Ask The Experts: What is a Street Rod?

We’ve attempted to tackle the issue of Hot Rod lingo in the past. For instance, our Hot Rod Lingo! Getting a Grip on the Rodding Lifestyle article from April of 2012 covered many of the slang terms that are common to the Hot Rod lifestyle.

A Street Rod is a vehicle manufactured prior to 1949.                   – Jim Rowlett, NSRA Spokesman

Since then, we’ve come to realize that there are other – more basic – terms that are thrown around to universally describe a whole genre of rods. This got us thinking, what exactly is a street rod, or a hot rod, or a resto-mod for that matter. Could you describe exactly what a kustom car is to someone from another world?

Intrigued with the possibility of helping the culture, we decided to track down experts that could help us define what each of these terms actually meant, starting with street rod. What seemed like a fairly simple task quickly turned into an adventure in etymology and the origins of terms.

We’ll spare you the mundane details that we uncovered and instead will present the facts that support a clear definition of what these formerly generic terms mean in a series of four monthly articles: What is a Street Rod?, What is a Hot Rod?, What is a Resto-Mod?, and What is a Kustom Car?

Bob Breece’s 1932 Ford is a classic example of a high-end street rod build.

What Exactly Is A Street Rod?

Our first stop in the quest for the definition of a street rod began with the government. Each state requires vehicle owners to register their cars for the purpose of generating revenue to repair and maintain the state’s roadways. Surely they have defined the different types of automobiles.

Surprisingly, 20 of the 50 U.S. states have vehicle codes that define what a street rod is, and after reading them, we were a little closer to understanding the legal definition.

State Definitions of Street Rods

For most states with vehicle codes specifically naming street rods, age plays a huge role in the definition. In Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon, and Wyoming, a street rod is “any 1948 or later vehicle that is a minimum of 25 years old, or was built to resemble a vehicle like this.” Which means that your typical 1989 Ford Probe is a street rod.

States With Street Rod Laws

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming
Wisconsin doubles down by saying, “A street rod or hot rod is any motor vehicle that is at least 20 years old and might be modified from original specifications of the manufacturer but does not resemble the original brand.” Which pretty much means that your 1989 Ford Probe can be a street rod or hot rod as long as it doesn’t look like a Ford Probe.

Hawaii takes a harder stance where a street rod is a “vehicle manufactured before 1968 or manufactured later but made to look like a vehicle from the period before 1968.” Maryland echoes those rules by claiming, “If a vehicle is more than 25 years old and has gone through major changes from the original design, it is called a street rod.” So you can register your car in these states as a street rod if your 1989 Ford Probe is made to look like a 1967 AMC Rebel.

Other states have a more reasonable definition of the term. For instance Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington have rules that state: “A street rod is a vehicle with frame or body built before 1949, or it is a replica built after 1949, but made to look like a street rod which has undergone alteration for road safety.”

In Iowa and Kentucky, weight plays a part. “A street rod is any motor vehicle weighing less than 10,000 pounds and either manufactured before 1949, or assembled or completely reconstructed using new or used parts to look like a vehicle from that period.” Pennsylvania has a similar vehicle code: “A street rod is defined as any motor vehicle that is a 1948 or older model and has altered parts. Its registered weight or gross weight should not be over 9,000 pounds.”

By state laws, almost anything can be considered a street rod.

Finally, we have the most logical set of vehicle code definitions on the books in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi: “A street rod is any motor vehicle that was manufactured prior to 1948, or has been assembled or completely reconstructed resembling a vehicle manufactured prior to 1948, using new or used parts.” We say most logical because 1948 seems to be the most common dividing line in terms of year of manufacture.

The National Street Rod Association

Making little progress through the bureaucracy channels, we decided to go to an organization that has a clear role in street rod automotive events, the National Street Rod Association (NSRA). Founded in 1970, the NSRA launched a campaign to bring the street rod hobby to legitimacy in a time when rodding was at its lowest point. In the next 45 years, street rodding rebounded and has seen amazing growth and prosperity with nationwide events by NSRA and others keeping the interests of enthusiasts as a priority.

This 1926 Ford T-bucket should be considered a street rod work of art.

“Our organization works for the sport in several areas. We have a network of representatives that helps assist enthusiasts and the hobby by contesting unreasonable motor vehicle legislation on different levels, from local to federal issues. We also have programs like the nationwide voluntary vehicle safety inspection program,” explained NSRA spokesman Jim Rowlett.

We posed the street rod question to Rowlett, who responded with a very definitive, “A street rod is a vehicle manufactured prior to 1949, that has been modified for travel on today’s highways.” Asked if the modifications were limited to safety and highway speeds, Rowlett said, “Most of the street rods will have all the creature comforts of the latest cars from Detroit like air conditioning, stereos, power steering, power brakes, modern suspension, and new engine and driveline components. The modifications are not strictly limited to a safety aspect but these cars are not designed as race cars, they are built for reliable street and highway transportation.”

Design and presentation is strictly up to the owner or builder.

“The design and presentation of each vehicle is limited only to the imagination of the owner or builder,” Rowlett added. Having been to many of the NSRA’s street rod events, we have seen some of the cleanest built street rods with state-of-the-art technology and features that were never even dreamt of when these vehicles originally hit the market.

An Authority On The Subject

It’s clear that the NSRA has been one of the largest organizations helping define what a street rod is, and what role street rods play in automotive sports. Organizing and conducting participant events around the country, the NSRA upholds their requirements for participation as a street rod.

Jim Bobowskis’ 1936 Ford is another example of an elite street rod.

While the association has expanded to include all vehicles that are more than 30 years old, in a class of their own, these vehicles are not street rods unless they meet the NSRA’s qualifications as a street rod.

Our final answer on the question “What is a street rod?” rests with the experts. A street rod is a vehicle manufactured prior to 1949, that has been modified for travel on today’s highways. These street rods are designed and presented by their owners based on their vision and personal taste.

Each street rod build should reflect the vision and pride that the owner/builder has in their car.

In the very near future we will define some of the other generic terms that are loosely used to describe vehicles. Hot rod, resto-mod and kustom are some of those terms we hope to pin down to specific definitions. Watch for these future articles here.

Article Sources

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
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