This is going to get ugly. Brace yourself.
A few weeks ago, in the column called “Odds and Ends,” I showed a very surprising–to me–article I found in the small May ’56 issue of Car Craft showing essentially the same, very familiar, abbreviated, lakes-piped ’27 T roadster you see above with sailor Bob Smith at the wheel (as featured in the March ’58 Hot Rod), but stating it was owned and built by a San Diego “trucker” named Carl Burnett. Since then I’ve discovered a lot. Including answers as well as some puzzling questions.
First off, I was contacted by long-time San Diego-area hot rodder Paul Bos, who said, “Why don’t you call Bob Smith, and ask him? He’s still an active Prowlers member and He’d be glad to talk to you.” So I did. Bob and Bonnie are both in their 80s. Bob’s had some jaw cancer so is a bit hard to understand on the phone, but he and Bonnie tag-team, answering the phone together, and both couldn’t be more fun and enthusiastic. They attend Prowler functions in a long, very low, side-piped ’27 T Bob built himself a few years ago, plus they have a “typical” ’32 hiboy roadster as well.
Oh yes, I should mention right here that there are a lot of twists, turns, gaps, and even mysterious characters in this story, so get comfortable. With Covid numbers climbing nearly everywhere, we’re staying at home, and hopefully you are too, so I’m assuming you’ll be happy to have a tale to read. It’s quite a tale. And some of it isn’t pretty.
OK. The 3-page feature in the ’58 Hot Rod gives few details, and some inaccuracies. But so did I. The cute blond seen on the cover in her pink outfit is listed inside as Bob Smith’s “friend” Bonnie Smith. Someone in the distant past told me this was actually Bob’s little sister, filling in for the photo, and I stated so. Uh uh. Quite coincidentally, they both happened to have the same common last name. Bonnie was a senior in high school, and sailor Bob was stationed near Oakland, spending much time at sea, aboard ship. Fortunately, Bob got transferred to his native San Diego sometime in ’57, spending nights at home. So that’s when he made a deal with fellow Prowler Carl Burnett to trade his high school ’40 Ford coupe, plus about $100, for the dark blue T. This brings up several questions (and answers), but I’m not sure what order to tell them.
First I should say that Bonnie graduated and Bob got out of the Navy sometime in ’58, and they were married in ’59. Still are, obviously and happily. Second, though Carl Burnett may have been a Teamster in ’56, he soon opened a well-known business in San Diego called Antique Automotive that not only sold new and used early Ford parts, but also did a steady trade in complete or partial vintage cars and rods.
Next is the question of whether the car ran or not (I’ve noted that in both the CC and HRM features it had no license plates). I pressed Bob on that issue just yesterday, and he said it wasn’t running when he got it (his father went and got it on a trailer because Bob was at sea). Yes, the car was a “pusher” used for shows. When he got transferred to San Diego, Bob then had the time to pull the car apart and chrome all the chassis parts. He said he pulled the body off the frame to make this easier, but didn’t remove the upholstery (other than carpet) and didn’t repaint it (other than where he had to touch up the Henry J turtle deck). But he did say the brakes, trans, clutch, even the engine was operable, he just didn’t bother to get it running, since he was trailering it to shows up in L.A. and such.
So this led to my question about the chrome door hinges. First, I recently learned (contrary to a caption in Car Craft) that ’27 Ts did have opening doors on both sides, unlike earlier ones. So I asked Bob yesterday if the doors were actually welded and molded in, or just bolted shut along the inner flanges. He had to stop and think about this–it has been nearly 65 years–but he said he was pretty sure they were just bolted, hence the hinges remaining in place.
However, as you can see in the photo I found above with a license in place, and what appears to be a fuel pump on the firewall, Bob did get the car running. He said he only had it two or three years, and didn’t drive it much. Plus he said the four carbs were too much, so he ran it on the middle two. I asked what he had to do to get it running; did he have to pull the motor apart? “Just put a starter on it,” replied Bob, laughing.
We’ll have to back up here, but I’ll close this part with a final quote from Bob: “I took it to the San Diego Autorama in 1960, and it won. And some guy named Clemo came up to me and said, ‘I’ll give you $1600 for it.’ That was a lot then, so I sold it. I don’t know who this Clemo was.”
Switch scene to El Mirage dry lake, 1947. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and several mentioned that a founding Prowlers member named Chuck “Hoot” Gibson first built the car as a down-and-dirty lakes racer from the front half of a ’27 Touring and a makeshift pickup bed. It was also credited with 106mph, which wasn’t close to record speed then.
I found photos in various places (the Prowlers’ website is a good source). But I was surprised to see these of Gibson’s version. It doesn’t appear to be streetable, and the grille might be a bit banged up, but this is a pretty nice piece with its full louvered hood, filled shell, shiny paint, whitewalls, and so on.
The pickup box looks rudimentary (somebody said it was “just to carry beer”) but the truly surprising part is that the T body has already been deftly widened and lengthened to be slightly channeled over the ’32 frame. Those are pipes running along the frame, under the body. You can see opening doors. Neither Hoot Gibson (you can see how he got his nickname) nor Carl Burnett are longer with us to ask questions. So I recently asked Bob Smith if he knew who did this nice bodywork on the car. He said he didn’t know Gibson well, but one time he asked him this. And he said Gibson gave him a blank look and said, “I don’t know. It was like that when I got it.” So, there remains more to this story than we know.
I recently spoke with John LaBarre, the current owner of the car, and he sent me some photos, including this, which he says was taken in Carl Burnett’s driveway when he was rebuilding the T. You can see that the rear of the frame has been stepped and bobbed, and a turtle deck fashioned, using at least some of a Henry J deck “because he had it.” You can also see hinged doors.
This photo must also have been when Burnett had the car, about the time of the Car Craft feature, because Bob Smith said adamantly that he didn’t get the hood. You can see that the grille has been sectioned, and it appears to me that the body might have been wedge-channeled a bit more in the front, and the hood sides shortened to fit (plus cut out for the new header pipes).
THE UGLY PART
The first time I interviewed Bob Smith, he told me that a year or so after selling the car, he met Carl Burnett at one of the San Diego car shows. Carl said, “Do you want to see what the new owner has done to our car?” Then he led him to a back room, where “Clemo” had it on display. As I said, brace yourself.
These and following photos are of iffy quality, but I don’t think you’d want them much clearer. They were sent to me, along with a long, somewhat rambling Gmail, by Dale Tenney of San Marcos (north of San Diego), who “salvaged” this car and actually drove it for several years. Tenney just recently told me these photos were taken at the home of the unnamed person who got the car from Clemo (for $600) with hopes of rebuilding it, but then gave up. But let me just quote some passages from Tenney’s letter, including more photos. This is Tenney speaking:
“In 1981 I was attending Carl Burnett’s Christmas Party at Antique Automotive. Lying in the gravel in the back lot was a 1927 T roadster that caught my attention. On the hood it said ‘Hot Rod cover car, $1000.’ I was told it was on the March 1958 cover, so I bought it for $800.
“Then I saw Carl, and told him, ‘I just bought your old car.’ He told me he owned it in the early ’50s and showed me a picture of it at Paradise Mesa drag strip, and another as a finished car at the Oceanside high school gymnasium show in 1955. He also told me Bob Smith came by every Friday, and I should give him a call. He was a nice guy and would be glad to tell me about the car.
“I called Bob, and visited him and his lovely wife Bonnie at their home. I showed him magazines I found the car in, including a couple he wasn’t aware of. When he saw the Hot Rod cover he said to his wife, ‘There you are Bon in your Pinkies.’ Bob told me Carl traded the roadster to him for a ’40 Ford coupe and $100. He said in high school, you were nobody if you didn’t own a ’40 coupe.
“After rebuilding the roadster and chroming everything, Bob Hardee shot some black and white photos at the old San Diego State campus. Then Hardee called back and said, ‘We have to reshoot the pictures.’ Bob asked what’s wrong? Hardee said, ‘Nothing, we need to take them in color because they want to put it on the cover!’
“Later Bob sold the car to an artist in Encinitas named Clemo for $1600. A lot of money in 1960. [Tenney says he knows nothing about this person, or why he was called an artist.] Clemo made some crazy changes to the car, about ruined it. Cut down the doors, painted it white primer, added aluminum fenders and bumpers and roll bars. He also added four electric fuel pumps, with each fuel line making several coils before entering each carb.
“He stored the car in a cave in the back of his garage, under a big horse blanket. It was also near the ocean. He kept it there until the late ’70s, when he decided to sell it. He told the new buyer about all the chrome and what a nice car it was. But when he rolled it out of the cave, all the chrome was rusty and flaking off. The horse blanket retained all the moisture over the years. [This is the guy who got it for $600.]
“A friend of mine, Bud Morrill, bought it from this man for parts. At this time, no one was aware what the car once was. Bud kept parts like the 4-carb Evans manifold and chrome carbs. Then he sold it to a parrot doctor. But this doctor gave up on it and trailered it to Antique Automotive. Carl said he saw it on the trailer, after 30 years, and bought it with intentions of restoring it for himself. But a golf injury would have prevented him from driving it. So he sold it to me. [I’m not making any of this up. In fact, I’m leaving parts out.]
“I trailered the car to a friend’s home, where I could have access to his tools, welders, etc. The car was missing lots of parts, like the engine and brake and clutch pedals. The steering was so low no one could have driven it.
“I found a good-running ’50 engine. I bought the 4-pot manifold and carbs from Morrill for $100.
“It didn’t run very good, so I switched to a Weiand 2-pot which ran great.
“I drove the car for six years to work most every day, and anywhere else I could think of. I loved it. At the end of a hard day, hot and tired, I’d just listen to the pipes, and the wind in my hair, and life was good
“It was a great car. Tracked well, drove smooth. Reluctantly I sold it in 1988 to fund the machine shop which my wife and I still operate” Those are just some highlights of Dale’s story. He not only got it running, but has driven it considerably more than any other owner since 1947. However, you might notice that in these photos it has no license plates. “I didn’t get registration when I bought it, just a sales receipt,” says Dale. “The numbers on the frame were messed up, and I kept getting the run-around when I went to the DMV, AAA, even the CHP. So I just drove it the whole time on ‘temporary registration.'”
With Carl Burnett’s passing, Chris Carroll took over Antique Automotive, and continued selling cars on consignment, along with parts. So that’s where Dale took the car to sell it. The buyer turned out to be another Prowler member, John LaBarre. So in its known life, four Prowlers have owned this one car. LaBarre obviously knew the car and its history, and his plan was to “restore” it.
He recently contacted me, and sent me a few photos showing what he has done on the car. He said he first acquired another ’27 T body, and used its doors and pieces to replace what Clemo had cut out. The photo above, with paint stripped, shows some of the original lead-work done by Burnett to form the turtledeck, as well as the new operating doors in place. This was shortly after he got the car in ’88 or ’89.
He said he also got all the chrome replated around ’89-’90. The front axle is, of course the original Bob Stewart “Dago” from the ’40s. I am a little surprised that LaBarre painted the inset blue. I can only surmise that his original intent was to restore the car more closely to its ’50s form. However, in this photo taken about ten years ago, you can see the body has been painted black lacquer.
Again, photo quality is marginal, but this photo is from the same time as the one above it. Though the paint appears to have a blue cast, John said it’s black lacquer, and it will probably stay this color. “I hate blue,” he said adamantly. You can see the turtle deck and other bodywork looks as good as ever, as is the lavishly chromed rearend and suspension. He said he’ll probably paint the frame a silver-gray, and keep the opening doors–with some sort of sidepipes below them–so he can get in and out. When I asked what sort of upholstery he had in mind, he said he “Wanted to keep a ’50s flavor” but that he would do it in a “Deep burgundy or maybe black.”
In all the time that he’s had the car–more than 30 years at this point–he hasn’t put an engine back in it. However, he sent a photo of this 3-carb flathead, with Sharp heads, which he said has recently been completed and run on an engine stand and is ready to install. Meanwhile, however, he is working on a hydraulic clutch and brake assembly, with hanging pedals, to give him more room in the cockpit (which, of course, has always been considerably lengthened in the cowl).
Yes, LaBarre admits, work has been slow on this project over the past 30-plus years. But that’s largely due to other hot rod projects he’s been building, such as the ’32 Ford you can see in the photo above. Plus, he said, a move from San Diego to rural Tennessee six years ago was a big interruption. And you’ve undoubtedly gathered by now that John’s idea of “restoration” does not mean “historically accurate.” In fact, he told me flatly, “It’s my car, and I’m building it the way I want.” That’s perfectly fine. The car retains its history (especially as a Prowlers’ club car), which can’t be erased. The fact that it has survived what it’s been through is amazing in the first place; and the quality of the rebuild that John is giving it appears to be highly commendable. Finally, given its various uses, and widely diversified cast of owners over seven decades (so far), the fact that it has remained flathead Ford powered, with exactly the same driveline, all this time is truly surprising. The only chapter left in this sometimes strange, epic saga is the last one: to see and hear this now-historic T roadster finished and running once again. Will we?