The Pierson Brothers 1936 Coupe Did It All

By Gerry Burger – Photography by Tim Sutton

Sure, it’s 2020, but it could just as well be 1949. This is the first time the coupe had been seen in race trim in 70 years. Jim Bobowski, always a stickler for details, even put a piece of airflow-smoothing masking tape over the Appleton spot light holes, exactly as the Pierson brothers did back in the day.
Everything about this car was designed to cheat the wind on weekends. Since the car served double duty as a street car, the top was lowered approximately 3 inches.

Jim Bobowski is an avid hot rod archeologist, constantly turning over automotive “rocks” in the hopes of discovering bits of hot rod history. Turns out he’s pretty good at it. Digging through swap meets, Internet sites, and old garages has garnered some interesting bits, but around the turn of the century Jim was in search of a historic hot rod, a car with provenance. And so, when he discovered the famed Bob Pierson 1936 Ford coupe was known to exist, he began the search. It turns out one of his greatest discoveries was hiding under a bright red paintjob and the owner, Frank Nay, along with several other veteran hot rodders, was well aware of this particular 1936 Ford coupe’s storied past. How aware, you ask? Well, he was there when this coupe was setting records on the dry lakes in the ’40s as a fellow member of the RTA. So, the good news is Jim had found the coupe, the bad news was Nay had no interest in selling the car. However, Jim and Nay became friends and stayed in touch.

A timeless silhouette and a race car from a far simpler time. A number and simple class designation is all that was needed. Here the coupe is running the full louvered hood, sans bumpers and of course that beautiful top chop.
In street trim the coupe carries a slight down-in-the-back stance that was considered cool in the ’40s. In race trim they ran the tallest tires available, which effectively leveled the stance.

Jim continued researching all things Pierson brothers, somehow certain he would be the next owner. Much has been written about this car; here is just some of what he discovered. When it comes to historic hot rods, the Bob Pierson 1936 Ford coupe is among an elite group of cars defining the postwar era of hot rodding. For you see, among this coupe’s many claims to fame is the fact it has been a hot rod, almost non-stop, since 1945. While it was raced from 1948-1950 (with an amazing best top speed of 140.40), the car also saw constant street duty during that time and even flat towed the other famed Pierson brothers 2D 1934 coupe to Bonneville. It was not uncommon for the brothers to tow the 2D car to the dry lakes with the 1936 and then race both cars. Like so many hot rods of the day, this coupe served the Pierson brothers in street and race trim. Because style was important to the Pierson brothers, the Tokay White coupe carried stylish touches like 1937 DeSoto bumpers, dual Appleton spotlights, fender skirts, a slight down-in-the-back stance, and a bull-nosed grille. That was the first iteration. But, in 1949, Bob and Dick Pierson, with help from Harry Jones, chopped the top in the one-car garage behind their parents’ house. No exact record was kept on how much metal was removed from the roofline (it’s in the neighborhood of 3 inches), but virtually every hot rodder agrees it is one of the finest silhouettes to ever grace a 1936 Ford. The fact that the roof insert was not filled during the chop became a defining characteristic of the coupe. Like most hot rods, the car continued to evolve and soon the stock hood panels gave way to louvered side panels. Four rows of louvers evacuated air through the top of the hood and the once-chrome grille was now painted red to match the steel wheels. The coupe earned its last timing slip in 1950. By the early ’50s the Pierson brothers had sold their 1934 race car. Bob was working in the aviation industry, driving a nice, new, respectable Cadillac. Dick drove the 1936 for several more years before selling it around 1953 to Don Rousch. Rousch sold the coupe to Larry Howes who in turn sold it to Florence Nichols in 1963. Around this time things get a little fuzzy, but in 1965 the coupe had fallen into disrepair and, as author Don Montgomery documented, Bill King, a former member of the Glendale Coupes and Roadsters, purchased the car in 1965 for a mere $125, and yes, King realized this was his old friends’ car.

The coupe is still right at home on the dry lakes, a veteran of many passes. This was Jim’s first time driving on the dry lake; the rookie and the old master run to the sun.
The Pierson brothers’ coupe rests peacefully as the sun rises, fully prepared to take on challenges of another speed trial. The Piersons liked to go fast and look good doing it. Note the coupe’s club plaque covering the spare tire mount.

The car would rest in King’s driveway and garage for many years before he got around to building the coupe for modern street duty. The old race chassis was swapped out for a Total Cost Involved frame complete with IFS, and underhood a small-block Chevy carried early finned aluminum Edelbrock valve covers, a subtle nod to the coupe’s DNA. It was a very nice car, finished in bright red paint, with a mix of era-popular billet wheels and interior handles but with the body largely unchanged. The car even won a Goodguys Best Top Chop award, proving proper profiles never grow old. The spare tire and signature chrome dashboard were changed and the outside door handles were shaved, but the basic car was unchanged from the ’40s. When King died, fellow Road Kings member Frank Nay purchased the car. Nay continued to make improvements on the coupe and used it as a modern street rod. That brings us well into the new millennium, when in 2010 Jim Bobowski’s phone rang. It was his friend,  Nay, and he was ready to sell.

The culmination of one man’s dream and a lot of work by many talented craftsmen all come together as Jim pilots the coupe across the lakebed. As Jim told me, “My goal has always been to sit in this car and see what Bob and Dick Pierson saw, feel what they felt, and hear what they heard, nothing more, nothing less.”
Happily, the handful of previous owners didn’t alter the original shape of the coupe. This is an incredibly accurate restoration, and while you may think it is “over-restored,” the truth is this car was well built in 1946 with tight body lines and gaps.

Jim had busied himself researching the car and he knew if he ever owned the car it would be returned it to its 1949 iteration. But first this coupe would be shown in red paint one last time. The Grand National Roadster Show (GNRS) was having a Custom Retrospective in 2011 and Jim decided to backdate the coupe for that show. With help from Jimmy White of Circle City Hot Rods they managed to chrome the windshield frame, locate and mount genuine 1937 DeSoto bumpers, Appleton spotlights, fender skirts, and adjust the ride height to a slight tail-dragger angle. The car was well received. It seems there is nothing the Pierson Brothers coupe can’t do; street car, lakes class record holder and salt flat racer, tow car, and now custom show car.

The symmetry of a stripped-down hot rod defines this car. From the tire tread to the vertical grille bars and the perfect balance of twin horn covers on either side of the divided grille, it’s a study in simplicity and balance.
Stan Vermiel in Nevada City replicated the original Edelbrock race engine that pushed the car to record speeds in 1949. Every part of the 59AB engine is genuine stuff, including the Edelbrock Super intake, the Stromberg 97s, and the block letter, finned aluminum Edelbrock heads. Inside you’ll find a Merc crank and Harmon-Collins cam. A Lincoln dual-coil Potvin converted distributor provides the spark and custom headers evacuate the exhaust. The only thing Vermiel wasn’t able to accurately reproduce was the $368 invoice Bob Pierson paid in 1949!

After the GNRS the coupe was brought back to New Jersey where Jim purchased a genuine vintage hot rod frame, complete with I-beam suspension and 1940 Ford drum brakes to replace the modern Total Cost Involved chassis. Jim and fellow hot rodder Darrell Falkinburg set about stripping the coupe to bare metal. Under that bright red paint they found the body was in exceptional condition for a 78-year-old hot rod. The initial plan was to perform all work on the coupe in Jim’s home shop—after all, the car was originally built by two brothers in a home garage. The longer they worked on the car, the more Jim felt a world class hot rod deserved a world class restoration. After talking to fellow rodders and several shops, the car ended up in the capable hands of Bill Ganahl at his South City Rod & Custom shop. I say this with all due respect for all involved, the coupe was subsequently subjected to a maniacal restoration. “Attention to detail” doesn’t begin to describe the level of accuracy on this car. Amazing effort was made to retain as much of the original car as possible. Patch panels were made from donor 1936 Ford panels when possible, and fabricated sheetmetal was all 19-gauge to perfectly match body metal thickness. All welds were metal-finished both sides, meaning some of Ganahl’s best work is impossible to see. Again, much has been written about this car, so detailed restoration stories are out there and worth reading. Stan Vermiel spun the wrenches on the full-race flathead. The fresh Tokay White paint was applied by Joe Compani, while the task of duplicating the Runyan interior went to Chris Plante, just to name a few of the craftsmen involved. The backdate restoration was a two-year project, completed just in time for the 2015 GNRS.

This photo from the ’40s shows the only two hot rods the Pierson brothers ever built together on the Salt Flats. The 1936 flat-towed the 1934 there and both cars raced. It’s remarkable that both cars survived relatively unscathed and both are now restored to their former glory.
The 1936 seen streaming across the Bonneville Salt Flats. Note the partially shrouded grille that minimized the amount of air flowing into the engine bay. The car is also running the stock hood in this photo.
And here’s the coupe in street trim, circa 1950. Note the fine door gaps and panel fit on the car. The louvered hood, Appleton spots, bull-nose grille, and seal beam converted headlights are just a few of the cool mods on the car. The car truly pulled off the trifecta of hot rodding … street, show, and go.
Bob Pierson’s coupe graced the cover of the Aug. ’48 Hot Rod magazine in race trim. Inside is a rare cutaway drawing by Tom Medley. This is before the coupe was chopped and it appears to be running smooth hood sides.

Jim drove the Pierson Brothers 1936 coupe onto the GNRS floor, marking the end of one journey and beginning of another. Set up day was a bit surreal and response to the car was overwhelming. Sadly, both Bob and Dick Pierson were no longer with us to see the coupe return to the show floor, but Dick’s widow, Helen, came to the show resplendent in her bright red vintage Edelbrock jacket. Helen had dated Dick in this very car. Veteran hot rodders stopped by all weekend to share stories of the car and the glory days of dry lake racing. Once again, the coupe proved to be a winner, taking home the prestigious 2015 Bruce Meyer Preservation Award.

The utter simplicity of a vintage race engine is alluring. Bobby Meeks built the original motors for the car to exacting standards.
One word comes to mind when viewing this engine bay … sanitary. A genuine 1936 Ford firewall was grafted into the coupe since the original had been recessed to accept an SBC motor in the ’90s.
Hood side up, a final check of that all-important fuel mixture valve and the car was ready to run for a record.

Next, the coupe was displayed at the Sacramento Autorama and then Jim graciously loaned the coupe to the NHRA Museum. The car remained there for about two years before it was brought back to Jimmy White for brief storage, because Jim had other plans for the iconic coupe. The car had been brought back to exacting street trim by the team at South City Rod & Custom, now Jim and White would put the car in perfect race trim at Circle City Hot Rods. Numbers were applied; headlights, spotlights, and the tucked spare tire removed; and it was time to head to the dry lakes.

Locating a rare Jones Motrola cable drive tachometer took some searching. The Pierson brothers had one tachometer so they would simply swap the tach between the 1934 and 1936 coupes with a simple cable connection.
Symmetry and simplicity are found throughout this car. Vertical pleats on the door match the pleats on the seat surround and the two-tone treatment adds a touch of class.

Our photographer, Tim Sutton, captured the coupe on the cracked lakebed surface. While the car was stunning on the show floor and a perfect fit in the NHRA Museum, it was here, on this timeless patch of dried dirt, that the coupe looked absolutely at home. While this was a homecoming for the coupe, it was Jim’s first time on the lakebed. The glamour shots were taken and finally the time had come. Jim slid behind the wheel, the click of a vintage lap belt, the turn of a key, and a push of the starter button fired the full-race Flattie to life. Slowly he turned and headed across the lakebed, gradually gaining speed. Sights, sounds, sensations, vibrations, all contribute to the moment driving any race car, but suddenly it was 1949 all over again. A creamy coupe was kickin’ up a rooster tail of dust and somewhere two brothers were smiling. MR

Stan Vermiel in Nevada City replicated the original Edelbrock race engine that pushed the car to record speeds in 1949. Every part of the 59AB engine is genuine stuff, including the Edelbrock Super intake, the Stromberg 97s, and the block letter, finned aluminum Edelbrock heads. Inside you’ll find a Merc crank and Harmon-Collins cam. A Lincoln dual-coil Potvin converted distributor provides the spark and custom headers evacuate the exhaust. The only thing Vermiel wasn’t able to accurately reproduce was the $368 invoice Bob Pierson paid in 1949!
Attention to detail includes things like a N.O.S. Ford voltage regulator wired with the appropriate cloth-wrapped wire.
Once again, with an eye toward period-perfect originality, thumb-screw hose clamps are used on all the radiator hoses.
Those intricate copper fuel lines provide the proper blend of alcohol and gasoline on race day. It is likely there was a bit on nitromethane mixed with the alcohol the day the coupe broke through the 140-mph mark.
Both Pierson brothers worked at Edelbrock for a while and were loyal users and supporters of the brand.
The Pierson brothers had the dashboard chrome plated but it was later modified and painted. Rather than find an original dash and have it plated, Jim insisted the team at South City Rod & Custom splice in the gauge area and have the original re-plated. Yeah, it was that kind of project.
Compared to the stock three-bar banjo wheel, the 1940 Ford steering wheel provides a clear view of the gauges while adding an updated look, typical blending of form and function found throughout the car.
The chrome-plated 1940 steering column provides the column shifter while 1940 Ford pedals protrude through period-style carpet.
A surplus pressure gauge in a simple bracket monitors fuel pressure in the coupe.
A true dual-purpose car, the coupe maintained the factory radio for street duty. Note the chrome dash and shifter knobs.
With only one known color photograph of the car it took a bit of guesswork to get the two-tone leather color right. Chris Plante stitched up the flawless interior.
Moonshiners weren’t the only guys with a tank full of alcohol in the trunk. Once again, the Piersons had an eye for detail using a rubber mat rather than carpet for easy cleanup of dripped fuel.
For race purposes, this little tank blended Edelbrock’s own version of “white lightening” with gasoline. While alcohol was a legal mixer, the benefits of nitromethane were just being discovered … making this a true “fuel tank.”
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