Past Times

Legislators sought to ban hot rods

In the summer of ‘49, Richard Lassiter, Earl Johnson and Donnie Thomas were pampering Donnie’s “strip-down” in anticipation of a ride to the beach.
In the summer of ‘49, Richard Lassiter, Earl Johnson and Donnie Thomas were pampering Donnie’s “strip-down” in anticipation of a ride to the beach. News & Observer File Photo

In 1953, state lawmakers introduced legislation attempting to make hot rods illegal. N&O writer Charles Craven covered the response by “hot rodders” who gathered in Raleigh.

“Hot rodding is as American as a hot dog or a basketball game,” said one of the hot rod boys.

They pleaded that dual carburetors and high compression cylinder heads are a combination of American ingenuity – but a law enforcement group said they provide a high-speed ride to eternity.

A House Judiciary Committee yesterday didn’t decide either way, but deferred action of the administration’s House Bill 90. The bill is designed to make hot rods – cars altered for high speed – illegal.

The lively debate showed that the hot rod supporters consider their activities a legitimate “sport.” They clamored for a recognized organization – like in California. House Bill 90 would stifle inventiveness, they claimed.

The opposition, led by Highway Patrol Captain Charles Speed of Asheville, stressed that House Bill 90 would aid in curbing death on the highways.

Captain Speed told the lawmakers that the “thrill and desire for speed has crept into our youth – and we (the patrol) can’t catch them.”

Why can’t the patrol catch them? Here are the reasons outlined by the officer: electric fuel pumps, airplane-type shock absorbers, dual carburetors, high compression heads and speeds up to 120 miles an hour.…

The hot rodders took the floor with gusto.

George Parsons of Landis, who is a sophomore in mechanical engineering at State College, posed the question: “Could North Carolina be a little backward?”

Parsons said he had spent some time in California. Hot rodding has reached a roaring crescendo in the Golden State, where the coastal highways run arrow straight. “There,” said Parsons, “the National Hot Rod Association was formed.”

Parsons entreated the committee to forget about passage of the bill and lend their support to organizing hot-rodding into a controlled sporting organization – like in California.…

Asked to describe his car, Parsons said he had a 1932 Ford with a Mercury motor … “with everything possible on it to make it go faster.”

“How fast?” Wake Representative Phil Whitley wanted to know.

“It’ll clock 120.”

“Have you ever raced at night?” said the Representative.

Parsons admitted that he had.

“How fast?”

“The Lord only knows.”

But Parsons stressed that he’d given up racing at night. He said that hot-rodding is as “American as a hot dog or a basketball game.”

Parsons told the committee that among the hot rods were to be found many gross imposters – shot rods. A shot rod, he explained, is a beat up, stripped down car made to look like a hot rod but without safety devices. He described the bona fide hot rod as a “modified, well-built American stock car.”

“Shot rodders,” he said, “are giving us hot rodders a bad name.”

The youth went on to say that hot-rodding provided an outlet for mechanical proclivity. He said his own high-speed runs now were made on an abandoned air strip and emphasized that organization would provide more such places where the hot rodders could open up without being a hazard to the motoring public.…

Thurman Williams of Winston-Salem said the bill would curb initiative and that the problem couldn’t be solved by making hot-rodding illegal, but only by impressing upon all drivers that speed on the highways is dangerous.

That’s the way it went – the hot rodders claiming inventiveness and the law enforcement officers claiming death.

Highway Patrol Sergeant Guy Duncan of Wilkes County said his county is loaded with hot rods. “The bootleggers use them to advantage,” he said.

He told how when the hot rodders leave a drive-in, the curb hops yell, “Dig a wheel?” That means to gun the souped up motor so the rear wheels spin on the take-off.

“They line up at night and whip around traffic lights,” the officer complained. He described how his force had to keep an eye out for one hot rodder who had placed bets around town, North Wilkesboro, that he could start at the square, roar down the main street for a block and make a right angle turn at 90 miles an hour.…

During the hearing, a brightly jacketed group of youths listened intenly from the back of the room. Lettering on their jackets advertised them as members of the “Rowan Road Angels.” The N&O Feb. 6, 1953

The bill that eventually passed was modified to put the responsibility on the hot rod owners, allowing the assumption that the owner is the driver of any speeding hot rod.

Officers complain … that while they are able to recognize hot rods they often are unable to catch them. The bill makes the chase unnecessary. Officers have only to copy license numbers.

In the bill, a hot rod is defined as any auto which has been altered so as to increase its speed.

After the original bill was introduced, hot rodders en mass descended on Raleigh for a public hearing. They contended hot rods were laboratories-on-wheels for the mechanically minded…. The N&O April 10, 1953

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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