Monday, December 1, 2008

A Billion-to-one 'Shot'

Welcome back to reality folks. I hope everyone out there had a splendid turkey day and weekend. I'm still in Indy with family and will be leaving in the morning to get back to my version of reality which comes in the form of a 1976 Ford Bronco build. It is crunch time with that one and this week needs to yield some major progress. As always, you'll be kept up to date.

      On to some good gearhead entertainment. The following is one of those stories that we all love and, I have to say, I was excited to be around some of the players as this one unfolded. 

      It starts with issue #42 of The Rodder's Journal and an innocent enough story by motorsports journalist Spencer Murray. Mr. Murray was one of the lucky ones that grew up in southern California back when it was not only an unspoiled paradise, but a hot bed of activity for all kinds of speed development both on and off the track. As a youngster, Spence would ride his bike around the streets of his SoCal neighborhood armed with both his great enthusiasm and keen eye for any and all things speedy, but also, fortunately for people like us, his trusty little fixed-focus Brownie box camera. The Rodder's Journal story is basically Spence's look back at the war years, when all things important to running a car were in short supply and government implemented war rationing was in full swing. 

      It is an entertaining and informative look through the lens of the young Murray's camera that shows many examples of interesting hot rods and mild customs as he saw them parked at the curb, in a driveway, parking lot, or in traffic. As it was the very early days of hot rod and custom car culture, and money and supplies were at their shortest, it is interesting to see how some very determined people were able to build many unique and mechanically advanced vehicles for their own enjoyment in spite of the obstacles being thrown in front of them. 

      One of the more striking and unique vehicles that Spence captured is one that he caught a single snap shot of while it sat in traffic waiting to pull away from a railroad crossing. The car is shown from the rear drivers side in a three quarter shot. What you see is a scaled down Ford based roadster of sorts. Not unusual so far, but with closer inspection you start to notice that it is not only a seriously sectioned and narrowed '27 T roadster body, but is riding on an equally sectioned and scaled down model A frame, complete with partial under body belly pan. A few more stand out features are the plexiglass wrap around windshield, the midget racer wheels and tires, and what appears to be a nicely dressed Ford V8 60 breathing through full length dual exhaust with Smitty mufflers and custom made chrome angled tips. Not your average run of the mill early '40s hot rod roadster. It's almost a hybrid hot rod/midget racer, which I can't remember another example of, and looks to be a street legal car as it has correct period California tags and the required lights mounted front and rear. Spence has this photo captioned as a mystery car and points out its uniqueness, as well as the fact that the two grown men sitting in the car must have had a real time fitting in the tiny cockpit. 

     Rewind to about a month ago. I was up in Indianapolis visiting some family and friends and had the good fortune to, through my friend Roy Caruthers, visit master metal man Jerry "Weeks" Baker's Indianapolis fabrication and restoration shop. We spent the better part of the afternoon being in Jerry's way but, thanks to his generosity, got to see the many projects he has going and talked about some of his past projects as well. For an example of Jerry's talent go to the RM auction site and check out the Joe's Garage auction results. Specifically, click on the 1920s Miller Indy car that sold at the auction and that will give you an idea of what Jerry can do as he performed the restoration on this car, which involved much body fabrication in the old world hand hammer/body buck way. A nearly dead art it is sad to say. 

     Before we left that day, Jerry took Roy and I into an adjacent building where we looked at one of his future projects. Against the wall sat a funny little Ford based roadster in very run down-barn find condition. It had a V8 60 for power, '40 Ford brakes, a '32 front end, and a cut down and sectioned '32 grill shell. The body was a '27 T that was also cut down and sectioned ( I guess you can see where this is going ). Roy and I were informed that this little car had quite an important and interesting history as it was built in the early 1940s by a young serviceman named Johnny Parsons! Built from spare Ford and midget racer parts, the young Parsons thought this would be his ticket to achieving good gas mileage during the war time fuel rations. With a car that couldn't have weighed more than 1000 lbs powered by a V8 60, I'm sure he was right in his thinking. 

     Amazingly, the car survived through not only the war years, but all the way to present day. Owned for many years by famed race car painter Stan Betz, the little roadster was sold back into the Parsons family and is currently owned by Parsons' granddaughter who is an Indianapolis resident. Knowing that there was no one better to bring the little car back to life than Jerry Baker, it was delivered to his shop a couple of years ago and has sat idle while he finished other projects and continued the ongoing research into any history that might exist on the car, so as to perform as accurate a restoration as possible. In the time the car has been in his hands, he has turned up very little information on the little roadster as no period photos exist of it and all who were around to have seen it in the day are now mostly gone. 

      So you can just imagine the excitement when Jerry picked up the phone last week to hear Roy Caruthers voice on the other end saying,"I think I spotted a period photo of the Parsons roadster in the latest issue of The Rodders Journal." Now, you have to understand that Roy is not your average-joe car guy. Roy is a highly talented car builder in his own right, grew up in a family that has untold years of experience in and around the 500 race, is a retired sprint car racer, and is son to the late great Doug Caruthers... a founding member of the Road Runners hot rod club, racer, and one of the few to be featured in the very first issue of Hot Rod magazine. So I guess you could say Roy is qualified and has come by it honestly. Ever armed with a keen historians eye, Caruthers was able to make out that it was the same car after having seen it in Jerry's poorly lit storage building... and that's with some modifications in place since the Spence Murray photo. 

     I guess you could say that Jerry Weeks Baker is an excited man these days about his new project. Now that he has something to go on, we can only hope that the restoration starts up soon and the second life of the little Parsons roadster can begin. All thanks to a young Spencer Murray riding his bike around a 1940s SoCal neighborhood snapping photos of interesting cars.

     You can break down the math on this a million ways I'm sure. For instance, what are the chances that of all of the cars running around, he shoots this one, and with a young Parsons at the wheel to boot? And then, of all the many photos he shot during that period, he happens to choose this, along with about a dozen others, to feature in the article. Then factor in that not only does the photo survive, but the car survives, is owned buy a guy whose friend has an eye keen enough to make the connection... and the article is published smack dab in the middle of the time when the restorer is seeking information... and I'm sure I could go on. 

     Like I said in the title...     a billion to one shot. 



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