Deuce was original champ of first World Series of Drag Racing
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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