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.
Can a car built in a vegetable stand be a national treasure? It can if it is packed with ingenious engineering ideas, set a world speed record, and embodies important national characteristics.
The long, low, slim car called Goldenrod is all these things, and is a national treasure.
Goldenrod was built by a pair of California hot rodders, brothers Bill and Bob Summers. For years they participated in the annual Speed Weeks competition at Utah’s vast Bonneville Salt Flats, where they went as fast as 323 miles per hour in a car they built themselves. In 1963 they decided to go after the absolute land speed record of 394.196 mph, set by John Cobb in 1947. Cobb was one of a succession of wealthy Englishmen who had held the record over the years, driving well-financed cars powered by huge airplane engines.
Before Bob and Bill could get started, another Englishman, Donald Campbell, broke Cobb’s record with a speed of 403.10 mph. In 1964 and 1965 other American hot rodders used cars powered by jet aircraft engines to push the record to over 600 mph. But many people, like the Summers brothers, thought using jet engines wasn’t quite fair—they believed that real cars were driven by friction between tires and the ground. So no jet engines for Bob and Bill.
The Summers brothers believed that the key to a successful car was minimizing the resistance of air flowing over the moving car--and that the best way to do this was to make the car as small as possible. To put it simply: it is easier to punch a small hole through the air than a large hole. After testing models in a California Institute of Technology wind tunnel, they designed a car lower and narrower than any land speed record contender in history—48 inches wide, 42 inches high at the top of the tail fin, and only 28 inches high at the engine covers. Into this slim space they packed a quartet of 426 cubic inch Chrysler “hemi” V8 engines and the machinery necessary to power all four wheels. At the extreme rear sat the driver, Bob Summers. It was an amazing feat of engineering, and was so logical and successful that it set the paradigm for future Bonneville streamliner racers. Over 40 years later, long and slim is still the way these cars are built.
Financing Goldenrod was as big a challenge as actually building it. As land speed record cars go, Goldenrod was an economy car. Its $250,000 cost was well below the $3,000,000 Donald Campbell needed to build the car whose record Goldenrod broke. But $250,000 was far more than the Summers brothers had. So they beat the bushes searching for companies who would help pay the costs in exchange for having their corporate name on the car. The turning point came when George Hurst, maker of specialty gear shifting mechanisms and forged wheels, agreed to be a sponsor. Firestone Tire & Rubber then signed on to make the special low profile tires and wheels needed to fit inside the narrow envelope of the body. Chrysler Corporation agreed to loan the brothers four “hemi” engines, while Mobil Oil provided fuel and funding.
Construction on Goldenrod began in January 1965 in a shop that had once been a vegetable stand. By August the machine was done, and in September the brothers were at Bonneville working out the bugs that were inevitable in a car this innovative and complex. After two months of testing and modification all was ready. On November 12, Bob Summers blasted down the Bonneville salt with a run of 417 mph. International rules required two runs, in opposite directions, within one hour. After the car was thoroughly inspected, he set off on his return run with only five minutes to spare. His second run was good enough for a two-way average of 409.277 mph.
The brothers had their record. It would stand for over 25 years.
1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester Land Speed Race Car / THF90122
What do you get when you mix a war surplus fuel tank, an Oldsmobile engine, and a boatload of ingenuity? You get The Henry Ford’s latest automotive acquisition, the Lakester.
During World War II aircraft designers looking for ways to extend the range of fighter planes came up with the idea of hanging expendable auxiliary fuel tanks under the wings or fuselages of aircraft. These teardrop-shaped tanks could be jettisoned when they were empty. When Bill Burke, a California hot rodder serving in the Navy, saw some of these tanks on Guadalcanal, he thought they would make nifty bodies for streamlined racing cars. After the war, Burke put his idea into action.
Surplus drop tanks (also called wing tanks or belly tanks) were available for as little as $35. Burke squeezed an engine, driver’s seat, and running gear inside the tank, leaving the wheels and axles exposed. Burke raced the slick little car at El Mirage, a large, flat dry lake bed north of Los Angeles where hot rodders ran their vehicles in straight-away top speed runs against the clock. Other hot rodders soon copied Burke’s idea and over time the new cars came to be called “lakesters” because they were built to run at the dry lakes.
Cockpit of the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90112
I have long wanted to add a lakester to The Henry Ford’s collection of race cars, because lakesters embody ingenuity and resourcefulness, and because they are peculiarly American. For years I have had my eye on one of the most successful and famous lakesters, a car built and driven by another California hot rodder, Tom Beatty. In 2009 the car came up for auction and we were finally able to acquire it.
Techno Talk Warning: The following paragraph is a technical description of Tom Beatty’s car for the benefit of “car geeks” (like the writer). If you are bored by discussions of chrome-moly tubing and swing axles, skip to the last paragraph.
Part of the attraction of Tom Beatty’s car is its sheer technical virtuosity. It looks like lots of other belly tank lakesters, but underneath the aluminum teardrop it is very different. Most lakester builders used a simple parallel rail frame, but Beatty welded up a complex space frame from chrome-moly steel tubing. It was stiffer and safer in an accident. Most lakesters ran without a rear suspension, but Beatty devised a swing axle independent rear suspension that helped the car maintain traction over the sometimes rough dry lake surface, or at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Engine and Drivetrain on the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90115
Beatty was also one of the first hot rodders to experiment with supercharging, adapting GMC blowers to his flathead Ford engines. The car first ran at the 1951 Bonneville Speed Week, turning a top speed of 188.284 mph. Over the years Beatty kept improving the car, moving to supercharged Oldsmobile engines in 1959. By the time Beatty retired from racing after 1965 season, the lakester had gone 243.438 mph, and was the oldest car running at Bonneville.
As it sits on the floor of Henry Ford Museum, Tom Beatty’s car looks a little rough. The paint is chipped and the body is dinged. But it looks today much as it did the last time it ran in anger at Bonneville, and we will not restore it. We will do only what is necessary to preserve it. After all, you don’t mess with an American original.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in March 2021.