Build A Traditional 1940s Style Hot Rod

Recreating the period-correct look from hot rodding’s early years.

In its earliest days, hot rodding wasn’t really about nostalgia, and hot rodders weren’t trying to do anything “vintage.” Today that’s a big part of the hobby. While many rodders today are building high-tech hot rods with modern components, others are going in another direction, picking an era from the past and faithfully recreating that style in period-correct hot rods.

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’40s-style rods had a revival in popularity about 20 years ago. Younger rodders, born in the ’60s and ’70s, started studying old photos and stories from the ’40s, in order to replicate the style of those old rods. Today, ’40s-era rods are still one of the biggest segments of the hobby.

This article is intended as a thumbnail of some of the features that would have been typical of hot rods from that decade. Keep in mind that there are exceptions to every rule. We are outlining the styles most commonly associated with rods of the ’40s as a guide for builders interested in recreating an authentic-looking rod from that decade.

The four Model A roadsters we picked to illustrate this guide were not actually built in the ’40s. They were built in the early 2000s by Logan Davis, Tyrell Pennington, Timothy Cicora, and Matt Winter, together known as the Reelers Car Club. These young hot rodders were dedicated to building their rods as authentically as possible in the style of the ’40s. We published their story in the December 2010 issue of Street Rodder, and you can read it online here.

See all 15 photos

See all 15 photos

’40s Style Bodies

Hot rods in the ’40s were street-driven race cars—and looked like it. They were built to win speed contests, not beauty contests. Parts were added to pick up power or removed to lose weight, and any modification was made for the sake of speed.

The body styles of choice were Ford roadsters—Model Ts through 1934s. They could be bought cheap and made to go fast. Roadsters, especially those running V-8s, were frequently built on 1932 chassis, which were stronger than Model A ‘rails and better at handling more powerful engines. Most ran without fenders and running boards to reduce weight. Body modifications were kept simple. Exceptions to that rule are lowered aftermarket headlights, custom taillights, and ’32 grilles on Model A’s.

Hot rod coupes weren’t as prevalent as roadsters in the early ’40s. By the end of the decade (thanks in large part to the Pierson Brothers), coupes became accepted at the lakes, and coupes and sedans built with race styling became more prominent on the street.

  • Model T to 1934 Ford roadster bodies
  • Fenders and running boards removed
  • 1932 Ford grille
  • Three-piece hood or open hood
  • Louvered hood top
  • Lowered headlights
  • Duvall or Hallock split windshield
  • Narrowed front bumper
  • Front nerf bar

See all 15 photos

See all 15 photos

Paint

Fancy paint doesn’t make a car faster, so it wasn’t a priority for hot rodders in the ’40s. A rodder in the prewar days probably would have retained his car’s original paint, or repainted his car black, red, dark blue, or dark green. Old photos of dry lakes races show dark roadsters almost exclusively painted in factory colors. Graphics weren’t part of the look of a ’40s rod. Painted flames were rare, and were pretty crudely done.

See all 15 photos

See all 15 photos

Engines

The engine choice in the early ’40s would have been Ford Model A and B four-cylinder engines, for which there was a lot of speed equipment at the time, including two- and four-port conversions. By the late ’40s, Flathead V-8s had eclipsed the four-bangers as an increasing amount of speed equipment became available for these engines, as well. A pair of Stromberg 97 or Holley 94 carburetors would be the key to low-buck, reliable power.

  • Ford Flathead V-8 or four-cylinder engine
  • Stromberg or Holley carburetors
  • Carburetor stacks
  • Generator
  • Chrome headers and side pipes

See all 15 photos

See all 15 photos

Chassis / Suspension

In the early ’40s, many Model A’s ran on their stock frames. As more rodders started running Flathead V-8 engines, stronger 1932 Ford ‘rails grew in popularity. The ’40s-style suspension consists of buggy springs, I-beam axles, and split wishbones, possibly with homemade radius rods for more serious racebuilt rods. Mechanical brakes would have been replaced by hydraulic brakes. Most cars featured a closed driveline and a banjo rearend or a quick-change. Today’s hot rods built in the style of the ’40s are likely to feature a dropped axle, split wishbones from a 1932 Ford, 1940 Ford spindles and brakes, and 1932 reversed-eye leaf springs.

  • 1932 Ford framerails
  • Dropped I-beam front axle
  • Hairpin or split wishbone radius rods
  • Buggy springs
  • Quick-change or banjo rearend

See all 15 photos

See all 15 photos

Tires and Wheels

During World War II, tires were hard to come by, so rodders used what they could get. We associate whitewall tires with traditional hot rods, but skinny bias-ply blackwalls are the style for a ’40s hot rod. We’ve seen whitewalls on a few cars in photos from that era, but that style was more popular with custom car builders. The guys racing on the dry lakes frequently used dirt-track tires. Motorcycle tires were often used in the front. Almost everybody was running wire wheels early in the decade, because that’s what was available. Solid steel wheels were more readily available after the war. Lakes racers might have used 18-inch Firestone Indy tires on cut-down Model A spoked wheels. The 1936 to 1938 Ford rims never caught on, and Ford disc wheels were introduced on the 1940 models, just before production stopped. After the war, 1940 Ford wheels became extremely popular. Staggered wheels and tires, what old-timers called “the poor man’s gear change,” also caught on after the war.

  • Kelsey Hayes wire wheels
  • 1940 Ford steel wheels (late 1940s)
  • Pie crust blackwall bias-ply tires
  • Dirt-track tires
  • Front motorcycle tires

See all 15 photos

See all 15 photos

Interiors

Just as with paint, tires and wheels, and other areas of the car, interiors of ’40s hot rods were functional and simple. The bomber buckets that became popular on traditional rods in recent years were not as prevalent 70-plus years ago. Most rods retained the stock bench seats. In many cases, these cars were 10 or 15 years old, so the upholstery may have been in good condition, possibly covered in the original natural-colored leather or mohair or some other fabric. Worn-out upholstery would typically be covered with a Mexican blanket or, more likely, a drab colored GI blanket. Two-tone vinyl didn’t catch on until a decade later. Stock gauges or early Stewart Warner instruments filled the dash.

  • Bench seat
  • Leather tuck ‘n’ roll upholstery
  • Auburn dash
  • Stewart Warner instruments
  • Bell or 1940 Ford steering wheel
  • Fuel pressure hand pump

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The ’50s saw a huge increase in participation in hot rodding, as the hobby spread from a Southern California phenomenon to a nationwide trend. As that happened, rodders began paying more attention to appearance, and styles became more, well, stylish (especially with paint). Custom car influences crossed over to rods, and the plainness associated with ’40s rods evolved into the looks now associated with ’50s rods. We’ll get to that with another story soon.

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