MYSTERY MODEL A 1953

Model A roadster in 1953

Someone, somewhere, sometime–possibly as much as 10 years ago–accosted me with “How come you never give credit to [so-and-so]? He was just as good a builder as Doane Spenser. He’s the one who did all the work on that black Model A roadster that Paul Chamberlain gets all the credit for.” The problem is that I can’t remember who told me this, where it was, and certainly not the name of the obviously talented rod-builder. It was only later that I discovered several photos of this car in my archives, in a folder simply marked “Pomona 8-18-53, Casa Colina Benefit”. The folder contains three proof sheets of 35mm photos, 20 shots each, and I’ve written “Racer Brown” on the back as photographer. The best part is all the original 65-year-old negatives are there, and that’s what I scanned to make these photos. The only other thing I know is that Casa Colina is a hospital near Pomona that benefitted from this well-attended drag race.

So I’ve started with a full-frame photo of the ’29 roadster in question, taking off down the nicely repaved strip on the western edge of the L.A. County Fairgrounds (where the NHRA Winternationals are still held today), to show how it looked in ’53, with the once-familiar warehouse across the street. Later the timing “tower” was moved to the right side of the track, which would have been directly behind the roadster in this photo. But in ’53 it was on the same side as the photographer, with bigger spectator stands beside it, and the pits and parking lot behind. The only other thing to note in this photo is that the car has chrome wheels with “baldy” hubcaps on the rear as well as the front.

Model A roadster in 1953

And here’s a view looking down the track as it’s flagged off on a later single run (note painted rear wheels, probably with larger tires). You see the well-known pumphouse at the left of the finish line in the distance, and the usual gaggle of onlookers behind the chain-link fence on the right. Not much later they planted a thick hedge along the fence to block the view.

OK, now let’s take a closer look at this very slick A-bone, to see what my forgotten haggler was talking about:

Model A roadster in 1953

Model A roadster in 1953

In the photo above you’ve got to love all the white T-shirts, cuffed Levis, and I’m betting some blue suede shoes. But rodders will see how all the body lines have been deftly hammered/shrunk out of the A body, the hand-made 3-piece hood, filled ’32 shell, and arrow-straight panels with perfect fit (check the trunk and hood). The hood panels were even chromed, and then the louvers masked off before the flawless black lacquer paint. The very nicely done upholstery was red and black.

Model A roadster in 1953    The gas tank was relocated and a ’40 Standard dash beautifully molded into the cowl, along with a matching wheel and column shift. Of course there’s a tach on the column. But apparently no windshield was fitted. There’s just a lot we don’t know about this car–or its builder–beyond what we can see in these rare photos. For instance, you probably detected the fully chromed axle-behind-spring ’40 Ford front suspension and Model A roadster in 1953brakes. What you can’t see is a steering arm below the axle to clear the radius rod and headers. We also know nothing about the 4-carb flathead, except it appears to say “Smith” on the heads(?). With a generator and headlights in place, we assume it’s built to drive on the street, even without a windshield and probably no fenders. However, we do detect small tow-bar tabs on the front frame horns, likely in place of a front nerf bar to match the rear. You can barely see “hidden” hood latches in the left side panel, similar to those common on 3-piece hoods today. I even think the doors are flush-fit, but it’s hard to tell in these photos.

Model A roadster in 1953

Now here’s the “tell” photo. Not only can you see this hiboy sits on Deuce rails, with neatly crafted side pipes, and plenty of beautiful chrome, but look closely at the driver. His left arm is fully decorated in ink. The design, at least in part, appears to be a dragon or lizard of some sort. Tats were not uncommon in the early ’50s, especially after the Korean war, but a full sleeve like this was something rare. Just assuming the driver is also the owner/builder of this amazing roadster, who the heck is he?

Paul Chamberlain Model A roadster

Now this, of course, is how the car looked when owned from ’59-’61 by my neighbor and friend Paul Chamberlain. He bought it from someone (not the original builder) who crashed it on Angeles Crest Highway, tearing off one front wheel and badly bending the axle/suspension. Besides fixing the damage, adding a windshield (Dodge) and fenders, and some fresh paint, he also installed a new 300-inch 4-carb flathead. When this photo was taken in the oft-seen Petersen parking lot by Eric Rickman for a feature in the Sept. ’60 Hot Rod, 19-yr. old Paul was an L.A. Roadsters member and Art Center College student. In ’61 Paul made a deal to sell the car to the L.A. Roadsters for a set amount, so they could in turn raffle it off at the 2nd Roadster Show–not successfully, as I understand (they didn’t try that again). Paul says, from what he heard, the new owner tangled with a city bus, totalling the roadster. It’s certainly never been seen since. More mystery.

Special Bonus:

Next to this folder in my files was another labeled Pomona 1-4-53, with “By Racer” penciled on it by me long ago. This one has 4×5 proofs and negs, and I think this was the first big NHRA meet, also held at Pomona and ultimately won by the Bean Bandits dragster. But as I was thumbing through the many photos, this surprisingly similar (and nice) ’29 roadster caught my attention.

1929 roadster at Pomona 1953

Viewing this top-end action shot on the proof sheet, I thought at first it had a ’27 T body. The Hallock-style V-windshield is obvious, and not only does it lack a roll bar, but the driver doesn’t even have a helmet! Also, check the orange groves that used to be across the street, where the airport is now.

1929 roadster at Pomona 1953

From this start-line angle, it’s obviously a ’28-’29 A, with even more body-smoothing than the prior one (the wheelwells are filled). At first it looks a bit like Scotty’s or Calori’s, but the pipes go down instead of up. And the tonneau has a Tony Nancy look, but the clearly visible driver is older than Tony would have been in ’53. Hammering out those body lines–especially as smoothly as on both of these–was a huge job. Many don’t even like the look. But it’s amazing to see two very similar, yet different, ones in the same place at nearly the same time.

And One More:

Although these hiboys are racing on the track, they have license plates and were obviously driven on the street, as well. But how about this one parked in the spectator lot, along with some nice, slightly newer rides?

Model A roadster

With its wire wheels, unchromed and undropped axle, and stock A frame, it hearkens from a slightly earlier era, but it’s still a very nice piece, especially for a driver. Who’s was it? Who knows? Another mystery.

Hopefully I’ve satisfied some yearning for early drag race coverage. And maybe whetted your curiosity enough to find some answers. If you can I.D. that tatted roadster driver/builder, email me and let me know. Better yet, forward this column to anyone you think might have a clue–or who would just enjoy it. On the other hand, if you’re yearning to see something else from my files, tell me. I’ve probably got it. And I’m happy to share.