Traditional hot rods are Ford model T and model A style automobiles (as they are the first American cars that are made with vanadium steel) that have been modified to enhance performance and speed.
Hot rods are custom-built cars. Originally the term was used to the practice of taking an old car, usually a Ford, and improving its performance by reducing weight (usually by removing roof, hood, bumpers, windshield and fenders), lower it, change or tune the engine to give more power, add fat wheels for traction and apply a distinctive paint job. The term may have originated from "hot roadster;" it was used in the 1950s and 1960s as a derogatory term for any car that did not fit into the mainstream. Other sources indicate that the term was derived from replacement of connecting rods in engines to allow higher RPMs to be reached without failure. When hot rodding became commercialized in the 1970s, magazines and associations catering to "street rodders" were started.
Hot rodders including Wally Parks created the National Hot Rod Association NHRA to bring racing off the streets and onto the tracks. The annual California Hot Rod Reunion and National Hot Rod Reunion are held to honor pioneers in the sport. The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum houses the roots of hot rodding. Nowadays people who own hot rods keep them clean and try to make them noticeable. Those who work according to the original idea of cheap, fast and no frills are often called rat rods. There are many magazines that feature real hot rods, including The Rodders Journal. Commercial magazines include Hot Rod Magazine, Street Rodder, and Popular Hot Rodding. There are also television shows such as My Classic Car, and Horsepower TV. Hot rods are part of American culture, although there is growing controversy within the automotive hobby over an increasing trend towards the acquisition and irreversible modification of surviving historic - some even very rare - vehicles rather than the traditional hot rodding concept of the salvage and remanufacture of reusable junked parts.
Author Tom Wolfe was one of the first to recognize the importance of hot rodding in popular culture and brought it to mainstream attention in his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.
The Hot Rod era extended from 1945 to the beginning of the muscle car era (about 1965), reaching its height in about 1955. During this time, there was an adequate supply of what hot rodders called "vintage tin": junk cars manufactured prior to 1942 that could be had cheaply. Many of these had sound bodies and frames and had been junked for mechanical reasons, since the running gear of early cars was not durable. The typical hot rod was heavily modified, particularly by replacing the engine and transmission, and possibly other components, including brakes and steering. Certain engines, such as the flathead Ford V8, and the small block Chevrolet V8 were particularly popular as replacements because of their compact size, availability, and power. The early Hemi was popular in applications that required more power, such as drag racing.
Construction of a hot rod requires skills in mechanics, welding, and automotive paint and body work.