This story originally ran in the November-December, 2020 issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine.
Sometime in the late 1930s, kids began building cars from basically nothing, machines one step removed from jalopies but made to go as fast as they could for as little money as possible. Most often this was accomplished through youthful ingenuity, burgeoning fabrication skills, and a keen sense of which junkyard parts to snag. The result was an entirely new, individually tailored automotive genre: the American Hot Rod.
Until the 1960s, especially in Southern California, hot-rodding was the hotbed of innovation. For too long, however, hot rods were viewed by many as loud, troublemaking race cars for grease monkeys, ne’er-do-wells, and hoodlums. Thankfully, there has always been an equally vocal group of diehard hot-rod folks working to protect the movement’s legacy. One of them is collector Bruce Meyer, who refused to quit until he finally got a hot-rod class on the lawn at Pebble Beach, in 1997. That single act of recognition not only helped to make being a hoodlum socially acceptable, it led to a limelight that encouraged the discovery and proper restoration of more significant period-built hot rods.
It’s these original hot rods of the 1940s and ’50s that often prove to be the most valuable, especially if they were famous in their day—Hot Rod magazine cover cars, important show winners, cars built by big names, dry-lake record-setters, etc. Famous examples include Meyer’s Doane Spencer–built ’32 Ford highboy—arguably the most significant of all hot rods—and the ’29 Ford roadster built by Dick Flint. These are six- and seven-figure machines that sit at the top of the heap. But they aren’t alone up there. By the early 2000s, historic hot rods (and cars emulating them) started showing up at auctions and bringing eye-opening prices. It was no shock to those in the know, who had long been quietly padding their European sports car collections with significant rods.
Predictably, as the market has matured, buyers have, too. The supply is finite, and informed buyers know what they want, so fresh-to-market, well-documented period cars do well; cars that are lesser known or less significant often bounce around the auction circuit looking for their forever home.
Depending on what era strikes your fancy, there are historic hot rods that speak not only to the period in which they were built but to those who remember them. Take ZZ Top’s ’33 Ford “Eliminator” coupe, which introduced the MTV generation to hot-rodding in the 1980s. Or take any number of Boyd Coddington, Chip Foose, or Roy Brizio machines that followed. As with vintage builds, a big name attached to a car is hard to replace. In many cases, a new build from the likes of Brizio can easily be worth more than a period-built car from an unknown builder.
There are caveats, however. As highly individualized machines, not every hot rod has an audience beyond its builder. Nor does it necessarily stand the test of time. Alloy-encrusted cars of the 1980s and ’90s “Billet Era” haven’t held up as well as most vintage rods have, for example.
Worth noting are the thousands of ’32 Ford roadsters built in the modern era using new reproduction frames with new bodies, often fiberglass rather than steel, bolted to them. Their values rarely exceed the cost to build them, so it’s easy to find a “new” ’32 Ford with coilover shocks, a modern V-8, and an automatic transmission for under $30K. Even a new high-end build that brings well into six figures often falls far short of the build cost.
Regardless of market price, there is an incredibly high intrinsic value in any cool hot rod, whether it’s a famous period piece with Pebble provenance or one built by a dedicated father-son team and a Speedway Motors catalog. After all, that’s what hot-rodding is about—crafting something unlike any other car on the road. These days, it’s also about honoring this once-tiny underground movement started by kids who just wanted to go fast on the cheap. It really did change our world for the better, and you can’t put a price on that.
No mention of the king of 32 Fords and the “Ohio Look” by the great Barry Lobeck. Also, no mention of the endless work by the NSRA and their push to get away from the term “hot rod” and the use of “Street Rod”. Not to mention making it a family affair.
Love 32Ford s have 2 modern frames glass bodies most steel have patches half glass when done?
What I saying most steel cars are patches and glass anyway so go glass an be done
My cousin had 36 ’32 Fords in his time and as a John Deere dealer found them on farms in the ’50s when trading equipment. I was a boy then and hoped to own one some day. While in the Air Force in Austin, Tx in 1973 found a 3 window for $600 that had been a drag racer, still have it. Have 2more 5w, Flatheads Stockcar & full fendered, 296 c.i Eddie Meyer intake & heads originally hot rodded in the 50s & restored in ’92. All steel fun cars.
Why isn’t Jeff Beck mentioned? Watch his documentary entitled “Still on the run”. The Jeff Beck story. Not only a brilliant guitarist, but he builds some pretty impressive machines as well, which are featured in this DVD.
I hate the term “real steel” when used on NEW steel repro bodies. It is NOT Henrys steel so its still just a replica as much as the fglass ones are. CHILL out..its about the building not the bragging..IMHO
So I am a younger guy who is interested in finding a Henry Ford steel 32 coupe. 3W or 5W. Am I out of luck to find a project one, or one that was somebody’s fun car at one point? I know I could start with a glass body and new frame, but I want the real deal. thanks for the help
yes,,youre out of luck..unless you have a ton of money even for a project. Original Ford 32 parts, let alone projects or cars have been worth their weight in gold for a long time,probably before you were even born. 20 years ago a friend sold the interior garnish moldings for a coupe for thousands…just the moldings.A nice original 32 coupe easily will fetch upwards of $100K
There’s a body and frame for a 5-window on eBay for $22,000. Looks to be in excellent shape.
The whole point of hot rods is to drive them and enjoy them. If you want investments, there are many better options. If all you are concerned about in a hot rod is financial gain, you are missing the point. Don’t care if one is a original or new, it is supposed to be fun.
Great article and one that provokes thought…..Documentation and history are now and have become key factors in the market value of hot rods…..they are indeed the pioneers of self expression and how I initially satisfied my interest in cars and day 2 muscle cars…I’m now knee deep in a Healey resto?!….Everything I learned in building a hot rod…..has helped me to get to this point of interest….so I don’t suffer single make folks very well. As steel hoarders greatly enhanced the fiberglass replica car body market….the plastic cars became very detailed and authentic but the steel car is still worth the extra 10-15 thousand…that’s my measuring stick….underneath in the chassis and engine department all seems equal and the quality of components dictates and drives the value. So all being equal in a hot rod I’d say a steel car can get an extra 25% in value if its not full of plastic. I have appraised steel cars by top notch builders in the 200,000 range they have show paint, quality components and high detail. Most traditional rods are in the 40-80 range…..and the most expensive are often the cheapest as this axiom follows in many material things. Hot rods are very personal and the farther they stray from traditional norms the more value that is lost….exceptions excluded!……
A good glass body is way better than a patched up glassed over original. Glass bodies are strong, the doors, trunk lid, fenders and hoods can be fitted a lot better than on an old original. A plus is they are rust free and a lot quieter than an old steel original. Fiberglass doesn’t rattle like steel. You can get on the road a lot faster and cheaper. Have fun go glass.
Steve – They are still out there. We had a local 5 window that was in the back of a dirt floor garage since the 50’s or early 60’s. A good solid original car that needed everything. And may or may not have had the correct motor depending on who you listened to. It sold t auction for either $22,500 or $25,000 (I can’t remember) about 2.5 years ago. Seems it was at Hershey just after the sale and the asking was about $5000 more then the auction price. So – yes, you can still find them. But unrestored 32’s are not easy to find. And when you do, get out your checkbook!
Great article along with some great comments. I liked Terry D. James comment “Don’t care if one is an original or new, it is supposed to be fun”. It has been my experience that building a hot rod to make a profit is highly unlikely. For example, this summer I decided to sell one of my cars, it was a 1938 Chevy coupe that took me about 5 years to build I drove it 14,500 trouble free highway and local miles all over the US for 7 years. I will add that it is a hobby for me, and I do just about everything myself. Recently several of us hot rod guys visited a hot rod specialties shop and on the wall was a sign showing their hourly rate of $71 an hour which I thought was a pretty good rate. When I decided to sell my Chevy, I searched the internet to see what a 1938 Chevy coupe would be worth, and I decided to ask $42,000 for it. When I was putting a 1938 Chevy History, Operating Instructions and Parts List together it was then I realized how much I had spent building this car. Not counting my labor, I had spent over $33,000 on parts and material. Like D. Terry James stated I had fun and won many awards and yes, I would do it again.
Why don’t you do an article on what these cars coming out of kindig,iron resurrection,or Texas metal usually cost and who are these people who are buying them
Steve – great to hear of a younger guy wanting to get into this but…as others have said your demands will come at exorbitant cost. You can certainly buy prestige if you can afford it but if you want fun (please say that’s what you want) go with what works. If you can weld, are mechanically adept and have knowledge of basic electrics you can likely build something exciting from what you’ve got lying around. I actually brag that my T-Bucket has parts from every major manufacturer. Here in the Northeast it’s the only hot rod type of vehicle most of the community will ever see in person so it’s prestigious enough. And if/when I sell it I will easily get more for it than what I’ve got into it. Best of Luck whatever you decide!
To each his or hopefully her own a long long time ago when I was really poor I had a yearning for a street rod with no big bank account I drafted an old chevy with a stovebolt 6 some used big tires of something and a 1920s part body that no one could identify (found in the back of an old shooting Range) I felt like the little child in Dolly Partons Song Coat of many colours The first Policeman that stopped me checked the steering and the Brakes then called his Buddies they all had a good Laugh and turnedme loose those were the Days my Friends
I was born in ’45 and had the hot rod bug by ’55. Deuces, roadsters or coupes, were expensive then.
I had a string of Model A coupes (and a roadster). Stock, full fendered, fenderless chopped and channelled, Zd frames flatheads and Olds V 8s. From that time I have a nostalgia for Model As. For a period hot rod experience these old tin cars will take you back…I am currently building (having built) a 27 T roadster. Early 40s build specs with a modified Model A frame, banjo rear end, 39 hydraulic brakes with wide 5 wheels. A ’37 21 stud flat head mild hop up, straight pipes. Not a lot of power but light as a feather. My last hurrah. I want something like what people drove back then.
Waaahh, I dont own a “King Of The Hill” ’32 Ford that is the iconic American Hot Rod. But I do have a ’35 Dodge DU rumbleseat coupe, 90% all Mopar with a built 340, except for its Mustang II front suspension, pearl white, an enjoyable, dependable Mopar Hot Rod….really, there is more to life than a ’32 Ford….how about doing something different….how about a 1932…Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Plymouth. Chrysler, Chevy….etc. Do something different as your budget dictates….and get more looks & compliments because is NOT a ’32 Ford !!
I like them all but I do think home buit in your garage is great thing to finish and drive around your block
Really liked the comments. I just got finished building a 1925 Graham-Dodge fire truck hot rod with a 454 bbc in it…had a blast building it. I am a stage 4 cancer patient and use building hot rods as a way to keep cancer off my mind. I’m having fun and learning new skills along the way. Thanks for all the information given here. My viewpoint is obviously a bit different because of my predicament. But I enjoyed others viewpoints as well.
I have a 38 Ford that I’ve owned for 49 years and which built with help from a professional shop because I’m not a paint and body guy but I have done
the mechanics on it and I have 197 thousan miles on it to this day after putting it on the road in 2006 so it’s really all about having fun and driving them
How does a person find a T bucket in 2022 for sale with so many web sites that reproduce the same car from 10 years ago…and most of the cars are sold but still look available?? Some are in ca. and on a different site in Michigan…how to find a car with all this dishonesty???
And nobody updates sold cars and removes them wasting buyers time!!