Brit-beating land-speed-record holder Bill Summers is dead at 75

In 1965, with a shiny, gold streamliner they'd built in a shed — and four Hemi V8s — brothers Bill and Bob "Butch" Summers ended the longstanding British rule over the wheel-driven land-speed record. Bill Summers died last week at 75.

Before the Summers arrived on the land-speed scene during the early 1960s, the wheel-driven speed record had been dominated by British drivers — first John Cobb then Donald Campbell — since 1947.

Typical of the scrappy California hotrodding spirit of the time, the Summers brothers — Bill a truck driver and Bob a welder — beat the better-funded Brits in a sleek, gold-painted streamliner the brothers had built in an abandoned California fruit stand.

It was called Goldenrod; the name came from its lancelike profile and paintjob, but more important was the small frontal area that allowed it to pierce the air. Before Goldenrod, most wheel-driven land-speed cars, like the Bluebird CN7 in which Campbell had reached 403.135 mph in 1964 — had their engines side-by-side. In a masterwork of packaging, the Summers placed four, fuel-injected, naturally aspirated Chrysler Hemi V8s, totaling 3,000hp, in a single line. The front two engines drove the front wheels, the rear drove the rear wheels.

It was at the Bonneville Salt Flats on November 12, 1965 that the Goldenrod, with Bob at the controls, set the record, nailing an average top speed of the two runs required by the FIA of 409.277 mph. In a 2005 article, Hot Rod notes the Goldenrod made another pass at 425 mph a day later, but the brothers did not make a return run — for unknown reasons — so it didn't count for the record. The Summers' record held until 1991, when Al Teague averaged 409.986 in a car powered by a blown Hemi. Since 2001, Don Vesco has held the current record of 458.440, which he averaged in the turbine-powered "Turbinator".

In the years following the record-setting run, the Summers brothers ran a company that produced axles for drag racing cars. Bob died in 1991. According to the New York Times, Bill Summers died on May 12 of natural causes at his home in Ontario, California. The Goldenrod, recently restored, resides at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan.