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.

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.

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?!)

Jim later spent six months in a military hospital because of malnutrition. He was discharged in January 1946. Home from the hospital, Jim bought a '35 Dodge coupe for his basic transportation.

Get A Rod
First, Jim had to get a job, then a rod. Besides his paper route, Jim took his first and only job working for someone else when he was hired on as a mechanic for Dick Jones. It also happened that Jones was a member of a racing club.

In the meantime, Jim's younger brother, Earl, had a friend, Bud Moon, who owned a '31 Ford roadster. Earl told Jim about it and Jim bought what would become his first and only hot rod race car as well.

Jim peeled off $125 for the roadster in 1947. It had a stock head on a B-block engine, a cheap upgrade since the B engines produced 50 hp versus 40 hp for the Model A's, which gave him a leg up on the competition.

Jim had his friend, Jack McGrath (dry lake competitor, future Indy 500 competitor, and crack machinist) stroke the Model B crank. "Jack had a shop right next to the fire department in Highland Park on Figueroa and he was taking these cranks and stroking them and drilling them for full oil pressure."

With Bell Auto Parts only 12 miles from Highland Park, Jim was a frequent patron. "I got the Cragar head from Ronnie Ward. I only paid Ronnie $5 for it. I bought a lot of parts for my Cragar at Bell." Jim never registered his roadster. This was a hot rod, not a street rod, even though it had a license plate when Jim purchased it.

Blow-By's
Jim joined the Blow-By's Racing Club that was aptly named because they blew by a lot of the competition at the lakes and later in life (later changed their name to the Rev's). Russetta Timing Association was formed so its members could run coupes at their sanctioned events since SCTA only recognized roadsters early on, yet the members of the Blow-By's ran roadsters. Go figure.

Blow-By's member Larry "Chop Sticks" Shinoda would later become the lead designer of the '63 Corvette. Plus he led the design team of the Mustangs from 1970-73. Shinoda coined the name "Boss" for the 302.

Jim's employer Dick Jones was no ordinary garage owner. Jones later became the performance supervisor and head of R&D for Champion Spark Plugs in Long Beach.

Ronnie Ward worked for Frank Kurtis (Kurtis Kraft) and later for A.J. Watson, both winning Champ Car builders. According to Bowden, Ronnie also built his own Sprint Cars called Ron's Racers. (Sadly, they have all died.)

In 1947 Jim opened Occidental Garage (close to Occidental College) in L.A., doing what he loved, working on cars and the roadster. He specialized in tune-ups, brakes, and engine balancing.

Jim was in good company. Other mechanically gifted hot rod racers opened general auto repair garages in the L.A. area as well. Dick Burley, Jerry Kugel, Ak Miller, and Don Zabel concluded, there was no better way to make a living and still work on the race cars than in their own general repair garages.

Park It
"I went twice with Jim to El Mirage," Florence continues. "But I got so shook up when this girl Joan Selsing, who built her car-she did all the work on her '36 Ford coupe herself-had a boyfriend driving it for her. He drove it the day we were up at El Mirage and he was killed. I never went back after that. I asked Jim to quit racing.

"Jim said he was going to take the roadster out one more time to sell it. He came back with a club trophy instead," Florence laughs. Jim's trophy was from the Rev's for 7/24/49. Best Four-Cylinder "R" 106.49 mph.

While that tragedy rattled Florence enough to put her foot down, Jim put his foot down a few more times, too-on the go-pedal. After getting the trophy, Jim took the For Sale sign off the car and paid one last visit to El Mirage. "The car went 106.88," Jim recalls.

"My roadster sat in my mother's back yard for seven years. My brother Earl said, 'let's take it out to the drags.' Florence didn't want me to take it but I was hardheaded and went drag racing anyway. I got a trophy first time out, windshield on it and all, at the San Fernando Drag Strip-87 in the quarter."

Hardhead
Jim's hardheaded refusal to sell his roadster paid off at Famoso Drag Strip. "I took the radiator out of the roadster to try and lighten the thing up; I had just the top of the hood on it, and took the sides off. I had quick-release springs on the hood to hold it down. I went down the strip and the hood came up, I got off it and the hood went down. I got on it and it came up again. Got out of it and I thought I'd better get going. It finally blew off, and I tried to catch it, but the hood hit me in the head," Jim laughs. "It went 83 mph."

Jim ran nine times at the drags and collected six trophies. We can only speculate, had Jim decided to continue drag racing with his early successes, he might have been known as "B-Block Bowden."

Soft-spoken Jim Bowden is truly part of the great generation of hot rodders. Jim is not only a war hero who endured life-threatening hardships as a POW, but represents what early hot rodders were all about. When called upon to serve, they put the hot rods away and fought for their country with valor. They came home and went to work building this country.

Jim got out of the business but kept the property, which is leased out. Jim and Florence retired to Hesperia in 1994.

Jim was not a frequent racer, or a well-known one, but when Jim did compete he left his mark as his trophies attest. Jim raced when he and hot rodding were young. Both can be proud of their heritage. To call Mr. Bowden an unsung hero would be an understatement. Jim, you're a great American and I'm proud to have written your story.

Jim has never returned to the dry lake since the last time he ran in 1949. I will see to it that Jim and I are at the El Mirage meet May 2011.

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