The following interview was conducted in 2006 by the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive with early hot rod Dry Lake racer Hyman “Blackie” Gold. Blackie became a friend of Pancho Barnes about 2 years after she relocated from Pasadena to Muroc on her Rancho Oro Verde. This interview features an excerpt from the coming book, VOICES FROM THE HAPPY BOTTOM RIDING CLUB.
(All photos copyright Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive.)
“My name is Hyman “Blackie” Gold and I was born February 28, 1914. My first job was at a Ford agency, Fortner and Loud, located on the northwest corner of Colorado and Hill in Pasadena, California. I started there as a grease monkey. I was 10 years old. And they said, “We can’t call you Hyman. We’ll call you Blackie.” I have been Blackie ever since.
As a result of working there I hung around with the very first hot rod club in the US that was founded in Pasadena, called the Knight Riders. And back then all the race cars were Ford Model T’s. Only model T’s. T’s were cheap. You could buy one used back then for $10. Remember, this was back in 1924. And the guys in the Club would meet up at and hang out at Roy Davidson’s garage on Lake Street in Pasadena and they were always working on their hot rods and talking Model T’s. Some guys today will tell you that they never heard of the term ‘hot rods’ being used back in the 1920’s and 1930’s and that the term came into being in the 1940’s. But that is a bunch of malarkey because they were not even alive back then and they never started with Model T’s. So, they didn’t know the history.
The term ‘hot rods’ happened because when you raced those Model T cars for any length of time, the rods would come loose from the crank shaft because there was too much play. And so the guys were always working on the rods. You never had to do that once Ford introduced the V8 flathead in 1932. And since these younger guys never had to play around with the rods in the V8’s they didn’t know the history of the term.
After leaving Fortner and Loud I worked as a mechanic at Al’s Speed Shop which was behind a gas station also located in Pasadena. I must have built 100 engines in there. I was the mechanic in the hot rod shop. My pal, Bud Hasse in Pasadena, who worked at his father’s gas station, owned a Ford Model A. Bud was a member of the Night Riders and one day I went with him on one of his racing adventures out to Muroc Dry Lake as his mechanic. Back then, out there, the Army Air Corps had a landing field further out on the dry lakes where they practiced take off and landings and the occasional practice bomb drops. And on one of our runs on the dry lake we hit a big bomb hole. And that was the only car we had since we drove it out there. Fortunately, we had brought some wire with us and we tied the car back together again as best we could and headed home. Lucky for us the wire operation held and we got home OK, but it was a wild ride back because the car was pulling so hard to the side because of the damage to the alignment of the wheels. So that adventure is how I got the racing bug.
I didn’t start racing hot rods until 1931 when I was 17 years old. I didn’t know much about racing. I started out racing Model T’s and Model A’s. The Model T had been around since 1908 and had a front-mounted 177-cubic-inch inline four-cylinder 20 horse power engine. That stock engine provided a top speed of 42 mph. The Model A came out in 1927 and had a L-head inline four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 201 cu inches. The stock engine provided 40hp with a top speed around 65 mph. Of course, with fooling around with the mechanics and engine we were able to increase the speed of the cars.
Back then no one had the engineering in their head like they do today. Back then we used the old-fashioned method of learning by trial and error. It was done in step-wise experimentation. You would not change everything at once, and instead just change one thing on the engine, stick with it for awhile and then see if you can improve that particular function. Then you try another part or method, and so on. So, it started with the model T’s which were flatheads. And then someone would design and build an overhead valve instead of a flathead and find that increased performance. And that’s the way you progress.
As time went on, as a mechanic, I had started working on the 1932 Ford roadster in June of 1932…and they had only come out that March. That car was revolutionary because it had the newly introduced 221 cubic inch cast iron flathead V-8 engine. Some guy brought his ‘32 roadster into the shop because it needed a new clutch and a pressure plate. So that was my first work on a 1932 Ford roadster. It was learning by doing, since no one knew yet how to work on a V8 flathead. They had not existed before.
So, I had a lot of experience with the V8 engine by the time I bought my first 1932 roadster in 1935. My first 1932 roadster I bought from some guy in Eagle Rock who sold it to me for $75. And it was mechanically just like it came out of the factory, but it needed new paint and upholstery and repair to the exhaust system. And the smog was so bad that I had to drive it home with my head hanging out the side window because it was coming up through the floor boards. It would make you sick! At that time, with the stock V8 engine, you were lucky to get 65mph out of that pile of junk.
I didn’t start racing V8’s until 1936. And I was the very first person to race the Ford 1932 roadster on the dry lake at Muroc back in 1936. When I brought out my ‘32 roadster to the Muroc Dry Lake they didn’t initially think much of it. For the next 2 years I was the only one racing 32’s. Back then V8’s were not very popular because no one knew anything about them. But being mechanically inclined you start to learn about them. So I worked on them to increase the engine’s performance. And I got it to run like 80 miles an hour back in 1936 which is not very fast by today’s standards, but it was pretty impressive back then. I remember that I was so happy when I got up to 90 mph in 1939. I really feel that I put 1932’s on the map. And that was because I started with 32’s.
The only thing out on the Muroc Dry Lake in 1936 near to where we did our runs was the desert, railroad tracks, a water tower used to fill the steam engines, and a ranch run by a gal named Pancho Barnes. She had a ranch-hand boyfriend, Logan “Granny” Nourse, who was into cars and generally a very skilled mechanic. And Pancho and he would come out to watch us race and chat us up. Sometimes she brought along her son Billy. Pancho was quite intelligent, a single mom, and a real character. She would bring us cold desert punch and big thick tasty sandwiches. Pancho Barnes had many friends working in the movies, and that year, the Hollywood crowd discovered what was going on out at Muroc Dry Lakes, and soon they were filming a movie “Speed” with Jimmy Stewart.
Pancho Barnes was a pilot, loved all things speed, and had even broke some speed record that Amelia Earhart has previously held. Many of the other guys from the Knight Riders Club knew her from her days in Pasadena where she grew up. She also loved cars, especially fast cars. And a couple of the club members were also pilots. She referred to us as her ‘Speed Demons.’ Chuck Johnson from the Knight Riders was a pilot and had a Jenny JN-4 that he bought from the government surplus left over after WWI. And he was one of the guys who I learned a lot about cars from. And he also knew Pancho Barnes. He had earlier mentioned her in conversations and talked about some of her accomplishments and escapades and her good nature and kindnesses. So I knew somethings about Pancho Barnes before I met her.
When you race on the dry lakes you have to get there very early, before the heat sets in. And so to make sure we were there and rested the day of racing, we would show up the evening before and sleep on the dry lake until morning. Then we could have our fun. Later, after Pancho came onto the scene around 1936, she would let us set up a tent camp on her property and she’d make sure we got properly fed and had a good early morning breakfast as well.
You wanted to be able to be in the first runs on the dry lake, because when it rained, and then dried, it was almost like a clay pad with crinkles. And so the more it was raced on the more it broke up. And if you were later in the line-up you’d get lots of dust and sand, which was not ideal. The guys who ran in the morning got a better shot because by noontime it was blazing hot and the dust was heavy during the quarter mile run. Also, when it is morning, it is cooler so your gas is condensed and the air is condensed, and you can go faster. There might be a 100 cars there waiting in line for their run, and the guys at the front of the line always ran faster than the guys toward the end of the line.
Later, some of the guys from the nearby Army Air Corps base would join us and also race cars. Those guys were all about speed: speed in the air in their planes and speed on the ground in their hot rod cars. They had some really great mechanics.
Around 1936 I founded a club called The Night Flyers, in honor of the Knight Riders. The Night Flyers, our club, was one of the first members of the SCTA which was founded in 1937. Each club had their own name to identify themselves. And each guys’ racing times were compared against another member in your club, or against any member for any other club. And so you tried to have the best run times for your club and be the #1 club. We had about 25 guys in our club initially, which was pretty good. Our club had a great reputation and started to grow. So some of the guys in our club that were from Sierra Madre created their own club, and called it the Night Flyers II of Sierra Madre.
As a result of the activities of the Army Air Corps, by 1938 there were a lot of bomb holes out there on that Muroc Dry Lake and so when the desert got too beat up, we’d go to Rosamond and race there. But then we would go back to Muroc, because after a time, the rain and wind would eventually smooth out the desert land and it would be great for racing again. We preferred Muroc because it was a bigger and flatter dry lake. You could depend on it. But then because the Army Air Corps established their bombing and gunnery range close by, the Muroc Dry Lakes became off limits to the hot rodders, so we moved permanently to El Mirage.
World War II arrived and racing came to a halt out on the Dry Lakes. After the War we were ready to resume some fun. By then, some of us would head over to Pancho Barnes’ ranch after we were done racing to celebrate our runs and for some food, fun and a cool-down swim in her pool. We became gratis members of her ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club,’ because her place was now a private members-only club. She let us use one of the rooms in her hotel to shower and clean up. By 1948 she had a fairly large drive-in, fly-in dude ranch business going. Her food there was always top notch, as were the conversations. It was a time to celebrate life and friendships, and Pancho was usually there holding court. She was a great-storyteller and had a tremendous sense of humor.
The last time I saw Pancho Barnes was in 1950, and every time I saw her she always had a big smile waiting for me.
Blackie has been working on V8’s since their introduction in 1932. Blackie worked in Pasadena and Glendale CA at Fortner-Loud, Mallory Motors, Al’s Speed Shop, Velocity Motors and Thomas Engine. When he worked for Velocity Motors in Glendale the cars from there won or placed in the Indy 500 races 1st – 2nd, 1st– 2nd and 1st – 3rd three years in a row. He then went on to work for Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena from 1956 until he retired in 1973. He helped send rockets to the moon.
At the time of the interview Blackie was living in Tucson, Arizona. He was a member of the Southern Arizona Early V8 Ford Club of America, the Tucson Touring T’s, Model T Ford Club, and the Old Pueblo Touring Association. Blackie was still being called upon to help out with engine problems and was busy as ever keeping the old cars on the road. Ask anyone in the car hobby who to call on engine problems, and they would tell you to call Blackie, and he will be there and have you back on the road in no time. At the time of the interview, Blackie was 92 years young and still making trips back to California to visit his daughter Susan, and finding time to visit some of his old stomping grounds. Blackie passed away in 2013 at age 99.