When is a hot rod not a hot rod? When it was built in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, a hot rod was called a “hop-up,” “soup-up,” or “gow job” (from “gowed up,” meaning intoxicated).1 The typical gow job started from a Ford 4-cylinder Model A (1928-32) or Model B (1932-34) that had been stripped down and performance enhanced for speed. As one hot rod enthusiast notes, “Hot rods are built to burn rubber.”2
A Model A’s top speed was 55 to 60 mph. To increase this top limit, a gow job mechanic would remove anything unnessary – fenders, bumpers, windows – to improve the power to weight ratio. The roof could also be lowered or the windshield removed.
The real action was under the hood (if it still existed). The mechanic intent on speed could choose specialty parts from a variety of SoCal manufacturers. Stripped down, souped up, a Model A or B could go 80-90 mph, with the fastest cars topping 100 mph.3
Farmers with a talent for mechanical ingenuity took their souped up cars out on country roads to race. Later, meets were held at dry lakes where the cars could really be opened up and safety was less of a concern. One of the earliest timed dry lake meets was held at Muroc Lake, Kern County (now part of Edwards Air Force Base) in 1931. By 1938, the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) was operating time trial meets, and over 300 racers participated at Muroc Lake.4
Hot rodding still attracts numerous car club enthusiasts throughout California, and the SCTA still holds land speed trials at Bonneville Flats, Utah, where some of the fastest vehicles in the world come to make their mark on history.
See a slice of Hot Rod history at the new exhibit
HOT RODS: Wheels in Fields
Visit our website: www.aghistory.org
1 Gow was derived from “yao-kao” – Cantonese for opium. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gow
2 Vincent, Peter, Hot Rod An American Original, 2001, MBI Publishing, St. Paul, MN.
3 Montgomery, Don, Hot Rods As they Were, 1989, AM Graphics, San Marcos, CA.