Since the humble beginnings of what we now know as hot rodding, gearheads have often gravitated toward certain cars as the subjects of their machinations. Since rodding is primarily based on functional qualities, it stands to reason that these seminal vehicles are chosen based on prowess-or at least potential-in critical areas.
One of the earliest and probably best-known examples of a car that won the hearts and minds of hot rodders nationwide is the '32 Ford. Like most great cars, the '32's appeal stemmed from the convergence of several major factors, the most important of which was the engine. The '32 Ford was the first to use Ford Motor Company's all-new flathead V-8. Henry shook the automotive industry by bringing the V-8 into mass production and offering it in one of the most affordable cars on the market.
A similar phenomenon repeated decades later when Chevrolet introduced its all-new '55 model. Like the '32 Ford, the '55 Chevy combined a brand-new V-8 engine and a brand-new look with spectacular results. In fact, the demise of the flathead's broad appeal in racing was brought on by the small-block Chevy, as rodders quickly swapped their "worked" flatties for relatively stock 265s and 283s that were faster and more reliable.
When Chevrolet introduced its new ponycar in 1967 to compete with Ford's on-fire Mustang, the public took notice and evidently saw the Camaro as more than a copycat attempt to capitalize on someone else's idea. The Camaro was aggressive in appearance, but more importantly, it was designed and marketed with actual performance in mind. A Super Sport package was offered right away, with a unique 350ci small-block standard and a Mark IV big-block option. The Rally Sport trim package made the car even more aggressive looking, and the Z/28 option broadened the Camaro's appeal to reach the sports car set.
The '69 facelift resulted in a more muscular image reinforced by numerous racing successes on dragstrips and road courses, firmly establishing the Camaro as a serious performer. The Camaro's popularity continued to rise with the complete redesign for 1970 (actually a midyear introduction dubbed the '7011/42), but the first-generation cars seem to have just the right balance of size, features, and looks to keep them as popular today as they were over 30 years ago.
Ford's Fox-platform Mustang was introduced for 1979 without the hype and anticipation that had surrounded the earlier hero cars. While most enthusiasts were glad to witness the demise of the Pinto-based Mustang II, and sales of the new car were favorable, the whole affair was hardly seen as an automotive milestone. Of course, we now know that in time the Fox Mustang would be credited with inspiring a return to domestic performance after the desperate doldrums of the mid-'70s, and it would evolve into one of the most popular American performance cars ever. But is it really on par with the landmark cars that came before it?