What is the Enduring Appeal of the Earliest Style Traditional Hot Rods – David Conwill @Hemmings

What is the Enduring Appeal of the Earliest Style Traditional Hot Rods – David Conwill @Hemmings


Gow Jobs Revealed

What’s a gow job? Quite simply, “gow job” is a handy term for differentiating the kinds of home-built performance cars constructed before World War II from those that came after. The phrase itself is old-time California-speak. Its origins, and even pronunciation, are hotly debated—those who were there, like centenarian camshaft grinder Ed “Isky” Iskenderian, pronounce “gow” to rhyme with “cow.” We suspect the true etymology is simply the word “go” spoken by the Southern-accented immigrants from dust-bowl Arkansas and Oklahoma who were flowing into California in the ’20s and ’30s. Blame Hot Rod magazine for the term falling out of favor: that periodical’s 1948 debut got the rest of the country calling any car modified for speed or acceleration a hot rod instead.

Still, the nomenclature change is useful. Gows evolved out of existence after the war, but as our cover car demonstrates, their revival has been under way since the 1970s and has only picked up steam since. The new participants were all born after the hot rod took over—many were born after the ’70s—suggesting there’s a lot more at play here than mere nostalgia. Style, simplicity, and fun are the big reasons people are putting these cars together—the time-travel aspect is there, but one gets the sense that the big appeal is the same as it was when they were done the first time. They’re great looking cars that are easy to build and a blast to drive.

Photo by David and Penny Conwill

1930 Ford Model A/V-8 Coupe – Brian Lundgren

If the gow job is defined at the near end of its existence by its evolution into the hot rod, it must similarly be compared with the speedster at the time of its origins. A huge aftermarket grew up in the 1920s catering to Ford Model T owners (with add-on mechanical braking systems to supplement Ford’s transmission brake being perhaps the single most sought-after accessory) and the extremely affordable, even disposable, nature of used Fords made them the perfect basis for a homebuilt motorized machine of any type. Making a Model T go faster was mostly a matter of discarding the body and fenders, rigging up some seats and a fuel tank, and going for a spin. Lowering, custom bodywork, and other refinements soon followed.

It wasn’t long before aftermarket pieces and the speedster ethos found their way into stock-bodied cars. Some outfits, like Los Angeles’ Sterling Garage, took to offering new or nearly new Fords already lowered, fitted with wire wheels, and tuned up using speed parts from vendors like Rajo, Roof, Laurel, and Frontenac. They were the Yenko Camaros and Shelby Mustangs of their day and inspired emulators for the next 15 years.

For historical as well as practical reasons, most gow jobs begin with a Ford Model T or Model A, though any marque is fair game. The wood-heavy construction of other brands means there aren’t as many surviving bodies, however; plus, Ford has long held an insurmountable edge in the speed-parts area. It’s also worth noting that while most of the original gow jobs were roadsters or touring cars, coupe and sedan bodies have become more popular with time. Although they’re heavier, the comfort can’t be discounted, and there’s no denying they look wonderful when done correctly. The weight penalty isn’t much and most of these cars aren’t being created primarily for competition anyway.


A Burns intake manifold adapts a Stromberg 81 two-barrel carburetor to the original engine in Gabby Goodwin’s 1929 Ford Model A roadster. The 81 was a small-venturi version of the Stromberg EE created for the 60-hp, 136-cu.in. Ford V-8 engines of 1937-’40. Gabby’s engine also boasts the high-compression head Ford supplied to the law-enforcement market, which has earned it the name “police head.”

When it comes to gow job engines, it’s all about the flatheads. Certainly, F-heads, overheads, and overhead-cam engines all existed before WWII, but the clear favorites, then and now, are the Ford flathead engines of 1909-1953, even if they’ve been retrofit with one of the multiple aftermarket cylinder heads that were created for converting a Ford. In stock form, the Ford flatheads were simple, they were robust, and they were produced in huge numbers, making them straightforward and relatively inexpensive to obtain even today. Ford even did the future gow jobber a big favor by keeping the Model T and Model A four-cylinder engines in production for replacement and industrial use through 1941, long after both cars had been supplanted.

The 20-hp Model T engine, designed as it was during the brass-era, is clearly the most primitive of the bunch. Its ignition was a low-tension magneto built into the flywheel, most used thermosiphon cooling rather than a water pump, and its crankshaft is often described as resembling a bent paperclip. That said, it also had the most highly developed aftermarket of its era and is still the most affordable powerplant. Full-race engines have a noble competition history, including multiple appearances in the Indianapolis 500 in the ’20s and early ’30s (one placed fifth in 1923, and another qualified at 108.395 mph in ’31). On the ragged edge, the little 177-cu. in. units will produce 100 hp, and a 60- hp unit is mild enough to give reliable power to a Model T gow job, which in turn is plenty light enough to be a spirited performer with such a mill.

The 40-hp Model A engine of 1928- ’31 and its 50-hp Model B successor of 1932-’34—though they’re also flathead inline fours—share little with the Model T powerplant. They’re physically larger, though not so enormous they can’t be stuffed into a T frame. More than one car currently in the gow job scene is making use of a carefully restored (and thus anvil reliable) Model A engine to double the horsepower of a flyweight Model T. In its original home, the A/B four-banger is easily hopped up using vintage and modern aftermarket pieces.

Best known to the younger generation, of course, are the Ford flathead V-8 engines that came out for 1932 and lasted in domestic production through 1953 (Canadian cars kept them a year longer and the French military was still procuring them into the 1960s). The most gow-jobby of the group are the original-style mills of 1932-’36. They’re recognizable because the water pumps are in the cylinder heads rather than on the block, as with 1937-up engines. The downsides are that they are small (221- cu.in. versus 239 to 255 for later cars), they weren’t as powerful in stock form (65-85 hp), and they were only produced during the Great Depression, when the aftermarket was at its nadir, so speed parts for them are hard to come by and pricey. Many folks fudge slightly and go to the later engines.

There’s no disguising the center-outlet heads of a ’37-up engine, but that’s okay. An early 21-head-stud V-8 looks like a period upgrade, and a ’39-’48 24-stud engine is close to indistinguishable. Squint your eyes, and the ’49-’53 engine (with coolant outlets at the front of the heads) does an okay job standing in for a ’32-’36 unit, even if the water pumps are in the wrong spot. The real trick to keeping a period feeling with an anachronistic V-8 seems to be avoiding obviously postwar speed parts, like finned-aluminum cylinder heads.

Of course, like hot rodding, gow jobbery has never been a strictly Ford thing. The 1916-’28 Chevrolet four-cylinder has a popular and successful history as a performance engine, especially when equipped with the three-exhaust-port cylinder head from a 1923 Oldsmobile. Dodge, Plymouth, and even Studebaker or Buick engines are all fair game if simply owning a period-modified prewar car isn’t quite enough individualism for you.

Backing up the Ford engines, one finds almost exclusively a floor-shifted three-speed manual transmission connected to a matching Ford rear axle via a driveshaft enclosed in a torque tube. The Model A transmission and its accompanying heavy flywheel aren’t quite as easy to drive as the ’32-’39 unit, which includes synchronizers on second and third gear. Parts exist to adapt the ’32-’39 gearbox to a Model A block, and engines fitted with counterweighted crankshafts can dispense with the heavy flywheel for faster revving, but owners of street-driven cars rarely report issue with the A transmission once they’ve gotten comfortable with shifting it.

The Model T, of course, has its own two-speed, pedal-controlled planetary transmission—though once again, the aftermarket of the 1920s furnished a lot of parts to attempt to improve on that. Auxiliary transmissions from the likes of Warford, Chicago, and General offered under-, over-, and direct-drive gearing behind the Ford transmission. The two-speed Ruckstell rear end was so universally popular that Ford blessed it as an authorized accessory for dealers to install.

While the Ford “banjo” (named for its shape) rear axle, like the early Ford transmission, has a reputation for weakness among modern-day street rodders, that’s mainly an artifact of postwar experience with extremely high power. Remember that high-test, leaded gasoline in 1940 was only about 87 octane, so it was quite rare for a Ford rear axle to be pounded with high power levels. Moreover, the tall-and-skinny tires of the day tend to promote wheelspin over traction, relieving the strain on the axle’s innards.

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