Sighting your first Hot Rod

Sighting your first Hot Rod

Before you knew it, it was there. Before you figured out what it was, it was gone. Whenever you watch footage or listen to tapes about folks spotting U.F.O.s or similar things of myth, you have to sit through them stringing together nouns and adjectives (some of the English language, some completely fictious). You grit your teeth.

But what if the subject of discussion wasn’t Lights Over Lubbock or some sort of misunderstanding in the Nevada desert? Would if it were something, well, more Earthly? Skip the flying, hold the saucers — we’re talking rods and customs.


My first sighting of a hot rod in motion was at about eight years old. It was a warm spring night in Southeastern Michigan. The roads were wet, as they often are, and the rain had just let up. In my hometown, there’s a major intersection with a pair of gas stations diagonal from each other. My mom had just finished filling up her car (minivan) as we turned onto Novi Road (more on that here). From the back seat, I heard a car coming out of the darkness. It sounded like the motor was yelling. A pair of glowing yellow circles hovered inches above the shimmering pavement, leading the way.

The two orbs were attached to a low, slim figure that looked more like the blade of a kitchen knife than any automobile I’d ever seen. Four black and chrome wheels spun as water droplets shot into the air. On the long, skinny hood sat a silver scoop that gasped for air through a couple of flaps while the figure sunken deep within the cockpit pushed the machine faster.

And faster it went. Maybe he was trying to catch the light. Maybe he was late for dinner. Whatever it may have been, I only saw the car for a few seconds. As it streaked by, my elementary-schooled mind was able to decipher three big numbers on the side — 5-5-5.


Several years later, I discovered that the car was a ’33 or ’34 Ford roadster built by a local guy to pay homage to the Mooneyham & Sharp fuel burning, tire frying, fire catching, record setting “554? competition coupe. There’s no doubt that that particular early Ford turned hundreds — if not thousands — of kids on to hot rodding at an early age in the past 50 years or so. It downright rules.

Looking back, there are more than a dozen things I’d change about the “555? car. (For those of you who know it, let’s not get into it here. PM me if you want to talk). But to a very young, very impressionable kid, everything was just right. Early Ford body? Check. No fenders? Check. Wild motor sticking through the hood? Check. Memorable paintjob? Double check. For me, that roadster fired it up.


I’ve been driving across the country for the past couple of days here, and I’ve been surprised by the lack of customized cars running around. It made me realize that rods and customs are rarities out on America’s highways and side streets — especially tasteful ones. All this made me think back to the “555? and how lucky I was to see it.

So I’ll ask you this — do remember the first time you saw a rod or custom on the move? Let’s hear it.

-Joey Ukrop 

Lead image from Marty Strode on the H.A.M.B. 

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