Red Letter Roadster – Perseverance and Good Fortune Pay Off on Dan Olsen’s Resurrected Deuce
If you’re one of those hot rodders who does a daily Craigslist search for your favorite car, Dan Olsen is proof that it can pay off.
Dan is a traditional hot rod and custom guy who was slowly collecting parts for a Deuce project – a couple of them, actually. His morning ritual included an online search for ’32 Ford parts and he could hardly believe it when one of those queries turned up an original, uncut roadster near his Omaha, Nebraska home. He was even more excited to be the first person to respond to the ad.
Dan quickly arranged a meeting with the seller, whose father had owned the disassembled roadster since the ’70s and had been collecting parts for a restoration for decades. The father had passed away and his son had little interest in the car, though he did want it to go to a good home.
“His son was pretty concerned about what direction the car was going to take,” Dan says. “He didn’t want it to be turned into a street rod.”
Dan was clear with his intentions but reassured the son that it would be a period-style hot rod, one that honored the roadster’s history. It helped that one of Dan’s friends was also friends with the owner; the mutual connection put the son at ease. “Once I struck up a good rapport with [the son],” Dan says, “he pretty much was sold on the fact that he was going to sell it to me.”
There was only one problem: Dan didn’t have the cash for the asking price.
Fortunately, the son was true to his word and held onto the car (despite getting higher offers) while Dan quickly sold off a couple other projects to raise funds. What Dan hauled home a few weeks later was basically a garage full of parts – body, frame, a selection of suspension components, and boxes of collected odds and ends.
Dan spent a few years plotting the build and gathering more pieces. He envisioned the roadster as a highboy and set it up with a late-’50s Ford 9-inch rearend located with ’36 radius rods and a ’40 Ford spring mounted to the original ’32 rear crossmember. He used an unsplit wishbone on the dropped front axle but noticed old brackets for a split wishbone setup welded to the frame – an indicator the car had been hot rodded in the past. “They’re pretty crude, but extremely cool,” Dan says.
“The big snag for me was what drivetrain to put in the car,” Dan says. “I went back and forth on this engine decision for at least three years.” He mostly debated between a vintage Buick Nailhead and a Flathead. The choice would help determine the rest of the car’s direction. “My heart was telling me to go Flathead,” Dan says. “I couldn’t figure out what to do.”
Meanwhile, word of the project was spreading through the local rodding community. Several people recognized and remembered the roadster – and even had photos of it from back in the day! They confirmed that the roadster had indeed been a hot rod in the late-’50s and early-’60s, built by a young man in a small town about 50 miles west of Omaha.
Ultimately, Dan was able to interview the family of the original builder, Larry Swanson. “That’s when I learned the history of the car,” Dan says. “They’re the ones who were able to shed the light that got me on the right path.”
Dan discovered that the car had originally been built with a Flathead, but like many rods of the era was later updated to a small-block Chevy. He opted to go with a Chevy engine, worked a trade with a friend for a ’60s-vintage small block, and topped it off with a ’57 Corvette intake and carbs and early staggered-hole valve covers. “It’s just a faux Corvette engine,” Dan says. The T5 transmission behind it is one of the car’s few modern components.
For Dan, the engine solidified the car’s direction toward an early-’60s style build. “No matter what I build, I circle back to that era every single time,” he says.
That direction helped him decide on using ’40 Ford steel wheels – hand-me-downs given to him by a friend years ago. Dan had them chrome plated and used an acid bath to age them to better match the car. The 7.50 and 4.50 Firestone whitewalls provided a slight rubber rake.
The weathered red paint on the roadster body is the same applied by Larry Swanson’s cousin, Darrell, decades ago. So is the white paint on the grille insert. Dan elected to use a vintage white steering wheel to coordinate with the insert and hunted to find a used white leather couch to source the seat upholstery material. Naturally, that couch was a Craigslist find – a freebie, no less.
“I really wanted it to look like we pulled the whole car out of a barn,” Dan says of the roadster. “That was the goal. I’m used to putting cars together and polishing every washer, detailing them to the best of my ability. It was fun going to the old bucket of bolts that came with the car and using as many of them as I could. Anything that was red was going on this car.”
Perhaps more fun than anything, though, was the satisfaction and good fortune of finding that once-in-a-lifetime deal. Dan still seems to be pinching himself.
“The hunt – that’s what it’s all about for me,” he says “The elusive ’32 roadster that you never think you’re going to get. And the next thing you know, it’s sitting here.”
Photos by Damon Lee