I can’t remember exactly when California introduced its blue license plates, but it was during the ’70s. They’re just one more emblem of The Seventies….like bell bottoms, beads, and disco. The blue plates also increased the number of digits from six to seven, because we had too many cars. Also because of that, for the first time you didn’t have to turn in your old plates. Thankfully, you could keep your black plates as long as you kept your car (but you couldn’t switch them onto a new car). If you sold the car, the black plates stayed with it. Further, the blue plates were the first that could be “personalized”: you could have anything punched on your plate as long as it took up no more than seven characters (including empty spaces), wasn’t already taken, and passed the censors. Oh yes, and you could keep your personalized blue plate and switch it to a new car if you wanted, but very few did.
I bring this up because I was surprised to see the blue license on Bill Desatoff’s beautiful red ’32 sedan. Hardly any of these plates exist today and I, for one, had pretty much forgotten about them. But what surprised me more was what it said. “Low Buck” was a term I used during that era to describe cars that looked quite a bit different than this one, and I even put it on the sides of my own Low Buck Special race car. Bill Desatoff’s Deuce was not what I would call low buck. Yes, he built the whole thing in his home garage, from the chassis, suspension, and engine to the body and paint, sourcing components from a wrecking yard. But that’s what everybody had to do then. There were hardly any shops, other than a couple–like Dan Woods–that built mostly T-Buckets or C-Cabs. There were no suspension kits, or even bolt-on brakes or steering. There certainly was no fresh repro sheetmetal, nor crate motors as we know them today. But the components that Bill chose, from the Weber carburetors and Babb radiator, to the Corvette suspension, to the plush interior, was certainly not Lo Buck stuff. His Italian Borrani wire wheels alone cost more than my whole Low Buck race car. So I’m guessing his license plates were a bit of an ironic joke.
So why am I featuring this particular ’70s street rod? The first answer will have to be brief; I will expand on it more later. Three or four years ago Neal East drove his little underslung “Modified” T roadster from Denver to the L.A. Roadster Show towing a small trailer that contained, besides his luggage, three boxes that he showed me, and said, “Those are for you.” I opened them and saw dozens of manila envelopes, each with a name, car type, and location written in the upper left corner. There were also a few thicker ones labeled things like Dan Woods parts; Front Axle I.D. Guide; Rare ’32 Ford Parts; Trailer Ideas; Luggage Racks, and so on. These were the Stewart and East freelance feature files from the early ’70s. If you don’t know the names Jack Stewart and Neal East and their significance to street rodding, I’ll explain more, as I say, in a future column.
There were 102 envelopes, which I was able to consolidate into one 3-ft. long trans file. About 80-90% are street rod features. Unfortunately, many are just the leftovers of car features sold to magazines like Rod & Custom and Rod Action. Several don’t have tech sheets. But still it’s a treasure trove of 2-1/4″ medium format film, color and black-and-white, that fills a large gap in my own archive. The first half of the ’70s was the birth (or rebirth) of what was officially labeled Street Rodding. This was also the beginning of my career, working for Street Rodder magazine. But that meant that all of the photos I was taking went into the McMullen files, not mine. I didn’t start freelancing until years later, and the early photos that people like Bill Burke gave me covered mostly ’40s, ’50s, and some ’60s.
So… I selected Bill Desatoff’s beautiful Deuce sedan as my first sample from this collection (1) because it was a complete feature, including a brief tech sheet, but (2) mostly because it’s a fairly rare example of the best in ’70s street rodding. Most of us who remember that era have visions of wire-wheeled ’32-’34 Fords sitting at stock height and draped with cowl lights, luggage racks, sidemount spares, big headlights, and always a dog on the radiator cap. Or an even higher-stance (front and rear) non-Ford sedan with wide-oval tires on slot mags sticking well out of the fenders and a tall CB antenna waving from the back bumper. Third choice was a ‘glass T-bucket with carriage lamps, slicks in back and no-brakes dragster cycle wheels in front, a tall blower on the engine, and a much taller cloth top. Enough of that.
Bill’s Deuce is exemplary in that, not only was it meticulously fabricated and finished, but it also managed to be radical and subtle at the same time. The radical started with the quartet of Webers on the otherwise tame 350 Chevy followed by a Muncie 4-speed, but culminated in the full independent suspension, including a ’72 Corvette rear with a stock leaf spring and an owner-fabricated dual A-arm IFS using Monroe coil-overs and Jag rack-and-pinion steering.
The subtle part was the selective use of chrome; keeping the suspension not only tucked unobtrusively under the car, but also adjusted for a sits-right ride height; and the for-the-time unusual choice of well-proportioned Goodyear radial tires on the relatively narrow, highly classy Borrani knock-off wire wheels. Everything you see in the above photo, including boxed frame crossmembers and the whole exhaust system, was built by Bill in his 2-car garage.
Bill took 2-1/2 years to build the car, finishing it in 1975. That’s 55 years ago. Yikes. That’s sobering. Of course he started with an original Ford frame, which he boxed.
The front suspension Bill designed and fabricated. The tech sheet lists the front spindles and front disc brakes simply as “Chevrolet.” I would presume Corvette to match the rear.
In these two views of the firewall/dash note particularly the bellcrank throttle pedal Bill made using the original ’32 spoon–very much like what everybody sells today. Bill also fabbed the other pedals, linkage, and dual master cylinder mount for brake and clutch. He did use a then-common Ford tilt column, but topped it with a tasty Nardi leather-wrapped wheel (instead of the usual Vega plastic one). Hard to see in this angle is how he tunneled the now-rare ’70s yellow-and-black “sideways” S-W gauges in the dash.
Well, at least it wasn’t the full button-tuft black interior many ’70s rods got. In fact, this job was done by the premiere stitcher of the time, Ken Foster of AAction Interiors in Sacramento. Part of the street rod deal was including the kids, hence a sedan with a back seat to include all four Desatoffs. Besides the 4-speed stick, the ’63 Vette front buckets follow the Corvette theme.
Bill lists the color simply as maroon acrylic lacquer, owner prepped and applied. Of course it was unusual to see car features with in-progress construction photos, especially from freelancers. This was the street in front of Bill’s house in Garden Grove, CA.
And I will leave you with this wonderful shot. Not that trophies were a thing at street rod runs, but at its debut this car won Best Modified at the ’75 Deuce Day, then Best Closed at the Early Times Midwinter Run. I saw the car there, and thought this inset emblem in the filled and slightly peaked grille shell was the car’s coolest feature. I still do.
This car disappeared from the scene long ago. But the great news is that Bill has contacted me recently through this site to let me know that he is currently putting finishing touches on a new ’32 Tudor that should be at least as good as this one. When it’s done, you’ll see it here.