[Editor’s note: This piece comes to us from car builder, vintage drag racer and friend-of-Hemmings Kevin Carlson, best known to TROG regulars as “Crazy Uncle Harry.”]
Many of us have heard the story of the elderly gentleman reunited with a car from his youth.
Usually it’s a rather touching scene, often involving a few emotional moments in the driver’s seat, or a spin around the block.
It would be easy then, upon hearing of a 90-year-old man visiting a car he first worked on in 1948, to envision this tableau taking place in a nursing-home driveway. But when the gentleman in question is legendary car customizer Gene Winfield, and the car is a perfect 1932 Ford Roadster once called “Black Beauty,” the scene is rather different.
Not only would Mr. Winfield get to visit with this stunning car again, he would have the opportunity to help prepare it for competition, and then take the wheel to rip it down a race course, tires spinning and engine roaring.
The Modesto Century Toppers car club was formed in 1946. Gene was voted the first club president, and many of the early meetings took place in his shop. The deuce roadster changed hands between members of the club, and Gene recalls first working on it in 1948. At that point it belonged to Joe Cardoza. He would sell it to club member Lew Thompson, who owned it for several years before selling it on to Pete Hischier. Pete kept the car until 1972, re-imagining it over the years. It would appear in magazines, the black paint replaced by a stunning candy apple red paint job, then later, it would visit Gene Winfield’s shop, to be bathed in chrome, and 24 layers of shining black lacquer.
Gene made numerous changes to the car over the years, as subsequent owners brought it back to the master for his inspired touch. He would add styling details like a custom valance below the iconic deuce grill shell, a mirrorlike polished firewall, and a textured gas-tank cover. The car also features unique hot-rodding tweaks like Winfield’s own dropped axle. Unlike other folks dropping axles who used heat and fixtures to stretch the existing metal like taffy, and form it into the desired shape, Gene took a different approach. He actually cut the axle into segments, removing the stock sections between the spring perch and kingpins, then machined his own dropped sections and welded them back into a single solid axle, which helped achieve the great stance the car still has today.
Gene and Rob pose in the pits. Note the custom front axle crafted by Gene. Photo by Jim Cross.
Bob Whitehead got the car in 1972. He would make one of the biggest changes to the roadster, removing the driveline, and installing an Ardun OHV-equipped, SCOT blown flathead, with a Halibrand quickchange rear end. Bob would sell the car to Chris Gruys in 2003. Finally, last August, Chris sold the roadster to New Jersey based automotive wizard Rob Ida.
Ida Automotive in Morganville, New Jersey, is a historic Hot Rod and Kustom shop in its own right. Some of the most beautiful cars on the planet have been created here, and they also restore vintage cars and do performance tuning on modern supercars. Rob’s shop is a great new home for this museum-worthy historic hot rod, and he is indeed a capable caretaker.
Rob had the great idea to re-unite Gene with the car and announced that he would host a Winfield Customs metalshaping class in the days before the 2018 Race of Gentlemen. TROG, as it is affectionately abbreviated, is an invitation-only drag race on the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, featuring vintage hot rods and early American motorcycles. The format is heads-up 1/8-mile drag racing on the sand, with a flag girl to start the racers, and a finish line marked with pylons, where the ‘Gentlemen’ (and Lady) racers politely agree who won each pairing. The event is a love-letter to the early days of automobile racing, and draws inspiration from the sights and sounds of the dry lakes racing of the 1940s and ’50s.
To have Mr. Winfield, who was there in the late ’40s, piloting a car at El Mirage and Bonneville, join this new generation on the beach while driving a car that had also run on the dirt at Muroc, was to bridge the intervening decades in a tangible, visceral moment that seemed to leap from the dog-eared pages of an old car magazine.
Rob helps Gene with his helmet prior to a pass. Jim Cross photo.
Anyone who has seen an Ida custom will know that Rob doesn’t miss a detail. His plan was to bring the roadster to Wildwood in its street configuration; gorgeous flowing fenders and running boards in place, headlights gleaming on their arched mounting bracket. He and Gene would drive it onto the sand, the same way Gene and his fellow hot rodders arrived at the dry lakes 70 years ago, and then strip the necessities of street use away, piling them to the side in the makeshift pits, removing the extraneous until all that was left was a race car.
HotRod Jen works her magic, using temporary paint — just like the old days.
A race car needs numbers. Rob arranged to have HotRod Jen, a world-class pinstriper who had collaborated with Ida Automotive on previous projects, apply the vintage-looking race car numbers and lettering, using non-permanent tempura paint (another back-in-the-day trick). Jen is no stranger to TROG, as she is one of the veteran photojournalists documenting the event, and her husband Jeremiah Thomas has been racing his roadster on the beach since the first event in 2012. HotRod Jen had to resort to painting by battery-powered headlamp to finish up the racing livery in time, and could be found adding details to the trunk lid even as the fenders were stripped away in the pits. Sadly, her work didn’t survive Saturday’s rain squalls intact.
Spectators and fellow racers all seemed a bit in awe of the hot-rodding legend walking among us. Gene was affable and approachable, sharing stories and moments, posing for requested selfies, and clearly enjoying the atmosphere of the event. Behind the wheel of the roadster, whether moving it around the parking lot at the Starlux host hotel, or on the beach, a sterner, more serious countenance appeared. Driving a car with a blown monster flathead is never a casual thing, but Gene handled it with aplomb, and the confidence born of more than 75 years driving vintage Fords. He waited patiently with the other racers in the staging lanes on the beach, as the race staff fought with a recalcitrant beach, until a usable surface could be identified and prepped.
The sights and sounds of TROG are magical. They’re not a re-enactment, but rather a continuation of the early years of hot-rodding. Everyone involved goes to such lengths in designing and building or preparing their vintage cars and bikes for the event. That passion pays big dividends for those fortunate enough to be spectators, and for the lenses of the countless cameras and smart phones pointed in every direction.
Some of the parts stripped from the roadster to save weight. Jim Cross photo.
When the storied roadster finally rolled up to the line, Gene watched intently as the flag girl, Sara Francello, leaped into the air and slashed her flag downward, then he launched down the beach throwing sand in the air, accompanied by the roar of a 300+ horsepower supercharged Ford flathead.
The Race of Gentlemen has often been described as a time machine, in this one moment, we are all treated to a 70-year jump. It sends chills through the collected audience. The spectacle seems as far from that theoretical nursing home reunion as could be imagined.
Joe Conforth’s immaculate sedan-bodied rail.
Gene and his namesake roadster made several passes over the two days of racing. One of the most notable occurred when Gene lined up against New Jersey local Joe Conforth. Joe and his dad Mark regularly churn out amazingly fast vintage hot rods, with a finish level that must be seen to be believed. Between the two, they have several class wins over the years at TROG and are consistently among the fastest cars at the event. Joe’s yellow sedan-bodied single-seat rail is the class of the field in 2018, and to see it race against this classic black roadster is to witness history in the making. Interestingly there is another connection, of which most onlookers are unaware: When the Ardun flathead in the Winfield roadster died on a previous owner, its replacement was provided by Mark Conforth, who had pulled it from an Allard sports car!
Joe Conforth awaits his next run.
Due to a pair of unfortunate motorcycle accidents, and that troublesome beach surface, racing ended early. There weren’t any finals in the class brackets this year. If there were, you can be sure, Gene and his deuce roadster would have appeared near the top. Still, it’s hard to categorize Gene and Rob’s weekend at the beach as anything but an unqualified win.
Ty Tucker, great-great-grandson of Preston Tucker, learns the three-pedal shuffle. Jim Cross photo.
Rob capitalized one last time on Sunday, by putting Ty Tucker, the 13-year-old great-great-grandson of automotive pioneer Preston Tucker, behind the wheel of the Winfield roadster while still on the beach and taught him to drive a manual transmission in that memorable setting. Ty handled the pressure of learning in front of a large crowd of strangers with cameras pointed at him, piloting the roadster like a seasoned pro.