Underrated Rods, Part I

The hot rod movement started when teenagers and young adults took cast-off cars, "souped-up" or replaced their engines with stronger mills and trimmed off unnecessary weight. It was a hobby that was long on ingenuity and short of required cash. Of course that was then and this is now.

Today, nearly 60 years after hot rods got their first toe-hold on the American psyche, things are different. Those teenagers and young adults have grown older and wealthier, as have many who were slightly younger but aspired to own the same hot cars. With the growing affluence of the hot rod community, hot rods themselves have grown far more sophisticated -- and far more expensive. So where is the wannabe hot rodder who is not particularly bucks-up going to turn these days? Well, it's certainly not to the '55 Chevies, '32 Ford coupes or '65 4-4-2's. No, the popularity of those cars has priced them out of the reach of many, but, happily, there are alternatives out there.

Richard Lentinello of Hemmings Rods & Performance has identified several vehicles that can become the basis of worthwhile hot rods, while at the same time not putting an incredible crimp in your pocketbook. Hemmings Rods & Performance is a new publication from the same people who offer Hemmings Motor News, the Bible of the collector car hobby, and Special Interest Automobiles, a slick magazine that features interesting autos from the 1920s to the 1980s. When it comes to old cars Lentinello certainly knows whereof he speaks, and his staff's picks combine value, availability, performance potential and just plain fun.

So here, without further ado, are a couple sleepers that might find a happy place in the corner of your garage:

1934 Plymouth PE Business Coupe align=left>

With '32 Ford prices reaching the stratosphere, the '34 Plymouth Business Coupe is an excellent option for those wanting to build a hot rod with the same classic looks. The '34 Plymouth features an upright grille, louvered hood, low-profile roof and what the staff of Hemmings Rods & Performance called "near-perfect proportions." In hot rod show fields crowded with Fords, the Plymouth could become a real standout. And there is no shortage of appropriate engines available since Chrysler is now offering over-the-counter 360-cubic-inch V-8s with 300 horsepower not to mention the legendary 465-horsepower 426 Hemi. Better still, Lentinello advises, drop in a V-10 and watch the small block crowd run for cover. Average Price: $6,000.

1956 Mercury Montclair 2-Door Hardtop align=left>

If you love Detroit's irresistible styling of the mid-Fifties but don't have the disposable income to purchase a '55 Chevy, this handsomely styled two-door hardtop from Mercury makes a great alternative. With its wrap-around windshield, hooded headlights and aggressive stance, the Montclair shares many similarities with the mid-50's Chevrolet, but the bonus is, you won't see scores of them at every car meet. And because many of the Montclairs were originally equipped with a 312-cubic-inch, 210-horsepower V-8, the chassis can easily accommodate a tweaked Ford 351 Cleveland or another Ford V-8 for some real tire-smoking excitement. Since more than 50,000 '56 Montclairs were built, finding a decent example is relatively easy. Average Price: $7,000.

Editor's Note: Part II of this article will be available on Driving Today next week.

Hemmings Rods & Performance includes in-depth parts reviews focusing on the pros and cons of particular components' construction, theoretical articles explaining the functions and designs of individual engine and driveline components, and different engine build-ups, complete with dyno results, costs, and insights from the engine builders themselves.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini has owned a number of hot special interest cars including a 1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 and a 1968 Pontiac Firebird convertible.