SEMA News - August 2010

By Steve Campbell

Heavy on the Research; Must Reading for Industry Pros

  SEMA News-August 2010-Business 
 

The Business of Speed: The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915–1990 is a remarkable record of the birth, growth and maturation of the automotive high-performance industry.  

   
If you scan no farther than these next words, know this: You should read The Business of Speed: The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915–1990 by David Lucsko. Since you’re browsing through SEMA News, you must be favored with some interest in the automotive specialty-equipment industry, and Lucsko’s book offers a primer about where it began, how it evolved and, if not precisely where it’s heading, at least an optimistic appraisal of why it will live on. Lucsko admits early in the preface to The Business of Speed that he is not a hot rodder, but he should have added that he is one prodigious researcher. Just the endnotes to this history of the American automotive high-performance aftermarket encompass 79 of the book’s 343 pages and are worth consideration on their own merits. Lucsko says in an “Essay on Sources” that his eventual study of the material—which evolved from an earlier graduate dissertation—lasted nine years as he combed through decades-old copies of magazines, such as Hot Rod and Popular Hot Rodding, along with how-to manuals, a range of private papers, seminal reference works that were penned by automotive journalism’s most venerated scribes, and a wealth of personal interviews with industry insiders. But this is far from merely one desiccated fact piled on the next. Lucsko is a formidable organizer and a talented story teller.

He begins his chronicle with the Model T Ford—the “universal car”—and early speed-equipment innovators, such as Joe Jaegersberger, Robert Roof and the Chevrolet brothers, whose initial efforts were centered on overhead-valve improvements to the earliest four-cylinder Flathead engines. He then follows the performance train to the beginnings of competition-bred improvements on the dry lakes of California and Ed Winfield’s carburetor, head and camshaft advancements at early Indianapolis 500 races. He differentiates between high-performance specialty equipment and replacement parts, discussing not only the types of products that developed but also the impetus for their creation, whether on a track, a lake bed or the street.

Lucsko provides a backdrop for the creation of various racing and hobby organizations, including the Southern California Timing Association, the National Hot Rod Association, the National Street Rod Association and the origins of SEMA as the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association. Along the way, he explains how the people involved with these organizations identified strongly with their mechanical passions. “A bona fide hot rodder was a mechanically inclined young man who built, drove, and raced a ‘hot roadster,’” Lucsko writes. “He sourced his parts from wrecking yards, speed shops, and, increasingly, from some of the handful of his acquaintances who manufactured high-performance equipment of their own design. He gathered with his friends at clubhouses, speed shops, automotive repair shops, and local diners to share ideas, to plan events, and to bench race.”

  SEMA News-August 2010-Business 
 

Author David N. Lucsko spent nine years in concentrated research for his history of the automotive performance aftermarket, including hundreds of hours exploring the pages of vintage periodicals, such as Hot Rod and Popular Hot Rodding.  

   
As he traces the industry’s path through the post-World War II years, Lucsko also examines the origins of hot rodding’s poor reputation among the general populous, which stemmed from street racing, parts thieves and illegally registered cars. The rise of the enthusiast press in the late ’40s and early ’50s—most notably Robert E. Petersen’s Hot Rod and the devotion of editor and NHRA founder Wally Parks—helped the racing community move from the streets to airstrips and, eventually, to purpose-built dragstrips. The magazines, Lucsko points out, gave rodders a sense of community in addition to helping manufacturers sell parts and providing an information conduit for performance enthusiasts through technical and how-to stories.

The Business of Speed is also sprinkled with fascinating biographical information about industry legends, such as Phil Weiand, Vic Edelbrock Sr., Fred Offenhauser and Ed Iskenderian. Lucsko pays homage to the technical prowess of these pioneers while praising them as well for their selfless transfer of knowledge to the succeeding generations of entrepreneurs who worked for them.

Throughout his book, Lucsko details the intricate symbiosis between the auto manufacturers and the entrepreneurs who considered factory stock cars and trucks to be only a starting point. He devotes a fair amount of space to the advent of musclecars and the development by the original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of their own proprietary performance parts, tracing the evolution of factory engines from that first Ford Flathead in the early 1900s to the wildly popular Chevrolet small-block that was introduced in 1955. Yet he always brings the story back to the premise of the book: the business of developing, manufacturing and selling speed parts.

By the seventh chapter, Lucsko is delving deeply into the roots and reasons for the advent of SEMA, which was developed by a handful of speed-parts manufacturers as an attempt first to manage credit problems within the industry and then to influence emissions and safety legislation that began to affect automotive enterprises—both OEM and aftermarket—in the early ’60s. The Business of Speed describes the growth of the industry and the evolution of the association as it morphed from the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association to the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association. Perhaps because the focus of the book is the performance end of the industry, Lucsko doesn’t mark the final name change—to the Specialty Equipment Market Association—which now reflects the wider umbrella covering not only manufacturers but also retailers, warehouse distributors and automotive accessory businesses of all types.

     
     
   

The Business of Speed: The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915–1990, By David N. Lucsko  

   
  • 343 pages. $50 list,; $33.75 Barnes & Noble; $40.46 Amazon.com (all hardcover)
  • The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, www.press.jhu.edu     
     
     
The book continually examines the relationships between the government, high-performance businesses and the OEMs, including the establishment of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. It tracks the evolution of emissions controls, the demise of leaded fuels and SEMA’s role in the development of Executive Orders as the industry learned to “incorporate the requirements of regulatory agencies into its overall approach to the design and manufacture of high-performance parts.” Lucsko contrasts SEMA’s willingness to work within the system and develop compromises in the ’70s to the confrontational style adopted by the OEMs during that same period—and concludes that subtle negotiation was the more effective tactic.

The book is replete with arresting parallels between what occurred years and even decades ago with the forces still at work within the industry today. The Business of Speed is a remarkable record of the birth, growth and maturation of the automotive high-performance industry, carrying with it an enlightening subplot of a changing country and the shifting political winds that helped shape our current state of affairs.

Lucsko misses the mark with his prediction that the sport-compact market would continue to thrive—it was a hotbed as he was conducting his research—but while the bloom may be off that rose, at least for the time being, he nails the overarching passion that has always driven and will continue to drive the industry: “[T]he business of speed equipment manufacturing has never been about a certain brand of car, a certain type of engine, or a certain class of enthusiasts,” he writes. “Instead, it has always been about the ability to adapt.”

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