Doane Spencer ’32 Roadster – Early Highboy Trendsetter
You’ve heard it said that Deuce roadsters are like bellybuttons – everyone has one. Well, maybe not everyone, but you get the point. The venerable and iconic ’32 roadster is hot rodding’s signature ride. Original steel, fiberglass, new steel, it doesn’t matter, the Deuce’s timeless profile and rich history ensure its place as car-guy royalty.
A few key ’32 are believed to be instrumental in establishing the Deuce’s lionization, and the highboy owned by Doane Spencer in the mid-1940s is one of them. The car was originally owned by Spencer’s high school buddy Jack Dorn, who picked it up in 1941. Dorn, a hot-rodder himself, had modified the car in the style of the period, save one notable exception: it’s defining split V-shaped DuVall windshield. The windshield was Spencer’s doing, as it had been affixed to his Model A. When Doane wrecked it, he handed off the windshield to Dorn.
In 1944, Spencer talked his friend out of the ’32 for a paltry 500 bucks. In addition to the DuVall, it came equipped with a filled grille shell, shaved deck lid, full fenders, and a ’37 Ford Flathead. Next, Spencer went to work. He jettisoned the fenders, transitioning the car from roadster to highboy. To give it more oomph, the ’37 flatty gave way to a 258c.i. Mercury Flathead, bolstered by twin carbs. All these mods were realized because Spencer was racer at heart. But before he attacked El Mirage, the car earned Best Appearing Hot Rod award at the Pasadena Roadster Club’s 1947 Reliability Run and appeared at the first annual Hot Rod Expo in 1948.
In the early 1950s, Doane was regular at the El Mirage dry lake, hitting a stirring velocity of 126mph. During this time, however, another motorsports event caught Spencer’s attention – the Carrera Panamericana road race, an open road border-to-border dash across Mexico’s section of the newly completed Pan-American Highway.
To prepare for the challenge, Spencer beefed-up the Deuce: the exhaust was re-routed through the frame rails for additional ground clearance and extra crossmembers added strength to the frame. All this effort, though, came to naught, as the Panamericana was cancelled in 1954, in no small part due to the 24 fatalities that occurred during its four-year run.
By the late 1950s, Spencer picked up a ’55 T-bird, which he also modified for racing. This meant the roadster was forgotten, parked ignominiously behind his garage. “Once Spencer got that T-bird,” recalls famed hot-rodder Jim “Jake” Jacobs, “he lost interest in the roadster.”
One person who was interested was Rod & Custom magazines editor Lynn Wineland, who purchased the car from Doane in 1958. Wineland immediately went about modifying it, shoe-horning in a Ford Y-block, adding 4-into-1 headers (crafted by Spencer), and changing to a ’37 Ford tube axle. Wineland’s ownership, though, was short lived. In the 1960s, he sold it to his friend and fellow Rod & Custom staffer Neal East, with the stipulation that he had first right of refusal to buy it back.
East returned the roadster to its former form, switching back to Flathead power, this time a ’46 Mercury V8. He owned and drove the car for nearly three decades, when a chance conversation with car collector Bruce Meyer at the 1995 Hot Rod Reunion triggered another sale to Meyer. East had rebuffed many previous offers to sell the car, and only when Meyer convinced him he would honor the car’s past with a period-correct restoration did the pink slip change hands.
Meyer has been a leader in preserving hot rod history. He previously spearheaded the restoration of the Pierson Brothers Coupe and the So-Cal belly tank. Being a friend of Doane, he was very familiar with the car’s history. Meyer handed the roadster off to the Peter Chapouris Group, PC3g, which included the aforementioned Jacobs. With his usual dedication to quality and accuracy, Chapouris and his team painstakingly put the car back to Spencer’s original form.
The result was stunning: In August 1997, the Doane Spencer Roadster captured the Class R Historic Hot Rods category at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – the first year hot rods were allowed to grace the manicured lawns of Monterey. It also took honors at the Amelia Island, Meadow Brook Hall, and Louis Vuitton concours.
After the restoration, Meyer told Car Tech magazine, “This car has to be the holy grail of hot rodding. I never thought I’d own it. It was so complicated,” Meyer explained. “I had to convince Neal I’d do the right thing with it, and we had to get Lynn’s (Wineland) blessing, too. But I love having it, because I had a connection with Doane. He was an artist and a genius. That’s why this roadster still inspires people.”
Today, hot rodders can still bask in that inspiration, as the car resides at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Of the hundreds of ’32 Fords that have been hot-rodded over the 90 years since its model’s introduction, the Doane Spencer ’32 is among the most memorable. Legendary, even.
Photos courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum & Eric Geisert