Rise of the ‘Red Rocket’ Roadster

 

Most men born in the first half of the 20th century believe that time period produced the most beautiful and glamorous aircraft and automobiles of all time, especially those manufactured during the late 1920s through the 1930s. When I was going to high school from 1940-’44, I dreamed of owning a 1935 or ’36 Ford roadster. I felt these cars were the epitome of all the attributes one could want in an automobile. Those were also hard times, however, and I could barely scrape up enough money by delivering papers to buy a second-hand bicycle for $10.

I came upon my roadster in 1957, 13 years after my high school graduation. I was teaching both day and night school while living on 42nd Avenue in San Francisco. I had to drive across the city to get to Sherman Elementary School in the Marina District during the day, and go back again at night, where I taught adults to read at Galileo High School. During this time, my wife Margaret was alone with three small children and longed to escape the confines of the house from time to time.

A young teacher’s salary was only a pittance at the time, but I spied a 1935 Ford roadster for sale in the Mission District of the city for $195. My devious mind told me I could have a car for her to drive while fulfilling my dream to own a 1935 Ford roadster, in addition to the lovely 1951 Ford Crestliner we shared with the Bank of America. I contacted the owner, who told me he had won the car in a poker game. Only 4,896 of this particular model rolled off the assembly line in 1935; it was a very rare machine in 1957, and even more so today.

The car needed a lot of loving care. The windshield was badly cracked. The primer gray paint did not cover all of the rust in the body and fenders. The bumpers were from a 1942 De Soto, the dash instruments were from an old Buick, the steering wheel came from a Lincoln and the stick shift had been replaced by a column shift with a poor linkage, making it difficult to shift. The previous owner had put pennies under the heat risers to increase the roar of its twin Smittys. The emergency brake handle had been removed, too. It looked every day as old as its 22 years.

In my eyes, it was beautiful, and I quickly gave the poker player a check for $195. I was sure Margaret would love it, too. Wrong! She drove it only once. Barely five feet, two inches tall, her legs were not long enough to reach the clutch, brake or gas pedal. She hated the car with a passion, but my three kids loved it. I would take them driving along the highway in San Francisco to the beach where I worked weekends to supplement my teacher’s salary. There was room in the rumble seat for three small children, room for two additional smaller children in the shelf behind the front seat and room for yet another child next to me. I could take three of the neighbor kids along, too.

With the twin Smittys barking from under each of the running boards and the extra noise from the blocked heat risers, it was a fearsome machine. No one worried about seat belts or air bags at that time. I can remember getting it to a speed of 86 mph on the highway one sunny day. Those were truly glorious times. I was young, handsome and strong, with the world at my feet.

The car needed a lot of attention. Slowly, over the next 51 years, with lots of help from others, I brought the roadster back to its present resplendent condition. It has a white canvas top with a red body and fenders along with black powder-coated wire wheels. I replaced the bumpers with regular Ford chrome-plated beauties. I located an emergency brake handle at a wrecking yard in Escalon, Calif., and removed the column shift and replaced the Lincoln steering wheel with the standard 1935 wheel. New windshield glass was installed and the side wing-type windows were attached.

My good friend, Joe Locasto, holder of three world land-speed records in stock-bodied cars at Bonneville, made the big difference in helping my dream come true. A master mechanic, Joe made it into an automobile that will run well on today’s highways by overhauling the clutch, adding hydraulic brakes and repairing dozens of other problems that needed attention. In 2008, Joe replaced the 1946-’48 Ford flathead V-8 in the car when I bought it with an overhauled 1935 Ford engine, bringing the car back to stock condition. I now call it “The Red Rocket.”

I have now reached the age of 82 and am trying to decide which of my three kids should care for the car.

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