In the last few years the hot rodders, who used to play "chicken" down the center lines of the nation's highways, have virtually disappeared from view. Most motorists assume that the rods broke down, the boys (if they lived) grew up and the fad died out. Not so. Most of the rodders have left the road for the drag strips, but they have founded their own fantasy city and they have proliferated. Today a legion of cats shack and shuck in Rumpsville, which is in the Holy Land and strictly scooby-doo (scooby-dooby to a square like you).
Rumpsville—or Rumpville, depending on how far out you feel—is the hot rodder's heaven, and to a student of contemporary American culture it is a place of fascination. For here the modern phenomenon of automobilism, that devout interest in cars entirely apart from their use as transportation, has reached its pinnacle in the creations turned out by onetime chicken players, and in the world they have built around their cars. It is a world that invites and rewards" study, for the hot rod cult—and there is no better word to describe this movement—is limited only by the fetish-oriented imagination of its cultists.
Automobilism has been called "a major movement in society," but it would be more accurate to define it as a quasi religion, what with its concept of the car as power, its special set of doctrines and the extraordinary behavior patterns exhibited by its devotees. It embraces a number of cults given over to the veneration of a particular type of vehicle. There are cults devoted to the sports car, the classic car (the vigorous subcult of Bugatti believers has all but made a saint of Le Patron, the late Ettore Bugatti), the Indianapolis racer, the motorcycle (rent by schism between the sophisticated enthusiasts of English cycles and the Brandoesque brutes known as "hog riders" who favor the big American machines), the kart (the latest, smallest and most retrogressive of these vehicles) and, of course, the hot rod.
The hot rod cult is the most flourishing of all. Fifteen years ago there were only 3,000 hot rodders in the United States; now there are 1.5 million. Most hot rodders are law-abiding. A minority, dubbed "shot rodders" by the orthodox, is not. (To some outsiders, there is scant difference between the shot rodder and the hot rodder. Briefly, however, the hot rodder is interested in ' "improving" his car in some fashion or other and the shot rodder's interest is in using his car as an instrument of aggression on the street.) Altogether, they spend an estimated $250 million a year on their cars and related products, and though this in itself is a considerable sum they manage to have a greater impact on society by virtue of their influence on automobile design. For, whatever its extremes, the hot rod cult has produced creative enthusiasts who have left—and are still leaving—their mark on America. Several mass-produced cars now reflect hot rod innovations—for example, the Chrysler 300 line—and it is no exaggeration to say that the unusual alterations on the machine some teen-ager is driving in Los Angeles today may be adopted by Detroit tomorrow.
Almost all members of the hot rod cult are males between the ages of 14 and 40. Generally, they adhere to a code of totems and taboos complicated enough to make the sociologist pause and the Freudian leap for his pencil. It is, for instance, required of a hot rodder who is "with it" to chrome the undercarriage of his car, or at least paint it white, but it is definitely " Mickey Mouse," hot roddese for bad taste, to fly a foxtail or use mud flaps.
Hot rodding has an involved hierarchy. In the early days of the cult, a hot rod was a standard Detroit car with a souped-up engine for "go." Nowadays, however, a hot rod may also mean a car with an altered, or "customized," exterior for "show." At the bottom of the hierarchy, which feeds upward in farm-system fashion, is a high school youngster with a hot rod that might be go, show or "show and go." More often than not the youngster will belong to a car club. If he does, he will exhibit a club plaque in the rear window of his rod and wear the club jacket to school. The jacket is likely to be wool and blue in color (motorcyclists wear leather). Most clubs have aggressive and evocative names: Black Widows, Cam-twisters, Cannibals, Demons, Igniters, Miss-Fits, Nomads, Satans, Shafters, Undertakers, Vampires, Vandals, Voo-doos, Wipers. One of the most popular, over the years, has been Road Runners, but the Untouchables is coming on fast. A typical Untouchables plaque shows a car streaking away from another car or a reaching hand.
Higher in the hierarchy is a more or less independent rodder in his 20s. Many of his contemporaries will have given up hot rodding—half the hot rodders are teen-agers—but this cat has held fast and channeled his passion in a particular direction. If he is interested in the "show route," he will spend hour after hour adding new touches to his custom car. If he is interested in racing, he will spend an equal amount of time tinkering with his "dragster," which might best be described as an engine on wheels. The dragster is run only on drag strips, the straightaway quarter-mile course where rodders stage acceleration races against one another in pairs, or individually against the clock. A class A dragster can reach 170 mph with ease.
At the top of the hierarchy is a speedster like Mickey Thompson, 32, who drives a "Streamliner," a car specially built to perform on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In one spree Thompson, who has a Pontiac engine for each of his car's four wheels, hit 406.6 mph, the fastest man has gone on wheels.
Whatever a hot rodder's standing in the hierarchy, he has a mystical reverence for cars. "The automobile is the most majestic thing to me," says Lou Schorsch, a Los Angeles hot rodder who has given up go for show. "The automobile has done more for the human race than anything or anyone. More than Michelangelo or Knute Rockne. A guy who hates cars or who doesn't cherish them, I don't want to know."
This sort of feeling burning in the hot rod heart led to the creation of Rumpsville (or Rumpville). "Rumpsville would be the Elysian Fields of hot rodding," says Le Roi Smith, an editor of Hot Rod Magazine (the bible) and a former national field director of the National Hot Rod Association (the society for the propagation of the faith). "It's where hot rodders could go and all the people would know about mechanical things. Hot rod heaven, that's Rumpsville. When you hop up an engine, it makes a noise like 'rump, rump!' That's where it comes from, man, like from Wildsville."