Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size image
The Enthusiast’s Motor Market
Are You Geared For It?
By John Carollo
Street Rods, customs, muscle cars; even their names are different. When it comes to cars and we’re including light trucks from the early 1900s on up into the ’70s, it’s not enough to just call them old cars. How cars from this time span are rebuilt can often make them their own separate market. And if you think you can jump into this vast potential of cars you just might need some help. As with any business, knowledge is power. So knowing what kind of cars and groups of cars that are available to engine builders is essential. Here’s how to tell what genre a car is in.
First is the “Hot Rod” market, which is generally accepted to include vehicles up to 1949. In this group are “Antiques,” “Street Rods” and “Old School” or “Traditional” rods. Antique cars are usually the same as “Restoration” cars and they are the oldest of the old cars. The classification can start as early as the 1900s but is generally accepted to coincide with the introduction of the Ford Model T.
The gamut of Antique cars can run from someone’s Model T that’s had a $20K restoration or just the car Grandpa Jones has kept all these years, looking and acting every bit of its age. Yet, both cars can be found in parades, community get-togethers and even the local cruise-in sitting next to a “Hot Rod” or “Custom.”
The antique guys want the engines that were in the car originally so that part is simple. Usually it’s a matter of an original overhaul, sometimes with a little more power snuck in to make life on an interstate a little more bearable.
The cars are often restored as built, right down to what nuts and bolts were original. But many owners are not that ‘hardcore’ about their cars. There are still many suppliers (often advertising here in Engine Builder) offering older, original replacement parts or reproductions to get the job done.
Today, there seem to be fewer car shows catering to this group, as the trend seems to be phasing down. One aspect is that the owners often grew up with these cars, many telling the same story of how this was the kind of car they first learned to drive. Or they may say this was the first car in their family. Because of the median age of this group, many are now dying off. The sad news is that they are not being replaced. But their cars aren’t being ignored...more on that later.
Antiques often follow the 20 year rule and can also be used to describe cars as recent as the ’80s that are rebuilt and restored just as they came off the assembly line.
Street Rods evolved from Hot Rods as the name was sometimes a disparaging one when coined in the ’50s. From the moment a single part is changed on an old car all the way to the point where there are no original parts left, it falls under the Street Rod category.
They are always pre-1949 and are easily identified by their more pronounced fenders. Even the late ’40s cars are rods but have the sub-classification of “Fat Fendered” cars.
Street Rods make up the biggest percentage of the enthusiast cars as they’ve been around the longest and have the most variants. Like their ‘Boomer’ core market, they’ve been running strong since the ’60s.
They’re still stout, as evidenced by companies spending big bucks to develop modern steel reproductions of panels and complete bodies of those classic cars. The difference is in the caliber and amount of hand-made parts usually built from billet stainless steel or aluminum.
It is to the point today that one can use a current issue of Street Rodder or Rod & Custom magazines, a telephone and a credit card to build a street rod (or have one built) without the use of any original parts.
For the Street Rod engine market, things are a little more open. Once, the only way an enthusiast could do it was to just pick up a used V8 Chevy, Ford or Mopar from a junkyard and pop it in. Today, it’s harder to find those in junkyards but Detroit has its own answer in the guise of crate motors. It’s easier than ever for the home or pro builder to lower in a ready-to fire motor that comes with a warranty.
Of course, crate motors aren’t only coming from Detroit but also from aftermarket engine builders. You may think that automatically leads them past your business but many Street Rodders want more than just what comes from a store-bought motor.
They’ll often bring engine builders a crate motor or a short block and want a little more out of their engine. Or they may be looking for a different sound or power band. Many engine builders also build their own versions of crate motors and can offer them at competitive prices. So the market is far from closed.
“Old School,” “Traditional Hot Rods” and even what are called “Rat Rods” are something relatively new on the scene. And they just happen to be the hottest thing going in the enthusiast market today. Many see it as a whiplash of where Street Rods went when custom builders upped prices for one-off cars that cash out at close to $1 million. That’s not a typo.
Yes, there are $1 million Street Rods out there. But what young “gearhead” can spend at that altitude? Not many. So what happened is exactly what happened in the ’50s: people started building simple root-types of rods, shunning the billet parts and even returning to the older parts that haven’t been used for years and generations.
Today the Old School scene is bigger than ever. It didn’t take long for Traditional Hot Rod car shows to sprout up, catering to the style of cars and lifestyle of the participants.
Those shows have strict criteria limiting cars to 1964 and older. Most shows have an official at the gate just to judge period correctness of wheels. Billet parts are forbidden and reason for exclusion, keeping out most of the high dollar Street Rods.
These shows have colorful names such as “The Hunnert Car Pileup” and “Billetproof,” and celebrate the era. The music is Rockabilly, also from the ’50s and early ’60s. “Greasers” dance with their “Bettys” in period clothes and younger fans join in with many who lived it the first time around.
This type of car supports its own distinctive lifestyle just as much as the car and more than any other style, with more than 20 dedicated magazines covering it. And remember those antique and restoration cars that had a soft market? Many of those cars are being bought by Rat Rodders and, just like in the ’50s, are being made into traditional hot rods. Their flat market makes them affordable and whatever parts a builder may not use are often easily sold off to other traditional builders.
The Rat Rod engine market however, is wide open maybe even too far wide open, say some nonbelievers. That’s because Old School rodders want old motors and, for many, the more obscure the better. The Ford Flathead and early Chevy Small Block are the leading engines. To that effect, Flathead motors and parts are being re-cast for building entirely new motors. Companies are plentiful for Flattie parts, almost catching up to the venerable Chevy.
But not far behind are motors that haven’t seen daylight for a few generations. The Oldsmobile Rocket is a highly sought after motor even to the point of aftermarket headers for Chevys adopting the look of the Rocket. Ditto for valve covers, too, with very popular kits to adapt Olds style covers onto Chevys. The Rocket was the first overhead valve V8 and that makes it so desirable. Old School, first generation Hemis are just as popular as they were another, high-visibility engine with impressive power for racing.
But the list doesn’t stop at V8s. Many have gone out of their way to find inline fours, sixes and eights just to be different. In fact, with Old School Rods, pretty much anything goes, as long as it fits the period.
Another aspect is accessories. Traditional engines use distinct parts such as air intakes and exhausts that are often handmade, opening another market to enterprising builders. Also, many of the original speed goodies of the era are now being re-introduced into this society to supplement the great demand for original pieces bought and sold at swap meets, shows and even Ebay.
Moving into the 1950s, modified cars are known as “Customs” and use both period and modern engines, depending on how they are built to suit a style. But they also start to split from just period cars and morph into what the enthusiast cars of today are.
Cars from this era can be in the Rat Rod or “Traditional” classification. A Traditional ’57 Chevy can have the original 283 and look like it was just found in a barn. A Street Machine ’57 Chevy can sport a 502 big block with EFI and nitrous and turn 9’s at the strip. It depends on the style in which it is built.
That means engines for this group are also wide open, mostly matching style. And like any style of car, an owner may just want it built “his way,” flauting style consistency. Traditional Customs from the ’50s peak out at this point as their accepted cutoff point is usually 1964, the beginning of another era.
The “Muscle Car” era began, for most purposes, in 1964 and then they ruled the world until about 1974. For the longest time, Muscle Cars were always rebuilt according to how they came from the factory.
Car auctions have played this out on TV. When restored, these cars, often called the antiques of the Boomer generation, have been known to bring in very high prices, with a select few exceeding the six-figure mark. So engines must be correct down to nuts, bolts and ID tags.
It’s a highly specialized market, but like antiques, not everyone is interested in a “numbers correct” car so there is wiggle room for engine builders.
Lately, a new style of car has evolved from cars of that time. Called “Pro Touring,” builders take a Muscle Car of lesser value and rebuild it using the best technology of today. They will often add independent rear suspension, engines with electronic components such as fuel injection and computers, almost always aftermarket versions. The car’s appearance also tends to be more modern than period with the latest in paint and graphics. Like their counterparts in Street Rods, custom-built engines are plentiful as are crate and modified crate motors.
Usually these cars are driven more and performance is key in both power and handling. Some car builders that have specialized in restoring Muscle Cars find themselves now building Pro Touring cars as well.
Engine builders can tap into this lucrative market, but they had better know what goes where when they talk to potential customers. Like solid basic engine building, it’s all about being familiar with the right components.
|The Neighborhood Cruise-In Your Secret Weapon
They’re everywhere. The local Cruise-in is a staple of our car crazy America. When they started out, cruisers were at the few remaining drive-ins, parked out front waiting for another American staple, the carhop.
Some say they never left the drive-ins, time-tripping back to the ’50s era of pre-chain hamburger joints.
Nonetheless, cruise-ins today are the hotbeds of enthusiast cars for one single reason: they are the great equalizer of all the car genres from antiques to today’s sports compacts.
We’ve actually seen hopped-up period cars from the ’50s sitting next to a tricked-out modern import. One old timer, when asked by the kids with the Honda if they could park next to him at a weekly cruise, looked over his shoulder at the sleek little car and said, “Why not? It’s just another hot rod” and thumbed them in with his approval.
At the local cruises, there is no class distinction. At the big shows, the event organizers usually limit participation to the kind and year of car that matches the show’s identity. One example of this is the Street Rod vs. Custom cars vs. Muscle cars scene.
Years ago, the National Street Rod Association (NSRA) was the king of all street rod groups. When they ran their shows in various parts of the country, the age cut-off was 1949 and older. As time went on and new markets for newer cars were developed, a rival group called the Goodguys Rod and Custom Association came along and opened for business with a cutoff date of 1974. This allowed not only the Custom cars of the ’50s but also the next age in Americana Automotive the Muscle Cars of the ’60s and ’70s to attend. Now showgoers could see three generations of cars and trucks.
But while the antiques were certainly welcome at these shows, the main event on the card was the performance-modified car.
These big national shows can literally bring in over 10,000 cars and that’s a bunch to see in a weekend. Time is also needed to see the latest in car parts and accessories that are part of the show. Vendors hawking their wares are yet another way to go shopping for your car and some engine builders display at nearby shows.
The somewhat downside of these mega-shows is that they are so big the small cruise feeling is easily lost. The impromptu feeling of just packing up the lawn chairs and hitting the cruise is perfect for the local cruise-in. Add a few local folks you know and it makes for a great evening. And cruising is done at just about any place that has enough room to park some cars.
Your local Wal-Mart, K-Mart or shopping center is often good enough to set up a DJ and some snack tables. Many cities have even joined in offering weekly and special event cruising to the point of shutting down streets for annual cruises.
A smart engine builder looking to get into the enthusiast car market should hit a few local cruises to check out the many types of cars and talk to their more-than-friendly owners about their rides. Much more business is done there than one might think.
We all know that word of mouth is the best way to get work and your local cruise-in may be a new source for revenue and contacts. Besides, there’s almost always a good charity to help by buying that American cheeseburger or hot dog. Let’s go cruisin’.