Today’s hot rodders and custom car fans gather at cruise-in’s.

The automobile has long inspired creativity, and Southwest Virginia has been home to some of the nation’s finest car builders and customizers. Along with the appeal of the mechanical work, to these men a car or truck can be a piece of sculpture and/or a painter’s canvas. Creative builders in the region have produced rolling showcases of power, craftsmanship, and artistic tastes—from hard-charging hot rods in dull primer paint to sleek-bodied custom cars bejeweled with chrome.

In the pre-1960s era, before Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler began making “muscle cars,” many hot rodders were content to put high-performance drive trains in otherwise “stock” automobiles. The most ambitious projects however were complete car makeovers involving rigging (the combining of suspension components, brakes, motors, running gears, frames, and/or bodies from different automobiles), body-and-fender work, motor building, upholstering, and painting. In the 1950s hot rodders typically did much of their own work, but by the 1970s specialized artisans were commonly doing different phases of car-building projects.

Early builders made only slight body modifications, but many of them became artistically bolder through the 1960s. Eventually original car parts for older automobiles grew scarce, and reproduction parts—even complete body kits—are now available. Unlike the hot rod builders of the early 1950s, the custom car fan today generally wants a modern engine, an automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a stereo system in a vintage street rod body.

The many local “cruise-in’s” and car shows are today’s showcases for Southwest Virginia car building. The men who grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s typically bring street machines and muscle cars from the pre-1970 era. The under-30 drivers arrive in customized late-model cars and trucks such as Honda’s and Chevrolet S-10’s. Of course, after the shows have closed, the young drivers still go out cruising through their popular hangouts just as their fathers and grandfathers did years ago.

Chapter 2 »

Acknowledgements | Ferrum College and the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum | Contact