Open Menu
Open Menu
 ::

John Athan ‘Elvis roadster,’ once thought bound for Smithsonian, to be auctioned

Published in blog.hemmings.com

John Athan’s 1929 Ford roadster atop a 1932 Ford frame is historical not only for its appearance along side Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You (The King’s first starring role), but because it represents a milestone of hot rod history. Photos courtesy Kruse GWS Auctions.

Ford only built a hair more than 12,000 roadsters in 1932, but while they may not have been the most-popular body style with new-car buyers, the roadster was a big hit with performance enthusiasts. In fact, before World War II, it was hard to be taken seriously at a place like Muroc Dry Lake if you showed up in a coupe or sedan or even a cabriolet. Roadsters, and to a lesser extent phaetons and touring cars, were the sporty body for youthful speed demons in that era.

That shortage of roadster bodies in the 1932 cars was offset somewhat by the nearly quarter-million Model A roadsters produced from 1927 to 1931. Early on, the Model A quickly made a name for itself on the streets and the lakes thanks to its 40-hp four-cylinder engine and three-speed gearbox—both considerable upgrades over the 22-hp engine and two-speed transmission in the Model T. It also responded very well to the same souping up as its predecessor.

The spring-in-front suspension setup, used on 1935-’48 Ford passenger cars, is an unusual sight in the modern era–as are the bobbed frame horns on the ’32 frame.

When the V-8 engine came out in 1932, it brought along not only more cylinders, but a better transmission, improved brakes, a stouter differential, and a much stiffer frame. Few youthful speed enthusiasts could spring for a new Ford in the worst years of the Depression, but the V-8 captured the imagination and within a few short years hot rodders were applying the same tried-and-true hop-up techniques to the flathead.

While some early rodders made do with swapping V-8 engines into the earlier frames, it didn’t take long for some to notice that the dimensional similarity between the Model A and the Model 18 made a body swap a perhaps more attractive alternative to an engine swap. Putting a Model A roadster body on a 1932 chassis netted not only the V-8 but all the other improvements lavished on the Model 18. It was also a lighter-weight package and offered slightly reduced frontal area for more top-speed potential.

Elvis’s hands may have one gripped the ’40 Ford steering wheel, and the car is being marketed as an Elvis collectible, but the hot-rod connection is perhaps more significant.

It’s not known who built the first “A on Deuce rails” (as the combination has become known) or when, but it was some time in the mid-1930s. Maybe the car is still out there, its history long forgotten. John Athan first screwed together the car you see here in 1937, making it one of the first to boast the combination and likely the earliest known survivor.

Athan passed away in 2016, at age 95, having held onto the car all these years (much like his good friend, Ed Iskenderian, has held onto his own pre-war roadster). Initial rumors indicated that the car was to be donated to the Smithsonian so its pioneering achievements would be preserved and showcased, but instead it was announced that the car will go to auction on August 31 at Kruse GWS Auctions’ Artifacts of Hollywood and Music sale alongside such other options as Elvis’ Electra Glide, Hugh Hefner’s 1973 BMW coupe and a Garth Brooks tour bus.

To have your own opportunity to see and perhaps purchase this milestone car before it disappears into a private collection, make plans to attend the GWS auction on August 31.