Fifty years ago today, brothers Bob and Bill Summers of Ontario, California, earned their place in the record books when Goldenrod, their four-engine streamlined über hot rod, averaged 409.277 miles per hour on the Bonneville Salt Flats. It would take 45 years for another non-supercharged, wheel-driven car to best their mark. Not bad for a couple of California dreamers working out of a vegetable stand.
Well, that’s not quite true. Oh, it’s true that their shop was in a converted vegetable stand, but the implication – that they were kids who got lucky – isn’t fair at all. The Summers brothers were Bonneville veterans, having built and raced a series of imaginative cars on the salt since 1954. And, while the brothers themselves were not wealthy, they had well-heeled corporate sponsors supporting Goldenrod. So no, this was no fly-by-night operation.
The early 1960s saw a revolution at Bonneville unlike anything since serious land speed racing started at the western Utah ancient lake bed in the 1930s. Drivers like Craig Breedlove in his celebrated Spirit of America hit 400, 500 and 600 miles per hour using jet power. These cars were more like airplanes without wings. There was no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels – jet thrust literally pushed the car across the salt.
To purists like the Summers brothers, these jet vehicles weren’t sporting. A real car had wheels driven by the engine – being pushed by a jet or a rocket didn’t count. To a degree, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile – the French agency that governs land speed records – concurred when it created special classes for wheel-driven cars. Jet cars would still claim the absolute speed records, but FIA ensured that traditionally-powered racers would get their due. The Summers brothers set their sights on 403.1 miles per hour, the record set by Briton Donald Campbell in his wheel-driven car Bluebird in 1964.
Race cars run on money, so Bob put together some conceptual drawings and pitched potential sponsors. He heard many a "no" until he met with George Hurst of Hurst Performance Products. Hurst loved the idea and became the brothers’ key benefactor, helping them get additional support from Chrysler, Mobil Oil and Firestone, and sending the occasional check whenever the Summers’ funds ran low. The sponsors all anticipated a flood of publicity – if the car worked.
Bill and Bob set up shop in that converted vegetable stand with a small crew, essentially working around the clock through 1965. Goldenrod, in its finished form, was powered by four Chrysler "Hemi" V-8 engines, each producing 600 horsepower. Surprisingly, the engines were largely stock, with no superchargers to tease out additional horses. The engines sat in a row, producing a car 32 feet long. But Goldenrod was only 48 inches wide, and a mere 28 inches high at the hoods. The narrow, low profile came from wind tunnel tests at the California Institute of Technology. Goldenrod didn’t have a jet engine, but its aluminum body slipped through the air with all the efficiency of a jet airplane.
With Goldenrod finished, the brothers made their first Bonneville run on September 1. They fought a continuous struggle against mechanical bugs and bad weather, and twice took Goldenrod back to California for modifications before returning to Utah. By November, the project was running on borrowed money and borrowed time. Drizzle on the morning of November 12 meant that conditions weren’t ideal, but they were good enough. Bob strapped into Goldenrod’s cockpit and, with a push to get started, hit the throttle at 9:25 AM. Per FIA rules, he had to make an out-and-back round trip within one hour. The average speed between those runs would become his official mark. After a safety check at the far end of the 12-mile straightaway, Bob headed back with just five minutes to spare. When the judges announced the average – 409.277 miles per hour – the Summers crew erupted in cheers. The record was theirs. While the sponsors were elated, Bob and Bill wanted to try again. They believed Goldenrod was capable of 425 – and maybe even 450. But the sponsors, who’d already issued press releases bragging about 409, nixed another attempt.
As it was, the Summers’ record stood until 1991 when Al Teague hit 425 in his supercharged racer. It wasn’t until 2010 when Charles Nearburg bested Goldenrod with another naturally aspirated car at 414. Goldenrod held the absolute wheel-driven record for 26 years, and its class record for 45.
The Henry Ford acquired Goldenrod in 2002 and, after a careful conservation effort supported by a Save America’s Treasures grant, moved it into Henry Ford Museum in 2006, where it’s been wowing visitors ever since. Goldenrod – along with associated artifacts and photos – is a testament to what can be accomplished with limitless determination, and it serves as a reminder of our endless fascination with speed. We invite you to celebrate the car’s 50th anniversary with a special film commemorating the Summers brothers, their car and their incredible record.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
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