There are two words that will immediately get the attention of any person who is into collector cars: barn find.
A barn find is any vehicle at least 25 years old that has been found in old barn or hidden out of sight from the general public for a long time. In fact, the longer unseen and the older the vehicle, the better the find.
Kenny Robins of Cary found an old car in a barn, and as far as I know, it’s the barn find of the century for automotive enthusiasts anywhere.
To put things in perspective, you have to take a trip back to 1954.
Living on the north side of Chicago is a 29-year-old gearhead by the name of Francis “Fran” Fortman. He has just built his first and, as it would turn out, last hot rod.
The vehicle he chose to hop up in later years would become a true icon in the automotive world: a 1932 Ford three-window coupe, the one and only “deuce coupe.”
He bought the 22-year-old car for less than $100 dollars. Fords were the mainstay of early hot rodders nationwide – especially the 1932 to 1948 models, since they could be found with ole’ Henry Ford’s famous flathead V-8 engine under the hood.
Francis built this car to do one thing: become a drag strip terror.
In 1954, you have to remember, drag racing as an organized sport was in its infancy. Every young car guy at the time was buying a new magazine called “Hot Rod.” “Hot Rod” and other new rod and custom publications of the time where proclaiming this new endeavor as a truly affordable automotive speed outlet for the masses. You didn’t have to own an expensive Indy 500 ride or, to a lesser degree, a “midget racer” to be competitive.
All you needed was a cheap, yet powerful, engine (the flathead V-8), an ultra light car (1932 Ford 3 window coupe), basic automotive shop class knowledge, a few speed parts (in 1954, that’s all there were) and a handful of basic tools. And, most importantly, guts – lots of guts.
Fran and car buddy Kenny Kerr took the home-built racer to the drags the weekend of Oct. 2-3 in 1954. But it was no ordinary drag race. It was the inaugural World Series of Drag Racing.
Only two major drag races were in 1954, the other being the National Hot Rod Association event at the L.A. County fairgrounds. Most of the drag-racing community lived far away from California, though, so it was not cost-effective to haul a set of wheels out west. However, they could afford to travel to the small town of Lawrenceville, Ill. The town became the location of one of the most storied drag races in the annals of drag-racing history, the Automobile Timing Association of America’s first World Series of Drag Racing.
Lawrenceville, in southeastern Illinois, had the one thing drag racers needed to show everyone in the country just how fast they could make a car go in the measured quarter mile. An unused World War II airstrip paved smooth and vast in size would make the perfect location for the new breed of race car and race car driver.
The day was perfect. The crowd was enormous for the first event with more than 7,000 spectators and an unbelievable 350 entries from 28 states, including California.
The track was fast, and it was also 1954 dangerous. No guardrails. No safety nets at the end of the track to catch cars whose brakes might fail. None of the safety measures we take for granted existed then.
The cars were equally as dangerous. Single hoop roll bars made of muffler tubing. Gas tanks fitted inside the driver compartment next to the driver. Alcohol for fuel. These were the makings of Francis Fortman’s and many other hot rods of the era. But when you’re young and invincible, you throw caution to the wind.
It was quite a day for Fran and his driver, Kenny. They took home a first-place trophy and set an AB class record of 105.85 mph, an unheard-of speed at the time for a flathead-powered Ford coupe in the quarter mile.
The boys from Chicago weren’t the only ones who did well. As it would turn out, quite a few future famous drivers also raced that weekend. International Drag Race Hall of Famer Arnie “the farmer” Beswick won his class at that race in his 1954 Oldsmobile super 88. The golden boy, “Fearless Freddie” Lorenzen, raced and won his class and went on to not only win the 1965 Daytona 500 but become a NASCAR champion. One of drag racing’s true pioneers and co-inventor of the slipper clutch, Holly Hedrich also won his class. Mr. “Green Monster” Art Afrons took top speed of the event with a World War II Allison V12 fighter aircraft powered dragster at 132.25 mph. Art went on to become an American racing legend, setting top speeds at the Bonneville salt-flats during the 1960s.
Francis proudly took his record-holder back to the windy city and parked it next to his garage. And that’s where it sat for a very long time.
Life got in the way of Fran’s racing career. He already had been married two years when he built the coupe, and he had a brand new body and fender repair business to look after. There just never seemed to be any time to race the ‘32 again.
When Fran and his family moved to Lake Barrington in 1968, he brought the ‘32 along. By now, it had become part of the family, and besides, he felt since it was just an old hot rod nobody would want to buy it.
A lucky thing happened about 30 years ago. A couple of kids saw the racer sitting outside next to Fran’s pole barn and decided to take aim at the former record holder’s windshield with one of their bee-bee guns, shooting two holes straight through it. That’s when Fran said enough was enough and put the car into a long slumber inside the barn.
Once put away, a funny thing happened. The car became a sort of cult classic. As the years went by, the legend of the car just kept growing. People began looking for it.
Automobile collector Kenny Robins was always interested in the legend of the car, so he started to research it seriously. He was determined to see whether the car existed or was just a myth. Finally, he got lucky and was told of the possible location of the old ghost race car.
He went to the home of Francis Fortman and knocked on the door. As luck would have it, 87-year-old Francis Fortman answered the door. Kenny introduced himself and simply asked Francis whether he was the owner of the onetime alcohol-burning racing machine. Why “yes I am” said Francis. Kenny was stunned! Here, after 58 years of being out of the limelight the car was found!
Kenny could hardly contain his excitement as he walked down the path to the barn where the car was stored. What would the car look like after a 58 year hiatus? Would Francis be interested in selling the car?
Ken said it was like a dream sequence. The barn was full of stuff – a tractor, farming equipment. And way back in the corner was the car he never thought he’d find, the time traveler that was the ultimate survivor in drag racing folklore. Many famous drag cars have been found, but none have been raced just once and never started again for nearly 60 years.
Francis and Kenny sat down for long chat. In the end, Francis decided it was time to let his hot rod go. He was glad a true hot rodder had found and wanted the car. A price was agreed upon. Kenny hurried home, got his trailer and a few friends and brought the one-time famous racer out into the sun light.
The only thing Kenny has done to the car so far is dust it off and put on a different (but period-correct) set of tires since the originals were completely dry-rotted.
After much thought, Kenny has decided not to restore the car. The car is a time capsule back to the very beginning of drag racing. It is something to be treasured for what it has become – pure automotive art and drag racing royalty.
Photos by Bob Chiluk