A custom car is a passenger vehicle that has been substantially modified in either of the following two ways
a custom car may be altered to improve its performance, often by altering or replacing the engine and transmission
a custom car may be a personal “styling” statement, making the car look unlike any car as delivered from the factory.
Although the two are related, custom cars are distinct from hot rods. The extent of this difference has been the subject of debate among customizers and rodders for decades. Additionally, a street rod can be considered a custom.
A development of hot rodding, the change in name corresponded to the change in the design of the cars being modified. The first hot rods were pre-World War II cars, with running boards and simple fenders over the wheels. Early model cars (1929 to 1934) were modified by removing the running boards and either removing the fenders entirely or replacing them with very light cycle fenders. Later models usually had fender skirts installed. The “gow job” morphed into the hot rod in the early to middle 1950s.
Typical of builds from before World War Two were ’35 Ford wire-spoke wheels.
Many cars were “hopped up” with engine modifications such as adding additional carburetors, high compression heads, and dual exhausts. Engine swaps were often done, the object of which was to put the most powerful engine in the lightest possible frame and body combination.
The suspension was usually altered. Initially this involved lowering the rear end as much as possible with the use of lowering blocks on the rear springs. Later cars were given a rake job either adding a dropped front axle or heating front coil springs to make the front end of the car much lower than the rear. Immediately postwar, most rods would change from mechanical to hydraulic (“juice”) brakes and from bulb to sealed-beam headlights.
The mid-1950s and early 1960s custom Deuce was typically fenderless and steeply chopped, and almost all Ford (or Mercury, with the 239 cu in (3,920 cc) flatty, introduced in 1939); a Halibrand quick-change rearend was also typical, and an Edelbrock intake manifold or Harman and Collins ignition magneto would not be uncommon.Reproduction spindles, brake drums, and backing based on the 1937s remain available today. Aftermarket flatty heads were available from Barney Navarro, Vic Edelbrock, and Offenhauser. The first intake manifold Edelbrock sold was a “slingshot” design for the flatty. Front suspension hairpins were adapted from sprint cars, such as the Kurtis Krafts. The first Jimmy supercharger on a V8 may have been by Navarro in 1950. Much later, rods and customs swapped the old solid rear axle for an independent rear, often from Jaguar. Sometimes the grille of one make of car replaced by another; the 1937 Buick grille was often used on a Ford. In the 1950s and 1960s, the grille swap of choice was the 1953 De Soto.
The original hot rods were plainly painted like the Model A Fords from which they had been built up, and only slowly begun to take on colors, and eventually fancy orange-yellow flamed hoods or “candy-like” deep acrylic finishes in the various colors.
With the change in automobile design to encase the wheels in fenders and to extend the hood to the full width of the car, the former practices were no longer possible. In addition, there was tremendous automotive advertising and subsequent public interest in the new models in the 1950s. Hence custom cars came into existence, swapping headlamp rings, grilles, bumpers, chrome side strips, and tail lights, as well as frenching and tunnelling head- and taillights. The bodies of the cars were changed by cutting through the sheet metal, removing bits to make the car lower, welding it back together, and adding a lot of lead to make the resulting form smooth (hence the term lead sled; lead has since been replaced by Bondo). By this means, chopping made the roof lower; sectioning made the body thinner from top to bottom. Channeling was cutting notches in the floorpan where the body touches the frame to lower the whole body. Fins were often added from other cars, or made up from sheet steel. In the custom car culture, someone who merely changed the appearance without also substantially improving the performance was looked down upon.
More recently, Juxtapoz Magazine, founded by the artist Robert Williams, has covered Kustom Kulture art.