They didn’t always call them HOT RODS

Hot Roadster, Hop Up, Souped-Up Jalopy, Hot Iron, Gow Job, and so on. There are countless expressions describing what we today call a Hot Rod. We dived deep into the depths of the internet and some selected books to find out more about where all those words have come from and what they actually mean.

hot rod |ˈhät ˌräd|


a motor vehicle that has been specially modified to give it extra power and speed.

That’s at least what the Oxford English Dictionary tells you if you look up the term Hot Rod. There are hundreds of different stories about the term if you try looking it up on the internet, in books or if you go ask around. As always in history, the actual origin of the term can’t be determined down to the first person ever that has used the word. This creates some variations in where the word actually comes from and what it meant in the first place.

We’re not trying to give you THE definite answer about where Hot Rod actually came from, since there’s quite a few good stories around where it MIGHT have come from. What we wanna do here is to give you some examples that all seem quite reasonable and tell you a few of those good stories.


During the Great Depression of the 1930s, new cars were just too expensive for young people to buy, which led them to “soup up” old cars with spare parts from local junk yards. Those “jalopies” (meaning old cars in bad shape) were modified for speed so pretty quickly the term “souped-up jalopy” arrose.

So apparently, before the war no one used the term Hot Rod, at least we don’t have any evidence of it being used then. What was used though to describe those cars, was their body style: Roadster, Coupe, Pickup, Phaeton and so on. In racing programs also the terms “hot irons” or “hop ups” started appearing.


Up to this day, the actual origin of the term Hot Rod is still unclear. Some automotive historians say that the term originated with stolen vehicles being reffited with different engines and then repainted. Since there were no matching numbers for transmissions, bodies, frames and engines in the early days, it was possible to swap things out so it became nearly impossibly to prove that a certain vehicle was built from stolen parts. With the term “hot” being equivalent to something that was stolen and “rod” which was basically a name used for any given car, this might have been the origin of the term “Hot Rod”.

What is known today is that the term “Hot Rod” entered the vocabulary at the beginning of Wold War II. Since in a lot of those early races mostly Roadsters were used, they were called “Hot Roadsters” and eventually shortening this term led to establishing “Hot Rod” as what it is today.

hotrod_history_88Another story goes like this: Back in the beginning of hot rodding the guys building these cars were using junk yard parts, since they didn’t have a lot of money but still wanted to go fast. If you drove a car really fast and abused the motor, the rods would eventually get hot and start knocking. That way you could tell who was really driving a “hot rod”.

Another explanation goes way back in time to the early age of firearms: The powder of muskets was loaded with a ram rod. During heavy battles, those rods would become so hot they turned red so the guys loading the muskets were called “hot rodders”. As time went by and guns changed, guns were sometimes still called rods. The police also began to call the weapons used in crimes hot rods, since they were mostly obtained illegally. Criminals usually drove fast cars – at least the ones that got away – so maybe the term over the years somehow changed from “criminal in a fast car with a gun” to something like “highschool kid in a fast car”.

Which one of those answers is actually the right one, no one can tell anymore. But it’s all those stories coming together that have formed our understanding of what we call a Hot Rod and the term still today might mean something completely different to different people.


Do you know any other stories about where term Hot Rod might have come from? Please leave a comment.