How To Build a Hot Rod, Top Gear America-Style
Performance or style? Yes, please!
What is a hot rod? This a hotly debated topic at the MotorTrend offices; even the editors at HOT ROD Magazine don't completely agree. But, if we take the word of legendary HOT ROD editor, Gray Baskerville, a hot rod is any car that has been modified for performance and style, emphasis on the former. And so the Top Gear America hosts fancy themselves hot rodders. But are they?
Quick History of Hot Rodding
The quintessential American contribution to the world of automotive culture is hot rodding. Hot rodding culture has its roots buried in the dry lake beds and abandoned WWII airstrips that were prolific around Southern California at the end of the 1940s. Young veterans, hungry for adrenaline with heads full of newly-acquired mechanical knowledge, would take cheap cars, "hot them up," then go race their friends.
Illegal street racing and unsanctioned top speed racing quickly grew into what we know as drag racing and land speed racing today. Car clubs, like the Prowlers founded in San Diego, joined forces with other car clubs and local authorities to form racing organizations like the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and create dedicated spaces for racing.
Gow jobs and rails quickly gave way to lead sleds and street rods. Muscle cars came along, then died. The Malaise Era tried to kill performance but couldn't. The 1980s gave us inexpensive turbocharging, the '90s reignited the horsepower wars and, today, hot rodding has developed so many facets and sub-cultures it's become nearly impossible to tell what is or isn't a hot rod.
One could argue country of origin, time period of manufacture, engine and drivetrain configuration, aftermarket modifications or factory-stock performance—the debate will never end. Current Editor-in-Chief of HOT ROD, John McGann, agrees with his predecessor: A hot rod is a car that has been modified for performance and style, and that definition suits us just fine.
How to build a hot rod
You'll hear it a lot in the hot rodding world—built, not bought. That's what the producers have challenged Dax, Jethro and Rob with; finding and building their own hot rods for only $5,000. This is a seemingly impossible task when traditional hot rods regularly change hands for high five-figure sums. The days of finding a cheap Deuce Coupe or '48 Merc around every corner in your local junkyard are long gone.
So what do the hosts show up in? A 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, a late-2000s MINI Cooper S and a 2011 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor—this won't end well. By the 1990's Cadillac had become the poster "figure" (child just doesn't fit here) of retirement-age luxury transportation. How could this extra-luxurious (that's the Brougham package) land-yacht be a hot rod? Same for the MINI—it's British, it's front-wheel drive and it's British! At least Rob showed some sense and brought something with a rowdy V8 and solid, limited-slip rear axle.
But a beast lurks under the hood of Dax's Cadillac in the form of a Corvette-derived LT1 V8 that is also connected to a solid rear axle capable of frying both tires. Between the body armor and antennas on the Crown Vic and all the sound-deadening and cushion in the Caddy, the two V8-powered Americans are pretty evenly matched. We can't count out Jethro and the MINI either, because (duh) there will be racing.
Since their first release in 1959, the MINI Cooper (Austin Mini, back then) has been a giant-killer, regularly winning against more powerful cars in the British Touring Car Championship. To the British, the MINI is a hot rod. Plus, this S model comes supercharged from the factory—it might not be American but we have to appreciate the tenacity Jethro is showing.
Just getting the car isn't enough; a hot rodder modifies their ride with performance in mind but also with an eye toward style. With whatever money they have left, the hosts now get to modify their new hot rods however they want. Do they go for pure performance, eye catching style or a mix of the two?