EASTERN DEUCE REBORN
When he couldn’t find his old roadster, he built it again.
Anybody who thinks hot rodding wasn’t a big deal in New England didn’t grow up there in the 1950s. Just 10 years after the first issue, HOT ROD magazine’s February 1958 cover story featured several prominent East Coast hot rods. The California crowd discovered that rodding and racing were seriously thriving back east.
Most East Coast rods had a low, distinctive look. Because their cars weren’t raced at the dry lakes, hot rodders who lived east of the Mississippi often opted for closed cars. They could perform many different streamlining alterations without being moved up in competition classes. East Coast guys wanted roadsters, but given the region’s severe winter weather, closed coupes and sedans were more practical; channeling a car (cutting out the floorboards and lowering the body well down over the frame) was cheaper and more expedient than chopping tops and even frame Z-ing. Two handy kids with an acetylene torch and high school shop class skills could channel an old Ford in a weekend. Hoods were optional, no matter what the weather.
The East Coast even had its own hot rod magazines, like Rodding and Re-styling and Rod Builder & Customizer. The late A.B. (Arnie) Shuman and his brother Bernie’s terrific book, Cool Cars, Square Roll Bars, chronicles and celebrates the best of East Coast hot rodding. The brothers ran a ’32 Ford roadster at the drags in Sanford and on many other New England strips. Decades later, A.B. became the editor of HOT ROD. The Shuman brothers filled their book with black-and-white shots of all the heavy and not-so-heavy hitters in those days. (Now out of print, the book is available on amazon.com for $120 and more. Snap one up. It’s priceless).
There were hot rod clubs in every town, but in the Boston area the big dogs were the No-mads, a highly respected group that gathered at a small shop called Speedway Custom in Allston, a working-class Boston inner suburb. Speedway was owned by a pair of irrepressible Armenian-americans, Mudd Sharrigan and his brother John, better known as Shag. Talented mechanics and fearless competitors, the Sharrigan brothers campaigned a series of ever-faster cars under the No-mads banner. Shag turned
136-plus mph in a fraction over 9 seconds at Sanford, Maine, in the club’s flathead, then later Hemi-powered, dragster.
The No-mads’ distinctive, axe-shaped, three-dimensional club plaque featured a beatnik-looking character in a red beret (which the club members all wore). His flowing handlebar mustache ends were depicted as a roadster’s front axle. Other No-mads members included Peter Seferian (who later restored a primo Bugatti Type 35A), George “The Greek” Karalekas (who owned a channeled three-window ’32 Ford coupe), Dick Pratt, and Norm Grimm.
And there was Paul “Fitzy” Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald was one of the most talented of the bunch. He actually drove his ’32 Ford roadster from his home in West Newton, Massachusetts, to his freshman interview at Yale. The interviewer asked, “You built a car? What kind of car did you build?” Fitzgerald said, “Well, sir, it’s sitting right outside.” Parked in the Yale Quad, the roadster was surrounded by curious students. Needless to say, he was accepted on the spot.
Once at Yale, Fitzgerald played ice hockey, studied engineering, and never stopped improving and updating his channeled Deuce. Over time, he upgraded his roadster with a homebuilt independent front suspension that he designed himself, and the full-house flathead gave way to a red-hot Chevy V8. Spotted at the drags, the
car copped a two-page feature in the March 1957 issue of HOT ROD with the headline: “A Ford in name only, Boston roadster bristles with expression of owner’s ideas and fine workmanship.” But we are getting ahead of our story.
Paul Fitzgerald’s roadster odyssey began in 1952 when he purchased a rolling ’32 Ford chassis with a bare roadster body for $60 from Rick Garner (who eventually became a No-mad). Over the next two years, the frame was extensively modified with a flat front crossmember and a considerable kick-up in the rear. The obligatory flathead V8 was set well back in the chassis. A Ford V8/60 tubular front axle was fitted, with the transverse leaf spring mounted behind it, to keep the front end low. The steering box was an inverted ’40 Ford unit.
To achieve that classic Eastern-style “in the weeds” look, the body was channeled over the much-modified frame, and a 10gallon gas tank was located in the trunk. The fenders, required in Massachusetts, were cut down from Packard spare tire covers. The most distinctive feature of the car was the sectioned ’37 Ford truck grille. Custom chrome nerf bars provided some measure of parking protection.
By 1953, Fitzgerald had installed a “full-race” 1950 Mercury flathead V8 engine, bored and stroked to 286 inches and built by Mudd Sharrigan. Fitzgerald competed in Nhra-sanctioned drag races, winning Top Eliminator and setting top time at the August 1954 New England Championships held at Laconia, New Hampshire. The following year the car won Top Roadster at the NHRA Safety Safari New England Drag Racing Championships at Orange, Massachusetts. Competing as a street roadster, Fitzgerald’s Deuce won Best in Class at the big Springfield, Massachusetts, International Auto Show.
Over the next two years his roadster won numerous auto shows, garnering several Best Engineered and Best Constructed awards. Although many guys clung to flatheads, through a GM connection of his dad’s, Fitzgerald acquired and installed a 265-inch Chevy V8 and a four-speed gearbox, which powered his car to three straight B/street Roadster New England drag racing awards.
Fitzy’s racing exploits in his ’32 weren’t limited to New England. In 1958, he competed at the NHRA National Drag Racing Championships held at Oklahoma City, losing in the B/street Roadster final round.
The versatility of this roadster and its ever-inventive builder/driver knew no bounds. Fitzgerald competed in three sports car hill climb events, winning First overall. The first two were at Belknap, New Hampshire; the third was the SCCA Hill Climb at Mt. Equinox, Manchester, Vermont. Fitzgerald’s Deuce beat MGS, Jaguars, and even an Allard. Along the way he beat a young engineering student from Brown named Mark Donohue, who had a modified Corvette.
An unfortunate incident in 1959 led to some big changes. Fitzgerald’s brother was hit head-on by another car and the front end “was all twisted up.” Fitzy fabricated an all-new tubular steel chassis that included a clever independent front suspension of his own design. “I would have had to find another ’32 Ford for a replacement frame,” he says matter-of-factly today. “I didn’t have the time. It was easier to build my own chassis.”
Fitzy was always improving his roadster. Over time, he would use three front
> Chopped and channeled, with a ’37 Ford truck grille, Paul Fitzgerald’s wicked blue ’32 roadster was featured in HOT ROD in March 1957. Later he designed and installed his own independent front suspension.
> Fitzgerald’s Deuce epitomized the term “show and go.” Not only did he win several car show awards, but he also raced it. Here he is in the staging lanes at the NHRA’S “Big Go” in Oklahoma City in 1958. He went all the way to the final round in B/street Roadster.
> Fitzgerald swapped the 286ci flathead and ’39 Ford trans in his roadster for a new 265ci Chevy small-block, backed by a four-speed Corvette box. His dad had a friend at the factory. Fitzgerald said to him, “When you get a suitable engine, send me one.” The guy did! And Fitzy dropped it right in, replacing the Ford torque tube with an open driveline and a ’56 Chevy rear.
> Classic tuck-and-roll upholstery made of blue and white Naugahyde replicates the cool setup that Fitzgerald had back in the day. New England winters dictated a top. He drove his car year-round, even occasionally in the snow, as did many Boston-area rodders. They froze their tails off.
> Fitzgerald studied a British book on sports car design and built his own independent front suspension, with inclined shocks like a race car. Today it’s a modified Heidt’s unit, but it’s very similar to the original. He built his own chassis of square tubing after the car was in a crash. It was easier, he said, than finding another ’32 Ford frame.
> Triple carbs top the Chevy small-block in Fitzgerald’s roadster. To replicate the roadster’s last engine, Fitzgerald acquired a ’56 Chevy V8; installed 10:1 pistons, 327 rods, and a Duntov cam; and then topped it with Offenhauser ribbed valve covers.