by Grant MacLaren 314.560.2054
The earliest hot rods were the result of an ingeniously simple idea: Take a vehicle that's cheap and readily available, cut it up to remove some weight, lower it and fit some fat tires. Soup up or swap out the engine. Open up the exhaust; maybe customize it and paint it a wild color. Using some ingenuity, an inexpensive vehicle coud be modified, made to perform better and look "cool." (Although the word "cool" was not yet in use.)
There wasn't a prescribed set of rules. In fact, rules were meant to be broken. How come that simple formula has become so rigid and difficult today -- not to mention expensive? Hot rodding started out as kinda fun and easy going. Why can't it still be? Well, it can --
The following letter appeared in the December, 2001 Street Rodder magazine:
Gow Jobs and Other Stuff
Here are the answers to your questions about the origin of terms like hop-up, gow job, soup-up, etc. The origin of these terms seems to puzzle everyone but I believe I know where they came from and what they mean.
In California in the '40s and early '50s hot rodders despised the term "hot rod" and never used it. They considered it I black eve. To the general public a hot rod was beat-up jalopy with no muffler, careening through a school zone with a juvenile delinquent at the wheel. To the newspapers they were a menace on par with Communism and ought to be stamped out by the police. To the serious .student of speed who had a lot of brains, sweat, and money tied up in a sophisticated performance car, this was nothing but an insult.
They used the terms hop-up or gow job. So where did these come from? Well, "hop" and "gow" were names for opium which were in use as far back as the late 1800s and probably came from the Chinese. In the old days they improved the performance of race horses with drugs including opium and cocaine. This was not even illegal until the early '20s and continued surreptitiously after that. Even today the performance enhancement of human athletes and horses is nor unknown.
A horse that went faster than it had any right to, was said to be 'hopped-up" or "gowed-up". From there it was a short step to apply the same names to a souped-up car. By the way, human drug users got the same names. If you read a few hard-boiled detective stories from the '30s and '40s you will soon find reference to "hopped-up punks" and "gowed-up hoodlums."
As far as "soup" goes, in the '20s, nitroglycerine was called "soup" in the under-world. It was not easy to get -- safe crackers had to extract it from dynamite. It was all illegal substance and possession was evidence of criminal intent, like burglar tools. Hence the code name. "souped-up" probably referred to a race car running on exotic fuel. I know that in the '20s it was possible to buy special racing fuel from the big oil companies. An old-time motorcycle mechanic told me of taking a can of such fuel to the races where his employer had bikes competing, then pouring the leftover fuel into the tank of his hopped-up Ford, and how fast it went on the way home.
In the '50s they began to use nitromethane, which is a close relative of nitroglycerine. Small world. By that time "souped-up" had acquired the general meaning it has today and hot fuel users coined new terms like "pop" and "nitro."
Now on "hot rod." It is important to remember that until 1955, people used "hot" the way they use "cool" today. A hot date, a hot swing band with a hot trumpet player, a hot time. The reverse -- something inferior -- was not so hot. This was appropriate for hot rods because they actually did run hotter than normal cars, literally as well as figuratively. I have heard the story of the race promoter who abbreviated "hot roadster" to "hot rod" on his posters, but this does not ring quite true. I'm withholding judgment on this one until I see more evidence.