BEVERLY HILLS, California—Bob Morris, an antiques dealer from Santa Barbara, California, wanted to own the ’32 Ford roadster built by Doane Spencer, a car widely regarded as the ultimate Deuce. He spent years trying to buy it, but Spencer himself had already decided Bruce Meyer would be the car’s next owner. Never mind that it had changed hands several times over the years; it was hot-rod royalty and now beholden only to its creator.
So Morris did the next best thing: He created a Doane Spencer–inspired roadster of his own.
Like its forebear, Bob Morris’s roadster would become a hot-rod icon. It, too, would end up in Meyer’s collection. It was featured on a magazine cover (Rod & Custom, April 1993), a feat the original car never accomplished. And this summer it will make its way to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in the hopes it can repeat the Doane Spencer car’s win in 1997, the inaugural year for the hot-rod class.
Morris had the car’s hardware plated in nickel, which he hand-brushed himself.
Morris’s tribute rocketed its way to hot-rod stardom for several reasons. For starters, Morris insisted on having his car built by the best. He found a clean, low-mileage ’32 Ford hot rod, still wearing its original sheetmetal, at the 1990 Los Angeles Roadsters show and recruited a who’s-who of the California hot-rod scene to work on it: legends like Pete Eastwood, Allen Jennings, Steve Davis, Ron Covell, and Don Thelen. Many of the parts on the Doane Spencer Deuce were fabricated by hand, and Morris built his roadster the same way. He bucked the trends of the time, building an old-school hot rod before the term had even entered the vernacular.
While hot-rodders of the era embraced new engine technology, Morris used a Ford 302 V-8 with Gurney-Weslake heads and valvetrain and quad Webers, essentially the same engine found in the Ford GT40. The engine drove through a Ford Toploader four-speed manual and delivered its power to 15-inch Halibrand magnesium knock-off wheels originally made in small quantities for ’57 Thunderbirds to run on the Bonneville salt flats.
The split windshield is one of the car’s most intriguing details. It was custom-fabricated in brass to mimic the DuVall windshield fitted to the original Doane Spencer car. (Spencer purchased the DuVall for his ’31 Ford Phaeton, which he wrecked soon after. He gave the windshield to a high-school buddy with a ’32 Roadster, which Spencer later bought and turned into his famous hot rod. The windshield remains on the Doane Spencer car to this day.) [story continued below]
The Original Doane Spencer ’32 Roadster
But the most striking element is the plating. Rather than chrome, Morris had the car’s hardware plated in nickel, which he hand-brushed himself. The nickel plating lends an ethereal look—in contrast to the hard reflections of chrome, the brushed nickel seems to shine back light from another era. It’s no wonder the car is known not as the Bob Morris Roadster but as the Nickel Roadster.
Flawless body and paintwork emphasize the purity of the Nickel Roadster’s form, but the car’s apparent simplicity is deceiving, for there is just as much beauty in its details. The pedals and their linkages, the door pulls, the fuel-filler cap, and even the trunk hinges are hand-fabricated and exquisitely detailed, with many parts drilled for lightness, as Spencer preferred. And what is not worthy of admiration has been hidden: Fuel, hydraulic, and electrical lines are concealed inside the boxed frame. Even with the body off—a sight seen by few throughout the car’s existence—it retains its beauty. Pat Ganahl, the Rod & Custom editor who put the Nickel Roadster on the cover, likened it to a Fabergé egg. Owner Meyer says today, “I’ve never seen a prettier hot rod.”
The car came to be part of Meyer’s collection after actor and comedian Tim Allen told him he wanted a hot rod, and Meyer recommended the Nickel car as one of the finest in the world. Allen bought it on Meyer’s recommendation—but then he discovered its fatal flaw.
Whereas Spencer built his cars to drive, the Nickel car was built primarily as a showpiece. In fact it was so perfectly done that Morris couldn’t bring himself to drive it and was even uncomfortable having the car on view to the public. As a result, it was never properly sorted out. The racing engine was too high-strung for street use, and the suspension was set up for stance, not drivability. Allen entered it in the River City Reliability Run, where he discovered how uncomfortable and disconcerting it was to drive. Disappointed and perhaps even a little disgusted, he parked the car in his garage, where it sat, undriven, for a decade.
Meyer had never seriously considered buying the Nickel Roadster.
Finally, Allen decided it was time to be done with the Deuce. He called Meyer and suggested that because Meyer was the one who got him into the car, he should be the one to get him out. Meyer had never seriously considered buying the Nickel Roadster—he owned the original Doane Spencer car, after all—but he found the idea rather appealing.
Meyer, like Spencer, likes to drive his cars, and his initial plan was to drive the Nickel Roadster from Allen’s garage in Burbank, California, to a Los Angeles Roadster Club show in Pomona. Knowing it wasn’t the best runner, he asked engine guru Ed Pink to give the engine a quick once-over; Pink quickly discovered it needed a lot more than a simple tune-up to get it running smoothly. He told Meyer it was unlikely the car would make the trip to Pomona and back to Meyer’s garage in Beverly Hills without the aid of a flatbed.
Meyer decided to go through the car from top to bottom, so he sent it to Bruce Canepa’s shop. Canepa re-tuned the suspension and rebuilt the engine, detuning it slightly to make it more suitable for the road. Meyer made a few cosmetic modifications he felt improved the car’s aesthetic: He swapped the 15-inch rear wheels for 17s and had them drawn closer to the body. He also dumped the giant air cleaner that hid the beautiful engine and opened up the exhaust.
You could say Meyer completed the work Morris left unfinished. After all, Spencer built his cars to drive—and to drive fast. The Nickel is a monster, with close to 500 horses and a perfect exhaust note. It now handles well and rides comfortably enough to drive all day. Yet it remains the aesthetic triumph Morris envisioned.
There’s no question the Nickel Roadster is the ultimate homage to the Spencer car. Might it challenge the original for the title of ultimate Deuce? We’ll find out this summer at Pebble Beach.
Bruce Meyer’s Nickel Roadster
Who Built the Nickel Roadster?
Bob Morris didn’t merely commission the Nickel Roadster; he meticulously worked out the design details then sought out the greatest talent in the hot rod world to help him build it. Here are some of the luminaries who helped Morris create this masterpiece.
Henry Castellano: Paint
Ron Covell: Body modifications, fuel tank
Steve Davis: Hood, trunk, interior panels, and lift-off top (all made from aluminum)
Pete Eastwood: Frame modification, steering and suspension design and fabrication
Allen Jennings: Hardware fabrication (including windshield, pedal assembly, fuel filler, door pulls), steering and suspension fabrication, original engine assembly
Ron Mangus: Upholstery
Don Thelen: Bodywork, final assembly