A Hot Rod Before Its Time: Ford’s Model A, With a Boost

Dominic Palazzolo occasionally shows up at car shows and cruise-ins, but he’s far from a typical enthusiast. The hopped-up 1930 Ford Model A he drives is a “gow job,” a hot rod from before the term “hot rod” was coined: a car built almost exclusively with 1930s mechanical components, yet capable of besting a lot of modern automobiles at a stoplight.

“Gow” was once a term for opium, which was used to improve the performance of racehorses in the early 20th century. Thus, in 1930 — long before hot rodding went mainstream after World War II — a hopped-up car was a gow job. Roughly 20 years later, automotive enthusiasts would coin the word “hot rod.” But the seeds of America’s high-performance hobby were planted on the dry lake beds of California in the late 1920s.

What made our grandfathers want to soup up their cars? History suggests that we humans have always wanted to know whose machine was fastest. We’re wired to compete. Chariot racing became a part of the ancient Olympic Games in 680 B.C. Neighbors in horse-drawn carriages have challenged one another since their buggies first ruled the road. Less than 10 years after the first automobile rumbled to life in 1886, rudimentary cars were raced on two continents.

Some of America’s earliest informal auto-racing events took place at Muroc Dry Lake in California in the 1920s. The vast expanse of the lake bed allowed ample room for acceleration. (A fact not lost on the U.S. military, which sited what is now Edwards Air Force Base at Muroc in 1938.) But in the years preceding the military takeover, many young daredevils pushed their Ford Model T’s and Model A’s to speeds they were never meant to achieve on the lake bed’s hard, sunbaked surface. Most of the cars were stripped of unnecessary parts like fenders and interior trim to reduce their weight, and the engines were modified to produce quite a bit more horsepower than Henry Ford had endowed them with.

Many of the early entries were Ford Model T’s, but when the Detroit automaker introduced the Model A for the 1928 model year, those with a taste for speed recognized its potential. One of the earliest dry lake events for which records exist was held in 1931. The winner was Ike Trone, driving a 1929 Model A roadster that had been fitted with a Riley cylinder head and various other performance parts bought from nascent garage-based entrepreneurs who would eventually become part of a huge California automotive performance industry.

Keith Allen, Judy Allen and Dominic Palazzolo with their Ford Model A “gow job.” Stripped down and with a modified engine, it can beat some late-model cars across the intersection when the light goes green.Credit…Paul Stenquist

It was that type of machine — a throwback Model A lakester — that Mr. Palazzolo, 65, acquired when he bought a 1930 Model A from his friends Keith and Judy Allen. All live in Macomb County, Mich., about 35 miles northeast of Detroit.

The car had been modified the old-school way by the Allens, an old-school couple. Keith Allen is a 77-year-old self-taught mechanic with a penchant for the Ford Model A. Both Allens are purists, devotees of traditional hot rodding who have owned and modified many early Fords, so they sold the car to Mr. Palazzolo with stipulations: It would never be equipped with a V-8, and no changes to its configuration would be made without all three parties agreeing on it. It was a bond meant to safeguard the honor of a special machine.

When the Allens built the car half a dozen years ago or so, it was a masterpiece of the scavenging art: Find the parts here, there and everywhere, make them whole again and assemble a car from the ground up. Mr. Allen found some pristine Model A body parts in a garage in the Irish Hills area of Michigan and took them to a prewar Ford sheet metal expert who assembled them using original Model A rivets.

A chassis, bought separately, was fitted with rebuilt but original equipment: brakes, steering and drivetrain parts, along with a used but serviceable Model A engine. Mrs. Allen, who works shoulder to shoulder with her husband, found a set of somewhat wider 1935-style tires at a swap meet, and she mounted them on Ford wheels of the same vintage — just as prewar enthusiasts would have done. The Allens drove the car for a while but blew the worn engine.

The couple saw that as an opportunity to fit the car with the kind of “banger” engine that a modified Model A of the mid-30s — one of the cars that first raced on the dry lakes — might have had.

A hot “banger,” as in four-banger. The Model A engine features a hot cam, twin carbs, a shaved head, increased displacement and more. Enough to take a Model A to about 80 m.p.h.Credit…Paul Stenquist

The 3.3-liter engine as delivered from the Ford factory puts out about 40 horsepower. To give it considerably more punch, Mr. Allen applied age-old engine modifications, including increasing the engine’s compression ratio and its displacement. Both were achieved by machining engine parts. The single carburetor and intake manifold that Henry Ford had specified for his engine were replaced with two carburetors on an aftermarket-supplied intake manifold that is an exact reproduction of those available in the 1930s. To help the engine draw in air and expel exhaust more efficiently, a camshaft with a bit more lift and duration was assigned the task of opening and closing the engine’s valves. All parts were available to 1930s enthusiasts.

The transmission and rear end were rebuilt using Model A parts. Thus, the transmission is without the synchronizers that smooth gearshifts in modern manual transmissions, so operating it requires practice and skill.

When Mr. Palazzolo bought the car, he revamped the interior with seats from a Model A Tudor sedan. Model A roadsters were originally equipped with a bench seat, but Mr. Palazzolo preferred the individual seats of the Tudor. Today, most would call them bucket seats, but in the ’30s they were known as jump seats, because to move from one seat to the other, a jump of sorts was required.

The Model A cockpit demands much of the driver. The spark control rod is at left on the steering wheel. The throttle control rod is at right. To start the automobile, the spark is retarded to prevent kickback and the throttle is opened slightly with the rod.Credit…Paul Stenquist

Mr. Palazzolo added a folding canvas top, which would have been considered an unnecessary luxury by Jazz Age Model A racers, but it shields the driver and passenger a bit when the weather gets nasty. Lakester racers who owned a top undoubtedly would have removed it for speed runs, as extra weight and aerodynamic impediments were a liability when maximum speed was the goal.

Mr. Palazzolo has had the car up to 70 miles an hour on rare occasions and says it’s probably capable of 80 or more, but the narrow bias-ply tires deliver a less-than-reassuring ride at high speed. The dry-lake racers were daredevils, but Mr. Palazzolo doesn’t see himself in that role. However, he is a longtime automotive enthusiast with mechanical skills who enjoys working on the car as needed, and he considers himself a grateful student of the Allens.

“I think of Keith as my stepbrother,” he said. “My wife, Dody, and I are good friends of Keith and Judy Allen and spend a lot of time with them. Their respect for history and tradition made me want to own, wrench and drive this car. I love it. It’s different. It’s something few others have.”

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