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


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.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:Austin-Healey Sprite

The De Fillipi/Tony La Masa/Ricky Nelson 1932 Ford sold for $192,000, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams & Butterfields’ Carmel auction, August 15, 2003.

Despite Ozzie’s skepticism, knowledgeable collectors value cars like this one. Authentically restored and well-preserved historic hot rods from the 1940s and 1950s are enjoying a value boomlet, partly fueled by the their eligibility at Pebble Beach and other concours. They represent the real thing in a sea of fiberglass-bodied imitators with their ubiquitous 350 Chevy V8s and TH400 transmissions.

You can’t create history and provenance out of thin air in any segment of the car hobby and hot rods are no exception. Those rods that have it, the ones Boyd Coddington likes to call “our ancestor cars,” are the ones collectors want. Racing history, magazine coverage, notable ownership and movie history are all plusses. This roadster had it all: the provenance, an unbroken history and a significant notoriety to merit its attention-getting sale price.

Many hot rod restorers choose to bring a car back to the way it was first built. In this case, it was arguably more correct to redo the roadster instead as it had appeared on Ozzie and Harriet. The 1932 Fords television appearances created a lasting impression that has added immeasurably to its value today.

Although its restoration was a hasty one, it was done correctly with refurbished original and period pieces. The car is still extremely clean, it was detailed and well presented, and it had been driven very little since its trip over the ramp at Pebble Beach.

Even the conservative AACA permits historic rods in their events. Class 24A allows properly documented cars, 25 years or older, if owners can validate a racing history. Though the Ricky Nelson Roadster would not be eligible for AACA shows under the present rules, an ad hoc committee is actively petitioning to create a new opportunity (Class 37) to recognize authentically restored or preserved hot rods with period magazine and show history, even if they weren’t race cars.

We know of several historic hot rods that have sold in the low six-figure range. In this instance, the buyers (Pennsylvania hot rod and vintage race car collectors Ross Myers and his wife Beth) got a beautifully proportioned, great-looking hot rod with a unique history. Ricky’s classy old roadster was bought at a fair price, is eminently drivable with its powerful Corvette V8, easy to maintain, and it will be welcomed at hot rod shows and concours for years to come.-Ken Gross

(Historical information courtesy of the auction company, in conjunction with references from the author’s collection of hot rod books and magazines.)

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