In many ways, the terms used to describe the myriad body styles of hot rods read like scientific names for chemical compounds. Take dihydrogen monoxide, for instance: two atoms of hydrogen with one atom of oxygen. While it sounds like some complicated chemical jargon, it’s really just water, H2O.
When you’re equipped with the nuts and bolts of hot-rodding vocabulary, you can easily decipher the plethora of terms used to denote different body styles. Similar to chemical nomenclature, the different names are highly specific—and useful to know. Today we’re going to break down the terms used to describe the exact molecular chain of automotive features that comprise some of our favorite custom rides.
Strange name, right? Before the term “hot rod” was in vogue (many early gearheads actually found the term derogatory), the preferred nomenclature was “gow job” or simply “gow.”
Most people consider the genesis of hot rodding to take place after WWII, when soldiers returned to the U.S. fascinated by mechanized transportation and eager to use their newfound mechanical skills. However, these pre-war gow jobs were the true pioneers. (At the time, the term “hot rod” was reserved for the retro equivalent of a vape-smoking dude-bro in his straight-piped 350Z.) Gows were machines of function over form and often sported a somewhat ragged appearance, thanks to their builders’ penchant for removing “unnecessary” body panels to save weight in early land speed and beach racing.
While the term is usually applied to hopped-up Model-Ts, the etymology of the word “gow” goes back to the 1800s and the Cantonese word for opium, “yao-kao.” The term was used in horse racing to describe drugged-up or “gowwed-up” horses, and the phrase made a short leap to early hot rods that were similarly hopped up for performance. It wasn’t until the post-war era that “hot” evolved to describe something cool, hip, or fast and “hot rod” became the universal term for a modified car.
Similar to “gow,” the term “coupe” hails from the horse-and-buggy days before the advent of automobiles. Horse-drawn carriages—specifically, coaches—were the four-door sedans of their time, equipped with multiple rows of seating to carry around a group of people. The word “coupe” itself comes from the French verb meaning to cut. In contrast to heavy, people-hauling coaches, horse-drawn coupes were shortened carriages centered around a lighter package with single-row seating for personal transportation.
It comes as no surprise that two-door cars with fixed roofs quickly donned the title. Of course, there are many shades of coupes, so …