In 1956, “Hot Rodding” was still seen by most of the general public as an activity for hoodlums, criminals, and various other forms of ne’er-do-wells. A quick search through the national database of news articles proves as much. Using an AI filter, I was able to sniff out 2,638 articles written about us surly bastards in 1956. Of those, 79% were deemed as “negative coverage.”
Around the same time, the United States Military was going through an enlistment dry spell. A decade after WWII and just a few years removed from the Korean War, the general public had lost their taste for blood. Too much, too soon… And moms weren’t having it. Their baby boys were gonna stay home, get an education, and set a foundation for family.
So, the government was forced to explore other avenues for its man power. During WWII, the Air Force was successful in enlisting “less than desirable” groups and molding them into effective fighting forces. The Tuskegee Airmen is just one such example. And so, why couldn’t it work in peace time as well? And what better group of misfits to recruit than hot rodders? They already had a need for speed and many of them had “criminal” records that could be used as leverage.
“We used to street race in Oakland and, after a while, it got pretty organized. Set dates, set times, some written rules… The sort of thing. Eventually, there was an accident and a bystander was killed. Four of us got arrested and charged. Some of us weren’t even there that night. We were just involved with the club. Afterwards, we were given an option – face a jury or join the military. I went to boot camp six weeks later.”
It was a reasonable decision, right? The general public didn’t know anything about hot rodding and ignorance leads to fear, so… There was little chance of a fair and impartial jury. I’d take peace time boot camp over negligent homicide case any day of the week – wouldn’t you?
Many did and in 1956, the “Kings Of The Road” car club of Oakland took the out. My source (a fellow HAMBer that wishes to remain anonymous) wasn’t willing to give many details, but was able to provide a newspaper clipping:
“It was sold as voluntary and I guess it was given the circumstances. I responded well to the Air Force. Some of us even made careers out of it. But a few didn’t and for one, it was a death sentence.”
I haven’t been able to collaborate any of this. For one, I’ve searched the “Kings Of The Road” car club pretty comprehensively and can’t find any record of the club other than a single article in an August, 1956 printing of the Oakland Tribune. There’s nothing I could find in old SCTA records, Hot Rod Magazine, Car Craft, etc… On top of that, I couldn’t find any further mention of the “East Bay Hot Rod Flight” in the news or with any of the limited military searches I was able to do.
Because of this lack of real substance, I’m hesitant to report any of this as hard fact. But, I’ve always been enamored by the rejection of hot rodders in the 1940’s through the 50’s… leading to the eventual passionate acceptance by the same demographic that once looked for every opportunity to stop it.
I just want to answer the question of why that swing happened so quickly. How did hot rodding evolve from the past time of hoodlums to the joy of lawn chair patrons? And stories like this, embellished or not, just add fuel to my own fire.