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The Car That Started Hot Rodding Goes to Auction

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This is The Car That Started Hot Rodding Goes to Auction.

Arguably the country’s most visible Hot Rod in the 1960s, Tom McMullen’s ’32 roadster was everywhere; it appeared on magazine covers, starred on record albums and was prominent in advertisements on TV and in the movies. The roadster was enthusiastically drag-raced on sanctioned strips, illegally raced on the streets, ran in official NHRA National events at Pomona and Indy and set top-speed records for street roadsters at El Mirage Dry Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats.

This ’32 roadster was built by the late Tom McMullen, a talented, colorful rebel who once wrote articles for “Hot Rod” magazine, started his auto electrical firm, built up a successful motorcycle chopper catalog business, founded a publishing empire that included “Street Rodder” magazine and rose to a position of universal industry admiration and respect. Tragically, McMullen died in an ice storm on February 12, 1995, along with his wife Deanna, while piloting his Turbo Commander aircraft cross-country.

There are those that say that this is THE car that started hot rodding. Even if it wasn’t, it acted as the quintessential example of what a hot rod was.

McMullen’s story is the quintessential “Live Fast, Die Young,” saga. This roadster was his signature, and it served a dual role as McMullen’s everyday driver and his race car. Never shrinking from a challenge, McMullen raced illegally on the streets at the drop of a hat, as well as at sanctioned events from El Mirage Dry Lake and Bonneville to the Riverside drags. He didn’t like to lose, so he was always improving this car.

McMullen was a Hot Rodder’s Hot Rodder. In fact, many friends and peers over the years have stated, “There’s never been anyone in the Hot Rod world quite like Tom McMullen.” Bold, occasionally profane, unpredictable and always innovative, he was never, ever satisfied with the commonplace. Like every great Hot Rodder, McMullen always wanted to go faster. And he lived that way right to the end.

McMullen wasn’t the first owner of this definitive, often-imitated Deuce, but with his personal modifications, he made it an icon. He bought the roadster for just $650 in 1958, from a truck driver. When he took the car to Don Hudson in Downey, California, for upholstery work, he learned Hudson had begun the very same roadster four years earlier. Although the Deuce started its Rodding career with a Ford flathead, by 1956, after several prior owners, it was powered by a 283 CI Chevy small-block OHV V-8.

Of course, McMullen yanked that mill right away, replacing it with a bored and stroked 352 CI Chevy V-8, at first with six carburetors. Later, he added a potent GMC 4:71 supercharger and two 4-barrel carbs. He then set an A/Street Roadster record at El Mirage of 167 MPH and ran a best speed of 118 MPH in the quarter-mile, and later, he topped 138 MPH in the half-mile at Riverside. And if you caught up to him heading home from work in this unmistakably noticeable Hot Rod, and you wanted to race right there, well, he’d risk a ticket to blow your doors off. And no doubt, in this car, he would.

You could argue that McMullen’s roadster took every Hot Rod styling and performance cliché, including many tricks that had been done perhaps in twos and threes to other cars, and simply lathered them on. Not according to “Hot Rod” writer, Pat Ganahl, who wrote: “when he reconfigured it to the form that blazed our eyeballs on the April, ’63, cover of Hot Rod, once again, we’d never seen anything like this!”

Brian Brennan, editor in chief of “Street Rodder” magazine, called McMullen’s ’32 “the most identifiable hot rod of all time.” This roadster has appeared on the covers of “Hot Rod” magazine, “Street Rodder” and “Popular Hot Rodding,” on several record album covers and in countless magazines. McMullen drove the wheels off it, and he only sold it because he knew he’d have to start from scratch to make an even faster, more contemporary roadster. By 1969, the idea of a Hot Rod that could hold its own on street or strip was obsolete. Besides, McMullen’s business was growing and he needed cash.

To raise money, he offered his iconic ‘32 for just $5,000 in the January 1970 issue of “Hot Rod,” a sum that seems astoundingly low today. It’s likely McMullen didn’t think twice about the sale’s significance (although later he called it “one of my biggest mistakes”). The car passed through several hands, including Richard Lovesee, Albert Baca, then to vintage racer Don Orosco and finally to Jorge Zaragoza, an El Paso collector who also owned the 2005 Pebble Beach Hot Rod Class-winning ex-Jack Calori ‘36 Ford Coupe. Zaragoza asked Roy Brizio, whose shop in San Francisco, California, has produced numerous award-winning Hot Rods, to completely redo the McMullen classic ’32 from the ground up.

Appropriately, Brizio and Zaragoza decided to restore the car to match the way it appeared on the cover of “Hot Rod” in April 1963. “The sheet metal was virtually complete,” Brizio said, “and we still had the original front suspension, along with the dash and the instruments, even the California black plates, but the chassis had been updated, so we had to find an original ‘32 Ford frame and some running gear. We located a correct small-block Chevy and a ’39 Ford gearbox. Everything else was copied from period photographs. The flames originally applied by Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth are, in fact, different from side to side, so we digitized the patterns, then copied them.

“We painstakingly researched everything about the car. It was done exactly as it appeared on the cover of Hot Rod. Darrell Hollenbeck did the black paint perfectly; Darrell and Art Himsl laid out the flames, and ‘Rory’ did the striping. We had some of Ed Roth’s work on the original dash to go by, so we digitized it as well, to ensure the restoration would be exactly as it was.”

As the car neared completion, Ford Motor Company sponsored a search for the best ’32 Fords of all time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of the 1932 Ford in 2007. More than 450 significant nominees were whittled down to 75 finalists by a panel of experts. The winners starred in a huge display at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California, in January 2007; at the Petersen Automotive Museum’s “Deuce Week” in February; at the Los Angeles Roadster Show in June; and at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance that summer. Fittingly, the Tom McMullen Roadster was named one of the acclaimed “75 Most Influential ’32 Fords of All Time,” and it won third in class at the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. At Pebble Beach, the tabulations came down to a virtual 100-point three-way tie between the Tom McMullen, Walker Morrison and Lloyd Bakan cars, though the Bakan Coupe “narrowly edged” the other two for the best in class award.

Flamed, chopped and dropped, this car helped pioneer and evangelize the 1960s Hot Rod culture’s mission, and according to Hot Rod historian Ken Gross, “This car was, and still is, a killer ride. In Hot Rod parlance, we’d call it bitchin’. If you’re looking for an iconic, award-winning, absolutely timeless ’32 Ford roadster, look no further: there’s only one original Tom McMullen roadster that rocked the country in 1963, and this is it.”

The car will be sold at the Mecum auction in January 2022. It’s estimated to go for $750,000 to $1,000,000.

I have to wonder how it would look with a set of our billet wheels or would that be sacrilegious?

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