This hot rod was lost, but now it’s found
By: Pat Ganahl | Photography by Geoff Miles
Historic Photography courtesy of Pat Ganahl, Greg Sharp & Bruce Boyd
Originally published & printed in TRJ #63
We usually present baremetal features in The Rodder’s Journal to display a metalman’s talents or a customizer’s tricks—to show the wizardry performed in sheetmetal and lead before it’s all covered in silksmooth, mile-deep paint. That is not the case here and, frankly, the person performing the metalwork on this historic car was concerned that this particular feature might not reflect positively on his metalworking capabilities.
OK. Right here I must do what the big newspapers call “Full Disclosure”: Bill Ganahl, owner and operator of South City Rod & Custom, the shop entrusted with the full, historically accurate restoration of the Bob Pierson ’36 Ford coupe, is my son. I think I can be objective in the following report.
Jim Bobowski, the car’s new owner and rescuer, has given Bill a very strict mandate. In his own words, Jim says, “I’m a stickler for originality. I’m driven by history. I want to be as true to that as I can. I want the car to remain as original as it can be.”
That’s the point and that’s what is being displayed here. This 78-year-old car, driven on the street by teenagers, modified, and ultimately raced at 140mph on the dry lakes, is still amazingly original, especially in terms of body and sheetmetal. Whereas most any similar restoration project today has its rusted, wrecked, and embrittled old sheetmetal replaced with readily available and easily workable patch panels or custom-formed sheets of fresh steel, this one retains as much of its original body as possible. Bobowski’s orders to Bill were to trim any patch panels used to the smallest size possible, to replace only what metal was absolutely necessary, and to use only old-school lead as a filler, minimally. So that’s what you see here. Or, it’s what you can’t see here. Bill’s repairs are nearly invisible. We’ll let him talk about the process and the results in the photo captions.
We’ll also talk more about this car’s early history, its racing exploits, and the huge—and controversial—significance of its appearance on the August 1948 cover of Hot Rod Magazine (being the first coupe featured) in the story that will follow when the restoration is complete. Here we will concentrate on the little-known tale of how this “other” Pierson Brothers’ Coupe was lost, preserved, found, and finally saved. Some has been told. Most you’ve never heard.
The Not-So-Lost Lakes Competitor
It was March 2, 2009 when Ryan Cochran, in his daily opening post for the H.A.M.B. on the Jalopy Journal, showed one of the best (and only?) color photos of the Pierson ’36 in its chopped top, white paint, and red wheels and grille, hooked to the legendary red, white, and blue 2D ’34 Competition Coupe as they arrived at El Mirage dry lake in 1950. In the brief text he told how Bob Pierson found this ’36 three-window in Denver where he was stationed during the war and how he and good friend Bobby Meeks built it into the Edelbrock-equipped rod that set a 117mph record at one of the first Russetta Timing meets, thus garnering the cover and two-page feature (complete with a rare Tom Medley cutaway drawing) in Hot Rod in ’48. Ryan closed with the line, “I’m not sure if anyone knows where the car is today.”
This generated a surprising 43 comments from viewers, only two of whom knew of the car’s existence. One was Don Montgomery (“Rockerhead”), who said, “The Bob Pierson ’36 coupe is still alive. Years ago a GCRC (Glendale Coupe and Roadster Club) member found the car in very poor condition. He bought it with the idea of fixing it up someday, and it lay in his Burbank garage for some years. I even did an article about it for Street Rodder in about 1985. After that he decided to build it into a street rod so he could use it. Externally the coupe looked much as it had originally except that now it was bright red. Naturally he put late model running gear under the car. The car looked nice and was featured in some magazines [Rod Action?]. Unfortunately the owner passed away about two years ago. He was a member of the Road Kings car club. A good friend and Road Kings member now has the car. It is a very nice car with great history.”
I wasn’t reading the H.A.M.B. that day in ’09. If I had, I might have added that I not only knew where the car was, but had photos of it I had taken at least 10 years prior. However, a relatively young automotive enthusiast from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Jim Bobowski, was surfing the web looking for historical hot rod information in general, and anything on the Pierson Brothers specifically. This gave him his first positive confirmation that the Pierson ’36 still existed, in street rod form, now belonging to some unnamed member of the Road Kings of Burbank. We’ll delve deeper into this in a second. But let me start by retelling my part in this story, as I finally presented it in my book Lost Hot Rods, which was published in 2010.
I’m not sure what year it was, because the slides have no date on them. But it must have been the mid-’90s, after I had left Rod & Custom. I was driving through downtown Glendale, and happened to see this bright red, chopped, low ’36 three-window coupe bombing up Central Ave. I couldn’t miss it. It looked good. So I took off after it and followed it home, up to a big house in the foothills. I introduced myself to the affable owner, Bill King. He was happy to show me the car, and explain how he built it in his garage where he also had a mildly rodded ’39 Ford sedan parked. Since I was now freelancing, I asked if I could run home and get my camera to take some sample photos to show magazine editors. Since I lived on the other side of town, I was back in a few minutes and took exactly 13 color slides of the front, back, engine, and interior, sitting in his backyard. It wasn’t until I was packing up my cameras, ready to leave, that he casually mentioned that this was the Bob Pierson ’36 coupe, which had been on the cover of Hot Rod in 1948 and set records at the dry lakes. Wow.
Being a hot rod historian myself, I was impressed. But 20-some years ago, when rod magazines had Boyd or Foose smoothies on the cover, the editors were neither appreciative of the car’s history, nor its rubber running boards, cloth top insert, or stock bumpers. Even its billet wheels resembled five-spoke mags. On the other hand, the few hard-core traditional publications saw the monochrome paint and shaved handles outside, lots of billet handles and pedals inside, and a smallblock Chevy in an IFS chassis, and said, “No way.”
So these sample slides sat in my file for more than a decade, unused, unseen, until I started on my Lost Rods book. It was a perfect candidate. But when I tried to contact Bill King, I was told he had died two years ago, and his good friend and fellow Road Kings member Frank Nay now owned the car. When I called Nay, he wasn’t much interested in the Piersons, the car’s history, or taking more photos of it. He was in the process of updating it further, and preserving it as his friend Bill King’s street rod.
So I tried calling Bob Pierson, whom I had met and whose card was in my Rolodex, to try to uncover some of the little-known history of this coupe for my book. Sadly, his wife Sandra told me Bob had passed just a few months before; but she did give me a number for Bob’s younger brother Dick.
While Bob was loquacious, Dick is the opposite. The few facts he told me, which I wrote in the book, included that he and Bob chopped the top with the help of Harry Jones (who painted the 2D coupe), and that they spotted-in the Tokay White paint. With the chopped top and an Edelbrock race engine installed, it ultimately ran 140mph at the lakes. [Knowing Edelbrock, the alcohol fuel it ran at the lakes likely had some percentage of nitro added to hit that speed in a fullfendered coupe]. But by sometime in 1950 it was relegated to street duty and flat-towing the racecar, including all the way to Bonneville.
Then Bob, having bought a new Cadillac, gave the ’36 to Dick who drove it for the next two or three years. Dick said he kept the tan-and-brown Runyan interior, the chrome dash, the column shift, and everything else the way it was—until selling it around ’52 or ’53 to someone named Don Roush who lived or had a summer cabin in Big Bear, a mountain resort area above San Bernardino. The final thing he told me was that he had heard someone had crashed the car off an icy road up there, but he didn’t know the details or what became of the car.
I must say here that I have done considerable research, and talked to several people concerning the Pierson Brothers and their two famous coupes, and in some cases the stories, and even some of the few existing photos, seem to contradict each other. This is quite understandable given the 60-year timeframe and the fact that some primary sources are no longer here to ask.
We’ll get back to the part my book played in a minute, but first we return to the H.A.M.B. discussion of ’09. In it, Don Montgomery not only stated that “someone in the Road Kings” had the car, but that Don had written an article about it in Street Rodder “around 1985.” Leafing through my binders, I soon found it in the September ’84 issue. In the two-page article, Don (who was competing at Russetta meets with his own coupe in those days) lists increasingly faster records set by the ’36 from ’48 through ’50, stating, “One major change was made to the car for the ’49 season. The rules allowed one body modification, so the top was chopped to reduce the frontal area.” Don doesn’t say how much or by whom, but says it responded with first place speeds of 124.65 and then 126.76mph in the first two meets.
However, by the third meet of ’49 they had the sleek, new ’34 ready for test runs in black primer, which responded with a 140.32 mph Class D record. Then, while the ’34 was getting painted and chromed, the ’36 ran two more meets, hitting 129.12 mph, before the new ’34 returned at the last meet to up its record to 142.98. This gave the Pierson Bros. team the second-highest points total for Russetta for the ’49 season, and that is why the new ’34 coupe was awarded the number “2” to wear for the ’50 season. That’s where “2D” comes from. Don went on to say that the team ran the ’36 once more at the June ’50 RTA meet. He didn’t say why. But that’s when it cranked the phenomenal 140.40 one-way time, for a two-way 132.78 record. That’s the last time the ’36 raced. The article says nothing about the car’s history immediately after that.
But the shocker is that this 1984 article shows three small black-and-white photos of the ’36 sitting in Bill King’s driveway, right where I photographed it a decade later. The car is stripped of its front sheetmetal and rear fenders, as well as the engine and trans. But it still has slightly weathered white paint, DeSoto bumpers, spare tire mount, and even one headlight. An interior photo shows the seat and carpet gone, but the pleated door panels, headliner, chrome dash and window frames, and the ’40 wheel and column all still in place. Montgomery took these photos in ’84, stating that King—a former GCRC and founding RTA member—saw the ’36 sitting “in a yard in Laguna Beach” in 1965, recognized it, and bought it for $125. He further stated that it then “still had the special louvered hood, spotlights, DeSoto bumpers, skirts, special sealed beam headlights, and cut-down spare tire mount. It also had extra fuel lines for the added gas [actually alcohol] tank in the trunk and a rusty flathead with a Harman cam and Edelbrock manifold.”
That means the car sat, in original condition, in King’s driveway or garage for 20 years. Where the upholstery, bumpers, spotlights, driveline, and complete chassis went is a mystery. Of course Don stated, “Bill is planning to start in on the old dry lakes warrior,” which was true, and ends with: “I wonder what else we could find in musty garages if we just searched hard enough.” Yes, indeed.
A Hot Rod with History
This brings us back to Jim Bobowski and, in a roundabout way, my book. I taped an interview with Jim at the recent Grand National Roadster Show, which I thought would take about 15 minutes. It lasted more than an hour, so there’s no way to cover it all here. To pare it down: Jim’s dad was (and still is) a gearhead who was into SS-type GM muscle cars, especially Corvettes. Jim acquired that gene, saying he was one of only two guys driving an “old” car in high school (that being a ’75 big-block SS El Camino in 1987). Jim also acquired his dad’s gene of working hard to earn money (in housing construction), so he went through a number of cars until he landed his dream—a black ’67, 400-hp, big-block Corvette—as a basketcase, which he rebuilt in his home two-car garage. Of course family, kids, and the usual stuff also followed. This didn’t diminish Jim’s automotive urges, but somehow they shifted (“I always wanted a Deuce five-window since seeing American Graffiti”), first to traditional-style early Fords, then to all-gennie Ford hot rods (“My garage was filling up with bodies, stacked upright on the cowls. I couldn’t afford done cars, so I was buying ‘projects’”).
“I was hyper-focused,” says Jim. “It was a history thing to me; part of the culture of our country.” So his next goal was to find a genuine early rod, “from back in the day.” So he located a ’32 Ford roadster project, but this one was from Hollywood and had 1941 L.A. newspapers stuffed in the doors. “I had to sell a couple cars and some bodies to get it.” And he’s still working on this one, with a flathead, ’39 trans, and banjo rearend.
“But you know how it goes,” he continues. “You meet one goal, and then you set the bar higher. So next I wanted a historic car, preferably a magazine car, and it had to be a dry lakes car. Not necessarily a competition car, but one that ran there in the ’40s or ’50s; something with a timing tag.”
“I don’t know where I saw a picture of the Pierson ’36…and then the 2D car,” says Jim. “But I became fascinated with the Piersons; they kind of became like idols to me.”
So here’s where it comes around: Jim saw the posts on the H.A.M.B. in ’09. “Of course I knew the 2D was restored, but I then found out the ’36 was on the planet. It still existed, and it wasn’t bought and restored yet. This intrigued the bejeezus out of me. But all I had to go on was that it was in Southern California, it was a street rod, and it was red. Jim even came out to the L.A. Roadsters show and the GNRS, and asked Road Kings members, but no one would say anything specific.
It wasn’t until two years later that he saw a copy of Lost Hot Rods in Barnes & Noble. “I was thumbing through it, and got almost to the end … and when I got to the page with the Pierson ’36 I almost lost it,” Jim explains. “Then I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach—everybody’s going to see this, and what if someone else buys it before I can?” But now he knew the owner was Frank Nay of Burbank, California.
Given today’s media, it didn’t take Jim long to connect with Nay, who of course said, “No. Not for sale.” By now you’ve probably noticed that Jim is both focused and persistent. But he’s not pushy. He didn’t offer Nay money. But he called him once a month. It turns out Nay was also an early GCRC member (hence his long friendship with King), who had worked at the So-Cal speed shop in 1952. Jim was intrigued with Frank’s stories. “We became friends over the phone,” Jim continues. “Sometimes we wouldn’t even mention the coupe.”
Then, after a year of this, Nay called and said, “Jim, I think I’m ready.” Turns out Nay had a chance to get one of his earlier rods back, which his wife liked better, and he was happy to sell the ’36 to buy it. Bobowski had to sell a few more cars to swing the deal, which was done in November 2010. This was just two months before the big “Customs Then & Now” exhibit at the 2011 GNRS and, at organizer Alex Idzardi’s coaxing and suggestion, Jim decided to send his yet-unseen ’36 down to Jimmy White’s Circle City Hot Rods in Orange, California, for “some minor backdating.” The idea was to bolt on some steel wheels, wide whitewalls, fender skirts, and jack up the modern suspension to an earlier ride-height. Of course, once this started, both Bobowski and White got enthused with the “de-street-rodding” process, and Jimmy was able to locate and mount some original DeSoto bumpers, Appleton spotlights (in the original holes), a lowered and dropped covered spare tire, and even rechroming the red windshield frame and red-vinyl covered window moldings. It’s amazing how much got done in two months. Of course the car was still bright red, but was much more recognizable as its former self at the show (as seen on pg. 49 of TRJ #53).
From there the car was finally shipped to New Jersey where Jim located a complete, rolling chassis that had just been removed from a ’50s-era drag coupe (with ’40 hydraulic brakes, etc.), and he and long-time rodding friend Darrell Falkinburg stripped down the Pierson car in Jim’s garage, swapping the body onto the ’36 chassis. Meanwhile, in his many conversations with Frank Nay, as well as calls to Dick Pierson, Jim was also able to uncover most of the missing history of this not-as-famous-as-it-should-be car. We know from various conversations with Dick Pierson that he sold the ’36 sometime around 1953 to “a co-worker” (at an aircraft company, not Edelbrock) named Don Roush, who either had a summer cabin in Big Bear, or later moved there. We know little about him.
The key is a guy named Larry Howes who approached Frank Nay when he was displaying the car (with signage showing its Pierson heritage) at a Road Kings car show in Burbank. It was Larry who exclaimed, “I used to own that car!” Indeed he did. His father owned a gas station in Big Bear, and Larry pumped gas there as a young teen in the mid-’50s. He said Roush would drive the white ’36 in to gas up, and Larry recognized it from Hot Rod Magazine, which he read fervently. Even though he wasn’t quite old enough to drive yet, Larry told Roush, “If you ever want to sell that car, let me know.” He mentioned it every time he came in for gas. Finally Roush said “OK.” Since his 16th birthday was approaching, Larry asked his dad if he would buy him the car. And his dad said “OK” (lucky kid!).
So it turned out Larry Howes not only got this car for his 16th birthday, but he also took his driver’s test in it to get his license (as had Dick Pierson … which is another good story for another time). Larry said he drove this cool chopped custom ’36 coupe all through high school, giving it one same-color repaint at some point. He said he didn’t drive it off an icy road, and knows nothing about that happening.
But he went on to say that his family knew a couple from Laguna Beach who owned and operated a small cabin resort in Big Bear. The wife, Florence Nichols, saw Larry driving this older, stylish, streamlined coupe and took a liking to it (“even though she was in her 40s or 50s”). So, in about 1963, Florence convinced Larry to sell her the car, which she then used for daily transportation. At that point, according to Larry, other than the chopped top, it was still exactly the same as it appeared in the ’48 Hot Rod, including the Runyan upholstery, chromed dash (with 117 mph Russetta tag), louvered hood, and the two-carb Edelbrock “street motor.” Jim Bobowski relayed this information to me, since he got Howes’ name and number from Frank Nay. Not only did Jim get the story directly from Howes, but he also invited him to come see the car on display at the 2011 GNRS, where Howes got to sit in it again for the first time since 1963.
The photo on the left shows the car at El Mirage in ’48 with the hubcaps, headlights, and spare tire removed for racing. The amazing photo on the right was snapped by Bill King in 1965 the day he towed it home from Laguna Beach where it had sat about 10 years. It has the louvered hood top and sides, white paint, spots, bumpers, Runyan interior, and what even looks like the original front wide whites. Only the skirts and hubcaps were missing. But then it sat another 20 years in this driveway.
So this explains how this former Hot Rod cover car got to Laguna Beach. Of course it doesn’t fully explain why, by 1965, it was sitting in a yard, un-running with a “rusty engine” and weathered paint, and available for the paltry sum of $125. Nor does it explain why Bill King, from Glendale, happened to be driving through neighborhoods in Laguna Beach, many miles south. But the people involved are no longer here to tell us, and it’s not all that important.
What is important—what’s truly amazing—is that this famous, significant hot rod/custom/lakes record holder was preserved by its handful of owners. Although it was raced and skillfully chopped by amateurs, it was never wrecked, cut up, or continually modified like so many racecars or customs, nor was it driven on salted roads or left abandoned to rot in some snow-covered field like so many others. Yes, it spent some time on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Yes it had some rust in it and other issues you’d expect in any near 80-year-old car. No, it didn’t look like this when all the bright red paint was stripped off. But it was pretty damn good. And Bill has made it look a damn sight better.•
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