Sit back. Relax. Maybe kick your shoes off. It’s nearly 11 AM here, I’ve got my chores done, I’m in my slippers, and have a fresh cup of coffee. I’d rather be out in the garage installing the seats, gas pedal, and throttle linkage on our ’33 sedan. But it’s pouring rain out there, my old California garage has no heat, and it’s not attached to the house. So I’m going to stay here where it’s warm and cozy, and tell you about a bunch of stuff I learned about that slick, black mysterious Model A I showed you racing at Pomona in 1953, plus the young, T-shirted and tatted, unidentified owner, driver, and (maybe) builder.
Yes, this one. And the reason I want you to get comfortable is because now that I’m retired, I don’t have a managing editor saying, “Ganahl, you’ve got 500 words and 10 photos. Don’t go over.” Ha. We’ve dug up about 50 photos, some conflicting stories, a few answers, and much remaining mystery.
When I posted that column a few weeks ago, I asked if anyone out there had any idea who this guy was. That evening I got one phone call, from Tom Branch. He’s the guy who’s quite well-known for his gold, channeled ’32 roadster, not to mention wife Diana’s blue, hammered ’32 sedan, both powered by hot Studebaker V8s. They now live in San Gabriel, with a backyard full of hot rods. But Tom grew up in a once-seedy area called El Sereno, south of So. Pasadena. In between is Alhambra, and a main, divided avenue that runs east and west through the area is Huntington Drive. All this figures in the story.
The guy’s name was “Topper” is what Tom told me. At least that’s what everybody called him. His full name was Maurice “Topper” Chasse. And while he started with hot rods in the late ’40s and early ’50s, he bought a Porsche coupe in 1955, and from then on, until his death in 2005, he was quite active in the Porsche Owners Club as an owner/driver, car builder, and racing instructor. He also started some sort of civil engineering business, with an office on Main St. in Alhambra, plus he acquired an abandoned Standard Oil service station training center on Huntington Dr. (at Main), that he turned into a “hobby shop” where he stored some Porsches, a couple of restored Model A’s, trophies, photos, and so on. At this site, which included an old gas station, he held “cars and coffee” type get-togethers on certain weekend mornings for invited Porsche, other sports car, and even hot rod clubs. Tom just happened to be cruising by in his roadster one of these mornings, pulled in to see what was going on, and met “Topper,” who was eager to show him photos of his old hot rods, including the black ’29 in question, and tell stories.
Tom said this was in ’04 or early ’05, and he made arrangements to come back with a camera to copy photos and a tape recorder for the stories.
The first thing Topper wanted to show Tom was an article from the L.A. Herald Examiner from’48 or ’49 about how the police chased him in his chopped ’32 5-widow coupe, until he lost control and crashed into a hot dog stand. We’ll get to Topper’s earlier rods in a minute, but Tom was more interested in the beautiful, black Model A that he knew was
later Paul Chamberlain’s. Topper claimed that he built this car himself, and “Won the L.A. Motor Sports and Hot Rod Show” with it. He also obviously drag raced it. He said he built the roadster around ’52, and he bought his first Porsche in ’55. So what happened to the ’29?
First off, you have to remember that we’re dealing with 50-60 year old memories here. You remember that Paul Chamberlain said he bought the car from some guy (not the original owner/builder) who lived in a little old house with a 1-car garage in Highland Park, who had lost control on Angeles Crest Highway above Pasadena, hit a bank, and knocked the right front wheel straight back, bending the axle, but not much else. He paid $500 for it (he thought less engine, but photos prove otherwise). The Sept. ’60 Hot Rod feature, written by Tex Smith, stated “Paul added a ’32 frame, then filled and boxed it. Car had been rolled down a mountain when he bought it for $400.” Just because something’s written in a magazine doesn’t mean it’s true.
What Topper told Tom Branch, on the other hand, is much different, as well. He said he and a friend were going up to Lake Elizabeth, where his parents had a cabin. This would have been up Bouquet Canyon Rd., the route rodders took to Muroc and other desert dry lakes. They were likely hot-footin’ it up the canyon, when they hit some rocks or gravel, lost control, and “flipped the car.” Topper went into much detail, saying his friend was thrown clear, but he stayed inside, and the driver’s door came down on his arm, breaking it. He said they had to flag down a passing car to take him to a hospital, because his arm was “crushed.” Asked what became of the car, he said two brothers from Eagle Rock came and got it “for nearly nothing.” That part we know is correct. The strange thing is that Topper claimed he had no idea what became of the car, and never saw it again–this despite it’s HRM 2-page feature, and being seen on many L.A. Roadster runs.
Still with us? Comfy? There’s more. Some of the photos are fuzzy, but still worth seeing. Nobody seems to know when, how, or why he got the name “Topper,” though he was
described as a “ladies’ man.” He also served in the Navy just after WW II, which is when he likely got tattooed. He said the chopped and channeled ’32 5-W coupe was his first hot rod, which he bought as-is in ’47 or ’48.
In the fuzz-o-graphs above, besides the well-supported girlfriend, it looks like the Deuce might have been freshly painted and fitted with a Slingshot 2-carb intake.
We can’t read the license tag on this chopped ’27 T roadster pickup on an A frame, but he said he got this, again as-is, as a “work truck” around 1951. The house and garage look like the one Paul described, where he got the damaged roadster.
We assume that’s Topper on the left. The engine shot on the right is quite surprising, in contrast to the level of detail and chrome on his roadster just a year or so later.
On the other hand, Topper also had this very tasty ’40 Standard coupe about the same time. You have to squint a bit, but you’ll see chrome wheels(?) with baldy caps, a louvered hood, custom upholstery, three carbs on a detailed flatty, chrome hood hinges, and even a gauge in the firewall. Given the first two cars, my personal assumption is that he bought this car, and the roadster, pretty much the way they were. He never claimed to do bodywork or paint (as far as I could ascertain), and hired others to do this work in his Porsche shop.Now, what does this previously unseen photo tell us? It’s really hard to say. He’s got a very nice ’40 coupe in the background. Plus he now has this fully painted and upholstered Model A roadster, with a ton metalwork done on the body and a whole lot of speed parts and chrome on the engine and chassis. It’s an axle-behind-spring ’40 front end, but many parts show skilled hand-crafting, such as the headers, headlight stands, shock mounts, and the teardrop split radius-rod frame attachments (which don’t show here). The car is obviously incomplete here, being “built” to one extent or another. We just don’t know the exact story, and I couldn’t find anybody who could tell me anything else about Topper.
More from Paul
Paul Chamberlain was at my house a couple weeks ago, as I was working on this, so I started drilling him about more details on the roadster. The first thing he said, emphatically was “What did I know? I was a 17-yr. old high school kid. I was just getting into the hot rod thing. My dad loaned me the money to buy the car, and my older brother and I went down to get it.” This was ’57 or ’58. Paul lived in Eagle Rock, which was then a hotbed of hot rodding and home to several L.A. Roadsters members. Colorado Blvd. ran right through it, from Glendale to Pasadena. And right across the street was his 2-yr. older best friend, Alan Johnson, who was driving a powder blue, chopped, Hemi-powered Deuce 3-window built by John Geraghty, and later sold to E.R. neighbor Lloyd Bakan. Alan’s the one who knew the damaged ’29 was available, and guided Paul in rebuilding it. And then Paul surprised me by saying, “Topper. That’s what they called this guy I bought the car from. Topper.” So it wasn’t some clueless schmuck who bought this beautiful car and then crashed it on Angeles Crest, as Paul had thought. It was Topper. That’s 17-yr. old Paul in his new roadster the day he brought it home. Topper put some junk wheels and tires on it, and stripped parts off the engine. But otherwise it’s quite complete and not much damaged. You can see the frame horns are bent, as is the right headlight, and there’s some damage on the lower right grille shell. You really can’t tell that the right front wheel and axle is bent straight back about six inches, but you can see the culprit in this and the prior photo. Even though the stretch-dropped axle ends have been filled, they were stretched really thin, allowing it to bend there. Being chromed, it’s surprising it didn’t crack or break, and it’s amazing the radius rod, header, and hood were unharmed.
Paul says of this first-day photo, “You should see the front tire on the other side.” Harder to see in this soft pic is the torn upholstery on the tack strip, just behind the driver. Paul also “sorta” remembers some small dent in the body back there. Could this car have flipped, crushed Topper’s arm, and only done this much damage? Seems impossible. But nobody knows for sure. What a cool photo, especially with the ’56 Buick ‘vert and ’57 Bel Air in the background. Paul disassembled the car, had the frame straightened, then had the body repainted black lacquer, with the hood and grille done in enamel, preserving the chrome louvers. Note the radius rod brackets.
Being 17 years old, Paul can’t remember what he did with the previous engine, but jumped at the chance to get this full-race, 304-in. bullet, to which he added the four 97s with SP tops. Luckily the nice headers remained. But keeping this big flatty cool was a problem.
These photos, taken in the famous Petersen back parking lot by E. Rick Man show a few things. The seat wasn’t damaged, but Paul had to have the piece behind it redone. It’s surprising whoever molded in the ’40 dash and added the column shift and wheel used Standard instead of DeLuxe parts. Paul remembers the wheel was bent, so he replaced it with a similar one. The rear view shows recap slicks and a small button of some sort to open the trunk. You might also notice the blue dots are gone from the taillights. Paul says the first time he cruised down Colorado the the Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale, the local cops nailed him immediately for those, no fenders, and of course a glaring lack of windshield.
It’s not sharp, but this is the only color photo you’ll see of this car in this final form. The Hot Rod feature calls the windshield a Model T. I thought it was from a Dodge (like the one on Roth’s Outlaw). Paul says he has no idea what it was. “I bought it at Ford Parts Obsolete, like several other things for the car.” I now think it has reworked ’27 T stanchions with a handmade frame. Paul added, “I used what I could get, to get the tickets written off.”
If you’ve read this far, congratulations. You know the story from here; it was in the first part. What’s up next? I dunno, but I’ll make it shorter and sweeter. Check in and see.