the American way of life. The Germans were baffled. "They didn't know what it was," says the hot rodder. Bob Clifford, 16, of Orinda, Calif.

The International Association of Police Chiefs has branded hot rod racing a public menace, but a growing number of police officials favor drag racing because it cuts violations on the open road. Still, the National Safety Council condemned supervised racing on the grounds that speed itself is bad, and some educators have gone so far as to deplore ownership of any car by a high school student. One study showed that not a single straight-A student owned a car, but 83% of those failing did. The Air Force and the Army, on the other hand, endorse hot rodding—hot rodders make first-rate mechanics.

Sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists have sought to explain the cult and the allure of the automobile. Eugene Gilbert, president of the Gilbert Youth Research Co., which advises business on teen-age interests, has found that to a teen-age male a driver's license means more than his first date, his first kiss or his first time out after midnight. Youngsters can hardly wait to flee the family car, which is to them a "baby carriage with a motor," for a motor of their own. Hot rodders apparently want to stress their freedom and individuality even more. Reuel Denney, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, has written in The Astonished Muse, a study of popular culture, that the hot rodders are in revolt against Detroit. They are "Participative Purists" who require something different from the mass model. Hot rodders are members of "the salon of the refused," and they get their kicks by indulging in "gasoline fiestas."

Peter E. Siegle, a former consulting psychologist for Maremont Automotive Products in Chicago, has an even more personal interpretation. In the August 1952 issue of Hot Rod Magazine he wrote, doubtless to the confusion of many of his readers: "The serious hot rodder is compulsive...which may mean that he is attempting to bring some order into his life by organizing and manipulating gadgets, an action which is, for him, easier than trying to manipulate people.... Since all motivation and response is modified in some way by the cultural milieu, it is only natural that in a mechanistic culture, young people tend toward mechanistic pursuits. In this culture status is achieved through money, sex or the acquisition of physical status symbols. The hot rodder gains recognition (negative or positive) by building the noisier, faster, flashier vehicle...."

To Ernest Dichter, the motivational researcher, hot rodding, along with high fidelity and gourmet foods, is symptomatic of a new trend in the market place which he calls "mass organized nonconformism." Dichter, who sold Chrysler on manufacturing the hardtop convertible as a one-package symbol of both wife (sedan) and mistress (convertible), is fascinated by the auto-erotic in hot rodding. "Speed is power, potency, conquest," he says. "It's the demonstration of your own power. You're going 100 mph, not the car. These hot rodders are basically insecure sexually, and they overcompensate."

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