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Psychiatrists who view the car as a phallic, or potency, symbol find a rich field for research among the extremist fringe, the shot rodders. The shot rodders are in revolt all right, but against Mom, not the Motor City. Two St. Louis psychiatrists. Dr. Jack C. Neavles and Dr. George Winokur, examined 30 such boys in a seven-year period and reported their findings in the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic for January 1957. The "typical" shot rodder, they deduced, "is a precocious, physically strong boy. He is aggressive of temperament, and his early history shows evidence of emotional deprivation. His relationship with his mother is usually a very ambivalent one ('Yuh gotta have mothers, but I can't stand 'em. They're bossy')....
"Athletics, at least in these 30 cases, were no source of release," the report continued. "Either the boys were too threatened by the direct competition, or else they could not face the complicated team cooperation that goes into, for instance, a good baseball game. Many of them excelled at swimming or individual sports. But certainly interest in sports which employ interaction was lacking in these adolescents.
"Art, music and poetry were considered 'sissy stuff.' There was a general dislike of reading and literature. The verbal ability of this group was distinctly lower than their mechanical performance. They came mostly from lower middle class homes.
"Study of these 30 cases shows that the automobile can become a sort of accessory body image. The boys verbalize this by such statements as: 'That old hot rod of mine gets to be like a part of me,' or, again: 'Behind the wheel I get bigger and bigger. Man, it's a real cool feeling. I swell up to be just as big as the car. Next year I'm gettin' a Cadillac.' Thus the ego boundaries expand to include the car, in a sense. A feeling of megalomaniacal power and invulnerability ensue. Further evidence of this use of the automobile as an expanded body image is afforded by the decreasing tendency that these boys show to call a car by a feminine first name (Lizzie, Betsy).... There is a great self-destructive element in their behavior," the report concluded. "Yet, their vitality, their urge to live and their real skill as drivers pull them through. It is the thrill of the 'near miss' that they are after."
Hot rodding was born and nurtured in Los Angeles, a city given over to the car, to speed and to experiment. Precisely when hot rodding first appeared is not recorded, though it has been said it was "firmly entrenched as an automotive sport when Model T Fords were popular." At any rate, hot rodding was well under way by 1937 when the Southern California Timing Association was formed to supervise races on the dry lakes 120 miles away and calm an aroused public. (One rancher complained 10 head of cattle were rustled during a race meet, and another said the engine noise kept the hens from laying eggs.)
During World War II hot rodding died down, but it revived with a fury once the war was over. Most of the hot rodders were using old cars—Detroit didn't put out "a really new machine" until 1953—and they held street races with daredevil variations. "Crinkle fender" became popular, and hot rodders began collecting dents "in much the same way," an observer noted, "as an outlaw of an earlier and wilder West notched his pistol stock." "Chicken," brought to its full glory by the late James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, took hold. In one version, two drivers would head toward one another, the left front wheel of each car riding the center line on the road. The first to get out of the way lost. Smilin' Jack, the comic strip, featured Hot Rod Happy, a highway hooligan who ignored his dying dad for his cut-down car.
As it grew in popularity, the cult grew in infamy. On every level the hot rodder was damned. Outraged parents began to enforce reforms. After Dr. Waldo Pendleton, a Los Angeles surgeon, lost his 17-year-old son in a crash, he made each member of his late son's club, the Gents, sign a pledge to promote safe driving. The Gents held their meetings in the doctor's home, where they listened to informal talks by a policeman and, as a result, began behaving like, well, gents. In 1950 the town of Santa Ana, plagued by hot rodders coming from L.A. to race on its long, straightaway streets, converted an unused airport runway into the first supervised drag strip in the country. Other communities followed suit, police took an interest in clubs and, as a result, street racing in the area declined to the point where it was no longer a problem.
One person who did much to make hot rodding presentable was Robert E. Petersen, a 21-year-old movie press agent who was also among the first to realize the commercial possibilities of the cult. In January of 1948, shortly after he had been dropped from M-G-M in an economy wave, Petersen teamed up with another firing victim, Robert Lindsay, to start a monthly, Hot Rod Magazine. Together they splurged $400 to print 10,000 copies, and after they had hawked many of them personally at drag races and drive-ins, they published a second issue. Within a year HRM, as the magazine refers to itself, had a circulation of 50,000, and by 1952 Petersen, an aggressive sort who had ideas for other magazines, was able to buy out Lindsay for a quarter of a million dollars. Today HRM has a circulation of 650,000, the largest of any automotive magazine in the world, and Petersen himself, who is worth $3.5 million, tools around town in a $14,000 red Ferrari and sups with the likes of Tina Louise.
Besides HRM, Petersen Publications, housed appropriately in a former automobile showroom on Hollywood Boulevard, puts out a clutch of other mechanistic monthlies. Among them are Motor Trend, with a circulation of 450,000; Rod & Custom, with 130,000: and Kart, started last August for the newest cult and already up to 130,000.
One of Petersen's latest ventures is a hot rod comic book, Car Toons. In one story, Saga of Rumpville, in the first issue, all the hot rodders in the country gather on the West Coast "to discuss the mutual problem of how to get an unappreciative public off their back." The rodders buy the offshore island of Catalina, deport the islanders back to the mainland and hack out drag strips. Back on the mainland, cars pile up in junkyards for lack of mechanics. The government asks the rodders to return, "offering to make Rumpville the 51st state." The hot rodders can't be bothered. Finally, out of curiosity, they send a couple of cats back to the mainland to see what's going on. They find streets devoid of cars and freeways overgrown with shrubbery.