This is obviously a response to my last column. Read it first to make sense of this one, and refer to its photos for context.
First off, just to prove that I am getting crotchety in my old age, I must remind you that when I started this thing, 40-some columns ago, it was supposed to be a retirement project requiring no substantial work on my part. Research is substantial work. Worse, in my case, it can become addictive.
If I had a memory like Greg Sharp, and knew as much about circle track racing, I would have immediately identified the No. 44 cars as Manny Ayulo’s. Likewise, if I had a broader knowledge of automotive history beyond hot rods and custom cars, like Ken Gross does, I’d have some clues about that “Bugatti,” and know where to find more.
Because of a whole lot of research, I learned a lot of stuff during my long career. But there’s much I don’t remember. As I’ve said before, I have to go back and re-read what I once wrote to remember what I used to know. Or do new research.
Fortunately in this case several readers with better memories than mine wrote to tell me about Ayulo, some including pertinent photos, others scanning backgrounds of my photos to pin down dates between ’46 and ’48. Ken Gross emailed me from an airliner with photos of the remains of that Bugatti, which we’ll get to in a moment. All of this led to my doing three days of research: in my files, through my library, on the internet, and even a trip to Autobooks in Burbank. This opened the proverbial can or worms. Big can–max TMI. I’ll give some pertinent facts and photos here. You can research as much as you want from this point on.
Let’s start with Manny Ayulo’s track roadsters. Roger Brownlow sent this Rose Bowl Gold Cup program from 1947 showing Manny in his #44 ’27 T receiving the National Roadster Championship Trophy. This is the scalloped version of the T, which had already racked up many wins, making Manny not only one of the premier drivers in the post-War track roadster racing boom, but also one of the better hot rodders to graduate to Indy 500 success. It was pointed out that, as a typical rodder, Manny built and maintained his own cars. Further, I learned that Manny’s good friend and racing partner was Jack McGrath, of South Pasadena, and that they not only built their cars together, but that they built them nearly identical, starting with ’32 hiboy roadsters.
So here’s a good look at Manuel, at the wheel of his street (and lakes) driven Deuce, ready to race on a dirt track with windshield, lights, and mufflers removed. Note windshield stanchions still in place and full upholstery.
I was directed to Don Montgomery’s book “Hot Rods as They Were” by Greg Stokes, which yielded more definitive photos. At first I thought #16 was an earlier version of #44. But these photos were obviously taken at the same place, same day (note pickup in background). The only difference is the filled hood sides and grille shell on Manny’s. Don’s caption says #16 is Jack McGrath’s street and lakes roadster, noting full upholstery and lack of nerf bars, racing at “one of the first meets at the Gardena Bowl in 1946” adding that he replaced it with a lighter ’27 T within two months. Of Ayulo, Don states “Mannie’s driving ability was immediately apparent when he won two of the first three Main Events held.” But he also quickly switched to a ’27 T.
Looking at the three ’27 T photos in my last column, I’d swear they’re all the same car. Though the #1 has no nerf bar, you can see the holes for it in the ’32 frame, and all have the same notch in the ’27 body in that area to fit over the Deuce rails. But the photo above is instructive. First, thankfully, it shows they didn’t pull those cherry ’32 bodies to swap on ’27s. This is obviously a very early pic of the #44 car, before any paint, showing a Deuce frame, through-cowl steering, a significantly set-back twin-carb V8, and a glimpse of front and rear split wishbones. That’s engine builder Tim Timmerman reaching through the cowl vent hole to tune the rear carb. That’s a clue.
In this photo Manny appears to be working on his new car, which looks straight and freshly painted with white scallops and chassis parts. The seat is upholstered and it has a windshield. Note grooved dirt tires. The caption implies there were two cars and both were very new.
Here’s #44 after some track wear, with Manny eyeing photographer Timmerman. This is a paved track, and note slicks on the rear. Somewhere it stated Ayulo and McGrath were the first to use them. Montgomery’s caption states: “Manny Ayulo and Jack McGrath were close friends. So when each built ’27 T roadsters to replace their ’32s, it is not surprising that they were of similar construction. …Most importantly, both were fast!” Of the six photos of the ’27s in my mystery envelope, two show #44 with large rear slicks.
So here’s McGrath in the also slick-shod and track-worn #1 car, holding a trophy. Though they look identical, the one big clue that this is a different car? No cowl vent.
And here’s the clincher, shown in Montgomery’s book–both cars on the track together for the 4-(fastest)-car trophy dash in 1947.
This is going to take up some space, but not only does it tell McGrath’s (and Ayulo’s) story succinctly, but it’s just plain cool. These untitled “hero” panels were drawn and written by Tom Medley for a couple years in the new Hot Rod magazine, this one being from the June ’49 issue. If McGrath won the CRA (California Roadster Association) championship in ’46 and ’47, that of course explains the big #1 on his car. However, as this column points out, he started driving Indy cars by ’47 and competing at the famed 500 by ’48, so it’s my guess this #1 ’27 T had a pretty short life. The really interesting part is that McGrath, as stated here, was from South Pasadena (as was Timmerman), and that’s where my friend Robert was living when he found the envelope of photos in a trash can at the curb on trash day–in his neighborhood. Coincidence, connection? Maybe a relative, or just a kid from the neighborhood with a camera who was intrigued by hot rods. Who knows?
And we’ll end this part here, because it’s not pretty. Ayulo also graduated to Big Cars and first ran Indy in ’49. A big surprise (to me) was that in 1950 he stripped down his #44 roadster and mounted movie cameras fore and aft to film on-track action sequences for the well-known Clark Gable/Barbara Stanwyck movie “To Please a Lady.” Manny deftly piloted the car for realistic racing scenes at Indy, Culver City, and a big dirt track in Arlington, TX. I did know that this car, thus modified and lettered with Hot Rod logos, was acquired by Tom Medley and used as the HRM Camera Car to take movies of cars racing at the ’52 Bonneville meet (which I’ve never seen). You know it from the opening pages of the Best of Hot Rod book. What became of it after that Medley never said and I haven’t a clue. Meanwhile both McGrath and Ayulo did very well on the champ car circuit, the best year for both at Indy being 1951, when they placed a car on the pole and traded driving to finish 3rd. Both drivers’ promising careers were tragically cut short, however, in 1955. Ayulo inexplicably hit the wall during late practice at Indy, and McGrath succumbed in a wreck at the Phoenix 1-mile dirt oval. Sadly, this was much too common for the time.
Now, about that Bugatti-like car…waaaay too much information. Starting with what Ken sent me, from The Bugatti Type 43 Register (Jack Du Gan, 2008), and told me, I also found more on I-net: “Coachbuild.com Forum; Derham Bugatti” and “The Old Motor; A well-traveled Type 43 Bugatti, Dec. 2012.” Not to mention Griff Borgeson’s classic Miller book. It’s quite a story, if you want to do the research. Start with 8-time Indy driver Leon Duray (really George Stewart), who in 1929 traded two front-drive Miller Indy cars (the Packard Cable Spl’s, famously found and restored by Borgeson) directly to Ettore Bugatti for two or three of his type 43s.
The story gets quickly complicated and confusing, starting with this page Ken Gross sent me. The typical Type 43 Bugatti–my favorite–has a usually bright blue, torpedo-shaped, much-louvered roadster body, no fenders (or cycle-type), and a supercharged straight-8. The one that Duray got, seen upper right, that became the one below, looked nothing like a racing Bugatti other than the signature alloy 8-spoke wheels. Ken calls the original a “faux cabriolet.” Duray sold it to Lt. Harold McHugh, who sold it to John Fritsche Jr., who had the Derham Coachworks of Rosemont, PA, rebody it to the lower configuration in 1939. As I stated last time, this looks more like a Type 57 Atlantic, and–given the wheels– we assume still had the Type 43 Bugatti chassis and supercharged 8.
As I also said last time, the car appears to have ’38-’39 Ford headlights, taillights, and possibly even reworked fenders. The bumpers are downright clunky. And while a vast improvement–and more Bugatti-like–than the original, I would not call this premium coach-crafting. Of course this was the Depression, followed by WWII. My “envelope photos” show 1945 NY plates, but the car is in the L.A. area, and someone noted what looks like a ’48-’50 Olds passing behind it in one photo. In my photos and the one above, it appears to have Ford wheels, caps, and rings.
Reports agree singer-dancer Donald O-Connor owned it “around 1950,” one stating it then had a Ford V8-60 and driveline, and that he “raced it in hillclimbs.” Could he be the young guy leaning out of it in my photos? At about the same time George Banquet, “an auto-shop teacher from Ventura,” acquired it and installed a Ford flathead six. This apparently remained in the car through 4 or 5 owners in California, including being “lost” for some 20 years until William O’Brien of Reno, NV, “found it in 1982, chained to a tree, after looking for the car for years.”
These were the photos Ken Gross sent me from an airplane, showing the remains of the car in the O’Brien collection as of ’08. Ken says that’s the Bugatti frame sitting next to it, and he guesses that’s a Ford six high-compression head on the floor in front of the ’39 Ford trans. A later source I found on the Internet (2012), states the family “sold the car to a British restorer, who in turn sold it to Swiss collector Gary Huet who it is believed will rebody the chassis with a Neuss-designed open tourer. The Derham body reportedly remains in California.” Or Nevada? Obviously the Swiss chassis-owner has Bugatti running gear to install. But the long, strange story of this one-off vehicle–body or chassis–is still far from over.
And finally–finally!–I can’t stop without showing this photo sharp-eyed Tom Weeks remembered from Robert Genat’s book The Birth of Hot Rodding, with Don Cox’s wonderful full-color photos from the late ’40s, mostly at El Mirage dry lake.
I remember the photo, too, but for some reason didn’t really notice it as the same Model A with the scoop-cut doorline and puffy upholstery that I showed last time, before the brown primer. Who knew the upholstery was red? An owner isn’t listed, but it’s a perfect photo to end with. Whew. The End.