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Arguably the most famous custom car in the classic style, the Hirohata Merc[1]
Arguably the most famous custom car in the classic style, the Hirohata Merc[1]

A custom car is a passenger vehicle that has been either substantially altered to improve its performance, often by altering or replacing the engine and transmission; made into a personal "styling" statement, using paint work and aftermarket accessories to make the car look unlike any car as delivered from the factory; or some combination of both. A desire among some automotive enthusiasts in the United States is to push "styling and performance a step beyond the showroom floor - to truly craft an automobile of one's own."[2] A custom car in British according to Collins English Dictionary is built to the buyer's own specifications.[3]

Although the two are related, custom cars are distinct from hot rods. The extent of this difference has been the subject of debate among customizers and rodders for decades. Additionally, a street rod can be considered a custom.[citation needed]

Custom cars are not to be confused with coachbuilt automobiles, historically rolling chassis fitted with luxury bodywork by specialty body builders.


The iconic "T-bucket" custom, with characteristic exposed engine, flat windshield, headers, and open pipes. Soft top (shown) is optional. Also features chrome five-spoke wheels, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ).
The iconic "T-bucket" custom, with characteristic exposed engine, flat windshield, headers, and open pipes. Soft top (shown) is optional. Also features chrome five-spoke wheels, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ).
"Rat rodded" Model A with Edelbrock head and chrome carb hats on late-model flatty
"Rat rodded" Model A with Edelbrock head and chrome carb hats on late-model flatty

A development of hot rodding, the change in name corresponded to the change in the design of the cars being modified. The first hot rods were pre-World War II cars, with running boards and simple fenders over the wheels. Early model cars (1929 to 1934) were modified by removing the running boards and either removing the fenders entirely or replacing them with light cycle fenders. Later models usually had fender skirts installed. The "gow job" morphed into the hot rod in the early to middle 1950s.[4] Typical of builds from before World War II were 1935 Ford wire wheels.[5]

Many cars were "hopped up" with engine modifications such as adding additional carburetors, high compression heads, and dual exhausts. Engine swaps were often done, with the objective of placing the most powerful engine in the lightest possible frame and body combination.[6] The suspension was usually altered, initially by lowering the rear end as much as possible using lowering blocks on the rear springs. Later cars were given a rake job by either adding a dropped front axle or heating front coil springs to make the front end of the car much lower than the rear. Immediately postwar, most rods would change from mechanical to hydraulic ("juice") brakes and from bulb to sealed-beam headlights.[7]

The mid-1950s and early 1960s custom Deuce was typically fenderless and steeply chopped, and almost all Ford (or Mercury, with the 239 cu in (3,920 cc) flatty, introduced in 1939[8]); a Halibrand quick-change rearend was also typical, and an Edelbrock intake manifold or Harman and Collins ignition magneto would not be uncommon.[9] Reproduction spindles, brake drums, and backing based on the 1937s remain available today.[8] Aftermarket flatty heads were available from Barney Navarro,[10] Vic Edelbrock, and Offenhauser. The first intake manifold Edelbrock sold was a "slingshot" design for the flatty.[10] Front suspension hairpins were adapted from sprint cars, such as the Kurtis Krafts.[11] The first Jimmy supercharger on a V8 may have been by Navarro in 1950.[12]

Much later, rods and customs swapped the old solid rear axle for an independent rear, often from Jaguar. Sometimes the grille of one make of car replaced another; the 1937 Buick grille was often used on a Ford. In the 1950s and 1960s, the grille swap of choice was the 1953 DeSoto. The original hot rods were plainly painted like the Model A Fords from which they had been built up, and only slowly begun to take on colors, and eventually fancy orange-yellow flamed hoods or "candy-like" deep acrylic finishes in the various colors.[6]

With the change in automobile design to encase the wheels in fenders and to extend the hood to the full width of the car, the former practices were no longer possible. In addition, tremendous automotive advertising raised public interest in the new models in the 1950s. Thus, custom cars came into existence, swapping headlamp rings, grilles, bumpers, chrome side strips, and taillights as well as frenching and tunnelling head- and taillights. The bodies of the cars were changed by cutting through the sheet metal, removing bits to make the car lower, welding it back together, and adding lead to make the resulting form smooth (hence the term lead sled; Bondo has since largely replaced lead.) Chopping made the roof lower[13] while sectioning[14] made the body thinner from top to bottom. Channeling[15] was cutting notches in the floorpan where the body touches the frame to lower the whole body. Fins were often added from other cars, or made up from sheet steel. In the custom car culture, someone who merely changed the appearance without also substantially improving the performance was looked down upon. Juxtapoz Magazine, founded by the artist Robert Williams, has covered Kustom Kulture art.

Customization style

'55-7 Chevy with fuzzy dice
'55-7 Chevy with fuzzy dice
'28 A roadster with Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels
'28 A roadster with Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels

Certain linguistic conventions are followed among rodders and customizers:

  • The model year is rarely given in full,[16] except when it might be confused, so a 1934 model is a '34, while a 2005 might be an '05 or not.
    • A '32 is usually a Deuce and most often a roadster, unless coupé is specified, and almost always a Ford, now commonly on A frame rails.[17]
    • A 1955, 1956, or 1957 is usually a Chevrolet.
    • A 1955, 1956, or 1957 Chevrolet is often called a Tri-Five.
  • A 3- or 5-window is usually a Ford, unless specified.
  • A flatty is a flathead V8[18] (always Ford, unless specified); a late (or late model) flatty is probably a Merc.
  • A hemi ("hem ee") is always a 426, unless displacement (331, 354, or 392) is specified;[19] a 426 is a hemi, unless Wedge is specified. See baby hemi.
  • A 392 is an early hemi.
    • A 331 or 354 is known to be an (early) hemi, but rarely referred to as such
  • A 270 "Jimmy" was a 270 cubic inch GMC truck engine often used to replace a smaller displacement Chevrolet six cylinder.
  • Units are routinely dropped, unless they are unclear, so a 426 cubic inch (in3) displacement engine is simply referred to as a 426, a 5-liter (litre) displacement engine is a 5.0 ("five point oh"), and a 600 cubic feet per minute (cfm) carburetor is a 600. Engine displacement can be described in cubic inches or liters (for example, a 5.7-liter engine is also known as a 350 {"three fifty"}); this frequently depends on which units the user is most comfortable or familiar with.[20]

The "cutoff year" as originally promoted by the National Street Rod Association (NSRA) is 1949. Many custom car shows will only accept 1948 and earlier models as entries, and many custom car organizations will not admit later model cars or trucks (also with some imports - this has been a gray area of what's acceptable e.g. an aircooled VW Beetle, a Big Three product manufactured overseas e.g. a Ford Capri built in the UK or a General Motors - Holden's product, not to mention captives), and/or a vintage import automobile with an American driveline transplant but this practice is subject to change. Modern day custom car shows which allow the inclusion of muscle cars have used the 1972 model year as the cutoff since it is considered the end of the muscle car era prior to the introduction of the catalytic converter. The NSRA has announced that starting in 2011 it will switch to a shifting year method where any owner with a car 30 years or older will be allowed membership. So in 2011 the owner of a 1981 model year vehicle will qualify, then in 2012 the owner of a 1982 model year vehicle will quality, and so on. Additionally, the Goodguys car show organization has moved the year limit for its "rod" shows from 1949 to 1954 in recent years.


Common terms

Front suspension of a lowboy Deuce roadster, with color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, and vented disc brakes. Also features chrome five-spokes, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ).
Front suspension of a lowboy Deuce roadster, with color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, and vented disc brakes. Also features chrome five-spokes, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ).

Some other common terms:

  • 3 deuces — arrangement of three 2-barrel (twin-choke) carburetors; distinct from Six Pak, Pontiac and Olds[21] Tri-Power[22] (also 3x2 arrangements)
  • 3-window — 2-door coupé; so named for having rear window and one door window on each side[23]
  • 3 on the tree — three-speed manual transmission operated by a steering column mounted shifter.
  • 4 on the floor — four-speed manual transmission operated by a floor mounted shifter.
  • 5-window — 2-door coupé; so named for having rear window plus one door window and one quarter window on each side[24]
  • 97s — Stromberg carburetors[25]
  • A-bone — Model A coupé[26]
  • Appletons (sometimes Appleton spots) — spotlights, mounted on the A-pillars, similar to those used by police cars[27]
  • Ardun — hemi heads for the flathead, designed by Zora ARkus-DUNtov[28]
  • Baby moons — chrome small smooth convex hubcaps covering the wheel lug area. Full moons covered the entire wheel.
  • Barn find — newly discovered vehicle typically found in storage, either long forgotten or abandoned, still in its original condition from when it was first stored[citation needed]
  • Barn fresh — barn find
  • Big'n'littles - large-diameter rear wheels (or tires), smaller-diameter front ones
  • Blue oval — Ford product (for the badge)[29]
  • Blue dots
    • Pontiac tail lights[30]
    • Any taillight equipped with a blue crystal to give it a "purple-ish" appearance when illuminated. Illegal in many states.
  • Bondo — brand name for a body filler putty, often used as a generic term for any such product
  • Bowtie (sometimes Red Bowtie[citation needed]) — Chevrolet product (for the badge; the red bowtie refers Chevrolet Motorsport's logo)[31]
  • Bugcatcher intake — large scoop intake protruding through hood opening, or on cars with no hood.
  • Bullnosing — replacing the hood ornament with a "bullnose" chrome strip or filling the mounting hole with lead.
  • Cabriolet (or cabrio) — vehicle with a removable or retractable cloth top, characterized by integrated door window frames and crank up glass.
  • Cherry — like new[32]
  • Channeled or channeling — lowering a vehicle by cutting out the floor and mounting the body lower on the frame rails[33]
  • Chopped — removing a section, usually of the window posts, to lower the roofline of a vehicle.
  • Cobra killers — decorative wheel centers that stick out 3–5 in (7.6–12.7 cm) and have flipper qualities for more visual attraction.[citation needed]
  • Convertible — retractable top car with no integral door window frames like the cabriolet. Has roll up glass in doors as opposed to roadsters that do not.
  • C.I.D. (sometimes Cubic Inches or Inches) — cubic inches displacement
  • Crank — crankshaft[34]
  • Cutouts — stub exhaust pipes installed behind the front wheels that allow uncapping for noise and power. In the 1950s were home made from gas tank filler necks with gas caps and water pipes with screw on caps.
  • Dagmars — large front bumper "bullets"[35] (named for the actress
  • Deck — to remove trunklid handle and trim[36]
  • Decked — trunklid handle and trim removed[36]
  • Deuce
  • DuVall windshield — a v-shaped windshield with a center post, as opposed to the typical stock straight-across type[39]
  • Elephant — Chrysler 426 Hemi[40] (see baby hemi)
  • Fat-fender — 1934-48 (U.S.) car[41]
  • Flatty — flathead engine[42] (usually refers to a Ford;[34] when specified, the Mercury-built model)
  • Fordillac ("for di lack") — Ford with transplanted Cadillac V8 engine
  • Frenched
    • Antenna sunken into the body or fender[43]
    • Headlight slightly sunken into fender[44]
    • Tail lights slightly sunken into body or fender
  • Gennie — genuine[45]
  • Hairpins — radius rods[46]
  • Hiboy (or highboy) — fenderless, but not lowered[47] Distinct from gasser.
  • Hopped up — modified to increase performance[48]
  • Humpback (or hump) —late 1930s sedans with a prominent trunk
  • Inches — CID[48]
  • Indian (also "Tin Indian") — Pontiac (for the grille badge)[49]
  • Jimmy
  • Jugs - multiple carburetors[48] (no longer common)
  • Juice brakes—hydraulic brakes[7]
  • Lead sled — customized vehicle where lead has been melted and adhered to a metal body to smooth its surface, as filler. (Lead has since been replaced by Bondo.)
  • Lakes pipes — straight exhaust pipes that run along the lower edge of a rod, typically near the rocker panels, without mufflers. The name comes from their original use on cars used on dry lakes by land speed racers.[50]
  • Loboy (or low boy, lowboy) — fenderless and lowered[51]
  • Mag
    • magnesium wheel, or steel or aluminum copy resembling one such[48]
    • magneto[48]
  • Mill — any internal combustion engine on such a vehicle
  • Moons (or Moon discs; incorrectly, moon discs) — plain flat chrome or aluminum hubcaps, originally adopted by land speed racers. Smaller examples are "baby moons". Named for Dean Moon.
  • Mouse — small-block Chevy[52]
  • Nailhead — Early Buick V8, named for relatively small diameter valves[53]
  • Nerf bars — bumper horns[54]
  • NOS — New Old Stock: original-manufactured part, never installed, often in original packaging.
  • Nosed — hood trim removed[55]
  • Phaeton — 4 dr roadster; also called a touring
  • Phantom — body style or trim never built by the original manufacturer[56] (a term also adopted by model kit builders)
  • Pinched rails — Deuce frame rails narrowed under a Model A[citation needed] (which has a narrower front body)
  • Pot — carburetor (commonly used for two-barrels)[57]
  • QJ — Quadrajet (Rochester 4-barrel)[58]
  • Q-jet — Quadrajet[59]
  • Ragtop - convertible or roadster[48]
  • Rake job — car with suspension modified to lower the front end[48]
  • Rat —Chevrolet Big-block
  • Repop — reproduction (not NOS)[60]
  • Resto — restoration, or restored
  • Roadster — two door with removable or retracting top, and no roll up side glass
  • Rockcrusher — Muncie M22 4-speed transmission[61][62]
  • Rocket — Oldsmobile, in particular their early V8s. A reference to the marque's logo.
  • Sabrinas (Britain) — bumper bullets, similar to Dagmars.[63] Named for British actress Norma Sykes ("Sabrina")
  • SBC — Chevrolet small-block engine
  • SBF — Small-block Ford, usually one of the Ford Windsor engines
  • Sectioning — removing an entire horizontal section of the body or top to bottom. Not to be confused with "chopping".
  • Shaved - Removing at least the door handle, possibly other side trim.
  • Shoebox — '49-'54 Ford or 1955-57 Chevrolet (for the slab-sided appearance)
  • Skirts — Covers installed on the openings on rear fenders
  • Slantback — sedan with forward-angled but straight rear window and sheetmetal. Also referred to as slick back, slicky, smoothback, smoothy. Distinct from straightback. Also see humpback.
  • Smoothies — chrome steel wheels with no brake vent holes. Usually with baby moons or spiders.
  • Sombreros — '47-'51 Cadillac hubcaps[64]
  • Souped (souped up) — hopped up, performance improved (more common in 1940s and 1950s)
  • Spiders — decrotive chrome insert covering the bearing grease cover and lugs nuts.
  • Spinner knob — egg-sized knob mounted on the steering wheel to assist rapid turning;[citation needed] also "suicide knob"
  • Steelies — stock steel rims[65]
  • Stock — original equipment[66]
  • Stone stock — all-original (usually referring to a project's starting condition); unmodified ("'53 Merc with a stone stock 350").
  • Stovebolt — Chevy straight 6[67]
  • Straightback — sedan with vertical rear window and sheetmetal. (Known as squareback in the VW community.)
  • Street rod — A modified car licensed for use on streets and highways.
  • Studillac ("stewed i lack") — Studebaker with transplanted Cadillac V8 engine
  • Taildragger — lowered more in the rear than front. Often seen on leadsleds. Often a regionalized trend.
  • Tin Indian — Pontiac (for the grille badge)
  • Tire Lettering - A tire modification that allows you to put letters and writing or colors like red, yellow, or blue in the place of the white strip on traditional Whitewall tires.
  • Toploader — Ford 4-speed manual transmission[68]
  • Touring — phaeton
  • Track T — Model T roadster built in the style of a dirt track race car[69]
  • Trailer queen — pejorative term for pure show cars which are never driven[20]
  • Tri-Five — 1955, 1956, or 1957 Chevrolet
  • Tuck-and-roll — upholstery technique creating a "pleated" look[70]
  • Tunneled — deeply sunken into fender[36]
  • V-butted (or vee-butted) — with windshield center post deleted, original panes meeting in the middle[71] (distinct from fitting a one-piece windshield), or to make such a change ("the windshield was vee-butted", "he vee-butted the windshield")
  • Vicky — Victoria body style[72]
  • Wide whites — wide-stripe whitewall tires,[73] typical of the 1950s, as opposed to modern ones.
  • Woodie — Typically a station wagon manufactured by most of the major manufacturers where much of the body behind the firewall was replaced with wood construction.

Some terms have an additional, different meaning among hot rodders than among customizers: NOS, for instance, is a reference to nitrous oxide, rather than new old stock.


See also


  1. ^ Kress, Joe. Lead Sleds. MotorBooks International. p. 10. ISBN 9781610590631. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  2. ^ Ganahl, Pat (2001). The American custom car. MBI. ISBN 9780760309506. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  3. ^ "Custom car definition and meaning: Collins English Dictionary". Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  4. ^ Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, p.16.
  5. ^ Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, p.18.
  6. ^ a b "The evolution of custom cars". Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  7. ^ a b Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, pp.18 and 20.
  8. ^ a b Shelton, p.20.
  9. ^ Shelton, pp.17-18.
  10. ^ a b Shelton, p.20 caption.
  11. ^ Shelton, p.24 and p.26 caption.
  12. ^ Shelton, p.26 caption.
  13. ^ Rod Action, 2/78, p.64.
  14. ^ Street Rodder, 2/78, p.15; Custom Rodder 1/97, p.29.
  15. ^ Jezek, George. "The All Deuce Round-Up", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.58.
  16. ^ For instance, Street Rodder, 8/99, passim; Rod Action, 2/78, passim; Hot Rod, October 1987, pp,8, 10, 18, 20, & 22.
  17. ^ a b Fortier, Rob. ""A Little Pinch Here, A Little Tuck There", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.136.
  18. ^ American Rodder, 6/94, pp.45 & 93.
  19. ^ Geisert, Eric. "Tom's Fun Run", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.149cap.
  20. ^ a b Freiburger, David. "Hot Rod Dictionary", in Hot Rod, July 1993, p.45.
  21. ^ Street Rod Builder, 7/03, p.126.
  22. ^ PHR, 7/06, pp.22-3.
  23. ^ Fortier, p.53cap.
  24. ^ Fortier, p.54cap.
  25. ^ Fetherston, David, "Track Terror", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.35; Emmons, Don, "Long-term Hybrid", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.52; & Baskerville, Gray, "Tom Brown's '60s Sweetheart", in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.162.
  26. ^ Bianco, Johnny, "Leadfest" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.86.
  27. ^ American Rodder, July 1993, p.59
  28. ^ Hot Rod, October 1994, p.94.
  29. ^ Freiburger, David. "Hot Rod Dictionary", in Hot Rod, July 1993, p.44.
  30. ^ Rod and Custom, 12/91, p.29 caption.
  31. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p.85 caption.
  32. ^ Ganahl, Pat, "Swap 'til you Drop", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.68 & 70.
  33. ^ Street Rodder, November 1998, p.141
  34. ^ a b Baskerville, Gray. "How to Talk Hot Rod", in Hot Rod, October 1987, p.46.
  35. ^ Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17.
  36. ^ a b c Street Rodder, 12/98, p. 212.
  37. ^ Geisert, Eric. "The California Spyder", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.34; Mayall, Joe. "Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, p.26; letters, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.10.
  38. ^ Hot Rod, 2/87, p.38.
  39. ^ Street Rodder, November 1998, p.143
  40. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p.52 caption.
  41. ^ Burhnam, Bill. "In Bill's Eye", Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17; reprinted from Goodguys Gazette.
  42. ^ "Mr. 32", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.40.
  43. ^ Sport Compact Car, August 1993, p.44
  44. ^ Fortier, p.51cap; Bianco, p.82.
  45. ^ Ganahl, p.70 & "Coupla Cool Coupes", p.74.
  46. ^ Mayall, Joe. "Joe Mayall's Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, pp.28 & 29; Hot Rod Magazine, 11/84, p.6.
  47. ^ "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16, & Fortier, "Jr.'s Highboy", p.98.
  48. ^ a b c d e f g h i Baskerville, Gray. "How to Talk Hot Rod", in Hot Rod, October 1987, p.47.
  49. ^ "Cowboys and Indians" in "Reaction Time", 'Hot Rod April 1991, p.7
  50. ^ Hot Rod, October 1994, p.84 caption; American Rodder, July 1993, p.59
  51. ^ Contrast "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16.
  52. ^ Hot Rod, 2/87, p.43.
  53. ^ Car Craft, September 1998, p.38.
  54. ^ Coonan, Steve. "Who's Chicken", in Street Rodder, 2/78, pp.56-7; 1001 Rod & Custom Ideas, 1/76, pp.24 & 25.
  55. ^ Bianco, p.82.
  56. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.70.
  57. ^ Rod & Custom, April 2000, p.154 caption.
  58. ^ Popular Cars, 12/85, p.51.
  59. ^ Hot Rod Magazine, 11/84, pp.46 & 50.
  60. ^ Ganahl, Pat, "Coupla Cool Coupes", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.74cap.
  61. ^ Hot Rod Magazine's Street Machines and Bracket Racing #3 (Los Angeles: Petersen Publishing, 1979), p.33.
  62. ^ Hot Rod, 10/80, p.61.
  63. ^ Clausager (1994), p. 25
  64. ^ Jalopy Journal.
  65. ^ Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  66. ^ Hot Rod, 4/95, p.8.
  67. ^ Yunick, Henry. Best Damn Garage in Town: The World According to Smokey.
  68. ^ Street Rodder, 12/98, p.292.
  69. ^ Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.26-7 & 33.
  70. ^ Tann, Jeff, "Two-Timer" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.58.
  71. ^ "Kustoms and Hot Rods Gallery: Hirohata Merc". Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2010-10-31.
  72. ^ Hot Rod, 4/95, p.36.
  73. ^ Fortier, Rob. "25th Salt Lake City Autorama", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.51cap, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  74. ^ Rod Action, 2/78.
  75. ^ Street Rodder, 8/99, pp.202, 204, & 205.

External links

Media related to Custom cars at Wikimedia Commons

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