American International Pictures was responsible for creating the Beach Party phenomenon in the 1960s. And though Columbia’s 1959 movie Gidget is credited with inspiring the Beach Party series, it was AIP’s own Hot Rod Gang which first established the archetype for those movies with the formula of pairing music with romance. In fact, it was the screenwriter of Hot Rod Gang, Lou Rusoff, who was assigned to pen the very first Beach Party film.
Hot Rod Gang follows John Abernathy III (John Ashley) as he races hot rods with his friends and car enthusiasts. Afterwards, they reconvene at their clubhouse where John entertains his cohorts with his rock band.
John lives with his spinster aunts and is the heir to his deceased father’s millions. Even though he lives the life of a racer/rocker by day, he keeps it a secret from his family, putting on the front of an overeducated socialite at home. John doesn’t have access to the money quite yet and stilld has to prove his worthiness.
Early on, John is being hunted down by a police officer for driving through a puddle and splashing a stodgy old man. The old man happens to be Mr. Philpott (Lester Dorr)–one of the attorneys who is helping decide if John is deemed fit for his inheritance. Luckily, Mr. Philpott doesn’t know that John is the racer who splashed him. But his associate’s daughter, Lois Cavendish (Jody Fair), recognizes him, but chooses not to rat him out. Lois and John develop a romance over the course of the film and actually have a nice chemistry.
John and his friends aren’t able to make enough money to pay the rent on their clubhouse, so John performs incognito (because he’s wanted by the law for splashing an old guy) with rock legend Gene Vincent in order to get the money.
Hot Rod Gang abandons one plot for another about halfway through. The entire story about John being hunted down by the cops for splashing in a puddle gets completely forgotten about. Throughout the second half, the same cop encounters John and the gang a few times with no mention that he’s even still looking for the fugitive racer.
It’s a curiously complicated and convoluted plot that gets rushed through, and then stretched thin due to all the extra time created for itself. There’s tons of filler. Of the 73 minute runtime, at least 20 minutes are spent on song performances.
Filled with quirky humor and equally quirky characters, led by John’s genuinely funny aunts who alternate names every week out of boredom, Hot Rod Gang has its moments amidst its typical drive-in movie fair.
We get to watch a movie depicting the generation gap that existed during the Post-War automotive craze. Old people didn’t understand all the hoopla surrounding cars and rock ‘n’ roll. Referred to as “suped-up can openers”, automobiles are eye-rolling to most of the people in this film.
Still, at 73 minutes Hot Rod Gang is fairly harmless, if not a fun and delightfully wacky glimpse at a past era.