Boyd Coddington, the creative visionary who elevated hot rodding into an art form, was hailed by many as the “King of Hot Rods”, being largely credited for creating the hot rod craze on the West Coast, with many of his creations reaching legendary status. The Vern Luce Coupe put him on the map, and the CadZZilla was acclaimed as one of the most authentic and original car customizations in the world. He headlined “American Hot Rod” aired on Warner Bros. Discovery-owned TLC and Discovery Channel from 2004 to 2007, ending with his death in 2008.
- 1 A brief history of American hot rodding
- 2 Chip Foose and Jesse James began their careers at Boyd’s shop
- 3 “American Hot Rod”
- 4 Convicted for fraud
- 5 His death at age 63
- 6 His legacy
A brief history of American hot rodding
A hot rod is usually referred to as an American car modified or rebuilt to improve its look and make it unique, as well as to optimize its speed and acceleration; its predecessors were said to be the modified cars used by bootleggers during the Prohibition era to evade the authorities. Hot rods made their first appearance sometime in the 1930s in Southern California, as car enthusiasts raced them on the Mojave Desert’s dry lake beds. Car clubs were formed, and the Southern California Timing Association was established in 1937 to bring them together and organize racing events.
America officially entered World War II in 1941, which put a halt to everything, as those young hot rodders joined the military, and gasoline was rationed. When the war ended, new cars were in short supply; however, the veterans put their mechanical and technical training to good use to modify old cars, and hot rodding became popular again. The Hot Rod Magazine was first published In 1948,, feeding the interest of gearheads and promoting hot rodding on a nationwide scale.
People street raced, which resulted in dangerous situations, sometimes with fatalities. This prompted the creation of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) as a governing body for hot rodding, to create standards and rules for competitions. In 1963, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) was formed to bring together original equipment manufacturers, aftermarket manufacturers, distributors, and media.
Hot rodding as a hobby had waned in the 1960s, and muscle cars designed for high-performance driving and drag racing became the new trend; they were affordable and could outperform old hot rods. However, the 1973 Oil Crisis resulted in a shift of focus by car manufacturers, from performance to fuel efficiency, which caused the resurgence of hot rodding. The Chevy small-block engine became the most popular choice for hot rodders during that period.
In the 1970s, Boyd Coddington began to make a name for himself in building unique hot rods; his work was celebrated by the automotive industry and car enthusiasts from all over.
The Life of Boyd Coddington
Idaho native Boyd Leon Coddington was born on 28 August 1944, to Harold and Lorna Sparrow Coddington – his father was a dairy farmer who later became the owner of a landscaping company when the family moved to Salt Lake City. Even as a young child, Boyd was into cars and hot rods, devouring magazines about them whenever he could. He had an early start designing, constructing, and welding car parts, and got his first truck, a 1931 Chevrolet pickup, when he was still three years shy of legally driving it – it was said that he traded a shotgun to acquire it. Boyd studied to become a machinist at a technical trade school, and was an apprentice for three years at a machine shop.
To pursue his dreams, he moved to Southern California in 1968. He worked the graveyard shift at Disneyland in Anaheim as a machinist, and constructed hot rods during his free time in his home garage. As his skills in improving the look of a car became well-known, it also became his main source of income. He opened his auto shop in 1977 called Hot Rods by Boyd, and his unique style and cutting-edge skills drew people to his shop.
He and Diane Elkins, an industrial nurse, met on a blind date in January 1971, and three months later, they were married. They had two kids together, Christopher and Gregory. Boyd had a son from his first wife, Peggy King, whom he married in 1965 and divorced a few years later – he and Diane divorced in 1996.
He along with his second wife, Diane, and his kids relocated in 1978 to Orange Avenue at Buena Park where he put a 1,000-square-foot garage at the back of the house as his shop. Two months after they moved, he quit his job at Disneyland to focus on hot rod building.
The Billet Movement – Revolutionized the industry
Billet wheels are entirely designed and manufactured using a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) process, meaningt that a machine carved out the whole design and shape. There are plenty of configuration options available for customization, such as different lug nut and back spacing configurations, as well as one-off design patterns.
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Master hot rodder John “Lil’ John” Buttera was Boyd’s friend and mentor; they worked together to make custom-fabricated alloy wheels known as billet. When they couldn’t find or buy a part they wanted for their creations, they made one from aluminum. Boyd credited Lil’ John for inventing the billet wheel, machining the first set of wheels and billet parts, but the former took it to another level. He manufactured and marketed billet wheels when he established Boyd Wheels Inc.
The two collaborated often, as Lil’ John did chassis design and machine work on some of Boyd’s early cars. Later on, they were engaged in a one-upmanship game – when Lil’ John built the 1927 Model T Ford sedan, Boyd followed suit and constructed a 1926 T. Lil’ John’s 1929 Ford Model A roadster inspired Boyd to make the “Silver Bullet,” described by Street Rodder Magazine as a ‘striking blend of traditional styling, contemporary rodding and innovation.’
The Vern Luce Coupe – Defined an era of hot rodding
Boyd’s then-wife, Diane, described Vern Luce as a very quiet and unassuming guy, who loved cars and often hung around the shop. One of his sons, Chris, remembered him as the “candy man,” who brought treats whenever he visited, as he owned a candy company. No one would have guessed that the transformation of his 1933 Ford Coupe by Boyd’s crew would create a huge impact that was said to have changed the landscape of hot rodding, with its sleek styling and smooth look.
It set the stage for what would be known as the ‘Boyd Look” in which everything was shaved with no door handles and hinges. The Vern Luce Coupe bagged the Al Slonaker Award in 1981 at the Oakland Roadster Show for its technical excellence. Thom Taylor, a graduating student from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design at that time, made the design, but it took a team of talented individuals to actually make it happen.
CadZZilla – A one-of-a-kind car
One of the most iconic auto customizations ever constructed by Boyd was the CadZZilla, commissioned by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons in 1989. It was designed by one of Cadillac’s head designers, Larry Erickson, and built by metal artisan, Craig Naff. The 1948 Cadillac Sedanette was initially going to be a ‘simple’ customization project but it didn’t quite fit the unique style of the rock band’s guitarist and main vocalist, so further changes were made to the design to make it more revolutionary; Craig then set to work on it. The car featured ‘a chopped roofline, fully welded front clip with a sectioned hood and front fender combination that tilts open in one fell swoop,’ along with ‘Frenched headlights and custom tapering along the sides of the car that flows effortlessly into the lowered and fully blended rear quarters.’
Filed for bankruptcy
Boyd’s businesses had grown so big and successful that they went public in 1995 in an Initial Public Offering on the NASDAQ. However, Boyd filed for personal bankruptcy in 2001, as he lacked the means to pay off debts amounting to $529,000, having listed only $8,800 in assets. The debts were incurred by Hot Rods by Boyd and Boyds Wheels, which went bankrupt three years prior. Although Boyd Wheels reportedly had nearly $30 million in annual sales, it ran out of cash, and its credit line was frozen. Apparently, it ramped up production just when the market dwindled for high-end custom wheels, and its assets were liquidated. Creditors filed a lawsuit against Boyd as they claimed that he used company assets for personal gain, which he denied.
The lawyer for the unsecured creditors was surprised by Boyd’s move, and was suspicious of Boyd Coddington Wheels and Boyd Coddington Garage, the two companies that his son, Boyd Coddington Jr., established. His son said that his father’s financial and legal troubles would not affect these new businesses in any way, shape, or form, as it appeared that Boyd had no stake in them, and only drew a nominal salary.
However, there was some legal dispute over the use of his name in the new ventures. The Automotive Performance Group, which gained control of his previous businesses, sued them for trademark infringement, which was later settled when Body agreed to use his full name instead.
1937 Chevy on 18”& 20” Boyd Coddington Wheels style Junk Yard Dog with Polished finish on Delinte tires @DelinteTires @RoadandTrack @cccars @GlendoraChevy @ChevroletEurope @ChevroletCanada @chevrolet @hotrodmagazine @superchevy pic.twitter.com/ZbEqyvUEd9
— WHEELS N MOTION (@WHEELSNMOTION1) February 20, 2019
Many were surprised when Boyd was seen attending the Street Ride Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky, after his businesses collapsed and his reputation was ruined. Unlike in the past when he had his whole entourage with him, and his trademark hot rods were put on display, this time around, he only brought a small card table on which aluminum car wheels were all laid out. Someone approached him and asked how he could go on, and if he was embarrassed by what happened. Boyd simply told him, ‘A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.’ and said that he had no intention of quitting.
According to reports, he sold some of his real estate holdings for $1.5 million and his Ferrari for $150,000 to have funds for his new ventures, saying that he wanted to prove that he could still do it. Naturally he encountered obstacles, as some were skeptical about how the new company would fare. While mentioning his name was met with derision, especially from some automotive insiders, it seemed that there were people who still believed in him, or at least his designs. The sales from Boyd Coddington Wheels business had picked up, as it benefited from the resurgence of demand for custom wheels. As for Boyd Coddington Garage, it was fully operational too, and had sold vehicles worth $100,000 to $450,000. By all appearances, it seemed that he was right when he claimed that he was back in the game.
Lil’ John once said that one of the reasons for Boyd’s downfall was that he believed in his own press, that anything with his name on it would sell. However, Boyd claimed that he’d learned from his past mistakes. He said, ‘I learned about the American dream and then about the American nightmare. I’m trying to build the American dream again.’
Chip Foose and Jesse James began their careers at Boyd’s shop
His auto shop might have had a high turnover rate, but no one could dispute the fact that the hot rods that he built were exceptional. It was said that this was largely due to his team. Boyd had a keen eye for talent, and he made sure that he employed the best in their field. Most notable personalities that worked at his shop included Jesse James of “Monster Garage” and Chip Foose of “Overhaulin’”, long before they gained fame from their own automotive-related reality TV shows.
From what fans could glean from an interview with Chip, in the past it seemed that there was friction between the two guys and that it had something to do with whether Chip was given proper credit for his designs that came out of Boyd’s shop in the 1990s. It was also reported that there were properties that Chip believed to be his that were affected when one of Boyd’s companies went bankrupt. When Boyd died, Chip released a statement that read, ‘I appreciate all of the opportunities Boyd offered me while I worked with him and I owe a large part of my career and success to the great working relationship we had.’ He said that Boyd, who was like a second father to him, allowed all his employees the freedom to create, design and fabricate the best in custom vehicles.
Jesse who had his start at Boyd’s shop had said, ‘He just had the eye for cleanliness and design. The cars that came out of that original hot rod shop were amazing examples of graceful craftsmanship.’
“American Hot Rod”
Boyd’s creativity and personality seemed perfect for a reality television show. The bearded and bespectacled hot rodder was easily recognizable as he regularly donned Hawaiian shirts. He came across as loud, sharp-tongued, and cantankerous, so there was a lot of tension and drama at the shop, especially when deadlines were fast approaching. However, those who knew him and had been in his shop for years said that they had never seen Boyd work like that.
“American Hot Rod” premiered in 2004, and it followed Boyd and his crew as they constructed hot rods and custom cars at his shop in La Habra, California. The creation of one custom car was chronicled in three to four episodes, with each episode lasting an hour.
It ran for five seasons, and some of the work his team had done included the hand-made roadster nicknamed the Alumatub, the classic 1942 Woodie, the 1961 Chevy Impala Bubbletop, and an Elvis tribute car.
Convicted for fraud
In 2005, the State of California accused Boyd of fraud for allegedly passing off his custom-fabricated cars as ‘antique cars’ or older than they actually were in the titles submitted to the Department of Motor Vehicles; this was reportedly done to avoid tax obligations and emissions control regulations. Boyd pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge before the Sacramento County Superior Court, and was ordered to perform 160 hours of community service and pay a $3,000 fine.
His death at age 63
It was announced on 27 February 2008, that Boyd died at the Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier due to complications following surgery for a perforated colon, and kidney complications along with sepsis. He was a long-time diabetic, and had been admitted to hospital on 31 December 2007. Shortly after New Year’s Eve, he was released only to undergo surgery a few days later. He was survived by his third wife, Jo McGee, whom he married in 2002, and five children from three marriages.
Boyd Coddington changed the world of hot rodding. What set him apart from other hot rodders was that he designed and manufactured almost every part of the vehicle he constructed – his work set the standards for custom car design. He bagged the highly coveted America’s Most Beautiful Roadster Award six times, which was unprecedented, won the Daimler-Chrysler Design Excellence Award twice, and in 1988, he was Hot Rod magazine’s “Man of the Year,” and the 1933 Ford Coupe that he built landed on the cover of the Smithsonian Magazine.
Boyd was inducted into the National Rod & Custom Museum Hall of Fame, Grand National Roadster Show Hall of Fame, Route 66 Hall of Fame, and SEMA Hall of Fame.