My friend and mentor of twenty five years Bill Summers past away this morning, Friday the 13th of May 2011. I will surely miss him as we talked frequently and he would always start off the conversation without ever saying who it was. He would start out every phone call with “What are you up to today?” It always took me a few seconds to figure out who was calling and I never got used to it. He would always ask how the rocket car construction was progressing and no matter what I told him he understood. He really asked it out of consideration because rocket cars are of absolutely no interest to a Chrysler engine automobile man.
Bill and his younger brother Bob AKA “Butch” started building hot rods in the late 1950s. They started running at Bonneville with a roadster and then later a streamliner which were both powered by Chrysler hemispherical head engines. Bill said “We were always Chrysler guys and that was it. You could do whatever to those engines and they stayed together.” Their early streamliner affectionately known as the “Pollywog” was a very novel front wheel drive design and ran to a new class record of 305 M.P.H. in the early 1960s. Butch and Bill shared the driving but Butch was the better driver of the team so Bill let Butch drive all the later creations. Butch was studying fabrication and welding with various famous LSR guys such as Fred Carillo who was Butch’s mentor and taught him the finer points of building exotic machinery. Butch got so good that later Butch even taught welding at the college. Meanwhile Bill drove trucks to fund the race car building and campaigns.
Bill and Butch Summers are famous in the land speed record racing world for building the “Goldenrod”. Goldenrod was a 32 foot long, 6,000 pound, four wheel drive, four engine automobile which set the wheel driven record of 409 M.P.H. in the winter of 1965. The car was a super streamlined vehicle (8.65 square feet of frontal area at a Cd. Of .17) whose body was designed by famous aerodynamicist Walter Korf. Walter was promised a few thousand dollars for his work but was never paid for his world beating design as promised and never complained about it as all the money that was generated from sponsors actually went into the car and the attempt. Walter was happy to see Donald Campbell’s one year old 403 M.P.H. record fall in only nine runs made by the Goldenrod on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The success of the Goldenrod made Walter even more famous in the racing world and his consulting business did better after that. By contrast, Donald Campbell was after his wheel driven land speed record with cutting edge aircraft technology, a turbine engine of twice the horse power of Goldenrod and a total of $6 Million dollars spent on the project during 5 years of work. Remember this is in 1964!
Bill told me he figures they spent a total of $175,000.00 on the Goldenrod project. Although magazines claim $250,000.00 was spent. The 4 engines that powered the Goldenrod were essentially stock 1964 vintage Chrysler 426 cubic inch Hemis using a mechanical fuel injection. The engines were all dyno tested showing between 418 and 425 horse power as each engine varied. These figures were achieved running the engines on straight pump gasoline. Magazines and books claim the engines were making 600 horsepower and Bill told me that they never were dyno tested running the fuel that they used for the record runs which was straight Methanol. He guessed that 600 was about what it might be and when asked by the press how much horsepower each engine made, Bill said 600 because it sounded like a good round number. This gave the Goldenrod a theoretical “guestimated” output of 2,400 horsepower but it was all just a story.
In the end the Goldenrod ran as high as 431 miles per hour on one pass in only third gear and she was a four speed. No one really knew how fast the car could really run flat out but a top speed of 500 M.P.H. was not considered out of its reach. All other 500 plus M.P.H. top end numbers posted on websites are just folklore.
After the record runs the brothers didn’t know what to do next and they never cared much for jet or rocket cars at all so there was no point in going after the absolute land speed record. They had accomplished what they set out to do, build the world’s fastest automobile so Bill took the car on the car show circuit and Butch started Summers Brothers Machine Inc. This was a company which specialized in developing high performance drive line components for racing applications. Butch who had driven the Goldenrod to record speeds and had designed the chassis and all the mechanical systems of the Goldenrod now had no interest in the car as he was solely focused on the new business based in Ontario, California. “He made it very successful.” Bill said. “Once Butch was done with something that was it, he was done and moved on to something else. I was the one who really reaped the glory from the Goldenrod and he didn’t care much about it after the record runs.”
Irony being what it is Butch who was a runner and a bit health conscious died about twenty years ago from a heart attack. Bill who was a heavy man with terrible eating habits outlived his younger and much thinner brother. Later the Goldenrod was sold to the Henry Ford museum of technology in Detroit where it now resides. Bill split the money with Butch’s widow and paid off his modest house and began building a new lakester to run on the dirt (El Mirage) and the Bonneville Salt Flats later this year. Sadly he didn’t live long enough to see what it could do.
One little story I can tell you now that Bill has passed is that the name of Goldenrod was actually sort of stolen or borrowed from another racer who was campaigning another class streamliner on the salt flats. Bill said “The other guy really wasn’t doing much with the name or having any real class speed record success with the name so I stole it. I liked the name so I used it. The other racer never contacted me about it so I figured it was OK.” It sure was….. Bill and Butch made the name “Goldenrod” internationally famous…….Waldo