Historians and diehard fans of land speed racing will all agree on the same thing when it comes to Veda Orr, the “first lady of the lakes”: Her contributions, both behind the wheel and behind the typewriter, are as legendary as they are crucial to the sport’s continued growth as in its earliest years. While her husband, racer and parts peddler Karl Orr, is often falsely credited as having the very first speed shop (possibly his 1920s repair shop in Missouri could’ve been construed as such, but not in the same facet as George Wight’s or Lee Chapel’s actual retail performance parts businesses, both of which were already established prior to Karl Orr Speed Shop opening its doors in 1940), the fact that Veda was the first woman to race in an SCTA-sanctioned dry lakes event in 1937 rings true, as it’s written in the record books.
In lieu of Veda’s sidelined career as a driver at the onset of World War II, she eagerly stepped into her role as “keeper of the hot rodder’s flame” for the duration of the war. Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) secretary Wally Parks handed over his duties as editor/publisher of the organization’s monthly newsletter, SCTA Racing News, to Veda while he served his tour of duty overseas. Her racer’s round robin, as it were, sent to enlisted soldiers across the globe, not only kept the spirit of racing alive, but gave them something to look forward to when they returned—which many did by making Orr Speed Shop in Culver City, California, one of their first civilian landmarks to visit upon their homecoming.
It’s safe to say that Veda Orr will best be known for the key part she played as a history keeper of early lakes racing, not only through her efforts as Racing News steward but following the war as well with her two books, Veda Orr’s Dry Lakes Pictorial and Veda Orr’s Hot Rod Pictorial. However, it’s not her writing that brings us here today, rather, her significant other and the mystery of the numerous-numbered ’32, aka the Veda Orr roadster.
Back in 2007, amidst a gala gathering of the 75 most influential ’32 Fords featured at the Grand National Roadster Show, it wasn’t Paul Beck’s stunning recreation of Veda’s famed 21c that caused such a stir, but instead an unassuming, flat-hued one bearing the very same “Karl Orr Speed Shop” lettered in white along its highboy framerails. Controversy arose not simply because of the similarity in the particular graphics, but because the understated ’32 was making what many perceived as a very overstated claim: the lettering bore more than just a tribute; it referred to the actual origin of the roadster body. That’s right, the show card displayed next to (though not for the duration of the entire show) Elmo Gillette’s Deuce proclaimed its gennie tin’s provenance not just of Dearborn bloodline, but more precisely, of Karl and Veda Orr lineage. Contrary to nearly every historical account—written, verbal, or otherwise— Elmo and land speed racing partner Jim Lattin’s version offers an alternative ending to varying speculations regarding the ’32 “post 1948”.
According to them, fellow SCTA Albata Club member Jack Lehman (original owner of the Chrisman No. 25 dragster, prior to it becoming that) purchased the ’32 Ford—less engine—from the Orrs in 1948. For the following year, he campaigned the roadster at various SCTA and Russetta events. Prior to season’s end, however, Lehman swapped the body out for a smaller/lighter ’27 T in an effort to run at a higher speed, which he did—by 6 mph. It was at this point, roughly a year later in 1949, that Lehman sold the discarded Deuce roadster’s body to Elmo. Up until then, Elmo had been racing his own roadster, a ’29 A-V8, but upon acquiring the body from Lehman, much to the chagrin of his wife, Elmo took it upon himself to perform a swap of his own—with the family Fordor sedan surrendering itself to becoming the new race car.
From dry lakes to drags to, eventually, Elmo’s mother’s single-car garage, where for quite some time the roadster would peacefully slumber, no one the wiser … except Elmo and his family, of course. And it wouldn’t be until sometime in the ’90s that the roadster would resurface. Apparently, that decade between the day Elmo dragged the dusty Deuce from its hibernation to the day the controversial show sign was propped up at the GNRS raised little if any flags concerning the roadster pedigree. It wasn’t like the car was being kept under wraps—along with participating in two of the better-known SoCal reliability runs, it even made a cameo appearance on the silver screen in one of the pit scenes at Bonneville in The World’s Fastest Indian. But, not only was it not parked next to an exact reproduction of its former character, its likeness—or lack thereof in various areas—was and still is questionable. For that, Lattin provided his explanation regarding the differences, both assumed and actual.
Disregarding the chassis altogether (it’s well known that the original had its framehorns removed, among other minor details), the body bore distinct characteristics, namely a filled cowl vent. Reasoning for the existence of a stock vent on Elmo’s is fairly simple, according to Lattin. Bringing the roadster out of storage required a bit more than blowing off dust and airing tires—at some point, it had been channeled, and along with installing a new (stock) floor, the cowl’s vent was replaced … so too was the dash, something else many cite as an erred aspect. It’s a good guess that the issue with placement of the taillights is also a result of the “rehabilitation” process.
While this historical interpretation will undoubtedly leave many a skeptic, well, skeptical—it does offer some justification for various questionable aspects regarding the “mysterious resurfacing of the Veda Orr ’32 just one month prior to the 75th Deuce display”. Then again, it’s just another highboy ’32 roadster. …