We’ve seen just about every make and model of car turned into respectable street rods over the years. From the earliest Fords to VW’s new Beetles, customizers have left their mark on the hobby with creative genius. Despite these one-off builds, there are some make and model cars that customizers automatically migrate to.
Accessibility and cost are the primary factors but some automobiles are just too cool and demand to be used in custom builds. We’ve compiled our list of favorite cars used by custom builders over the years, starting with the model that made more people car owners in an era when automobile ownership was almost unheard of: Ford’s Tin Lizzie.
#1: 1917-1923 Ford Model T
The third generation Model T was the longest design and highest production years of the Model. For sheer volume, the third gen Model T accounts for almost half of the total Model T’s built between 1909-1927. Because the Model T was one of the best selling cars of all time, there are plenty of old Model T’s made into hot rods and plenty of place to buy replica chassis due to the high demand.
Most of the changes in the third generation Model T centered around the hood design. These changes were a more tapered hood design with a curved top The folding joints were moved to the flange where the flat side panel and curved top panels meet.
This style hood was streamlined and lower than the hood that would come in the fourth and fifth generation, giving it the nick-name “low hood.” The new third gen hood design covered the firewall completely and joined to the front edge of the cowl panel so that no part of the engine firewall was visible externally.
#2: 1936-1939 Lincoln Zephyr
There is little doubt which hot rods attract the most attention at car shows. A sleek and sexy sled collects more fans than any other type of rod. When it comes to ultra stunning sleds, the 1937 Lincoln Zephyr wins by miles and miles of smiles from enthusiasts.
The Zephyr was originally released as one of the luxury cars of it’s time, the low end of the luxury line, but still in the upper class of cars from 1936 until the start of WWII. It is the 1936 model that attracts most collectors however.
For the day, the Zephyr featured an ultra modern (Deco) look with a low raked windscreen, fenders that integrated with the body and an overall streamlined aerodynamic design. 15,000 of the Zephyrs were sold in the first year, which represented 80 percent of Lincoln’s total sales for the year.
Equipped with a powerful V12 engine, the Zephyrs were available as a two-door or four-door sedan with locking glove box as a standard feature and a radio could be purchased as an option. Oh, how times have changed.
#3: 1933 Willys Coupe
When it comes to originality during its era, nothing tops the 1933 Willys 77 coupe. Attempting to survive the Great Depression, Willys-Overland began dropping several lines starting in 1929. In 1933 the car maker had dropped down to their last line of automobiles, the Willys 77, a four cylinder coupe, in 1936 as the company was reorganizing as Willys-Overland Motors.
The 1933 Coupes had a styling design that took major clues from the modern art of the time. It worked and car buyers that could afford a new car bought the coupes in droves, keeping the company afloat. The company begin to redesign the model in 1937 and had completely changed the vehicle by 1939 and sold the new cars as Overland and Willys-Overland rather than the familiar Willys name.
The 1941 Willys are probably more popular than the earlier ’33 coupes, but it didn’t take hot rodders long to figure out that the four cylinder engines could easily be swapped out for a wide range of engines and drivetrain setups for these inexpensive cars. This is what caused the little 77 Coupe to find a world-wide following of auto enthusiasts that continues today.
#4: 1932 Ford 3-Window Coupe or Ford Roadster
There’s not much that can be said about the 1932 Fords that have not been said before. Each time that the sport begins to go in decline, a ’32 Ford comes to the rescue and inspires a whole new group of enthusiasts in hot rodding. Credit John Milner’s American Graffiti ’32 coupe for bringing the last two generations of hot rodders into the fold.
In the most basic terms, a ’32 coupe has a roof and the ’32 roadster does not. It is generally accepted that the coupes are built for racing and the roadsters were made for cruising. The biggest pro: The ease of building these rods. Their popularity is so strong that replicas, replacement parts, and conversion kits can be found easily. The biggest con: It is another 32 Ford. At any car show, there are usually so many ’32 Fords that enthusiasts can become immune to how great these cars actually are.
#5: 1950’s Mercury Hardtop
The Mercury Eight, produced from 1939 through 1951 with a brief hiatus for the war, was the only model Mercury produced until 1952’s new Mercury series launched. A full-sized car, the Merc Eight was a heavy beast that did well with some customizing. Already sleek looking, the Mercury really took on a different look once they were chopped, channeled and smoothed out.
So many of the Mercury hardtops were made that they became the staple for lead sled custom builders. Not only were they sexy looking, they could hold up to higher horsepower engines with no problem. Even by today’s standards, these Mercs could take a big horsepower LSX engine and live a happy life. The only con to using a Mercury Eight as the base model for your project car is weight. They are heavy cars.
We’d love to hear your top five list of cars that make the best hot rods. It’s difficult to hit all of the popular models in a short list, but we think we covered it fairly well. Let us know what we forgot.