The Short History of One Excellent, Overlooked Roadster
By Pat Ganahl | Photos from the Pat Ganahl, Dick Price & Jim Kitchen collections
Originally published & printed in TRJ #54
One of these days I’ll tell you about the box. Bill Burke came into my office at Street Rodder Magazine sometime in late 1976 and plopped it on my desk saying, “Here, you have more interest in this stuff than I do.” It was about 1 ½ feet per side, open on top and, yes, it had purple paint spilled on it. Inside was a large scrapbook, sort of falling apart, with black pages with notes in black pencil dating back to the 1930s. Most of the small photos that had been in it were down in the bottom of the box. But there was a lot of other stuff in there, ranging from cover photos and negs from Throttle magazine, plaques and ribbons from the first SCTA Hot Rod show in 1948, and lots of other photos and negatives of all sizes.
I had used some of these photos when I did a historical article on Bill in the July ’76 issue of SRM. He had become the Advertising Director of that magazine the month before, the first real full-time one it had. I have to admit I didn’t really know who Bill was, and what he had done until then. But we quickly became friends. He kept a pet tarantula in a fish tank in his office. And he could make the best blown-fuel Hemi sounds of anybody in the hallway. Wapaah! Wapaah! But, as I say, more of this another day.
The one item from that box that pertains directly to this story— initiated it in fact—was an 8×10 glossy print of two hot rod roadsters lined up to race at the blimp base in Santa Ana. I’m pretty sure this is the same photo used to headline an article in the September ’50 issue of Hot Rod Magazine titled, “Action on the Airstrip.” There is no identification on the back of the print, so I assume the SCTA provided the photos for the story. The reason this photo was in Bill’s box is because he’s the guy in the white stroker cap and white pants standing in the middle of the strip, ready to wave the roadsters off. He was the SCTA Chief Starter at the time.
A brief note: many people still think this was the Santa Ana drags. No. This was a one-time event staged by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) “at an inactive Navy blimp base near Santa Ana,” according to the article. The blimp base was actually in Tustin, just south east of Santa Ana (and still there, last time I looked). This was initially supposed to be a road race for motorcycles, but somebody got the idea to invite the SCTA to stage some ¼-mile drag races “to provide a between events activity” to prove which were quicker, bikes or roadsters. Apparently a huge crowd turned out to watch, control was a problem, and organization was lacking. Not much drag racing took place until late in the day. However, the article states clearly that, “This was the initial full scale venture of its type, in the Southern California area.”
The date of the event isn’t stated, but given a three-month magazine lead time, that would be about June of ’50, or earlier. C.J. Hart’s Sunday drags at the Santa Ana Airport (now John Wayne Int’l) started July 2 that year. We can discuss this more later, too.
But I want to direct your attention to the ’32 highboy roadster on the right in this photo. That’s what got my attention. The black ’29 on the left is pretty typical other than the ’40s custom style inset license plate, and the fact it had slicks at one of the first-ever drag races. But that Deuce just looks classy. It’s obviously got a dropped axle and C’ed rear frame to sit right, especially with those big-n-little tires with Merc caps. Details like the small, chrome license lights and the hand-made rear spreader bar were unique. But the chromed and then partially painted gas tank was a standout feature. You couldn’t read the club plaques in the magazine, but in Burke’s 8×10 you could see the ’29 was from the Dolphins, SCTA, while the ’32 (obviously some color lighter than black) not only had a “San Bernardino” chrome license frame, but a “San Berdoo Roadsters” plaque below it. It’s a classic photo, and that’s a classic Deuce highboy roadster. I wondered whose it was.
I can’t remember exactly when or how I met Jim Kitchen. But he was driving a white ’29 highboy roadster with a Moon tank on the front, louvers in the deck, real Halibrand mag wheels, a chrome roll bar, and real Hilborn injection on a smallblock Chevy engine. It was something you’d notice. He lived in San Bernardino and worked for the local newspaper. So I drove out there to photograph the car for Street Rodder Magazine. He showed me where the old Colton drag strip was, which was nearby, so we drove over in the roadster and I got pictures of him doing burnouts between the weeds growing through the cracks. I also got some pics of it at El Mirage, with snow on the peaks in the background, when he drove it up to spectate the next week.
I must have taken these photos right about the time I left SRM after the July ’78 issue, and for some reason they didn’t get used until six months later in January ’79 in a feature bylined by Michael Thomas (aka Tom McMullen). Yes, it sounds like we’re getting off topic, but we’re not.
At that time Jim gave me a great, old, panoramic photo measuring 7×17 inches showing seven race and street hot rod roadsters lined up in front of a row of garage doors with a big tin awning above them reading, “Hudson.” Jim had found the negative in the newspaper’s files, and said this was the San Berdoo Roadsters club from about 1950. You might have seen this photo, because it’s been printed in magazines or books a couple of times since. My copy still hangs on my garage wall. Again, one of the roadsters caught my eye, the Deuce with the headlights, license, chopped windshield, and chromed dropped axle. It looked black in this photo.
I have no idea why it took me so long to wonder if the Deuce with the chrome gas tank in the drag photo might be the same San Berdoo Roadster seen from the front in this lineup, but it wasn’t until I dug out Burke’s print and compared license numbers that I figured it out. They were the same. But I still wondered whose car it was. I couldn’t remember seeing it anywhere else.
Jim Kitchen and I have remained friends ever since that photo shoot back in ’78, and yep, he still has that white, fuel-injected roadster. It looks much the same, except he’s converted it to lakes and Bonneville race trim (with record-setting results). Plus it had significant race history as the Leithold & Leithold car, long before Jim got it. So I decided to include it in my next book, Lost Hot Rods II.
After photographing his roadster in the street in front of his house in north San Bernardino recently, we were looking through old photos of it in his office, when I spotted one small print of a really nice, low, Deuce highboy with a white top and the hood open, on a corner in front of a big white house. I immediately asked, “What’s this?” Jim answered, “That’s Dick Price’s Deuce from the San Berdoo Roadsters. That house is just a couple blocks from here, wanna go see it?” No, I wanted to know more about this roadster. It was obviously the same one in the other two photos, and this was the first time I’d seen its engine, let alone heard the name of its owner. You see how this finally comes together?
Jim runs a San Berdoo Roadsters plaque on his roadster, and claims to be the last active member. So of course I asked, “Whatever happened to…” this roadster? More tentatively, I asked, “What about Dick Price?” Jim told me that Dick’s father owned the Hudson dealership in San Bernardino where the club photo had been taken, and Dick’s roadster was not only very nice, but also quite fast at the lakes, where he raced often. What became of it, he had no idea. He didn’t know Dick Price. But he said he knew somebody who did, and he’d make some calls.
A week or two later Jim called and gave me Rocky Cline’s name and number, saying he was Dick Price’s son-in-law. It took another couple of weeks to reach Cline, but he said, “He’s hard of hearing, but if you want to talk to Dick, here’s his number.” I called. Dick was quite accommodating, and invited me to come see him at his house in Highland, not far from the big white house in the photo, and a similar one only a few blocks away where he grew up. Fortunately he had plenty of pictures of the roadster, even some color ones, which he was happy to share. The car’s story, however, is sweet but short.
Dick’s father owned the E.G. Price Motor Co. at the corner of Baseline and D St. in downtown San Bernardino, originally selling Hudsons, but later switching to American Motors. So Dick did not grow up on the poor side of town. He didn’t say exactly how he got involved in hot rods, but at San Bernardino High, just after the war, that’s what most guys were into. Surprisingly, his first car, a ’36 Ford Tudor sedan, was more of a custom than a rod (though similar to one Art Chrisman had about the same time), and was supported by his mother rather than his dad. “Mom kinda helped pay for that,” he said. Though it still had a spare on the back, he leaded the trunk in, added a later bumper with big dual exhausts, and a plaque reading, Flathatters, Southern California. Not bad for a high school ride in ’46-’47.
Good enough, in fact, that he traded it straight across for a shiny black, full-fendered, ’32 Ford roadster with an already hopped-up ’42 Merc engine. Dick said he got it in late ’47 or ’48, when he was about 19, and the first thing he did was pull the fenders off. Naturally some things are hazy after all this time, which is complicated by dates on the backs of some of Dick’s photos, which must have been printed significantly later than they were taken.
Dick said that the ’32 had Evans heads and intake, Spalding ignition, and a Harmon-Collins ¾-race cam when he got it. He said he bored it to 3-5/16” and added Jahns pistons (for 256 inches), and switched to an Edelbrock intake with two 97s, Edelbrock heads, and a Potvin ignition, using the same H-C cam.
He said he also chopped the windshield two inches, installed a dropped axle with a Model A front crossmember and tube shocks, and installed ’40 Ford hydraulic brakes. He also started getting pieces chromed, locally. “I got everything I could see on the engine chromed,” he still proclaims proudly today.
Now you might expect that much of this work was done on the car at his father’s dealership, and that’s also where the rest of the Berdoo Roadsters hung out, but actually the opposite is true. When I asked Dick who did the work on the car, he said, “Well, we did.” He explained that high school classmates Jim and Bill Harber were pretty much the nexus of the club because, “There was a big shed on their family property, on Gilbert near Waterman, that had welders and other equipment, and that’s where we worked on our cars.” You can see that Dick’s ’32 has the spreader bar molded into the frame at the front, with fabricated shock mounts. What you can’t see is what Dick called the “two-barred frame” in rear, to lower it. Dick doesn’t remember exactly who did that work, but he said he fully ground and painted the finished frame himself.
The only thing done at the dealership, apparently, was the red paint, which Dick today calls candy apple red, with cream wheels. He called the upholstery cream and leather, which was done by a local shop. Asking what inspired him to chrome the gas tank the way he did, he responded, “I just did that. But I had to send it to Los Angeles to have that done, to one of the major chrome places there.” From the dates and photos we have, it appears all of this happened quickly, mostly in late ’48 and early ’49.
HOT ROD MAGAZINE
Besides the ’49 plates on the car in most photos, one thing that secures the date is a one-page feature in the December ’49 issue of Hot Rod. Unlike the similar one on Joe Nitti’s ’32 less than a year later, somehow I missed this one until Dick told me about it. Like Nitti’s, the photos were taken by Tom Medley, plus one classic El Mirage action shot “by Pete.” But the really neat part, Dick said, is that Medley and Wally Parks both drove out to San Bernardino in Wally’s roadster to take the pictures.
Obviously it was a good-looking car, especially with all the chrome on the engine. But what was perhaps more impressive, as noted in the article, was its 137.40 mph clocking at the lakes, with such a small-displacement engine, running gas through just two carburetors. Dick admits the engine was nothing special, built and tuned by him and fellow club members, but it just ran really well. He raced it at El Mirage six times in ’49-’50 with comparable speeds. He said they tried running alcohol once, but it was rich and only ran 124, so they went back to gas. He also said he planned to try four carbs, but never did. Interestingly, he said the car “got squirrelly over 125 mph, so we added leaves to the rear to raise it two to three inches when we ran, then took them out.” He said they also drove down to Santa Ana one weekend and remembers running 112 mph in the quarter; quite respectable for 256 inches with 3.78 gears, on gas. In fact, he was referring to that one meet at the blimp base.
I was also able to contact Jim Harbor for this story, who is two years younger than his brother Bill and whose father was a general contractor, thus the well-equipped shop. Jim said he was class of ’48 at S.B. High, and the club was together from about ’46-’49. He said they’d hold their meetings at the Hudson dealership, but work at the shop on his family’s property, which faced on an alley. “It was a good place to work. We all did construction—we worked together.” He noted that Dick was a good welder. “He helped, he was right in there,” in all phases of his car’s construction. As for the engine, “That car went faster than it should have,” Jim stated. But he couldn’t say why. “We built engines together. We had the boring done at a shop in Pomona. And we had the cranks ground by a hole-in-the-wall shop here. If we got that right, we could assemble the rest. We did the valves, the porting and relieving.” They did pretty well.
Jim said there were maybe 10 to 12 club members at most. Bill had the ’29 A-V8 with a track nose seen next to Price’s in the club photo. Jim said he had a ’27 T on ’32 rails with a Deuce grille that wasn’t in the photo, and then built a belly tank that ran 153 at the first Bonneville meet in ’49. It didn’t last long. “Most of the cars were club projects,” Jim said. “It was just a backyard shop. Nobody had money.” Then he paused for a second, and added, “Except Dick.”
Dick’s roadster didn’t last long, either, but the reason will probably surprise you. It did me. Besides building, driving and racing this roadster between ’47 and ’50, he got married, had three kids, and got divorced. “I got married at 18, got divorced at 20 in 1950, then got married again in ’52. I had to sell the roadster to pay the attorney.” You probably didn’t see that coming. “I was at Mimi’s Drive-in on Sierra Way one night, and this guy asked to buy it. I told him I had to have $1600. He couldn’t pay me fast enough.” Not only was that a significant sum in 1950, but the fact that this guy had that much on him is astounding. “The guy drove the car away, and I never saw it again.”
Dick says that he has never seen nor heard anything about the car since. He doesn’t know who the buyer was, where he came from, or where he went. I have to admit this does sound a bit like the ending of a hot rod B movie from the ’50s. Did you ever see anybody actually race for pink slips then—or ever? More to the point, would the loser (or seller) actually have the pink in his car?
Whatever the case, the Dick Price Deuce roadster drove away somewhere in 1950, and nobody that we know has ever seen it again. That chrome gas tank, especially the way it was painted, would be the first clue to the car’s identity. But I’ve never seen anything like it. Have you?•
©2012-2020 The Rodder’s Journal, all rights reserved