We all have one—an “it” car. We see it out of the corner of our eye on a summer two-lane, we see it in the movies, and we dream and scheme about how to make it ours. This car haunts us and won’t let us rest. That’s what happened to Bob May when the ’32 deuce coupe rolled on the screen of American Graffiti. In the film, the coupe becomes a character of its own and an icon for the rod scene. That coupe is chopped and has some chrome work in the engine bay, but luckily for us, that’s about where the similarities end.
The ’32 Coupe owned by May is one of those cars that grabs you. It doesn’t matter if you’re into ’rods or not. We had been talking about the Deuce for weeks at Apex meetings; it was becoming a legend. A few of the crew had seen it either in person or online, and they couldn’t stop talking about it. I was stoked to get assigned to the story, and couldn’t wait to see it in person.
The night came and I headed to our location to meet the Apex crew, Bob, and The Deuce. Some of the locations we scout are tricky, not completely unknown, but not exactly on the GPS either. My own GPS was putting in a field only about a mile from our meeting point, but there was no one in sight. Photographer Chris Penree sent me a map pin. I caught up with them just in time to see Bob pull up in a big Dodge RAM towing a suspiciously unmarked trailer. Like the mythology that had built up around this car over the previous weeks, the trailer kept me guessing.
It was a perfect spring night. Even at 6pm, the skies were still clear and the temperature in the 70s. It felt like a West Coast night from Graffiti. When we were planning the shot with Bob, we all assumed he would want to stick close to his Syracuse area home. During one call, Bob said “Hey my Grandfather was stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base during World War II. Could we shoot there?” The Apex team knows this particular area pretty well, and we knew it would be a great backdrop for the car.
Driving to the location, you could sense the history of this place. The roads are solid, unmarked stretches of tarmac that don’t seem to have an end or a beginning. Even though much of the enormous tract has been modernized and now known as Griffiss Business and Technology Park, you can feel the ghosts of the place. When you are on the property, one is a bit more aware of the surroundings. The security vehicle seems to roll by a bit slower, weeds around a fire hydrant look like an unflinching sniper in a ghillie suit. Watching.
Bob rolls his rig around and points the exit-end of the trailer in a spot that looks runway ready. He works his setup like a practiced surgeon–flipping levers, releasing catches. Each click gets us closer to the reveal. As the meticulous trailer opened, the plain exterior reveals a pristine rolling home for the black coupe. Before we realize it, Bob has got the car unstrapped from its anchors and the straight pipes let out a loud brrrap, settling into that rolling, gurgling slope-lobe V8 stutter, as the car inches down the ramp.
It was 2009 when Bob finally decided he couldn’t live without the car. After six months of searching, he found his Deuce. Just like the car in American Graffiti, this Coupe was found in California. He knew the car was well loved and had it shipped to his home in Liverpool, New York. The car came loaded with a long list of top notch components. The previous owner had an installed full custom leather interior from Gabes in Los Angeles. Mechanically, the car already had Winter’s polished quick change rear axle, Ididit steering column, and Kugel independent front suspension. These were a great start to a custom rod build, but Bob knew that he had to give it more to push it over the top to make it a winning show-car.
With the help of his brother Bill and two nephews Brian and James, they removed the original power plant and installed a Chevrolet 355HP ZZ4 crate motor that cranks out 405ft. lbs, thanks to the Holley 670 Ultra four barrel feeding plenty of gas and air. To get the power to the wheels, Bob worked with Professional Transmissions of Utica to build a 200R4 four-speed overdrive transmission. Bob says the transmission is a perfect fit for the motor. This car will get rubber in three gears, but on the highway, it’ll just purr along at 2,100 RPM at 70 MPH.
In the five years Bob May has owned this car, he has shown it at more than 60 car shows and has come home with more than 60 awards including two from Syracuse Nationals, and a host of Best of Show awards from events like the Syracuteese Motorama. It’s easy to see why.
When you first see this car, you don’t know what to take in first. Chrome sparkles, then the sun glances off the paint, like a pool of water. The paintwork on the chopped 3-window is deep, black, and flawless. Schott’s Americana wheels and Wilwood polished four wheel discs provide perfect contrast to the bodywork. On the hood is a custom louver with true-flame laid-down by Jason Barron at JT’s Custom Paint Garage in Moravia. The paint is an inkling of the level of detail in the rest of the car. As we get the car setup for our first couple of shots, Bob explained some of this to us. With the hood propped open, the secrets are out and the car gets shinier and shinier. There’s a saying “it goes fast, or it gets chromed.” Well this coupe, I’m afraid, does both. The engine compartment is a study in billet finishes and polishing— lots of polishing. From the custom firewall to the March pulley system, to the polished Kugle independent front end…looking at this, we are all like kids in a candy store.
The door handles are shaved with power openers which helps the paint not have any visual interruptions down the shoulder line to the deck-lid. On the interior, the custom leather upholstery by Gabes in Los Angeles is one of the few elements that Bob was able to leave untouched from when he took delivery. On the dash there’s more billet with a flamed steering wheel connected to the popular Ididit tilt steering column. Vintage air conditioning and heat keeps the cabin comfortable for cruising.
As the sun begins to sink on our historic set, Bob has more tricks up his sleeve. A simple flip of a couple switches and we have new sparkles in the form of LED lighting under the hood, license plate, and rear axle via custom install by Pete DeFazio.
Looking at this car it’s hard to imagine that this was once a vehicle Henry Ford intended for the masses in the early 1900s America. With all the detail in this car, it’s barely even reminiscent of the car that inspired this project for Mr. May, that Coupe from American Grafitti. In the movie, we never really know who wins the race. So far, Bob takes first every time he shows up.
Story: Marc Stress
Photos: Chris Penree