Modified stock cars varied greatly across the country, but followed
the prewar body philosophy from their inception into the 1960s
and beyond. This 1966 action at the Hales Corners Speedway
(Franklin, Wis.) shows three examples of their state of the art at
that point. Gene “Pedro” Roehl (#2), John Reimer (#A-3) and
Tom Gruenwald (#27) all were in battle here. By then,
Chevy small-block power and fuel injection were the standard.
By Phil Hall
A mid-1950s school paper drive provided this writer with a stack of Hot Rod magazines that were guiltlessly removed from the piles and taken home. From those tattered pages came an appreciation of hot rods of all types that continues to this day.
The rods covered at the time were mostly street, drag racing and dry lakes competition machinery. As the decade progressed, my horizons were expanded by attending modified stock car races on dirt short ovals. An early form of modifieds was the open track roadsters of the late 1950s and early ’60s. At first, it seemed these modifieds were the same thing as the hot rods in the magazines. They looked the same in many cases.
Eventually I was able to distinguish the differences between the modifieds and the magazine hot rods. Looking back to the 1950s, perhaps my initial simple-minded observation had some merit.
Both early modifieds and the hot rod variations had similar roots — prewar cars, most notably Fords. Both were altered from stock and relied on Ford flathead V-8 and other era engines. Both adapted to modern postwar engines such as the Oldsmobile and Cadillac OHV V-8s and later the Chevrolet small-block V-8s.
Transmissions were altered, too. Early rod builders scrounged salvage yards for late 1930s Packard, LaSalle or Lincoln gearboxes, which were stronger than the Ford units. Modified racers, too, needed strong gearing as well as rear axles that could withstand punishment.
Depending on rules, race car rear axles could be production-based or aftermarket quick-change, just like the drag and street hot rods.
Other suspension modifications were needed as well, and for different purposes. Suspensions had to be upgraded for the duties at hand. Drag cars and dry lakers mainly went straight, modifieds had to go around corners. Hot rods only needed front and rear bumper protection (more or less), modifieds had to fend off contact from all sides.
Seating in street rods should at least accommodate two, so your girlfriend could enjoy the result of your efforts. Drag racers and modified drivers were lone occupants in competition, and finding war surplus aluminum aircraft seats and belts kept the weight down and the driver in place.
In the foreground of this 1961 shot of car club activities in West Allis, Wis.,
is a hot rod still “under construction.” It has a three-window coupe body, possibly
an Oldsmobile V-8 and Pontiac tail lamps. It followed the classic hot rod formula,
updated to an early 1960s interpretation.
We are dealing in generalities here when it comes to modifieds, as rules across the country widely varied. Engine specs, drivelines and body alterations were regulated so one definition of a modified can fit all the iterations that raced. Rules also changed from season to season.
While today’s classic hot rod can more or less look the same as the 1950s rods, even with aftermarket pieces and bodies, the modifieds of old were gradually converted to newer forms that increasingly did away with prewar bodies and parts.
Yes, thankfully there are still some vintage modifieds being raced as we speak. May they stay that way forever — just like the classic 1932 Ford-based hot rods.
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