1932 Ford Ricky Nelson roadster

This is the real thing, in a sea of fiberglass-bodied imitators with their ubiquitous 350 Chevy V8s and TH400 transmissions

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If this channeled ’32 roadster looks familiar to nostalgia-prone baby boomers, it is because it’s the same car that David and Ricky Nelson drove in a memorable episode of the Ozzie and Harriet television series. Legend has it, young Ricky desperately wanted to buy the car with some of his show earnings, but Ozzie refused, saying, “No 1932 Ford is worth $3,500.”

This roadster’s well-documented history starts in 1951 with Ray De Fillipi of Los Angeles. Most West Coast roadsters of the period were highboys, so-called because their bodies rested atop the original frame. But Ray dropped his roadster’s body down over the frame, welding it onto the chassis with a new floor pan. The result, called channeling, yielded a dramatically lowered silhouette. If you raced at the dry lakes, this wind-cheating modification bumped you up one racing class.

De Fillipi’s “deuce” lowboy featured a bored-and-stroked 286-cid Ford flathead with an Edelbrock dual manifold, rare Harrell high-compression heads, a Winfield SU-1 cam and Kurten dual-coil ignition. The transmission was a 1940 Ford column-shift, fitted with a close-ratio Lincoln Zephyr first and second gear cluster.

Ray sectioned the filled grille shell to match the 1932 Fords new proportions, then fabricated a new three-piece, louvered hood with a bubble to clear the carbs and “lunchbox latches” to open and close the top portion. Reversed rear wheels were a pioneering feature, along with faired-in door hinges. A 1940 Ford dash was narrowed to fit.

The car’s workmanship and its blazing fire-engine red finish were first class, earning Ray a feature in the April 1952 issue of Hop Up magazine.

When the roadster showed up in Rod & Custom in April 1956, it had since been sold to Tony La Masa (whose name also appears variously as La Mesa and Le Masa). Giving no credit to Ray De Fillipi, the Rod & Custom writer implied that tough, cigar-smoking Tony had built the car from scratch. On the contrary, he bought a car that was very well done as his starting point.

La Masa installed a 277-cid John Geraghty-built flathead with a Navarro triple manifold and Navarro heads. The identical Winfield cam was specified, along with a Harman & Collins dual ignition. The steel wheels were changed to Mercury 15-inch, rather than De Fillipi’s Ford 16s. The roadster had been repainted lime green; a scoop was cut in the hood bubble and new, off-white, rolled-and-pleated Naugahyde upholstery was crafted by Lou Penn.

A founding member of the Los Angeles Roadsters club, La Masa showed the 1932 Ford extensively. Famed hot rod photographer Andy Southard shot it in 1958 at a Long Beach show, a photo that appears in Southard’s book, Hot Rods of the 1950s.

In August 1960, a small photo of the La Masa roadster appeared on a composite cover of Hot Rod magazine. Inside, a two-page feature showed a smiling, flat-capped La Masa with his car, surrounded by show-winning trophies. The engine had been upgraded again, this time to a stock 1956 265-cid Corvette V8 with a four-barrel carb and polished ‘Vette valve covers. The car was extensively pinstriped. A caption in the feature noted, “Sharp roadster has been used on TV by Ricky Nelson.”

It’s unclear how many Ozzie and Harriet shows featured the car, but several stills exist of Ricky Nelson and his brother David in the car. La Masa’s roadster also appeared in several “B” movies of the era, including Hot Rod Girl.

La Masa eventually sold the roadster to a Bob Kazuyoshi, who in turn sold it to Bernie Sievers, who then passed it on to Don Orosco in July 1997. Orosco planned to complete another vintage hot rod for the inaugural hot rod class at Pebble Beach that year, but then he realized that restoration would take longer than expected, so he purchased the La Masa ’32 sight unseen. He called me (I curate the Pebble Beach hot rod classes) and asked if he could change his entry. I, of course, agreed. When Don took delivery of the car, he realized it was well preserved, but not up to Pebble Beach standards.

Orosco and his crew embarked on a major redo of the roadster in just three weeks, re-plating, repainting, re-striping, reupholstering and refurbishing everything. Luckily, the roadster was virtually complete and still very original, so parts chasing was minimal. It won a creditable third place at Pebble Beach that year, behind Bruce Meyer’s ex-Doane Spencer ’32 roadster and Kirk F. White’s ’32 Ford dry lakes racer, built in 1946 by hot rod pioneer Ray Brown.

After appearing at the Lodge, the Ricky Nelson roadster spent most of its time in Orosco’s private museum until he decided to consign it to the Bonhams auction last August.

Ken Gross

Ken Gross - SCM Contributor

Ken has been an auto writer for 38+ years, and his work has appeared in Playboy, AutoWeek, Hemispheres, The Rodder’s Journal, Street Rodder and Hot Rod Magazine. He wrote the award-winning TV series “Behind the Headlights,” and his books include Hot Rods and Custom Cars, Los Angeles and the Dry Lakes: The Early Years, Art of the Hot Rod, Hot Rod Milestones and The Allure of the Automobile. He was curator of the “Allure of the Automobile” exhibit at the Portland Art Museum during the summer of 2011. He was director of the Los Angeles-based Petersen Automotive Museum and has judged at Pebble Beach for 20 years.

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