I’ll try to keep this simple. But I doubt that’s going to happen.
First off, anybody who’s into Hot Wheels knows this flamed lowboy roadster as the Hot Wheels Deuce. That’s part of the story, and we’ll get to it. In fact, the name of the popular little Hot Wheels patterned after this ’32 is Street Rodder, largely because of this cover.
Second, you’ve heard the name Les Jarvis, and his connection to Street Rodder magazine, because he owned the Mini-T I showed here a few weeks ago. He also owned this Deuce roadster. He got Hot Wheels designer Larry Wood to lay the flames on it. And exactly how he got it on this cover is the story I want to tell.
But wait. This wasn’t the first cover this roadster was on, and Les didn’t build the Buick-powered lowboy. We’ll get to that, too. Further, after much sleuthing, I was able to ascertain that the car still exists, in pretty much the same form, and where it is…maybe. So much for simple.
Les could talk his way into anything. That’s the real story behind this cover (and much more, but we’re trying to stay simple). I had been at Street Rodder a little over a year, and went to every rod run and show I could. Les’ little flamed roadster was always there, and I soon got to know him. He was an avid rodder, had several cars, and was president of a club called Golden Era. I must have mentioned something about featuring the roadster in the magazine, and the next thing I knew, Les had a big plan.
I’m not sure if he really knew someone at the 20th Century Fox movie studios, but he said he did, and he knew it had a large, little-used back lot full of old buildings and stage sets that he said “would be great for shooting a car feature.” At the time Les also had a very nice black, shaved, lowered, and louvered ’55 Nomad, and he suggested we include both in the magazine, which I ultimately gave 4 pages and titled “Double Feature,” playing on the movie lot theme.
Now you have to understand that, even in those pre-9/11 days, getting past the guard gate at any of the L.A. movie or TV studios was near impossible unless you were a recognized star or had a pass from a producer. So we headed up to Century City, Les in his open roadster, I following in the Nomad. I was quite dubious. But Les, with his ingratiating grin, just said, “Don’t worry.” When we got to the gate I have no idea what he told the guard, but the next thing I know we were being waved in and Les was leading the way to this deserted back corner lot, half of which looked like a western town or sea shanty, the other half looking like a bombed war zone. He somehow talked our way in. But we didn’t have any passes, or anything like that, so I kept looking over my shoulder between taking photos.
Les told me that the house where I staged the roadster for the cover shot was from the movie Peyton Place. So that’s what I said in the magazine, calling the site, “one of the last movie studios.” I didn’t want to mention Century or Fox. I just wanted to get some good photos and get out of there before any guards came. And we did. It was my second-ever cover photo. And that’s its story.
But before that: I mentioned it was on a previous cover. I got the date totally wrong in the magazine, but it was one of two Deuce roadsters built by long-time L.A. Roadsters member Ted Wingate on the July ’64 issue of Hot Rod. The very weird thing is that the cars weren’t in that issue. They did get four pages in the roto section the following month. But this is a major magazine no-no; I’ve never heard the reason why.
As the Aug. ’64 article explains, Ted built the Eastern-style black lacquer lowboy when he was still a member of the famed Tyrods club in Concord, Mass. It also states that, other than upholstery, he did all the work on both cars: body, paint, chassis, engine. He must have had the lowboy upholstered after he moved to L.A., because the beautiful black rolls and tight pleats were done by Tony Nancy. Other than the wheels, flames, and six carbs, this is pretty much how Les got the car. (BTW: The red drag car just got restored. It was at the Ventura Nats last week.)
But Les didn’t get his ’32 from Wingate. He bought it in ’71 from Tom Langdon of the Early Times, “Who drove the wheels off it, and ultimately blew the engine.” Langdon put the Buick wires on it, and Les installed a “basically stock, but well-dressed” 356-inch wrecking yard Nailhead with a single 4-barrel.
So what about the flames and the Hot Wheels? Les said he met Larry Wood at an Early Times rod run in ’69, and they’ve been very good friends ever since. Many know that Larry was chief designer of Mattel’s Hot Wheels for decades, just recently retired. You might also know that he’s a life-long hot rod builder and driver. So it’s probably no surprise that he’s a fantastic illustrator and all-around artist.
According to Larry, he and Les were sipping beers one night in Les’ garage, looking at the roadster, when Larry says, “You know what that thing needs? Flames!” So he started sketching them on the side of the car, and finished them in fine-line tape. I forgot to ask who ended up masking and spraying them, but the story is surprisingly similar to Roth and Tom McMullen’s black ’32. The only difference is that Larry does better flames.
So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Larry to turn Les’ now-flamed Deuce into his next Hot Wheels design. It’s been one of the most popular ever, offered in both black and white versions. You can see it even has a Nailhead engine with very similar pipes. Besides the standard red-line wheels, the only addition is the big blower–because Hot Wheels have to have that kind of stuff.
And when I recently asked Larry about how the flames and this Hot Wheels came about, he sent me this photograph. He said he’s been selling off a whole lot of Hot Wheels and rare memorabilia since his retirement. But this he’s keeping. It’s the original hand-carved wooden 4-times larger pattern, plus the “Epoxy” cast from it–the only ones that exist. Below these are the individual metal castings (less engine and wheels) used to make an actual “Street Rodder” Hot Wheels.
OK, you’ve learned a lot already. But the next big question I ask (and everybody asks me) is, “Where is the car today?” I asked Les, who said he moved to Arizona and sold the roadster there in 1978, and pretty much got out of hot rodding. He doesn’t remember to whom, and hasn’t seen or heard of it since. So I asked Larry, and he said he last saw it “At some tourist-trap candle company somewhere in New England that had it on display in the late ’90s,” and that he actually drove it to a Hot Wheels collectors’ show in Connecticut. It was basically unchanged, but he didn’t know anything about it since then.
However, I remembered seeing the car on display at the Petersen Museum, on the top parking lot, for a special Deuce Day they held in ’07 as part of the 75th anniversary of the ’32 Ford. I was pretty sure I did. But I wasn’t taking pictures, and my memory can trick me. I thought it had come from AZ; it had posters in front of it; and some things had been changed. But I didn’t meet an owner, and no one else remembered it. Plus, people told me about some “Count” guy in Las Vegas with a TV show who had a flamed black ’32 roadster with a blown Chevy he called the Hot Wheels Deuce. I hoped that wasn’t what I’d seen.
Guess what? I was right. I was doing a project with a new, young curator at the Petersen named Joseph Harper and I asked him if there might be any record of cars that were on display that day. What he found was the photo you see here. It’s definitely the same car, the only changes being the six carbs, new black headers, and red wheels with caps ‘n’ rings. Even the posters were as I remembered. The problem was he didn’t have a name. We couldn’t see any clues on the posters. Not even a license plate. And this was 12 years ago.
So I started doing research a couple of months back. I’ll skip the details, but somehow I found (on the internet) this photo:Actually there were a few, taken at the Amelia Island Concours in Florida in 2011, and one I could blow up to read the name Richard Atwell, Fredericksburg TX. Next I learned that Bob Atwell, owner of a large gasoline tanker trucking co. called Coastal Transport, had a classic car museum–complete with wax figures in movie diorama settings–in Kerrville, TX. I called and asked Tom Prufer (in Kerrville) about this and he said, yes, but it had closed in ’91 with Bob’s passing. He’d heard the cars were still there, but….
We figured Richard was his son. I even found a number for Atwell Classic Cars in Fredericksburg, and called repeatedly, but no answer. End of story? Guess what again. Today is the second day I’ve been working on this. This morning I decided to try the number again. And Richard answered! We had a nice long chat. He still has the car (along with about 140 others). He said he bought it from an ad he saw “somewhere” in ’03 or ’04, and dealt only with an agent who wouldn’t let him talk to the owner, who was “a Hollywood guy who had something to do with the Ninja Turtles.” But Richard obviously appreciates this roadster. He said the black lacquer is checking, but he’s going to leave it that way. The only change he’s made was swapping Les’s single 4-barrel for the “six deuces” it had on the Hot Rod cover. And no, the collection isn’t open to the public.
I told you this wouldn’t be simple. And, in fact, there’s a whole lot we still don’t know about this amazingly original roadster’s history and travels. Plus plenty I haven’t told you. (One fact I learned this morning: See the yellow roadster parked next to this one in the Petersen photo above? Atwell says this was Ted Wingate’s former–now restored–red roadster that shared the hot Rod cover in ’64. Side-by-side. And no one knew.) Enough?