The Walker Morrison Roadster
By Ken Gross | Photography by Steve Coonan & Geoff Miles
Historic Photography courtesy of Ralph McFarland & Jack Stirnemann
Originally published & printed in TRJ #40
Post-World War II dry lakes pioneers established the definitive hot rod look, and it still holds up. By the late 1940s, the classic ’32 highboy, as evidenced by the roadsters of John Ryan, Bob McGee, Hank Negley, Ray Brown, Ed Stewart and countless others, had become a model for the ages. Devoid of nonessentials like fenders, spare wheel, running boards, bumpers and cowl lights, the result resembled the stripped-for-action racing roadsters that ran at tracks from Elgin, Illinois, to Mines Field, California now the site of Los Angeles International airport. Hundreds, if not thousands, of those ’32 roadsters were built, but they weren’t all equal. Some had the look. Some didn’t. Hot Rod magazine and the “little books” like Rod & Custom, Car Craft and Hop Up, while unfailingly West Coast–centric, featured the better-built rods. Living back East, and largely unimpressed with cars featured in Rodding and Re-styling and Car Speed and Style, kids like me devoured those magazine features, cutting out pages and tacking them to our bulletin boards. We planned the car we’d build (when we could afford to), right down to the smallest detail. And we unabashedly copied one another’s good ideas.
Case in point, and the single biggest influence on my own ’32 roadster, was an elegantly understated Deuce that popped up in the pages of Hop Up magazine in January 1952 and reappeared in a 1953 Fawcett Publications one-shot called Best Hot Rods. In a two-page Hop Up feature simply titled “Morrison’s Roadster,” four basic photos artfully illustrated what seemed to me the quintessential ’32 highboy. The car stopped me in my tracks. Forty years later, I made copies of those old pages, so as not to damage my weathered originals, and took careful notes. In the vernacular of that era, Morrison’s car was a knockout, and I hoped to have at least some of that rub off on the one I was building.
The Morrison roadster’s carefully composed modifications were a primer on how to build a classic hot rod. A dropped-and-filled front axle, a Z’d frame and big-and-little tires on steel wheels brought it down smartly, with just a slight forward rake. The obvious bodywork included a two-and-a-half-inch chopped windshield, a filled grille shell and cowl vent, and shaved door handles. Hand-fashioned, track-style hairpin radius rods (by an already well-known L.A.-area fabricator named Doane Spencer); W-shaped headers flowing into long, chromed lakes pipes that ran nearly to the rear wheels (more Doane Spencer handiwork); and twin exhausts that paralleled the frame horns were all artfully executed.
Not illustrated in the feature were the ’39 Ford teardrop taillights and a plated rear spreader bar. Under the late ’32 Ford twenty-five-louver hood (earlier examples had twenty-louver side panels) lurked a seriously souped, bored and Merc-cranked 276 cid flathead with the best equipment of the day: Evans heads and Navarro triple manifold, a Potvin 38-83 cam, a Scintilla-Vertex magneto, even a finned Filcoolater oil filter mounted on the firewall. The wiring and plumbing were neatly arranged, and the few touches of chrome—the radiator hoses, air horns, generator cover and acorn nuts—were attractive but didn’t detract from the engine’s purpose. The text read, “Moe used chrome as a builder should . . . on parts which needed cleaning most often.”
Inside, under the roadster’s neatly fabricated folding canvas top—although not shown (there was no interior photograph)—was a genuine 1932 Auburn 12-160 dash, with its distinctive five-gauge insert incorporating a 120-mph speedometer and a separate 0–8,000 rpm tachometer mounted to the left. The steering wheel was a stock ’46–’48 Ford item; the hubcaps were ’47–’48 Ford. On the glove compartment door (another original Auburn feature, like the tach) was an SCTA timing tag certifying that Morrison had run his car at El Mirage in June 1949, turning a very credible 123.11 mph in Class C.
The roadster’s headlights, arguably positioned a tad too high for beauty’s sake, were explained in this way: In the 1940s, zealous California cops looked for any reason to cite a hot rod. They would measure headlight height, act as on-the-spot judge and jury on loud mufflers, and insist on a displayed front license plate. Seeking to avoid endless harassment and the inevitable citations, many guys simply raised their headlights to the “correct” level, ran closed lakes plugs and ensured that the front tag was in place while driving on the street. These items were usually removed for dry lakes competition anyway.
I bought Best Hot Rods brand new in 1954 (I still have my tattered copy), and the classy little Walker Morrison roadster instantly became my favorite ’32. I can’t tell you how many times I stared at those pictures, wishing that I could magically step inside the photograph, pop the hood, look inside the car, then walk around back to really check it out.
Fast forward to fall 1993. I was a man on a mission, finalizing decisions on my own ’32 roadster before the build commenced. Of course, I studied the Morrison Deuce intently. I knew this car had never again appeared in any other hot rod magazines, and because there had been no photographs of the interior and the rear end, I needed to know those details. I called my friend Dean Batchelor, author of The American Hot Rod, to see if he could help. There were no photo credits listed with those two early articles, but Jerry Chesebrough and Gene Trindl were Hop Up’s “staff photographers.”
I knew that Dean had purchased many of Jerry’s (and Ralph Poole’s) photographs. I thought if Jerry had been the original shooter, maybe the missing views might still be in those files, perhaps as unused outtakes. Dean would know. As an active member of the L.A. Road Runners, Batchelor had been a major player in the postwar California hot rod world. He owned a very “sanitary” ’32 Ford highboy that he drove to work each day, he helped build and actually raced the So-Cal Speed Shop streamliner, and he worked part-time at Valley Custom Shop in Burbank. Even better, Dean had been on the staff of both Hop Up and Rod & Custom (and later served as editor of Road & Track). Dean knew everybody, or so I hoped. I made the call.
“Did you ever know a guy named Walker Morrison?” I asked, after we had exchanged pleasantries.
“You mean ‘Moe,’” Dean answered. “Everybody called him ‘Moe.’”
“Yes,” I replied. “Is he still alive?”
“Sure,” said Batchelor. “D’ya want his phone number?”
Minutes later, I was talking with Walker Morrison himself. I told Mr. Morrison that I had admired his ’32 roadster for years and asked if he could tell me a few things about it. His voice was that of an older man. He spoke slowly, but alertly, even though I sensed he considered my flood of eager questions to be somewhat curious.
“Let me see,” I recall him saying. “You’re asking about the ’32 Ford roadster that I sold almost forty-five years ago. I’ve often wondered what happened to that car. I have no idea where it is. I think it may have gone to a guy in Arizona.”
As we talked, Mr. Morrison remembered more details. He noted that his roadster was a medium shade of maroon. I’d never seen it in color, of course, because the magazine pages were sepia-toned. I vaguely recall he even knew the DuPont paint name. Walker Morrison told me he sold that roadster shortly after the Best Hot Rods story appeared, and said he never saw it after that. I thanked him for his time and said good-bye. I kept Walker Morrison’s phone number in my file, but we never spoke again. He passed away a few years after we talked.
Not long after that fateful conversation, I towed my ’32 roadster body and frame “roller” up to Dave Simard’s shop in Massachusetts and presented him with a twenty-six-page “book” of Xeroxed magazine articles and photos. Many of the build details I knew I wanted came straight from Walker Morrison’s roadster. All credit to Moe and the other hot rod pioneers. They invented the genre; we’re just repeating what they did, juggling a small mix of classic roadster elements.
In June 1999, my wife Trish and I drove my just-completed ’32 out to the L.A. Roadsters’ annual Father’s Day event at the Pomona Fairgrounds. We dusted off the car, put the hood sides up so people could see the highly polished S.Co.T.-blown flathead, and wandered off to look around. When I returned, an older man was staring intently at my car.
“Very nice car,” he said. “It looks like Walker Morrison’s old roadster.”
I told him that Morrison’s car had been a big influence and asked him, by chance, if he had known Moe.
“My name is Ralph McFarland,” he replied. “Moe was the best man at my wedding. I rode in that car with him many times.”
Struck by this lucky coincidence, I wanted to ask McFarland all the questions I wished I had asked Walker Morrison. “There were no pictures of the car’s interior and the rear end in Hop Up,” I said. “I knew it had an Auburn panel and ’39 taillights, though. Did we get the placement right?”
“You did,” he replied. “But Moe’s car was maroon, not black.” Also, purists will note that Walker Morrison used an entire ’32–’34 Auburn V-12 instrument panel, incorporating the tachometer and glove compartment. We didn’t realize that, so Dave Simard extended the stock ’32 Ford panel to accommodate the Auburn cluster. By looking at vintage Auburn interior photos, he positioned the Stewart-Warner tach to the left. Dave didn’t build in a glove compartment, either, although the thought had occurred to me to get one from a ’32 three-window coupe.
I spoke with McFarland a little longer and told him that, as far as I knew, his friend’s car had disappeared in the Southwest, sometime in the mid-1950s and hadn’t surfaced since. And then, acting on a hunch, I asked him for his phone number. “If the real Walker Morrison roadster ever turns up,” I said, “I’d like to call you for more details.” He was agreeable, and we parted company.
Now, the story becomes even more interesting.
My telephone rang one afternoon about five years ago. The caller was Jack Stirnemann, whom I’d met a few years earlier at Hershey where he was selling extraordinary 1/8 scale metal models of 1932 Ford roadsters. Jack’s friend, Roy Idman, knows Simard. Roy told Jack I knew about the Walker Morrison roadster. So Jack called Dave to get my number.
“Do you know anything about the Walker Morrison roadster?” he asked.
“I know a little about it,” I told him. “We copied a lot of the elements of that car when Dave built my ’32 roadster.” Then I took, a deep breath, anticipating what was coming. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve got the Walker Morrison car,” he replied, “and I want to restore it as accurately as possible.” Jack already knew about the features pictured in Hop Up and Best Hot Rods. “What else can you tell me?” I told Jack about my conversation with Walker Morrison years before and meeting Ralph McFarland at the L.A. Roadsters event. “You don’t possibly still have his phone number, do you?” he asked.
“I’m sure I do,” I replied. “I never throw anything away.” I promised to look through my files and call him back, which I did. Thanks to Ralph, Jack was able to glean many pertinent details about the car. McFarland, a hot rodder himself, had a keen memory. He also had kept a file of faded black-and-white snapshots that would prove invaluable to Jack Stirnemann.
Ralph McFarland, just out of the Navy after World War II and living in Florida, “had met a few guys from L.A. in the service. I’d bought a Harley-Davidson EL, with a 61-inch V-twin, in Hawaii when I was on a sub chaser,” he said. “The captain let me bring it home aboard our ship. I rode it across the country, along with a friend, who rode his Indian Chief. I’d heard about the American School of Aircraft Instruments and planned to attend on the G.I. Bill. Shortly after arriving in California, while I was riding past Union Station, I spotted a beautiful red car. I recognized it as a hot rod and stopped to take a long look. I was amazed at the quality of this immaculate roadster.
Turns out, the owner was Moe Morrison, a member of the Road Runners,” McFarland continues. “He’d just finished building the car. He had done it while he was taking auto-shop class in high school. When I saw that roadster for the first time, Moe was working at his brother’s gas station. We struck up a conversation, and he told me a bunch of guys with hot rods met regularly at a drive-in at the corner of Alameda Street and Victory Boulevard. So I rode over there on my motorcycle. Moe’s car had a dual-intake manifold—I don’t remember which one—a Winfield R-1 cam and Clark headers. The stock wishbone was still in place, too. With that cam it didn’t idle too badly,” Ralph recalls, “but when Moe punched it, it’d really jump. It was bored out, but he didn’t add the Merc crank, the three-pot manifold and the W-shaped headers until later.”
Not long after their meeting, Ralph remembered, Moe began working at Shaftsbury Buick. He started, like a lot of beginners, on the lube rack, but was so skilled they soon had him working as a mechanic. Through Morrison, McFarland met several more hot rodders, including Bob McClure (Road Runners) and Gordon Radcliff. “I first met Doane Spencer (Glendale Stokers) at Alex Xydias’ So-Cal Speed Shop in Burbank, where he did equipment installation and fabricating,” Ralph says. “Even then I was in awe of his abilities.”
Ralph McFarland rode around a lot with Moe in his roadster. Old photos show the pair posed at Gardena Bowl for the selection of hot rods to be included at the SCTA’s January 1948 exposition, held at the L.A. National Guard Armory. Dressed in jeans and leather jackets, they look like a couple of guys out of a hot rod B movie. That fall, Ralph and Moe attended the Pasadena Roadster Club Reliability Run near the Rose Bowl. Not surprisingly, Doane Spencer won the top award for the best-appearing roadster. McFarland tells some wonderful stories about driving from Burbank through Palmdale, then up to the dry lakes, usually in Chuck Rice’s ’32 pickup. “It was an arduous trip back then,” he remembered. “Moe kept his car very, very clean. We didn’t take it to the lakes unless he was going to run it. We stayed in Rancho El Mirage in those days for fifty cents a night. At night sometimes, with only the light of the moon, we’d drive across the lake bed in Rice’s truck, looking back at the swirling dust clouds.” As McFarland spoke, I thought of all those black-and-white photos of guys up at the lakes. You could close your eyes and the scene would instantly come to life.
Ralph got to know Doane Spencer pretty well, too. “Spencer even taught me how to gas weld,” he says. “He only had one set of welding goggles so I would crouch behind him and squint through his crew cut to see what he was doing. That was just enough screening to filter out the flare of the torch. I learned a lot just by watching Doane weld. He did some work on my car, when I got it, as well as what he did on Moe’s roadster. There was nothing he couldn’t do. I’d see something, tell him about it, and he’d say, ‘Let’s do that.’”
Hanging around with this crowd, McFarland needed a ’32 roadster of his own so he sold his Harley for $350 and bought a primered Deuce, paying $300 for it. “Somebody had already started to make a hot rod out of it,” he remembered. “It had a 59A flathead with a two-pot manifold, Eddie Meyer heads and a column shift. But it still had mechanical brakes. Somebody had wedged in a ’40 Ford rear seat, too, and they’d welded on a strap, sort of like a band, to keep the doors shut. I put on a dropped axle and added ’34 steering and hydraulic brakes . . . basically, I started at the front and worked my way to the back.” Old photos show a neat-appearing car with a canted, chopped windshield with a wiper motor mounted at the base. The grille shell was filled, the door handles were shaved, and there was a hand-made headlight bar supporting tubular front shocks.
Ralph sold his ’32 roadster a few years later. For years, he said, he’d look closely at other roadsters, “trying to find traces of something that I or Doane had done.” That’s why he was looking at my car so intently, decades later. McFarland and Morrison lost touch in the early 1990s, but it’s evident that Ralph McFarland has never forgotten those special times, some sixty years ago, when he and Walker Morrison were on the prowl in Moe’s beautiful little ’32.
Jack and his brother, Harry, are consummate hot rod builders. For years Jack had wanted a ’32 Ford roadster, preferably a car with some history. Luckily, he was friendly with the late Ermie Immerso of San Pedro, California, former chief mechanic for the Dean Van Lines Indy Car racing team from 1954 to 1963 Ermie had also commissioned the late Don Thelen and his company, Buffalo Motor Cars, to build a period-perfect, Ardun-powered ’32 Ford roadster with a Kurtis-Kraft-type tubular front axle. That car, called “Orange Crush,” became the 1988 Grand National Roadster Show AMBR winner and was the cover feature for the first issue of American Rodder. Remember the fact that it had an Auburn dash panel with two unique twist-on panel lights. We’ll get back to that. Ermie also owned a radical ’25 track T, with a DOHC Indy Ford V-8 engine, called “Golden Star.” That one was the 1989 and 1991 AMBR winner. Immerso owned a number of other cool cars, including several ’32 roadsters in various stages of completion.
“Ermie didn’t sell much,” Stirnemann said, “but I persuaded him to sell me the remains of an old ’32 roadster that looked as though it had been a hot rod for a long time. It was in rough shape, missing the firewall, the windshield, the door hinges, the grille shell, the Auburn instrument panel and the top. The headlight crossbar had been cut out and the frame had been crudely boxed, but the numbers matched the title.” As luck would have it, Ermie had some information about the car, and about a man named Gary Godbehere from Phoenix, who at one time—you guessed it—owned the Walker Morrison roadster.
“When I found out what the car actually was,” Stirnemann says, “I flew to Phoenix to try to learn more.” Godbehere, who passed away in August 2006, had several old photos of the car and he told me quite a bit about it. Jack, meanwhile, carefully traced the roadster’s chronology. He learned Morrison had sold the roadster in 1953 to a man named Rick Harding. Harding, in turn, sold it to Godbehere, who owned it while he was in high school in Phoenix in 1954. Gary replaced the flathead with a Chrysler Hemi and had the pictures to prove it. Sometime in the 1960s, Godbehere passed the roadster to Ulysses E. Wilson, who installed a Chevy V8 and drag-raced it. In the ’70s, it went briefly to Alton Sipes of Phoenix, who remembered little about the car but didn’t keep it long. The next owner was an auto salesman, Mike Combest, also of Phoenix. It’s believed that Dick Smith worked on the car during this period. (Knowledgeable hot rodders will remember that Smith built the Hemi-powered Deuce roadster that’s in The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan).
Immerso got the roadster from Combest in 1980, apparently as payment on a debt. Stirnemann, who bought the car from Ermie in 1994, noted that the car’s Auburn dash panel, with its distinctive twist-on lights, was visible in several of the old photographs that had turned up.
“I asked Ermie if he knew where that panel was,” Stirnemann said. “He replied that he knew exactly where it was—it was in his orange roadster and ‘you ain’t gettin’ it.’” Those universal chromed lights had been installed because the original Auburn panel was backlit. They were needed to better see the other instruments at night. Sometime later, when Jack looked at the photos from Ralph McFarland, one shot clearly showed the Auburn panel Moe had installed, along with the tachometer and the glove compartment. Stirnemann found another complete ’34 Auburn dash with a glove compartment, then located a correct five-gauge insert panel and a pair of external lights.
Photos in the original Hop Up article revealed that the radiator hose clamps used a thumbscrew type mechanism that the Stirnemann’s were unable to turn up during the restoration. So, a complete set of new ones were machined. Jack gets credit for the wiring, which is also period perfect, with cotton covered wire held neatly in place with wax coated thread ties, typical of the Stirnemann’s attention to detail.
One of the many restoration challenges on the car was duplicating its exact color. Stirnemann, whose specialty is painting, started by looking at a spectrum of old maroon shades. Remember, he had only seen this car in sepia tones and black-and-white photos. Walker Morrison had described the color as dark maroon, but Ralph McFarland said, “In bright sunlight, it was more like a ruby red.” Usually, on any old car, there’s at least one place, hidden away, where the original shade is extant, but not on this one. The body had been thoroughly stripped. Gary Godbehere had also repainted the headlights a metallic shade, so Jack looked at an array of maroons arranged in color gradations. “One chip just popped out,” he recalled. Using a photo spectrometer, he found a mid-1980s VW bus color that was close. He tinted that shade a little, and it became the final color.
When Stirnemann showed the completed car to McFarland for the first time, an emotional Ralph said, “Oh Jack, you got the color perfect!” Then he added, “But Moe’s car wasn’t quite this fancy.” To be fair, McFarland best remembers this car before it appeared in Hop Up, without the hairpins, the W-shaped headers, and the triple manifold. In another seeming inconsistency, the article in Best Hot Rods stipulated that the car turned 135 mph at the lakes. Jack Stirnemann found the 123.11 mph time in official SCTA records, a very credible speed for a street roadster in the late 1940s. There was another official “Walker Morrison” time set with a partner, “But I wanted the tag to read ‘Walker Morrison’,” Jack said, not someone else. “And who knows, perhaps the 135 mph reference was a typo?”
Jack’s efforts to redo the car exactly as it appeared in Best Hot Rods meant he stared repeatedly at those old photographs, noting every detail. He asked Bill Jenks, the Potvin cam specialist at Mooneyes, if he could grind a 38-83 cam. “I can make you one of those,” Jenks said, and he did. The Fawcett book noted the car had a twenty-five-tooth Lincoln gearset in the transmission and a 3.54:1 rear. It still does. Hop Up’s unidentified writer noted, “Photography alone cannot express the true beauty of Walker Morrison’s roadster, which appears to be nothing unusual, but is, in reality, one of the cleanest examples of roadster building in Southern California.” It still is.
As part of his comprehensive research on the Morrison roadster, Stirnemann found out about Carolyn Sager, who was Moe’s girlfriend for twenty years before he died. He spoke with her several times by phone, but they never met. Talking with a woman at the SCTA stand at Bonneville in 2001, the year he became a member of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club, he noticed her nametag. “Are you the same Carolyn Sager I’ve been speaking with, who knew Walker Morrison?” he asked.
“When I told her who I was, she embraced me and started to cry,” Stirneman said. After Morrison died, Carolyn Sager became friends with another SCTA racer, so there she was at the salt flats. In an even stranger coincidence, Morrison’s car number in the old SCTA registry was 781; Carolyn Sager and her friend Dave had combined birthdays to come up with a number for their race car: 781.
I spoke with Sager, who had many nice things to say about Walker Morrison. “Although he’d sold that roadster long before I met him,” she said, “he still liked to talk about it. He still liked to go to El Mirage and Bonneville, too.” I mentioned that Ralph McFarland said Moe had kept his roadster very clean. Sager confirmed that. “All his vehicles were that way,” she said. “He was the doctor of all mechanics. He could just listen to a car and tell you what was wrong with it.”
Jack Stirnemann and his brother, Harry, took great pains to do the Morrison car correctly. Their timing was perfect. The seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1932 Ford was celebrated in 2007 with a special Deuce Class at Pebble Beach. A few months before the August show, I was in St. Louis on business. I called Jack, who cordially invited me over to see the car in progress. Although most of the parts were painted and plated, the freshly done body had not yet been rubbed out and complete assembly was needed. The work looked beautiful, but I secretly wondered whether they could get the car together on time. I needn’t have worried. The next time I saw the Walker Morrison roadster it had just completed the eighty-mile driving tour at Pebble Beach. I just stood back and stared at it for a long time. At last, I could step into the picture and really see this car, and it was impressive. Seeing it “in color” for the first time, all assembled, was a bit eerie, though. I’d been looking at this roadster in sepia for fifty-three years. Here it was, at last, in Technicolor!
Our judges at the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance were author and former drag racer, Don Montgomery; talented restorer and author of a new book on Gene Winfield, David Grant; and myself as chief class judge. It was the toughest class we’ve ever had, with four virtually perfect cars and several others very well done. Pebble Beach uses a 100-point judging system, with three additional points that can be awarded at the judges’ discretion for racing or show history, engineering, and yes, even elegance.
It was very, very close. When it was all over, less than a point separated each car. The ex–Lloyd Bakan three-window took Best in Class, the Walker Morrison roadster was second, and the former Tom McMullen Deuce was third. The Dean Batchelor Award, honoring the most significant car in the class, went to the Berardini Brothers’ drag-racing roadster. Jack’s a very competitive racer; he likes to win. I sensed a little disappointment, but he was a gentleman about the results. After all, Moe’s old car had beaten seven other contestants.
Stirnemann credits his brother, Harry; crack machinist Ernie Vision; expert welder Jimmy Marshall; and his good friend, George Lange for helping with the restoration. “Without them,” he said, “we never could have finished this car on time.” And now that the roadster is completed and it’s been admired at several major events, we asked Jack if he had any plans for it. “To tell the truth,” he said, “I went looking for an old roadster body because I wanted to build ‘the Jack Stirnemann car.’ Obviously, I couldn’t do that here. I’ve told a couple of guys, if they want to buy it, it’s for sale. I’m building my own roadster next.”
A final note. After the car was completed Jack Stirnemann invited Carolyn Sager to come and look at the finished roadster. “It was such a beautiful job,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say when I saw it. It just took my breath away.” She’d never actually seen the real car, of course, “But I could see it in my mind’s eye,” she said. “Moe was going to build me a car, but then he said he would always be afraid if something happened to me in it.”
“Cars were really his passion,” Carolyn remembered. “That car had a lasting effect on all the young kids who were involved with it. It was one car they always remembered.”
Amen to that.•
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