Champion barn find: Long-lost ’32 Ford was drag-racing star

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Deuce was original champ of first World Series of Drag Racing

This 1932 Ford was built for the first World Series of Drag Racing, and after that 1954 race, it was parked and never run again.

Story by Angelo Van Bogart
Photos by Bob Chiluk

A single shot from a BB gun may have saved one of the most historic 1932 Ford Deluxe three-window coupes in drag racing history from completely rusting into oblivion.

In 1954, Francis Fortman and Kenny Kerr decided to build a car for the 1954 World Series of Drag Racing, the first such event hosted by the Automobile Timing Association of America. The event was held at Half Day Speedway in Lawrenceville, Ill., about 20 miles from Chicago, none too far from Fortman and Kerr’s home. Other young participants included Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick driving a new Oldsmobile, Art Arfons in the Allison airplane-engined “Green Monster” and Fred Lorenzen in a Cadillac-powered Ford convertible.

Fortman and Kerr did not become big names like some of their fellow competitors that day. However, the 1932 Ford three-window coupe they built and raced for that event placed first in the A-B class with a 105.88 mph speed.

Surviving pictures show the ’32 Ford at the 1954 World Series of Drag Racing. The car placed first in the A-B class with a time of 105.88 mph.

After that day of racing, Fortman and Kerr hung up their helmets and parked the Deuce for good. As driver, Kerr took home the trophy from the track. As the builder, Fortman took home the Deuce as his own trophy. He then parked the car outside until fate intervened and the car became a bona fide barn find in 2012.

“[Fortman] told me a ’32 Ford race car was worth nothing in 1954, so instead of selling it, he put it in a field and put a tarp on it,” said Ken Robins, the 1932 Ford’s new owner. “So it spent 20 years under this tarp until one day, kids were shooting the windshield with a BB gun, so he put it in the barn. But from the day he brought it home in 1954 to the day I bought it, it was never touched or started.”

The Deuce Robins bought in the summer of 2012 is the ’32 every hot rodder dreams of finding or building in their head while lying awake at night. The car is a simple, purpose-built car with several period go-fast tricks, and the fact it’s based on one of the rodding world’s most lusted-after cars is pure luck.

“He was just looking for a good car to race and it just so happened he found a ’32 three-window,” Robins said.

“[Fortman] owned a frame repair shop in Chicago and Kenny Kerr came to him and said, ‘Why don’t we have fun and build a drag car?’ Fortman was reluctant, but he said OK.

“[Fortman] purchased the car in Chicago, made a deal and put down a deposit and when he came back, he found the seller had taken the radiator out of it. He got back in his car because he told him he wasn’t going to buy it without a radiator, but he reluctantly went back and bought the car.”

The car was brought back to Kerr’s shop, where it was channeled over the original frame. An alcohol-burning flathead Ford engine with four Strombergs was mated to a stock Ford three-speed crash box that led to a standard 1940s Ford rear axle welded to make it a “locker.”

In 2012, builder Francis Fortman said goodbye to the ’32 Ford he built in 1954. Fortman never had the urge to start or run the car after it was built for the 1954 World Series of Drag Racing event.

The car had other modifications standard to hot rods of the day: a 1940 Ford steering wheel and a filled roof and cowl vent, a rollbar, custom interior door panels, and a metallic red spray job with a white-painted grille insert and firewall. It was a race car, however, so a rollbar was installed and the deck lid was secured using screws. A hand-operated fuel pump and fuel tank were installed in the passenger compartment, next to the single driver’s bombardier seat obtained from a salvage yard.

“The fuel system by today’s standards is absolutely suicidal,” Robins said. “Keep in mind, they had nothing to go by. This is just what they did.

“I have a couple hot rods, and people have now built ’32 Fords with the bomber seats designed just like this car is designed, but when [Fortman] did it, he didn’t have a car to by. It just all fell into place.”

A search for the car also fell into place for Robins. His friend, a fellow Model A enthusiast, stopped by Robins’ business at Restoration Plus in Cary, Ill., and mentioned he knew of an old Ford race car in the area, although he wasn’t sure of the type of Ford or exactly where it was parked.

“We went in the area and we knocked on doors,” Robins said. “At the third door, an elderly gentleman came to the door and I said, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but do you have an old race car?’ and I asked if there was any way we could see it.”

The gentleman was Francis Fortman, and since he was acquainted with Robins’ friend, Fortman showed them to the barn where the Ford had been parked since the mid 1970s.

“We went into the barn and we go in the back corner and there was a 1932 Ford drag car with an alcohol-burning flathead,” Robins said. “Because my buddy was into Model A’s, he said, ‘I have no interest,’ so I took him home. I asked the gentleman if I could come back, so I came back and he pulled out the original sheet from the first World Series of Drag Racing, and in it he showed me how he had won his class with another gentleman.”

The 1932 Ford Deluxe three-window coupe as OCW reader Ken Robins found it in a barn in 2012. The coupe body was channeled over the frame and didn’t run headlamps. Power came from a later Ford flathead that burned alcohol. To save weight, builder Francis Fortman installed a lightweight seat found in a salvage yard.

While Robins and Fortman visited, Fortman told of how the Deuce would not start once they arrived at the track. A fellow racer noticed their troubles and explained the problem was the ignition. He happened to own a shop that sold the parts Fortman and Kerr needed and would supply it.

“They drove to Iowa that night, bought the ignition and they installed it the next morning,” Robins said. “It got the car running and they ran it twice down the track. When Fortman built the car, it had all new gauges in it, and the odometer now shows 8/10 of a mile because the car went down the track twice.”

Robins eventually asked if the car was for sale, and after Fortman conferred with his wife — “She said, ‘Absolutely don’t let the man out of the house,’” according to Robins — a deal was made for Robins to buy the car, but he had to wait until after Father’s Day.

Since purchasing it, the only work Robins has completed on the car is a tire change and a thorough cleaning. Despite the deterioration the car suffered while parked outside, Robins said the crowd “went nuts” over the car at the Iron Invasion traditional hot rod show in Woodstock, Ill., the only place the car has been shown.

“This is a true time capsule,” Robins said. “Basically, this car is the Holy Grail of hot rods, but to Francis, it was just another car. He was actually a pioneer that built the car that everyone tries to copy today, which is really amazing.”

Although the car is certainly restorable, it has considerable rust in the lower portions of the body. Robins has no plans to restore the body or make it run.

“I would never restore this car. It should be untouched, because if it is restored, it’s just another ’32 Ford,” Robins said. “Where are you going to find a car from the first World Series of Drag Racing?

“It is more of a piece of Americana and artwork and hot rod history than it is a car.”

While Robins has realized the dream of many hot rodders, he has hopes the dream lasts long enough for him to find the trophy from the car’s day at the track, and to perhaps find it a more suitable home.

“I would like to find a museum interested in it. This is a true time capsule that should go down in history as drag racing folklore.”

Enjoy more photos of Robins’ 1932 Ford…

 

Ford fans should check out these Blue Oval resources from Old Cars Weekly:

 

22 Responses to Champion barn find: Long-lost ’32 Ford was drag-racing star

  1. "Papa" Maury Clark says:

    OOOOOOOOOOH! Gasp! Pant! Wheeze!
    At my age , finding something like this is better than sex. I know, because I’ve got a great memory.

  2. LANCE TROUPE says:

    Wow that is the find we all would like to have found. Kind of a shame thought that old car’s like these didn’t have better care taken of them. I once acquired the 52 Lincoln Capri that InaMay Overton had Neil Emery customize back when the car was brand new. I found it one saturday morning just a few blocks from my house in Simi Valley California. The guy who had it had taken very good care of it since InaMay sold it years ago. It was 1985 when I bought it fore $4,500.00 and I added some spotlights and the wide whites it still has on it. After I sold it to a man Dave Christensen in Apple Valley Ca. the car was sold again and wound up in the wrong hands and when the car was rediscovered By Larry Gisawalski ( sorry Larry if I got your last name wrong ) He showed it at the Grand National show in Pomona Ca. one year not long ago and the car was all rusty, and a lot of butchering had been done to the car but it still exist’s and Larry vows to restore the car back to the way it was.

  3. Dick Birchmeier says:

    Very interesting article,about that 32 I am curious about the location of the Lawrenceville drag strip,I went to a Lawrenceville strip near Vincennes IN. in 56, thats quite away from Chitown, We came from S.E. MI. but thats a whole other story. DB

  4. Gabe says:

    Wow!How lucky you are Mr.Robins. But why did you change the tires if it never will be driven anymore? And not even to maching ones? I would suggest just put those old ones back with new tubes inside.Those good ol’ www bios got aged together with the rest of the rod.
    Congrats again. Gabe

  5. Glenn (Roy) Greer says:

    oh man,thats really a cool find.just beautiful!

  6. David Kerr says:

    What a fantastic find!! I agree, this relic hot rod should be preserved as in found condition, including tires if possible.

  7. Wayne says:

    That should be Libertyville rather than Lawrenceville.

  8. JEFF SMITH says:

    Made my day when I came upon this article of my favourite ford cars &trucks.hats off to MR. FORTMAN
    for I grew up in that era and know what parts, money and know how was available in those days.
    It is most fortunate that has fallen into the hands of some one who will treat it right.In my opinion
    it should be made to run only AND ORIGINAL TIRES&WHEELS BACKON THEN “PRESERVED”
    Thanks for the great documentary &pictures of a great build,
    Jeff Smith Ontario Canada

  9. Dick Brannan says:

    This find means a lot to me since I used to live in South Bend, Indiana and drove my ’32 five window coupe in 1954 to that very race! Photos at: dickbrannan.com

    Thanks for taking the time to publish these great pictures and story.

    Dick Brannan

  10. BILLY GREEN says:

    THAT’S BITCHIN !! U LUCKY S O G

  11. HAROLD KOCHER says:

    nice artical about 32 ford barn find
    but lawranceville ,il is 200 miles from chicago not 20 miles
    i raced at gorge field in lawranceville,il

  12. HAROLD KOCHER says:

    JUST TALKED TO A FRIEND OF MINE WHO WAS A MEMBER OF THE 1/4MILERS CAR CLUB WHICH WAS THERE HOME STRIP AND STILL HAS A FLYER FROM THAT EVENT AND IT NEVER WAS CALLED HALF DAY DRAG STRIP IT WAS ALWAYS GEORGE FIELD BUT STILL A GOOD ARTICAL

    • Bill Curtis says:

      There was Half Day Drag Strip above Chicago, but the World Series was held at Lawrenceville, Ill. in 1954. It was later moved to Cordova, Ill and still continues every August.

  13. clinchy says:

    how great is that! I agree and think it should be preserved as a piece of racing history.

  14. Tom Gilligan says:

    The American drag racers dream car. What a find. The car needs a great museum as mentioned.

  15. The North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame and Museum would like to display this car .If you have an Interest ,please call DonMiller at 704 663 5331…..Thank You

  16. carl isaacks says:

    Wow!, but I would restore this car back to the condition it was when retired. Its too far gone to leave as it is now…just my 2 cents…

  17. arthur bjornestad says:

    I used to race at that strip and at that time the strip was in Half Day, Illinois, a town that probably doesn’t exist anymore as I also flew out of Half Day airport and that is now a large business center.

  18. Tom Short says:

    I would get the car running again and take it to car shows so people can see it. Leave its look alone for now. Owner may think about putting it back to its glory day looks at sometime in the future.

  19. Truman Lewis says:

    I woul not touch the way the car looks, but I would get it running. Great find and a super story. Thanks for some good memories.

  20. FRED CLARK says:

    I THINK THE POOR CAR HAS BEEN HIDING AND SITTING WAY TO LONG. I WOULD GET IT LOOKING AND RUNNING LIKE IT DID WHEN IT SET THE RECORD. THEN I WOULD D=R=I=V=E IT TO AS MANY CAR SHOWS AS I COULD GET TO. NOT A FAN OF LETTING THEM SIT IN ONE PLACE AND DO NOTHING. WHAT A BLAST IT WOULD BE TO MAKE IT A SHOW AND GO RIDE CRUISING TO ALL THE BIG SHOWS SO EVERYBODY COULD SEE IT.THAT’S JUST MY TWO CENTS BUT I WISH YOU WELL IN WHATEVER YOU DO TO IT.I WOULD LOVE TO FIND SOMETHING LIKE THAT IN MY LIFE TIME.HAPPY HUNTING TO ALL THE CAR GUYS OUT THERE…

  21. Justice Scalia says:

    I disagree with the current owner. It should be restored to it’s exact specifications when it won that chamnpionship, right down to the shoe polish numbers on the glass. Leaving it in this condition is just sad.

    I think the opposite — restoring it doesn’t make it just another ’32, it makes it THE ’32. Leaving it as it is means it’s just another rusty ’32.

    Hope he has a change of heart!

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