Speed Shops, Dry Lakes & Drive-Ins

Where was it that those early Hot Rodders hung out when they were not racing the streets of their hometowns? The answer can be narrowed down to just about three places they equally loved and spent time at: Speed Shops, Dry Lakes & Drive-Ins.

We’re talking about the Los Angeles area here, because this is where most of the hot rodding action after World War II happened. There sure have been hot rodders spread out all across the US but those haven’t been that well documented as the West Coast guys.

There were plenty of speed shops in the LA area: There was So-Cal Speed Shop in Burbank, Karl Orr’s in Culver City, Don Blair’s shop in Pasadena, Bell Auto Parts in Bell, Navarro in Glendale, Weiand in LA, Edelbrock and Eddie Meyer in Hollywood, Clay Smith and Dan Jones in Long Beach, and many more. Those being the hot rodders’ places during the day, they spent their nights at the local drive-ins.

Drive-ins such as the one in the picture below, could be found pretty much everywhere around the LA area and all throughout the US in general. For reasons sometimes unknown today, some became more popular than others: There was Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale, Pasadena, Burbank and Toluca Lake, Piccadilly was a popular place in Culver City, hot rodders in Pasadena would frequently hang out at Carl’s and The Green Spot. Parker’s Night Owl in Glendale, the Triangle in northern LA, the Circle in Long Beach and the Hula Hut in Whittier were some of the most popular places around the time. You could probably find a hot rod or some sort of custom car in any of them at almost any day of the week.

In addition to those places, hot rodders spent a lot of their time on the dry lakes, mostly during summer months. Unlike the custom car crowd, who never took their cars off paved roads or to places where they could get dirty, hot rodders were kind of magically drawn to those hot and dusty places called out in the desert.

Those dry lakes are mostly talked about in a romantic way, with the truth being quite far away from this: The “high desert” around Mojave is about 2’800 feet above sea level and even a bit cooler than the “low desert” around Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. “Cooler” in this context means that the temperatures in the shade were only about 100 °F (40 °C). And those lakes were dirty: The ultra-fine dust would go into everything and ruin paint jobs, suspensions and even engines.

Go-getting stalls were selling hot dogs, hamburgers, candy, gum, soft drinks, potato chips and other junk food. Especially potato chips were needed among the racers to compensate for the enormous loss of salt through perspiration. Sometimes there were thousands of spectators and hundreds of cars running all along the weekend. I guess most of us would choose this destination to go to whenever the time machine is invented.

There was an intense rivalry between the Chevy and the Ford guys, Coupes vs. Roadsters, four bangers and V8s, clubs against clubs. But it was more of a competition among friends, not enemies. Those ten to fifteen years after World War II were the greatest years of the hot rodding hobby many people say. And I guess they’re right: Although it was starting to loose its kind of amateur status, the hot rodding scene was still so small that everybody pretty much knew each other and that people were racing for fun and not for money. Sponsorship wasn’t yet taking over and professionalizing the whole thing.

There were only the guys racing that had built something on their own, in their own garage, from their own money, with the tools they had, a little help from their friends and a lot of passion. They didn’t do it for the money, they did it for the fun of it.

Read more stories about the history of hot rodding.