The film was originally intended for television release, and was in fact shot in the 4:3 "full-screen" aspect ratio that persisted on television for decades even after film had long since gone to wide-screen aspect ratios of 1.65:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. When the project was finished, however, the producers deemed it too intense for television and released it to theaters (including drive-in theaters) instead, with a runtime of 92 minutes.
Based originally on a Saturday Evening Post story, the movie project originally had the title 52 Miles to Terror
Eventually, ABC-TV bought the broadcast rights and exhibited the film on their ABC Sunday Night Movie series in 1968. Unaccountably, they used a print having a runtime of 100 minutes. When Turner Classic Movies bought the rights to MGM's extensive film library, they acquired the 100-minute print.
Traveling salesman Tom Phillips (Dana Andrews) is driving home to Boston, Massachusetts for Christmas when he encounters a drunken driver on a rain-streaked road. He cannot avoid a collision, and is hospitalized with spinal damage. Since he cannot be a traveling salesman anymore, his brother arranges for Tom to buy a remote motel in the desert town of Mayville, California. Tom is reluctant, since he has never been an innkeeper before—but in the end he decides that he must travel in order to get as far away from the site of his accident as possible, as soon as possible.
So Tom sets out for California with his wife, teen-aged daughter, and son. But when they reach the desert they are accosted by a pair of drag racers and a "party girl" in a modified, high-performance 1958 Chevrolet Corvette who jokingly force them to swerve and avoid a collision.
This is only the first of a series of escalating encounters with the local youth. Teenaged children of relatively well-off local farmers, they are apparently given "everything they want" but are still bored and are locked in a never-ending desire for "kicks" in which they will never be satisfied. The adults, including the owner of a local filling station, are fed-up with them. One of these adults, however, turns out to own the very motel that Tom Phillips has bought—and he is selling out after having let the wayward youth use his motel as an illicit trysting place for years.
When Tom tells the filling-station owner that he has "just bought himself a motel," one of the kids, named Ernie (Gene Kirkwood), overhears. Soon after, he tells his friend Duke (Paul Bertoya), who is the driver of the Corvette. Duke organizes a campaign of harassment against Tom and chases the hapless family all the way to the motel.
Matters come to a dangerous head when Tom's daughter (Laurie Mock), fascinated by Duke, goes to see him in the motel bar and grill, called the "Arena." Duke's current girlfriend Gloria (Mimsy Farmer), in a jealous rage, informs Tom, who tries to strangle Duke—but his back goes out and he must desist. He then informs the former motel owner (George Ives) that he will not go through with the sale. This causes a confrontation between the former owner and the youths, which ends when the owner tells Duke and Ernie that Tom is going to the next town to "bring the police down on this place."
Duke and Ernie resolve never to let Tom Phillips reach that town—and so, as the family tries to escape, they engage them in a deadly game of "chicken." This game ends only when Tom outwits the teenagers by parking his car on a narrow bridge, with the headlights on, evacuating him and his family to a safe spot twenty yards off the road. Faced with an unmoving object, Duke turns "chicken" himself, running his car off the edge of the bridge—after which he and Ernie, bruised, battered, and with scraped knees, swear that they will never give Tom any trouble. Tom agrees not to turn them in to the police—but tells them that he will go back to his motel and run it properly from now on.Dana Andrews as Tom Phillips
Jeanne Crain as Peg Phillips, his wife
Paul Bertoya as Duke, leader of the wayward youth
Gene Kirkwood as Ernie, Duke's sidekick
Mimsy Farmer as Gloria, Duke's girlfriend
Laurie Mock as Tina, Tom Phillips' daughter
Jeffrey Bryon (credited as Tim Stafford) as Jamie, Tom Phillips' son
George Ives as Lank Dailey, owner of Dailey's Motel and the Arena roadhouse
William Mims as Man at Picnic
Hortense Petra and Peter Oliphant as his wife and son
Paul Genge as an unnamed California Highway Patrol officer
Charles P. Thompson as Charley, the elderly filling-station owner
Harry Hickox as Bill, Tom Phillips' brother
Filmed largely near the Southern California desert town Lake Los Angeles and Wilsona Gardens, east of Palmdale, California. Specific locations include "Charlie's Last Chance" gas station 34°40′15.27″N 117°49′37.88″W; 150th Street E, where a majority of chase scenes were filmed, 34°38′31.45″N 117°51′46.25″W; and the exact location of the narrow bridge crash at the end of the film (the bridge was actually constructed by the film crew) 34°38′43.59″N 117°51′46.58″W. The "Arena" exteriors were filmed in Calabasas, California at a place then known as "Billingsley's Steak Ranch" near the intersection of Highway 101 and Las Virgenes Road. The buildings as seen in the film were torn down in 1975, but the location is 34°08′49.51″N 118°41′54.20″W.
Hot Rods to Hell received nearly universal scorn from critics but had a profitable run, given its very modest budget, grossing over a million dollars. It received no major award nominations. Over the years, Hot Rods to Hell developed a cult following and has a website devoted to it.
Hot Rods to Hell was released on Region 1 DVD on June 26, 2007, by Warner Home Video. The DVD has been modified from the original 4:3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio to a widescreen format of 16:9 (approximately 1.85:1). This was done by both cropping the top and bottom of the frame, however, more information on the sides is viewable from the original 4:3 television presentation as well.