The McGee Roadster: Hot Rod Legend | Historic Vehicle Association Documentary


(rock music) (tires squeal) – In the ’50s, hot rod was a dirty word and it was short. You know, so it made headlines. – Every time an old car was in a wreck, it was “hot rod injures three.” 42 old women run down by hot rods. – We were made for the
police in those days. – Street racing was a big thing. They’d hold 10 or 20 races
and as soon as the cops came, all the roadsters would take
off through the bean fields and the cops were
driving old Nash bathtubs and they couldn’t catch them. When you mention hot rod to
someone, the car that comes to mind is the ’32 Ford Highboy
like the McGee Roadster. The McGee car is a
quintessential American hot rod. – A lot of people probably
consider it the most significant ’32 Ford hot rod. It just has a presence. – [Man] My idea of hot
rodding is, you take something that isn’t worth a whole
lot and you improve it as much as you can and you
personalize it at the same time. – When you really think about
hot rodding and how important it was to our American
heritage, it’s major. These were the guys that
were some of the greatest innovators in the automotive world. That story needed to be told. – Hot rodding is a
purely American activity. Everybody has a little bit
of competition in them. – These young guys found
out if you got a model T or a model A, the first
thing you did was strip off all the extra parts because
if you make it lighter, it will go faster. – When we were 12 years
old, that would be 1933, we’d see in our neighborhood
a little stripped down model T. I said, “Boy, what would be
more fun than to ride around “in a little homemade
racing car like that?” – That’s what I want
to do, build a roadster like one of those and drive
it up through the Sequoias with no top with your girlfriend. What would be better? – We had our roadsters and we street raced and did the whole bit. Of course, didn’t have
a wonderful reputation, but we had a lot of fun
and we didn’t get into jail too much, so (laughs). – We just liked the
freedom of the open air, driving and playing like
we had a racing car. – The hot rod innovation
is to build it, drive it, have fun with it, do all these things that it can do. The only rule is, it must be modified. You can’t go into the
factory and buy a hot rod. – [Greg] I think there was a
comradery about hot rodders. It was all the common
goal to have a nice car and a fast car. – [Pat] They taught each
other the tricks of this, of what at the time were called hop ups or gow jobs. – [Ed] A lot of the elements
came from just trying things, you know. This was uncharted territory,
so it was open for ingenuity. – [Pat] They could make manifolds and put two carburetors on and
they learned how to grind cab shafts with files and
we were to the point like, in my hometown, somebody down
the hill fired up his car and, “Oh, that’s Cina’s ’56 Chevy. “Oh man, he’s got a new cam in that thing. “I can hear it (laughs)!” Your car should be personalized
to make it different than any other. You don’t want to copy
somebody else’s hot rod, not matter how much you like it. – Whether it’s color, stance, style, immediately, your thoughts
are, “How do I distinguish “my car?” some were greasy mechanic type guys and some were neat guys that
always had extra clean stuff. There was no money before the war. It was tough. We didn’t know it was tough because we were used to that (laughs). – It was primarily young men working with what was available. Guys went to go to the
junkyard and pick out what they could find. – [Ed] The junkyards were
full of many different makes at the time. You could buy a model
T in those days for $10 and get it running, you know. – [Pat] It started here
in southern California partly because of the
abundance of roadsters here because of the weather and roadsters were the cheapest and
lightest and most streamlined of all the cars and pretty soon, they found the Dry Lakes. – They would get wet with
an inch or two of water and that would erase all the
tire marks and when it dried up it would be smooth again. – [Bruce] Muroc, Dry Lake
was actually the center of activity because you
could take you car up there and go as fast as you wanted to go without traffic, or
people, or anything else. El Mirage was the second
best lake to Muroc and they still run there today. – [Ed] They’d have these
meets up there and you would meet new guys and see
new cars that you’d never get to see otherwise. You’d learn a lot. – [Pat] You could afford to have two cars, so you’d build your car to
run up to the Dry Lakes, but it also had to come
back to drive on the street. – There’s no sponsorship to speak of and there’s no prize money whatsoever, so it’s the purest form of hot rodding, is straightaway Dry Lakes
and Bonneville racing. When it first started, they
would race four or five cars across the lake bed. Well, if you were first, it was okay. But if you were fifth,
you had a hard time seeing where you were going. – So they had to stop
that, that was getting too risky. Only the guy in front could
see and some of these guys are crazy thinking that they’ll wear out, I’ll pass them later. – [Bruce] So in 1937,
the Southern California Timing Association was formed to give some regulation and some safety to that activity and they
went one car at a time. – [Announcer] This is
legal hot rod racing. There is no speed limit here. The idea is to go as
fast as you can against a common opponent, the clock. – [Pat] They made rules and classes. It was to organize all these various clubs that were founding members. Roadrunners, Bungholers. – [Ed] The Throttlers and the Cam Breakers and these various clubs could join. – There was a lot of
innovation and then along came World War Two. (loud explosions) – [TV Announcer] On December 7, 1941, Japan, like its infamous Axis partners, struck first and declared war afterward. – [Bruce] That kind of stopped hot rodding a little bit short. – [Dick] Basically a whole lot of racing was ceased in the United States. – So now all these
fellas that used to race through the Dry Lake usually
worked with government equipment during the war
and learned a lot more about engines and so forth. – [Bruce] Guys learned
how to fabricate and weld. – During the war, they all have a picture of their girlfriend and a
picture of their hot rod in their wallet and they’d
be talking about racing these things on the Dry Lakes
and how much fun it was. The term hot rod did develop
sometime during World War II and nobody knows exactly
where it came from, when. – Wally Parks says he first
heard it in the Philippines. Another serviceman from
San Luis Obispo used it. He had never heard it before. – When the war shifted from the European to the South Pacific,
they all shipped through Long Beach, San Diego, and
they’d see these roadsters bumming around on the streets and the Army, the Navy spread this word and after the war, it just blossomed. – That was a great time
to be in Los Angeles. They had survived the war,
they’d be in prison camps, they’d been shot at,
they had some extra money in their jeans and they
were happy to be home. That was the boom and Dry
Lakes racing was huge. – [Pat] And these were so big up there that there would be
literally hundreds of cars and thousands of spectators. – It was booming. All these people who had
talent needed a new hobby and by God, this was it, cars. – When the G.I.s came
back, they went to work and the car that was their
first choice was the ’32 Ford because it was the perfect
platform for hot rodding. – [Pat] The ’32 Ford was the
first Ford that came with this V-8 engine, which
was an affordable V-8 that the public could buy. It would be like if Ford
brought out a self-driving car today, it was that monumental. – [Ed] Now here we are
in about 1938 or nine and that engine looked
like a racing engine does. In the junkyard, we bought one for $65. – It was much more streamlined, much more designer-y looking. It looked sleek and it looked
brawny at the same time. – Amazingly enough, it
looked good when you took the fenders off too. It just looked good pretty
much whatever you did to it. – At that point, a lot
of people had find ways to improve the looks
of a ’32 Ford Roadster and I think the McGee Roadster exemplifies the pinnacle of that. Bob McGee was the football player at University of Southern California. He always had a love for cars. He took time out to go to
war and when he came back, he jumped right in to building this car. And like all hot rodders,
Bob McGee tried new stuff. – [Dick] A lot that he
did himself, obviously, but some of the
characteristics of that car were done by professionals and made it the distinct car that it is. He was thinking outside the box. – [Pat] The McGee car was
like the Ferrari of hot rods at the time. There was only one that
even was remotely like it. I mean, it was clean, it was pretty, it reeked of that hot rod look. It sat right. They notched the frame in the back and got the back in down
to where the body line and the tire were concentric and that, and I worked and worked to
get my car to sit that good and I still, it doesn’t. That handmade three-piece wind is one of the first to have it. It had no hinges and no
latches visible on it. Just little things like that set it apart. – [Greg] A lot of styling ques on hot rods come from race cars, so the louvers, in addition
to increasing cooling, they’re a styling touch similar to what an Indianapolis car would have. – [Greg] There’s no radiator
cap on the radiator. It’s peaked. The spreader bar, which supports
the two front frame horns is V-ed. It has no exterior door hinges. – [Dick] It took a lot of
engineering to make that work. – [Ed] And they took off the door handles so they didn’t show, so it
was just a smooth body style all the way through. – [Pat] It has a
completely redesigned dash with a big tack in the middle. The trunk and the rear
line goes all the way down to the end of the body. It’s not broken up by a panel. – [Dick] He cut it on down
and took that panel out and had a special deck in
formed that matched perfect, but went all the way down. The license plate and the rear taillights are mounted right in the deck with itself. – [Pat] It just took that
one line out of the car. It’s a double take, even subconsciously you know the car looks
cleaner and smoother. That’s a badge of courage,
that’s a mark of distinction. – [Greg] As unique as the
car was stylistically, the engine was just the same. It has a 21-stud flathead
with federal mobile copperheads, a special
burns intake manifold. Still, the car wasn’t just skin deep. – [Bruce] It had enough
performance to say, you know, it’s definitely a hot rod. – Bob McGee just looked
like the all-American boy who was married with this car. He took his honeymoon in this car. It’s the enthusiast that
wanted to make changes, make him go faster. Then it really built
our industry in the US and it was the enthusiast
like Bob McGee that took a standard platform ’32 Ford Roadster and tweaked it to become an icon. In the late ’40s, there
were a lot of hot rods roaming the streets of southern California and hot rodders were not always welcome and then along came Bob Peterson who went out to the Dry Lakes,
took some great pictures, and kind of started a
newsletter which then became Hot Rod Magazine. – [Greg] Robert E. Peterson
was pretty brave in 1948 to found a magazine called
Hot Rod because it was a pejorative term. It was really a risky proposition,
but it worked for him. – [Greg] Within three
years, it was selling like, 3 million copies and he was a millionaire. – There was the magazine that, of course, really built hot rodding. I grew up in Kansas City,
Missouri and we were able to see what was actually happening there in southern California. Where we could get parts. I happened to pick up the October issue and that’s where I first
ran across a picture of the Bob McGee Roadster. – [Pat] What makes any hot rod significant is being on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. Everybody in the country saw this car and the way it sat, and
the way it was built. – [Bruce] This car was
photographed in front of USC, so you’ve got a soldier,
a scholar, a football star all wrapped up into
one package right there in front of a very iconic university. – [Greg] But to the public in
the late ’40s and early ’50s, hot rods were somewhat representative of a menace. – [Driver] (laughs) Yeah,
they knew I was around now all right. You should have seen them scatter. – [Pat] These hot rodders had
gotten into so much trouble with the cops that the SETA
clubs and Hot Rod magazine with Wally Parks leading the way, he said, “Man, we got
to clean up our image.” – [Bruce] All the hot
rod clubs got together with law enforcement to
express their concern over safe driving and image,
and they selected this car to lead the pack. So on each car, they would
put a safety sticker, a green cross, on the windshield and this was a big, big day for
the legitimacy of the sport. – After McGee, there was a
fella named Dick Hirschberg. He was a motorcycle and roadster guy. He was a friend of VonDutch. He got the car and then in 1955 painted it a pale yellow color and
put a new Chevy V-8 in it. That has to be one of the
first ’32 Fords that got an engine swap with a
Chevy V-8, which of course, they built literally
millions of and it became the basis for all kinds
of racing and hot rodding from then on. – And then it went to Dick Richfield. – I was driving down
the street in Hollywood and saw this yellow roadster sitting in a service station. Boy, that’s a pretty neat looking car. I said, “Hey, would you
be interested in trading “your roadster for a Lincoln Continental?” And he says, “Oh, yeah. “It looks pretty nice. “I’ll give you $800 and a
roadster for the Continental.” I figured I was going to have to pay him for the car (laughs). And away I went and I was
a proud owner of a 1932 Ford Roadster. (car engine revs) – [Pat] Once Richfield got
the car, he kept updating it with newer engines and
different paint jobs. – [Greg] He had the pipes
going out the sides. – The outside headers,
actually, I think they were for a boat originally
and he turned them upside down and used them on the roadster and they worked fine. – Eventually, I decided to
built a new engine for it. A 350 Chevy. That was sure a good engine. It just ran, and ran, and ran. Go up to 8,000 RPM and sit
there, never miss a beat. – It was a new process
called metalflake paint. – And it was the first
metalflake paint in the country. Ducom and Chemical came
out with a ground up aluminum and they found a way to shoot it through a spray gun. You could put a real sparkly finish. – [Greg] So it went from the pale yellow to the metalflake red. At the ultimate, we ended
up painting it black. In the late ’50s, the
street riding was dying off a little bit. He got together with a couple
other guys and had roadsters and decided that they’d form a club and that became the L.A. Roadsters. – [Pat] He was a doer. He was a leader, and the idea
was, we’re going to drive these goddamn things,
that’s what they’re for. They were a known hot rod
club and they put on this show at the Hollywood Bowl
parking lot starting in ’57. – We were able to start a
really complete industry and it’s just grown, and
grown and just keeps going, you know? – Not only was he leading all these runs with the L.A. roadsters,
there were all these Hollywood B-movies. – Well, the studio is looking
for a roadster for a movie and I said, “Well, I’d be available.” so the first movie was Hot Rod Gang. – [Pat] The first thing they’re doing is, they’re banging hubcaps
and the next thing, they challenge each
other to ride the curbs and they’re going and down
where the driveways are. – [Dick] I kept thinking
they were going to hit one of the light poles or something. That made me a little
nervous, I will admit. – [Pat] Whenever they needed a hot rod, it was Richfield’s car. They put it in movies,
he put it in TV shows, he put it in ads. It was ubiquitous. – I don’t want my baby mixed
up with these drug strips and hot roots. – Mom, that’s drag strips and hot rods. – Well, that’s it! – And it accomplished the start
of the Richfield Roadster. – I got a good life, I got a good job, I got the boulevard. – It was in tons of
shows, I saw it in shows. – Stella! – Thanks, Fonzie. – Sometimes I drove and sometimes it was a
stuntman or the actor driving. – OH, wow. This is the deuce! (car engine revs) – This car was in a lot
of movies and TV shows over the years, a lot. – Well Andy, I declare. This is the prettiest
little car I ever did see. – And he put it together all by himself. That’s os wonderful. (car engine revs) – It was a lot of fun. – [Pat] It very well should
be called the McGee Richfield Roadster because Dick
Richfield accomplished more in performance with the car than Bob McGee did. – In the late ’60s, he became interested in Dry Lakes and Bonneville racing and he lobbied SCTA and in 1971, they formed some street roadster classes. – We put the record. We ran through at 168 and they couldn’t believe
that a street roadster would really go that fast. That was great fun. – I’ve been well over 200
miles per hour at Bonneville and when I think of going 167
miles an hour in this car, I’m not sure I have what it takes. Going that fast in a street roadster is a real accomplishment. – Turn the key and go 167 miles an hour. It was pretty amazing. – They always say I jinxed
the record because I held the record nine years before they broke it and then they finally just
made complete race cars that were not street
driven or anything else, so I felt pretty good about that. – He retired to Hawaii. Well, Hawaii had a strict
fender law at that time, so he decided he would sell the roadster. – Then I get over here
and like, two years later they change the law and fenders aren’t required anymore, so I got had. I was sorry I did that at that time. They were all good memories with that car. I do miss it. It was a bit part of my life. I like driving fast and
I like fooling with cars and that make me a hot rodder, I guess. – [Bruce] To find a car
like this with the original, original everything, body,
doors, hood, chassis, is very, very rare that
it hasn’t been modified beyond recognition and beyond restoration. And so making the decision
when I bought the car which point to restore it to, I picked the McGee car because
this was the pivotal time. It was so well-known in
the history of hot rodding and it just defined style. (upbeat music) – [Greg] Bruce located Bob McGee. He lived down in Fountain
Valley, which isn’t very far away, but nobody had really
talked to him in a while. He brought his scrapbook and
contributed his knowledge and so forth to the project. Sadly, he didn’t live to
see it completely restored, but he knew it was in the process and was going to be restored. Ad this is accurate as
is possible to make it. I think it’s just spot on. (car engine revs) – This car represents
generations of innovation. Hod rodding is all-American
as baseball, jazz, apple pie, and it was almost forgotten. There was a real under
appreciation for the cars and personalities behind
the hot rod movement. I think one of the running points was when Pebble Beach accepted hot rods along with Duesenberg and
Rolls Royces and Ferraris as a very acceptable art form. The US Post Office put
this car on a postage stamp because this car has depth. I mean, this car has
done it all and I realize when we leave this planet,
we take nothing with us. In fact, we’re just custodians
for icons like this. (upbeat rock music) (atmospheric music)

About the Author: Michael Flood

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