Jim Smart
April 16, 2007
Photos By: The Mustang & Fords Archives

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Restomod has become a popular way to identify modified classic Mustangs and Fords. It's the tasteful execution of significant improvements to our classics-modifications that make them safer, better looking, and more fun to drive. Over the years, restomod has only become better, with more imagination, exciting products, and unlimited potential.

Restomod is certainly nothing new. It's been going on since right after World War II in the late '40s. In those days, they called it "hot rodding," though no one seems to know where that term originated. Urban legend tells us "hot rod" first appeared in a period magazine article addressing this newly emerging automotive phenomenon after World War II.

Hot rodding has been going strong since our freedom fighters came home from the Pacific and Europe 60 years ago. Because there was an abundance of what hot rodders called "vintage tin"-old cars in need of a new shot at life-there was a lot to work with.

When World War II broke out, Detroit stopped building new cars, instead focusing its manufacturing energy on the war effort, building tanks, airplanes, Jeeps, and a host of other things for our military. When the war ended in 1945, there was an unlimited, pent-up desire for new cars. People bought them like there was no tomorrow, creating lots of old trade-ins-vintage tin for old-car buffs looking to make a statement. Vintage Fords, primarily Model As and Ts, and prewar rattletraps from the '30s were popular canvasses on which to paint dreams. Hot rodders built Fords and Mercs using a lot of imagination and a limited budget. Just about anything that rolled was fair game.

Car enthusiasts went racing, and then they went cruising. Hot rodding has its roots in Southern California where old, abandoned airstrips, unexplored dry lakebeds, and great weather became reasons for speed venues. Racers marked out quarter-mile stretches to see who could cover that distance fastest. In time, hot rodding became official with the birth of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Records were kept, events were held, and an all-American tradition was born. From this passion to go fast and look cool came hot rods for the racetrack as well as Main Street.

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What looked bitchin' on those dry lakes and landing strips looked even cooler under the lights of suburbia, and drive-in theaters and restaurants sprang up all over the country-great cruising spots for show-offs with hot cars. Legendary cruising spots such as Van Nuys Boulevard in Southern California and Woodward Avenue in Detroit became good fodder for story telling. On any given Friday or Saturday night, you could expect the roar of hot rods along Woodward and Van Nuys and dozens of other main drags across the country. The term "main drag" came from the major thoroughfares across America that became Saturday night cruising spots. In many a small town, it became known as "cruising the drag,"a term that remains common today.

Hot rods and young people kept drive-in businesses humming. Hamburgers were cooked and sold, movies were watched from behind the wheel-and from the back seat. Lifelong friendships were made. An American tradition was born. It was a golden era rooted in youthful excitement.

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Hot rodding has been a multifaceted evolution, leading to music trends, changes in municipal infrastructure, counter-culture art, customs, and the all-American musclecar of the '60s. Hot rodding didn't escape Detroit's notice. It saw hot rodding as a way to sell cars. What won on Sunday sold on Monday-and so it went for Motown. When Detroit got into the factory hot-rod business beginning in the late '50s, Main Street hot rodding began to take a back seat to the factory-fast musclecar. There was the Chevy 409, Pontiac 421, Oldsmobile 4-4-2, Chrysler 426, and Ford 427.

In 1957, Ford entered the competition with dual-quad and supercharged V-8 sedans. Chevy blindsided everyone with an optional, fuel-injected 283. Other GM divisions and Chrysler followed quickly with their own powerhouses. Ford jumped on the cubic-inch bandwagon in 1960 with a mechanical-lifter 352ci high-performance FE-series big-block. In 1961, Ford fitted its largest rides with a 401-horse 390 high-performance Tri-Power mill with an aggressive mechanical camshaft. In 1962, it was the 406, and for 1963, it was the legendary 427 world-beater, taking Ford to not just one but three Le Mans wins.

Our job here isn't to tell you the entire history of high-performance cars but to show you how we got where we are today in the world of street rodding. Hot rodding-suffering from a bad reputation rooted in young outlaws and street racers-lost popularity during the '60s and early '70s. Rising insurance rates coupled with fuel prices torpedoed the hot-rodding movement right along with factory musclecars. Going fast became unpopular as quickly as it became popular. Detroit got out of it along with a lot of American hot rodders.

When hot rodding started making a comeback in the late '70s, its name was changed to "street rodding." No one knows where that term originated either, but street rodding sounded more politically correct than hot rodding, and the name stuck. With street rodding has come a lot of interesting modifications we have been able to adapt to our midcentury Fords. You name the nuance and it has found its way into restomods: the billet look, wild and crazy wheels, body modifications, cool fiberglass bolt-ons, specialty lighting, custom leather interiors, high-horsepower engines, fuel injection, Overdrive for cruising, better brakes and suspension systems, shaved bodies, frenched taillights and antennas, awesome graphics, and just about anything else you can imagine.

What Is Street Rodding?
Modifying a classic Ford is as old as the Fords themselves. So what happens when street rodding joins the world of restomod? It means restomod takes on new definition, molding street-rodding nuances into old Fords. Again, this is nothing new, just a fresh, exciting approach to midcentury classic Fords. These cars are now old enough-and classic enough-to become rolling road art and stunning innovation.

This month, we'll look at the visual differences that can make a classic Ford a street rod. Many of these differences come from off-the-shelf goodies; others from the ability to fabricate parts and do body modifications. Be advised-not all of it comes cheap. The more you can do yourself, the more money you'll save.

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Color My World
Spend a lot of time and money on the body because that's what people see most. With street-rod styling, you want a color and graphics combination that captures the imagination. House of Kolor is a good place to start. HOK is available at The Eastwood Company and offers a huge array of color possibilities-candies, clears, and base colors.

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DuPont Automotive Finishes is another strong contender for striking colors and finishes for your Ford restomod/street-rod project with its Hot Hues division. It may surprise you to know the most popular color out there isn't red-it's silver. Silver has been in production 54 years-longer than any other DuPont color-but it wasn't until 2000 that silver passed green to become DuPont's number-one seller. This doesn't mean you have to choose silver or green for your car to be a head-turner. Hot rodders with the best imaginations go with colors no one else is using. When planning your hot-rod project, we suggest spending lots of time on color selection. Get color chips and see how they look together. Attend street-rodding events and get a handle on what's hot and what's not. Get your ideas from us and from our sister magazines, including Street Rodder, Rod & Custom, and Hot Rod. Check out the DuPont and House of Kolor Web sites to inspect available colors.

The '49-'56 shoebox Fords make terrific street rods and customs, and there's a lot out there for them. This '53 Ford sedan is a blank canvas waiting for someone's imagination and talent. Caution must always be paid to rust and hidden body damage.

During your dreamfest, think about what you want your Ford to express. Color selection is exceeded only by the number of body bolt-ons available out there. Mustangs Plus and Tony D. Branda Mustang & Shelby Parts offer a huge selection of fiberglass and steel body-mod pieces that will completely change your Ford's personality. We're talking hoods, valances, rocker panels, ground effects, decklids, side scoops, and so on. What's more, you're free to modify any of these pieces to jibe with other classic Fords.

In our travels, we have seen body modifications that could have only come from the minds of their creators. For example, how about having '05-'07 Mustang headlamps graphed into a '67-'68 Mustang front end? Or using '05-'07 ground effects on a classic Mustang? You'd be surprised how similar old and new are dimensionally. A lot of the retro nuances on new Mustangs can be applied to the classics, yielding a teasing message for anyone trying to decide what it is.

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We have also seen classic front ends graphed onto late-model Fords, such as a '49 Ford front end on a late-model Thunderbird. We have to call that one "psychomod" because it's way out there for most of us. Yet it keeps people staring, wondering how much more bizarre street-rod building can get.

Get Into Car Building
Your first step in building a street-rod-based Ford is having a plan. Recognize what you can afford and accept what you can't. Learn to live within a budget. Many a project has come to a grinding halt due to an absence of funds. Better not to even begin than to face the heartbreak of a project that's dead in the water because you ran out of money.

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Know that a project is going to cost more than predicted. There are always surprises-the shop you counted on goes out of business, or paint and bodywork cost more than estimated. You must be prepared for the unexpected, financially and logistically. Most car projects take years instead of months. That means a lot can happen in the course of a project. Even your health can change. Be ready for a change in course as you build a car because no matter what you think, something is going to come out of left field.

Street-rod building is the art of following trends. It's also a more personal path that includes your own tastes and approaches. Don't be afraid to try something different. Be a trendsetter.

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Staying within budget begins with your canvas. If you buy a pile of rust, most of your expense will be for sheetmetal repair and replacement. This means you'll have less to spend on finishing the car. Don't blow your hard-earned dough (and time) on rusted-out floors, bashed-in quarter-panels, and peppered fenders because it's a local car. Most of the time, you will spend more on sheetmetal repair than you will on a solid rust-free car that has to be shipped.

Street rods tend to be facsimiles of what the car was originally. Street rodding can closely mirror restomodding, or it can take a midcentury Ford where these classics have never been before. For example, the Ring brothers of Wisconsin haven't really been building restomods. They've been building street rods and customs, pioneering a fresh yet retro approach to classic Fords. The Ring brothers exaggerate a Mustang's original lines-still clearly Mustang, yet certainly different. They peel back the Mustang's eyelids much like Shelby did in 1968, but there's more. Note how smoothly and cleanly they french Mustang features such as taillights and parking lights. Every aspect of the car is aero-smooth inside and out. It's an approach you either love or hate, but it's personal, which means these gentlemen have done their job well.

Your approach to street-rod styling needs to be unique-something borrowed yet distinctive and personal. You should experiment, even if it means throwing out a bad idea. Try it on and see how it fits. Does it work for you? Does it work for your friends? Get opinions. Seek ideas from people who have been there before. Look to styling outside the automotive realm. Study styling all around you-from kitchen appliances to furniture to airliners on an airport ramp. Use your imagination, and don't be afraid to try something gutsy. This is where trends are born.

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Do What You've Never Done Before
Car building is a learned craft. Learn by doing it yourself. If you screw up, you can always take another shot at it. Learn through failure and success as well. Be prepared to do things again and again until you get them right. If it isn't working for you, be willing to hand it over to someone who knows how. In any case, practice makes perfect.

Building a street rod can be a bolt-on experience, and it can also be a fabrication trip where you make parts for your hot rod no one else has. That's the beauty and intrigue of car building-a personal statement that tells people something about you.

We spoke with Michael Young of Street Rods by Michael in Shelbyville, Tennessee. When we asked him about the trend toward street-rodding midcentury Fords, he said, "I don't see midcentury Fords as street rods but rather hot rods. Street rods are traditionally pre-'48 cars." He also pointed out that Good Guys events have moved the cut-off date to 1972 in the interest of including more contemporary rides in its shows.

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When we asked Young what most of his clients were bringing him, he told us more traditional, old-fashioned hot rods-prewar Ford coupes and roadsters-with build budgets pushing $100,000. This is a figure most midcentury Ford traditionalists would go into convulsions over. Young adds that concours-restored original cars aren't bringing the same kind of money modifieds are at auction, which is exactly the opposite of what used to be true. Make no mistake-rare, hot, factory-original Shelbys and Bosses still bring handsome figures at auction. But Young tells us people want more creature comforts in their classic cars, which is what makes restomod and street rodding so popular.

Building a classic Ford or Mercury street rod is little more than building a restomod on steroids. Street rodding asks a lot of your imagination to conceive something in a way no one else has. Planning a street-rod project should actually take more time than building the car. Think of it the way you would choosing a mate because, like a mate, you will have to live with your decision for a long time.

Next month, we'll get into the mechanical end of street-rod building-engine, driveline, suspension, brakes, and more. So what are you waiting for? Clear out a spot in the garage and get started.