You knew you made it if that...
You knew you made it if that guy with the big smile and cowboy hat gave you a trophy. JC "Aggie" Agajanian was one of the greatest race car owners/motorsports promoters of all time, and the Sacramento AutoRama hired him to present trophies to winners like Rico at the '51 event.
People seem to forget about Seconds even if they're winners in their own right. For example, chances are you wouldn't have to look far if you wanted to know who won America's Most Beautiful Roadster (née World's) at the inaugural Grand National Roadster Show. It seems everybody knows that Bill Niekamp won the first spot on the big trophy in 1950.
But you'd have to ask quite a few more people if you wanted to know who won that title the following year. And if you got an answer at all it would probably come from a guy with wispy white hair and yellowing glasses. Even then he'd probably squint into the distance and bring his hand up to bob his index finger as if he were parting cards in an internal Rolodex. And if his cards were still stacked right, he'd say Rico Squaglia won that year with a Matador Red 1923 Ford Model T roadster.
Coming in First the second year running was hardly reason to forget that car though. For starters, it was a Model T, the first of what became the most winning model in the award's history (20 were Ts, or more than double the number of Model A winners-especially impressive since the last T to win did so 19 years ago). What's more, Rico's car sported a nose and bellypan crafted by one of the panel beaters of his time, if not all time. Another of its contributions is a dubious one, but many say Rico's car is the reason that all America's Most Beautiful Roadster entries must actually move under their own power.
But probably what's most critical to this story is that Rico's car still exists in almost entirely its original form. In fact, according to its present steward, all of its owners lived within about a 15-mile radius from where the car was built. "How I acquired the car just about goes back to the original owner," Carter Fisher recalled. "A friend of mine's dad built the car."
Rico was no stranger to T...
Rico was no stranger to T roadsters. To raise the funds to build his show winner, he sold this '23-25 model, a dirt track racer he campaigned from after the war until 1948. Though no records exist, the relative complexity of the one-piece hood and blister suggest Harry Westergard's involvement.
Rico's story fits squarely with the American dream. He was born in 1910 to immigrant parents. They lived in San Francisco, but like so many newly minted Italian-Americans in the very early '20s, they moved inland to Walnut Grove, part of an agricultural basin made fertile by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. "My father came up here to work on a farm, which he hated," Rick Squaglia says. "He did that for two years before he said the hell with it." He sought work at a local garage (possibly Jack Veterens') and worked his way up to a Ford dealership, but more on that later.
Lucky for Rico, the Sacramento Delta was good for more than just farming; the rivers that constituted the basin spawned cracker box and runabout racing, and the rich land among them made excellent track material. "He got into boat racing in the late '30s, then ended up in track car racing after the war," Rick Squaglia says. "My father's car had a Flathead, I think it was a 3/8 by 3/8, and I think he was running alcohol. I remember it went like hell. He sold it in, oh, I think 1948 or so.
"Anyway, then he got out of track racing and got into building this car [the red roadster] in '49," he says. "He decided to build this car with a guy named Harry Westergard."
The cycle fenders meant more...
The cycle fenders meant more work but the full wheel covers possibly hint at Rico's rush to get his car ready for the 1951 Grand National Roadster Show. Note the presence of Kinmont disc brakes-rare stuff even then.
For those among us who don't know Westergard's legacy, he was responsible for restyling ordinary cars into extraordinary works of art, including Mel Falconer's '39 Ford convertible and Harold Ohanesian's '40 Mercury convertible sedan. Among his many accomplishments, Westergard, Norm Milne, and fellow custom car builder Dick Bertolucci founded the Thunderbolts car club in 1945 as a means to give street racers more legitimate venues.
"They both worked in the same shop right in Walnut Grove," Rick Squaglia says. "Westergard was a bodyman and my father was the shop foreman in this small Ford dealership run by Frank Judy at the time. Westergard came out of Sacramento but he drove all the way down here to work.
One of the few things that...
One of the few things that Carter didn't do himself was the interior. He hired Dante's Modern Auto Top Shop in Stockton to reproduce what he could see in the only half-identifiable photo that existed. He came fairly close, too; photos that appeared later show fat pleats that turn into narrower pleats at about mid-seat level.
"They laid the frame out, which was two pieces of steel, right on the garage floor out here. I can remember real well when they started. When I say they, there were some guys who worked for him at the time who had helped with it, but [Rico] did most of the mechanical work. Of course, Westergard did the bodywork. He's the one who did that Kurtis-type front end on the car." He's also the one responsible for eliminating the false-door bead on the driver side, shaving the passenger-side door, and molding the cowl top to the body, just to name a few modifications.
"From what I understood, they didn't get it done in time. [Al and Mary Slonaker] wanted it at that show, and they were screwing around with it in December of 1950, and it had to be in there by January." Reportedly under the gun to make the car presentable, Rico forewent everything not visible once the car was buttoned up. The important part was that the car looked good. As the records show, it did.
The car's life with Rico wasn't all that long though. Carter says, "In 1952, Rico sold it to another friend of mine, a farmer named Augie Correa. Augie owned it until 1956. He sold it to another friend of mine, actually two friends of mine, two brothers named Frankie and Joey Ferreira."
The Ferreira brothers were pivotal to the car's legend-at least among the people who knew them at the time. Rather than a priceless artifact, the car was just a means for the brothers and their friends-Carter among them-to tear around on farm roads. "In the early '60s-before I even had a license-I was trying to buy Rico's car from Joey," he says. "I didn't know anything about America's Most Beautiful; it was just a cute little red car. I knew my dad would foot the bill, but they wouldn't sell it.
It's priceless anymore, but...
It's priceless anymore, but once upon a time the "Perpetual Trophy" for Most Beautiful Roadster went home with its winner until the following year's event. More than likely that's the Ford agency where Rico and Harry worked.
"Anyway, I forgot about the car-I'd say '65 was about the last time I saw it. But one day Joey and I were just bs'ing and he said 'You still wanna buy my roadster?' After 20 years, I thought, 'What roadster?' I didn't register what he was talking about. 'The little red roadster, America's Most Beautiful, you know,' he tells me. 'Oh yeah, yeah I want to buy it. What do you want for it?' Carter asked. 'Oh, $1,500,' he tells me. So I said, 'You don't move; I'll be right back.' "
Unfortunately, Carter's silver lining had a cloud-a sort of dark one at that. " 'Well, it's been apart for 20 years,' Joey told me. 'We took it apart to rebuild it.' " And in the meantime a sort of low-grade disaster struck: Carter says it was in a garage in Isleton when the delta flooded. Making matters worse, "It spent three months underwater. It's apart, in boxes, but most of it's there."
The car's restoration presented some challenges, even for a seasoned fabricator. "When it was built, if it didn't show it was junk," Carter says. "I mean like the frame and stuff never showed so it was never detailed. It had a million holes from the factory. They'd changed motors so it had things welded to it and cut off. The firewall looked like something off a local tractor. If it wasn't a show item, it didn't look good." So not only did Carter have to restore the car, he had to tie up a lot of loose ends that Rico overlooked in the car's rushed construction.
So too did he have to reinvent some things. For example, the rarity that makes the '40s-era Kinmont disc brakes desirable also makes missing parts like the ones Carter needed to repair them exceedingly hard to find. "I found some, and for a handful of parts the guy wanted $2,000," Carter says. "So I said, 'Nah, I'll make my own,' and the guy tells me, 'You can't just make 'em.' 'Oh yes I can,' " Carter told him. "I was already a machinist so I learned to sand cast. I'm notorious for not letting anybody work on my projects."
Though Carter reproduced the...
Though Carter reproduced the roadster's distinctive pipes to a tee, he stopped just short of chroming them, citing the impending deadline to get the car ready for the Grand National Roadster Show's 50th Anniversary. He said he plans to re-restore the car, at which point he said he'd plate the pipes.
Carter's resistance to sublet work and willingness to tackle new methods makes him pretty versatile, and the bellypan proves it. "That bellypan was one of the hardest things of the whole car," Carter says. "I learned to shape aluminum on this project." Though gas-welded from several sheets, vibration and neglect cracked it into about a dozen.
"I didn't have a template of what it's supposed to look like, so I measured everything and sat on the floor and made what I thought the bellypan should look like. So I spent hours and hours drinkin' and welding and cussin' until I had it to where I thought it really looked nice. I had the car apart so I turned everything upside down and put the pan on, but it was about 10 inches too long, and it didn't go back the way it should've. It's actually the original pan that's on there, but I spent a lot of time shrinking it back down to size," he says.
Time-the decades on dry land and the three months underwater-pretty much wrecked all the chrome too. At the same time, "Prices for plating were ridiculous," Carter says. "I'm also kind of cheap-not really, but I just don't like people doing my work. I couldn't get it on time, and two of the pieces that I sent out right off the bat didn't look much better than the way I sent them." So as improbable as it sounds, he learned to plate.
"There's an outfit [Caswell Plating] that sells a kit so that you can do your own electroplating," he says. "It's a full copper with nickel and chrome over it. As I went along I figured out how to do long pieces. It's very time-consuming because the better the polish, the better the chrome turns out. But if there's a scratch on it, you might as well hang a sign on it that says, 'Here it is.' I found out real quick that good enough just isn't."
He also learned that adage applied to much more than he expected-or at least wanted. "Like that tube grille," he says. "I put a tube in the tank to de-chrome it, and when I pulled out the wire, only the wire was left. It was so rusty that by the time the rust came off there was no metal at all. I bent the next one, and it just crumbled. So luckily, I didn't put 'em all in there at once. I ended up hand-bending every one of the bars for the grille. Those bars were tricky; they're not a continuous radius, and they also bend outward as they go down. I bent the new ones over my knee. They each fit in a particular place in the grille ring, so I just bent 'em and tested as I went along. They used steel tubing, but I used 3/8-inch stainless steel. It's been chromed, but it'll never rot."
About the only thing Carter didn't do on the car was the upholstery. "I didn't do it because I didn't have a sewing machine at the time," he says. Making matters worse, "There was no upholstery at all; I had to build all the boxes and such. All I had was one halfway decent picture and that was it." Dante's Modern Auto Top Shop in Stockton improvised a new interior based on that one photo and Carter's hunches. "According to everybody's recollection, I came pretty close, too."
As strange as it sounds for a car that won the biggest award and appeared in the biggest magazine for its time, there was nothing definitive about the car's engine. "Now there's a good story," Carter says. "When it showed, it had no engine. It was all covered up and it had a full front end on it, but they didn't have the time to get the engine in. And that is, from what I understand, part of how the ruling came about for driving them in." Rick Squaglia says, "You know, that's what I heard too. At least that's what I understood, and I think my father did tell me that years ago."
The Kinmont Safe Stop disc...
The Kinmont Safe Stop disc brake operates more like a clutch than the disc brake design that we know today. As if that's not confusing enough, Carter had to cast and machine some of the parts that were missing from these brakes.
"When the article about the car appeared in the September 1951 Hot Rod magazine, the article shows a picture of an engine," Carter says. "It's definitely after the show. [The car] has muddy wheels and the hood is completely off of it. It looks like an 85-horse engine, but when I picked up [the car], it came with a 60. Seeing how that one fit the best of anything-I don't know how they managed to work around an 85-that's the one I used." Just as he had to do with the grille bars, Carter had to reproduce the car's distinctive side pipes. As he pointed out, "The original pipes were rotten, but these are exactly like the originals."
And those aren't the only things just like the originals. Just as Rico built the car in a very compressed time line, Carter had very little time to bring it back from the brink. He bought the car in 1985, but it wasn't until 1998 when he got a call from Show Promotions, the promoter of the Grand National Roadster Show at the time. "They asked if it could be ready for the 50th anniversary," he says.
"Well in my mind, 1950 to 2000 is 50 years, so I said I could get it done. Well they told me that I had my math wrong." The event that we know as the Grand National Roadster Show began in 1950, but the 50th celebration was slated for early 1999, "...and that was only nine months away," Carter says. "I said, 'Yeah, I'll have it ready, but I won't have any more time to talk to you if you want it!"
As if reproducing the time itself, Carter thrashed on the car right up to the moment attendees poured through the doors. "We put the last piece on that car at the show," Carter says. "It was that goofy V-8 hood emblem on the front. Do you know how many different V-8 emblems there are?" he says. "I own a million of 'em and none of 'em fit; all of them are a little bit different shape. I found one at the Turlock swap meet just before the show; I don't know what it is, but it's the right one."
"I guess I'm a bad boy because it still gets driven around locally," he says. "My son-in-law joked that he should take it to the local A&W Show 'n' Shine. I told him 'Just take it.' Yeah right, he thought, but I saw him two weeks ago. He'd taken it and he was in seventh heaven. If something got bent on it, well I straightened it out once so I could do it again. I told him that he'd never be forgiven, but it still wouldn't be the end of the world."
Rod & Custom Feature Car
We've come to expect a level...
We've come to expect a level of detail that inevitably makes hot rods incredibly expensive to build. But as this nerf bar detail proves, standards were once upon a time much more realistic-even for a car that won a prestigious award. We like it because it proves that an imperfect human being did it.
Walnut Grove, California
1923 Ford Model T Roadster
We don't know everyone who helped Rico build his roadster's chassis from a pair of stock Model T framerails. They kick up heavily at the rear to mount a highly modified Model T or A rear spring crossmember. When Carter restored the car, he grounded down nubs from several long-lost modifications, including one that unsuccessfully mounted an 85-horse Flathead in the car. The nerf bars are the same ones Rico crafted in 1950.
The front axle under Westergard's car is an ordinary, stock-height '33-36 Ford piece. Between it and the chassis is a pair of hairpins that Rico made from sticks of round tubing and bits and pieces of Ford tie-rod tubing. The hairpins mount to the chassis by Ford tie-rod ends and to the axle by flame-cut bat wings that Westergard welded to the axle. Since he forewent the wishbone and its mounting lugs, Rico welded the spring perches directly to the axle. A pair of very rare Kinmont Safety disc brakes mount to '42-48 spindles.
Rico chose a '37-40 Ford axle to move his car. It still articulates on a torque-tube-a shortened one, at least-but Rico elected to eliminate the radius rods. Instead, he chose to stabilize the axle à la track roadsters: with hairpins that terminate on the same plane as the torque-tube pivot point. He also forewent the flatter rear spring in favor of a high-arched (later) Model T or A leaf pack. Like the front, the rear mounts a set of very rare Kinmont brakes.
Evidence suggests that the only engine that ever worked properly in Rico's old car was a Ford V-8-60, which isn't necessarily out of line considering the engine's popularity among midget racers of the time. Custom headers and Eddie Meyer heads withstanding, this one's stone stock and sufficient means for motivation, Carter says. He also fudged the rules a bit with the alternator, but that's just fine so long as he drives it.
Wheels & Tires
There really weren't many wheels to choose from when Rico built his car, so it's a good thing that 16x4 1/2 Ford wheels were works of art. These wear a set of 6.00-16 and 7.00-16 Firestone Deluxe Champions, '41 Ford caps, smooth trim rings, and pinstriping not much different from what was on the wheels later on in '51.
Body & Paint
Famed panel beater Harry Westergard crafted the nose, hood, and bellypan. He also shaved the driver-side door bead, welded the passenger-side door shut and eliminated its bead too, and molded the cowl top to the body, eliminating its bead in the process. When Carter restored the car he had to pretty much reconstruct the bellypan from a dozen or so cracked pieces. He also repaired the damage the car endured over the years in the hands of feckless teenagers-including him. He repainted the body Matador Red, although early photos of the car suggest it was probably a proto-metallic poly color.
About the only thing Carter didn't do was the interior. He built the forms and seat parts then farmed out the trim work to Dante's Modern Auto Top Shop. Carter gleaned some ideas from a barely legible photo of the car, which Dante's rendered in plain black vinyl. Though the car originally wore a set of Stewart-Warner gauges-likely Industrial Series-an impending deadline and shrinking budget dictated that Carter use later VDO dials. No worries, though: Carter still has the old gauges and says he intends to reunite them with the car after having them restored.