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Custom car

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Subject: Hot rod, Hirohata Merc, Beatnik Bandit, Kustom (cars), American Graffiti
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Custom car

'34 3-window with a classic-style flame job and Moon tank, reminiscent of Chapouris' California Kid.
Custom '51 Merc with red "ghost flames" and Appletons
"Rat rodded" Deuce coupe with Edelbrock head and chrome carb hats on late-model flatty.
The iconic "T-bucket" custom. Exposed engine is virtually mandatory, as are flat windshield, headers, and open pipes. Soft top (shown) is optional. Also features chrome five-spokes, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ).
Front suspension of yellow lowboy Deuce roadster. Note color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, vented disc brakes.
'41 Willys. Note the non-stock one-piece windshield.
'55-7 Chevy with fuzzy dice
'Big Daddy' Roth 'bloodshot eyeball' shift knob, a 1960s craze.

A custom car is a passenger vehicle that has been substantially modified in either of the following two ways

  1. a custom car may be altered to improve its performance, often by altering or replacing the engine and transmission
  2. 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.

Many cars were "hopped up" with engine modifications such as adding additional carburetors, high compression heads and dual exhausts. Engine swaps were 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.

Much later some hot rods and custom cars swapped the old solid rear axle for an independent rear axle, 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;[1] sectioning[2] made the body thinner from top to bottom. Channeling[3] 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.

Customization style

Custom cars are distinct from cars in stock condition. Builders may adopt the visual and performance characteristics of some relevant modification styles, and combine these as desired. There are now several different custom themes, including:

  • Rat rod: imitates (or exaggerates) the "unfinished" and amateur-built appearance of hot rods of the '30s, '40s, and '50s.
  • Street rod: Typically American cars with large-displacement engines modified for speed. They often consist largely of period specific vehicles and components, or emmulate visual characteristics of hot rods of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. There is a great deal of overlap here with hot rods.
  • Modern: The style of contemporary cars. Most often contemporary components and paint finishes of modern cars are used.



Paint was an important concern. Once bodywork was done, the cars were painted unusual colors. Transparent but wildly-colored candy-apple paint, applied atop a metallic undercoat, and metalflake paint, with aluminum glitter within candy-apple paint, appeared in the 1960s. These took many coats to produce a brilliant effect — which in hot climates had a tendency to flake off. This process and style of paint job was invented by Joe Bailon, a customizer from Northern California.

Customizers also continued the habit of adding decorative paint after the main coat was finished, of flames extending rearward from the front wheels, scallops, and hand-painted pinstripes of a contrasting color. The base color, most often a single coat, would be expected to be of a simpler paint. Flame jobs later spread to the hood, encompassing the entire front end, and have progressed from traditional reds and yellows to blues and greens and body-color "ghost" flames. One particular style of flames, called "crab claw flames", which is still prevalent today, is attributed to Dean Jeffries.[4]

Painting has become such a part of the custom car scene that now in many custom car competitions, awards for custom paint are as highly sought after as awards for the cars themselves.

Engine swaps

Engine swaps have always been commonplace. Once, the flathead, or "flatty", was the preference, supplanted by the early hemi in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, the small-block Chevy was the most common option, and since the 1980s, the 350 cu in (5.7 l) Chevy has been almost ubiquitous.[5] The flatheads and early hemis have not entirely disappeared, but ready availability, ease of maintenance, and low cost of parts makes the SB Chevy the most frequent engine of choice.

Once customizing post-war cars caught on, some of the practices were extended to pre-war cars, which would have been called fendered rods, with more body work done on them. An alternate rule for disambiguation developed: hot rods had the engine behind the front suspension, while customs had the engine over the front suspension. The clearest example of this is Fords prior to 1949 had Henry Ford's old transverse front suspension, while 1949 models had a more modern suspension with the engine moved forward. However, an American museum has what could be the first true custom, built by Cletus Clobes in 1932, among its exhibits.[6]

With the coming of the muscle car, and further to the high-performance luxury car, customization declined. One place where it persisted was the U.S. Southwest, where lowriders were built similar in concept to the earlier customs, but of post-1950s cars.

As the supply of usable antique steel bodies has dried up, companies such Westcott's,[7] Harwood, Gibbon Fiberglass[8] and Speedway Motors[8] have begun to fabricate new fiberglass copies,[9] while Classic Manufacturing and Supply, for one example, has been making a variety of new steel bodies since the 1970s.[10] California's "junker" (or "crusher") law, which pays a nominal sum to take "gross polluters" off the road, has been criticized by enthusiasts (and by SEMA) for accelerating this trend.[11]

Starting in the 1950s, it became popular among customizers to display their vehicles at drive-in restaurants. Among the largest and longest lasting was Johnie's Broiler in Downey, California. The practice continues today, especially in Southern California.


Examples of notable customizers include Bill Cushenberry, the Alexander Brothers, the "legendary" Gil Ayala,[12] Darryl Starbird,[13] Roy Brizio, Troy Trepanier (of Rad Rides by Troy), Boyd Coddington, Harry Westergaard,[14] Dave Stuckey,[15] Dean Jeffries, Troy Ladd of Hollywood Hot Rods, "Posie",[16] Ron Clark and Bob Kaiser (of Clarkaiser Customs),[17] Joe Bailon[18] (inventor of candy apple paint),[19] Gene Winfield, Rick Dore[20] Joe Wilhelm, "Magoo",[21] Chip Foose,[22] and Pete Chapouris. Others, such as Von Dutch, are best known as custom painters. Several customizers have become famous beyond the automobile community, including Barris, Jeffries, and Coddington, thanks to their proximity to Hollywood; Barris designed TV's Batmobile, while Chapouris built the flamed '34 three-window coupé in the eponymous telefilm "The California Kid". Another Barris creation, Ala Kart (a '29 Ford Model A roadster pickup), made numerous appearances in film (usually in the background of diner scenes and such), after taking two AMBR wins in a row.

Some customizers have become well-enough known to be referred to by given name alone. These include Boyd (Coddington), Pete (Chapouris), and Jake (Jim Jacobs).


The highest award for customizers is the AMBR (America's Most Beautiful Roadster) trophy, presented annually at the Grand National Roadster Show since 1948 (also known within the customizer community as the Oakland Roadster Show until it was moved to Southern California in 2003). This competition has produced famous, and radical, customs.

Another is the Ridler Award, presented at the Detroit Autorama since 1964 in honor of show promoter Don Ridler. With one of the most unusual of car show entry requirements, winners of the prestigious Ridler Award are selected as the most outstanding from among cars being shown for the first time. This prompts builders of many high-end roadsters to first enter the Autorama first and then the Grand National show in order to have the chance to win top honors at both shows. Few cars and owners can claim this achievement.

Notable customs

Some customs gained attention for winning the AMBR trophy, or for their outlandish styling. Notable among these is Silhouette and Ed Roth's Mysterion. Some of these more unusual projects turned into Hot Wheels cars, among them The Red Baron.

Other custom cars became notable for appearances in film (such as Ala Kart {1958},[23] The California Kid three-window {1973},[24] or the yellow deuce from "American Graffiti" {1973}) or television (such as The Monkeemobile, the "Munsters" hearse, or, more recently, Boyd's full-custom Tool Time '34, or Pete and Jake's '33 three-window, Eliminator, built for the ZZ Top video[25]). Specialist vehicles, such as the T/A, KITT, from Knight Rider, are not usually considered customs, but movie or TV cars, because they retain a mostly stock exterior.

Still others exemplified a trend. One of these is the '51 Merc built by the Barris brothers for Bob Hirohata in 1953, known forever after as the Hirohata Merc. Even without an appearance in film ("Runnin' Wild"), it is iconic of '50s customs, and of how to do a Merc right.[26] The same year, Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen built Polynesian for Jack Stewart, starting with a '50 Olds sedan. Polynesian made the cover of Hot Rod in August, and saw 54 pages of construction details in Motor Trend Custom Car Annual in 1954.[27]


Certain linguistic conventions are followed among rodders and customizers:

  • The model year is rarely given in full,[28] except when it might be confused, so a 1934 model is a '34, while a 2005 might be an '05 or not.
    • A '32 is usually a Deuce and most often a roadster, unless coupé is specified, and almost always a Ford.
    • A '55/6/7 is always a Chevy, unless specified.
  • A 3- or 5-window is usually a Ford, unless specified.
  • A flatty is a flathead V8[29] (always Ford, unless specified); a late (or late model) flatty is probably a Merc.
  • A hemi ("hem ee") is always a 426, unless displacement (331, 354, or 392) is specified;[30] a 426 is a hemi, unless Wedge is specified.
  • A 392 is an early hemi.
    • A 331 or 354 is known to be an (early) hemi, but rarely referred to as such
  • A 270 "Jimmy" was a 270 cubic inch GMC truck engine often used to replace a smaller displacement Chevrolet six cylinder.
  • Units are routinely dropped, unless they are unclear, so a 426 cubic inch (in³) displacement engine is simply referred to as a 426, a 5 liter (litre) displacement engine is a 5.0 ("five point oh"), and a 600 cubic feet per minute (cfm) carburetor is a 600. Engine displacement can be described in cubic inches or liters (for example, a 5.7 liter engine is also known as a 350 {"three fifty"}); this frequently depends on which units the user is most comfortable or familiar with.

The "cutoff year" as originally promoted by the National Street Rod Association (


Common terms

Some other common terms:

  • 3 deuces — arrangement of three 2-barrel (twin-choke) carburetors; distinct from Six Pak and Pontiac and Olds[31] Tri-Power[32] (also 3x2 arrangements)
  • 3-window — 2-door coupé; so named for having rear window and one door window on each side[33]
  • 3 on the tree — three-speed manual transmission operated by a steering column mounted shifter.
  • 4 on the floor — four-speed manual transmission operated by a floor mounted shifter.
  • 5-window — 2-door coupé; so named for having rear window plus one door window and one quarter window on each side[34]
  • 97s — Stromberg carburetors[35]
  • A-bone — Model A coupé[36]
  • Appletons (sometimes Appleton spots) — spotlights, mounted in the A-pillars, similar to those used by police cars
  • Barn fresh — a newly discovered vehicle typically found in storage (i.e. a barn, etc.), either long forgotten or abandoned, still in its original condition from when it was first stored
  • Blue oval — Ford product (for the Ford badge)
  • Blue dots —
    • Pontiac tail lights[37]
    • Any taillight equipped with a blue crystal to give it a "purple-ish" appearance when illuminated.
  • Bondo — brand name for a body filler putty, often used as a generic term for any such product
  • Bowtie — Chevrolet product (for the Chevy badge)[38]
  • Bugcatcher intake — large scoop intake protruding through hood opening, or on cars with no hood.
  • Bullnosing — Replacing the hood ornament with a "bullnose" chrome strip or filling the mounting hole with lead.
  • Cabriolet (or cabrio) — A vehicle with a removable or retractable cloth top, characterized by integrated side windows.
  • Cherry — like new[39]
  • Channeled or channeling - lowering a vehicle by cutting out the floor and mounting the body lower on the frame rails.
  • Chopped — removing a section, usually of the window posts, to lower the roofline of a vehicle.
  • Convertible — cabriolet.
  • C.I.D. (sometimes Cubic Inches or Inches) — cubic inches displacement
  • Crank — crankshaft
  • Dagmars — large front bumper "bullets"[40] (after the actress)
  • Decked — trunklid trim removed[8]
  • Deuce —
  • Duvall windshield — a v-shaped windshield with a center post, as opposed to the typical stock straight-across type.
  • Elephant — Chrysler 426 Hemi[44]
  • Fat-fender — 1934-48 (U.S.) car[45]
  • Flatty — flathead engine[46] (usually refers to a Ford; when specified, the Mercury-built model)
  • Fordillac ("for di lack") — Ford with transplanted Cadillac V8 engine
  • Frenched —
    • Antenna sunken into the body or fender
    • Headlight slightly sunken into fender[47]
    • Tail lights slightly sunken into body or fender
  • Gennie — genuine[48]
  • Hairpins — radius rods[49]
  • Hiboy (or highboy) — fenderless, but not lowered[50] Distinct from gasser.
  • Hopped up - A stock engine modified to increase performance
  • Inches — CID
  • Indian (also "Tin Indian") — Pontiac (for the grille badge)
  • Jimmy (or Jimmy Six) — GMC straight 6
    • Any GMC product
  • Lead sled — customized vehicle where lead has been melted and adhered to a metal body to smooth its surface, as filler. (Lead has since been replaced by Bondo.)
  • Lakes pipes — straight exhaust pipes that run along the lower edge of a rod, typically near the rocker panels, without mufflers. The name comes from their original use on cars used on dry lakes by land speed racers.
  • Loboy (or low boy, lowboy) — fenderless and lowered[51]
  • Mag
    • magnesium wheel, or steel or aluminum copy resembling one such
    • magneto
  • Mill — any internal combustion engine on such a vehicle
  • Moons (or Moon discs; incorrectly, moon discs) — plain flat chrome or aluminum hubcaps, originally adopted by land speed racers. Smaller examples are "baby moons". Named for Dean Moon.
  • Mouse — small-block Chevy[52]
  • Nailhead — an early Buick V8
  • Nerf bars — bumper horns[53]
  • N.O.S. — New Old Stock: original-manufactured part, kept in storage at supplier
  • Nosed — hood trim removed[54]
  • Phantom — body style never built by the original manufacturer[55] (a term also adopted by model kit builders)
  • QJ — Quadrajet (Rochester 4-barrel)[56]
  • Q-jet — Quadrajet[57]
  • Ragtop — convertible
  • Rat —Chevrolet Big-block
  • Repop — reproduction (not NOS)[58]
  • Resto — restoration, or restored
  • Rockcrusher — Muncie M22 4-speed transmission[59][60]
  • Rake job — car with suspension modified to lower the front end
  • Rocket — Oldsmobile, in particular their early V8s
  • SBC — Chevrolet small-block engine
  • SBF — Small-block Ford, usually one of the Ford Windsor engines
  • Sectioning — removing an entire section of the body (front to back or top to bottom). Not to be confused with "chopping".
  • Shoebox — '49-'54 Ford or 1955-57 Chevrolet (for the slab-sided appearance)
  • Skirts - Covers installed on the openings on rear fenders
  • Slantback — sedan with forward-angled but straight rear window and sheetmetal. Distinct from straightback.
  • Sombreros — '47-'51 Cadillac hubcaps[61]
  • Souped (souped up) — hopped up, performance improved (more common in '40s and '50s)
  • Steelies — stock steel rims[62]
  • Stock — original equipment[63]
  • Stone stock — all-original (usually referring to a project's starting condition); unmodified ("'53 Merc with a stone stock 350").
  • Stovebolt — Chevy straight 6[64]
  • Straightback — sedan with vertical rear window and sheetmetal. (Known as squareback in the VW community.)
  • Street rod - A modified car licensed for use on streets and highways.
  • Studillac ("stewed i lack") — Studebaker with transplanted Cadillac V8 engine
  • Suicided — changed from front- to rear-hinged ("suicide door")
  • Suicide front end — a front axle configuration where it is mounted forward of the front cross member or the end of the frame rails.
  • Tin Indian — Pontiac (for the grille badge)
  • Toploader — Ford 4-speed manual transmission[65]
  • Touring — see Phaeton
  • Track T — Model T roadster built in the style of a dirt track race car[66]
  • Trailer queen — pejorative term used in some circles for pure show cars which are never driven
  • Tuck-and-roll — upholstery technique creating a "pleated" look[67]
  • Tunneled — deeply sunken into fender[8]
  • V-butted (or vee-butted) — with windshield center post deleted, original panes meeting in the middle[68] (distinct from fitting a one-piece windshield), or to make such a change ("the windshield was vee-butted", "he vee-butted the windshield")
  • Vicky — Victoria body style[69]
  • Wide whites — wide-stripe whitewall tires,[70] typical of the '50s, as opposed to modern ones
  • Woodie — Typically a station wagon manufactured by most of the major manufacturers where much of the body behind the firewall was replaced with wood construction.
  • Zoomie pipes (or zoomies) — short exhaust pipes with no mufflers, used for racing, or just for show (not street legal)[71]

Some terms have an additional, different meaning among hot rodders than among customizers: NOS, for instance, is a reference to nitrous oxide, rather than new old stock.


See also


  1. ^ Rod Action, 2/78, p.64.
  2. ^ Street Rodder, 2/78, p.15; Custom Rodder 1/97, p.29.
  3. ^ Jezek, George. "The All Deuce Round-Up", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.58.
  4. ^ Hotrod magazine, 1999.
  5. ^ See any issue of Street Rodder, for instance.
  6. ^ "1932 Clobes". Wheels Through Time Museum. Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  7. ^ Street Rodder, 2/78, p.44.
  8. ^ a b c d Street Rodder, 2/78, p. 43.
  9. ^ See, for instance, Street Rodder, 8/99, p.183.
  10. ^ Street Rodder, 7/94, pp.132-4.
  11. ^ See, for instance, Dick Wells column "SRMA Update", Street Rodder, 8/99, p.234.
  12. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.60.
  13. ^ Street Rodder, 1/85, p.56.
  14. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.55.
  15. ^ Street Rodder, 1/85, p.56.
  16. ^ Rod Action, 2/85, p.5.
  17. ^ Fetherston, David, "Detroit Dreams", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.58.
  18. ^ Street Rodder, 1/85, p.56.
  19. ^ Ganahl, Pat, "The Candy Man", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.81.
  20. ^ [1]
  21. ^ Street Rodder, 12/98, p.206.
  22. ^ Bishop, Mike, "The 45th Grand National Roadster Show", in American Rodder, 6/94, p.27.
  23. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p.29 sidebar.
  24. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p.29.
  25. ^ Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (2007-09-20). "The ZZ Top Eliminator: Profile of a Hot Rod". Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  26. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, pp.8 & 10.
  27. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.68.
  28. ^ For instance, Street Rodder, 8/99, passim; Rod Action, 2/78, passim.
  29. ^ American Rodder, 6/94, pp.45 & 93.
  30. ^ Geisert, Eric. "Tom's Fun Run", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.149cap.
  31. ^ Street Rod Builder, 7/03, p.126.
  32. ^ PHR, 7/06, pp.22-3.
  33. ^ Fortier, p.53cap.
  34. ^ Fortier, p.54cap.
  35. ^ Fetherston, David, "Track Terror", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.35; Emmons, Don, "Long-term Hybrid", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.52; & Baskerville, Gray, "Tom Brown's '60s Sweetheart", in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.162.
  36. ^ Bianco, Johnny, "Leadfest" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.86.
  37. ^ Rod and Custom, 12/91, p.29 caption.
  38. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p.85 caption.
  39. ^ Ganahl, Pat, "Swap 'til you Drop", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.68 & 70.
  40. ^ Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17.
  41. ^ Geisert, Eric. "The California Spyder", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.34; Mayall, Joe. "Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, p.26; letters, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.10.
  42. ^ Fortier, Rob. ""A Little Pinch Here, A Little Tuck There", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.136.
  43. ^ Hot Rod, 2/87, p.38.
  44. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p.52 caption.
  45. ^ Burhnam, Bill. "In Bill's Eye", Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17; reprinted from Goodguys Gazette.
  46. ^ "Mr. 32", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.40.
  47. ^ Fortier, p.51cap; Bianco, p.82.
  48. ^ Ganahl, p.70 & "Coupla Cool Coupes", p.74.
  49. ^ Mayall, Joe. "Joe Mayall's Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, pp.28 & 29; Hot Rod Magazine, 11/84, p.6.
  50. ^ "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16, & Fortier, "Jr.'s Highboy", p.98.
  51. ^ Contrast "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16.
  52. ^ Hot Rod, 2/87, p.43.
  53. ^ Coonan, Steve. "Who's Chicken", in Street Rodder, 2/78, pp.56-7; 1001 Rod & Custom Ideas, 1/76, pp.24 & 25.
  54. ^ Bianco, p.82.
  55. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.70.
  56. ^ Popular Cars, 12/85, p.51.
  57. ^ Hot Rod Magazine, 11/84, pp.46 & 50.
  58. ^ Ganahl, Pat, "Coupla Cool Coupes", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.74cap.
  59. ^ Hot Rod Magazine's Street Machines and Bracket Racing #3 (Los Angeles: Petersen Publishing, 1979), p.33.
  60. ^ Hot Rod, 10/80, p.61.
  61. ^ Jalopy Journal.
  62. ^ Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  63. ^ Hot Rod, 4/95, p.8.
  64. ^ Yunick, Henry. Best Damn Garage in Town: The World According to Smokey.
  65. ^ Street Rodder, 12/98, p.292.
  66. ^ Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.26-7 & 33.
  67. ^ Tann, Jeff, "Two-Timer" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.58.
  68. ^ "Kustoms and Hot Rods Gallery: Hirohata Merc". Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  69. ^ Hot Rod, 4/95, p.36.
  70. ^ Fortier, Rob. "25th Salt Lake City Autorama", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.51cap, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  71. ^ Hot Rod, 2/87, p.47, & 12/86, p.33 caption.
  72. ^ Rod Action, 2/78.
  73. ^ Street Rodder, 8/99, pp.202, 204, & 205.

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