"My dad was one of those guys...
"My dad was one of those guys who didn't believe in hot rods. He had the Willys given to him for fixing a screen door for a neighbor. It was an original '26 Willys Overland. My dad rebuilt the engine, upholstered the interior, painted it, and gave it to me ... my dad could do anything", Jim says.
If you owned a gow job back in the '30s, you owned a race car. You raced it on the street, then you went to the dry lakes and raced it. It was that simple. You might have only raced that "hot iron" a few times, just before World War II, or a "hot rod" just after, and you probably did so with little or no notoriety.
But by being a part of those formative years you became as much a part of the hot rod story as the record holders of that era. Jim Bowden of Hesperia, California, is one of those pioneering hot rodders worthy of these pages.
Jim Bowden's Story
His father gave Jim (born 1921) his first car, a '26 Willys Overland. Jim's dad got it for hanging a screen door for a neighbor for free and passed it onto Jim. Before he did that, he rebuilt the engine and painted the car. "It was a two-door with a wide window that made it nice for a paper route after school," Jim laughs. "It was an afternoon paper."
Later, Jim returned the Willys to his dad. "Once I got the paper route, I had my own money." Jim acquired a '36 Ford sedan while going to Franklin High School in Highland Park, California. My dad was one of those guys who didn't believe in hot rods," Jim says.
The beginning: It reads "In...
The beginning: It reads "In the makings?" with a question mark. It was time to put the memories, still fresh in Jim's mind of being a POW in Germany, behind him. Jim finished it alright, and built his single-purpose hot rod racer that did him proud at the lakes and the drags. Jim later upgraded the twin 97s to Winfield jugs.
Racing An Indy Winner
Jim and his buddy, Roger Ward ('59 and '62 Indy 500 winner), went to Franklin along with Ronnie, Roger's younger brother. Roger and Jim graduated from Franklin in 1941.
"Roger's dad had a wrecking yard in South Pasadena and Roger built himself a Model A roadster that had a four-port McDowell head" (used primarily for circle track racing).
Jim and Roger concentrated on what Jim called "hill climb" street racing up Monterey Road to Montecito Heights in L.A. off the Pasadena freeway on weekends. Jim won't say if Ward's hot A got the better of him. But we kind of know the answer.
Sycamore Drive In was a favorite hangout: "I saw my first A-V8 at the drive in," Jim says, "that belonged to a guy who went to Franklin. He and his dad built it; in fact I think that was the first A-V8 (Flathead Ford V-8 stuffed in a Model A) ever built.
"It was raining one night; I was in my '36 Ford. This old lady ran out in front of me and I knocked her down. I stopped, she wasn't hurt, but when the cops came, I was arrested. I had to go to court and my cousin went with me. They put me in the old Lincoln Heights Jail and my cousin drove my car back home. I was there for seven days. I was released the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941."
Jim went to Muroc before the war to spectate. Like most, he was amazed at the size of the place and the thrill of such a phenomenon. His '36 wasn't racing material but he vowed that he'd return and race at the lakes one day.
Jim was strictly a four-banger...
Jim was strictly a four-banger man, which consisted of a B-block ('32-34 Ford four-cylinder block) with a Cragar overhead valve rocker arm head with a stroked crank, stock Model A rods, and Winfield jugs. Ronnie Ward (Roger Ward's younger brother) welded the exhaust. "Jack McGrath (Indy 500 competitor, CRA Champion in 1946) stroked the crank."
A True Hot Rod Hero
Jim sold the '36 and entered the Army in 1942 where he saw combat in the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) in France. Jim became a POW when he was captured in France and sent to Kommando No. 663B in Augsburg, Germany.
"They treated us alright because we were ground troops, but the guys who flew ... they weren't treated very nice at all. (Augsburg was heavily bombed during the war). We ate a lot of potato stew, but I still like potatoes," Jim says.
"The guards at the camp were old and they knew the war was lost, so we all marched out of the camp together. We were trying to get to Switzerland (a neutral country during the war). We were on the road when four P-51 fighter planes flew overhead. Our lead American officer told us not to run. The pilots tipped their wings when they realized who we were. I was liberated on my mother's birthday, April 27, 1945."
Jim hitched a ride home after being released from Camp Beale in California. "He asked the driver to let him off a couple of blocks from where his parents lived," began Jim's wife Florence. "Jim's mother was coming out of a grocery store when she saw Jim and she was in shock." (Is this the makings for a movie or what?!)
That's Jim (left) next to...
That's Jim (left) next to fellow Blow-By's member, the late-Howie Markham. Markham purchased Bob Rufi's historic rear-motored Chevy-4 streamliner. (Rufi cranked off 143.54 mph in 1940 at Harper Dry Lake for an even 140 record.). Rufi was at the Oct. 10, 1948 event to watch Markham run. Markham replaced the Chevy four-cylinder of Rufi's with a Ford B-block, Cyclone head, Duelon cam, and two Winfield jugs cranking off a two-way average of 123.88 mph.
"Noise By Cragar." How cool...
"Noise By Cragar." How cool is that? Throw the earplugs away 'cause there's nothing like the sound of a B-block banger uncorked. "When you put in lot of compression they crackle a lot," Jim says. No Flathead Ford or Chevy V-8s for Jim. His Cragar four-banger lived its entire life of 19 years in the `31 roadster until the day he sold it. And yes, the noise was music to the ears of a Four-Ever-Four kind of guy.
Jim proudly stands next to...
Jim proudly stands next to his hot rod at El Mirage-trap speed that day of 102.47 mph in his B-block four-cylinder. He would ultimately coax his Ford roadster to 106.88 mph on July 24, 1949. Notice how the roadster was evolving? The stance changed from sitting high to getting down in the second picture taken on the lake. Besides it looks way cool with the rake. And it went a lot faster too.
The reporter might have been...
The reporter might have been a bit overzealous with the facts when writing this newspaper caption. Jim's Chevy was fast, with the hot truck engine he installed, but not a 140 mph-fast towing Markham (not Rufi) that day.
Jim's vintage Russetta Timing...
Jim's vintage Russetta Timing tags are worth mucho at swap meets today. He's cherished them since the day he received each one of them.