DID YOU EVER WISH THAT YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME to thank someone who truly changed your life ? Well, I wanted to do just that very thing, and went back over 50 years to accomplish it. But, we're getting ahead of the story...
HERE'S HOW IT ALL BEGAN: My late Father (BILL EDWARDS) worked for the Wagner Electric Corporation here in St. Louis for 36 years. Wagner, as some may know, was at one time one of the nation's largest suppliers of electric motors, automotive parts, brakes, brake fluid, seals, lights, etc. So I grew up learning about cars from my Dad almost from the time I was born, and by the age of 7 or 8 could tell a Buick from a Merc from 2 blocks away.
FAST-FORWARD TO OCTOBER, 1953. One day I rode my bike down to Brown's Drug Store to pick-up the latest Issue of my favorite comic book Superhero "Captain Marvel", BUT when I got there, I spied a car magazine called "HONK !" and on the cover was one of the strangest (for the time) cars I had ever seen ! It looked like a '49 or '50 Ford...but the grille, headlights, and, hubcaps didn't look normal at all. Plus, my Dad had told me that one of the easiest ways that you could tell a '49 Ford from a '50 was the door handles: the '49 handles pull inward to open while the '50's have a pushbutton mechanism. Well, this car didn't have ANY handles at all ! What the heck was it ?? I was mesmerized by it.
As you've probably guessed by now, the Captain Marvel issue wasn't purchased but HONK! was, and it turned out that the car on the cover was a customized '49 Ford Coupe. The car was built by a man named DON FERRARA from California, who was also a Fireman with the City Of Los Angeles. The car had a grille made from modified Lincoln components, was nosed, decked, had electric doors, '52 Buick taillights, a '49 Olds engine, was painted Caddy Pastoral Blue, and had a Gaylord custom interior...which Don did himself. In fact, except for the drivetrain that had been installed by the previous owner, Don did all of the work on the Ford. And, as the article stated, Don had previously built a very famous '29 Model A Roadster. That car had been featured on the cover of the August, 1951 issue of Hot Rod.
That October, 1953, issue of HONK ! with DON FERRARA'S '49 Ford on the cover (shown above at the Top Left of this page )was the Origin of my complete, total immersion into the Rod & Custom Culture ! As Darryl Starbird, Spence Murray, Gene Winfield, Jerry Weesner, John D'Agostino, Steve Stanford, M.K. John, and many others can attest to, I STILL carry that issue with me in my briefcase wherever I go. It's like a tailisman of sorts and a link to my past.
BUT, everytime I looked at the cover of the magazine, I always wondered about the man that built that car that started me on this long, long journey that continues to this very minute. Was Don Ferrara still alive ? If he was, where was he and how could I get in contact with him to thank him for what he did to change my life ? Which brings us to Part 2 of this story...
CALL IT WHAT YOU WILL, fate, serendipity, or, deja vu - but when I picked up my June, 2007, issue of Street Rodder and read Brian Brennan's editoral "The Ones That Got Me Here", and then read a letter in the Rodder Mail column by G. Alvin of Wilmington, NC, stating he was going to build a '29 A Roadster based-on the '29 done by Don Ferrara many years ago...well, I was catapulted back in time to my own personal History. It was as if this issue of Street Rodder was aimed at me for a special reason.
I immediately eMailed BRIAN BRENNAN much of the information about myself, the October, '53 issue of HONK!, and my desire to find out if Don was still with us. And if he was, if Brian knew how I could get in touch with him to thank him for starting me on one of the most fascinating journeys that one could ever imagine.
A few hours later, Brian eMailed me back, telling me how much he liked my letter, that he would publish it in a future issue of Street Rodder (September, 2007), and gave me the name of HENRY ASTOR, who was then at the American Hot Rod Foundation, and said he might have more information on Don as he had done an Interview a few years earlier with him.
I called Henry (now President of Astor Motor Productions/AMP) and he was extremely cordial when I explained the situation to him. He said that, yes, Don was still with us, still living in California, and gave me Don's address so that I could write him.
Can you imagine the "rush" that gave me ! I cannot fully express the fantastic feelings that went through me when Henry gave me that information. After all of those years - 54 up to that point - I could, at last, get in contact with the one individual that not only had changed my life so many years ago, but who had unknowingly guided me into a whole new part of my Broadcasting career...which has now manifested itself here with The Hall Of Fame Legends Series. And with it, being able to bring the voices of these Legends of the Rod & Custom Industry, through this WebSite, to fellow Rodders, fans, and enthusiasts all over the World.
RIGHT AFTER HENRY ASTOR GAVE ME DON'S ADDRESS I wrote him a letter detailing the above information, and sent copies of some info on myself, and my Invicta, and gave him my address & phone number. This was about the 25th of June, 2007.
On the afternoon of Thursday, June 28th, 2007, I was home preparing some audio, pictures , and text to put together for the new WebSite that I was creating - the one you're looking at right now - when the phone rang. I picked it up, said "Hello", and the voice on the other end said "Jonnie, this is Don Ferrara out here in California. I can't believe that after all of these years you remembered my car...that '49 Ford Custom I built !" I answered "Don, I am SO glad to hear from you ! And I didn't just remember your car...I remembered YOU, the man who built it. And, yes, after all of these years I have been thinking about you, and I wanted to thank you for being a part of my life for so long. Even though you NEVER knew it, in your own way, with your car on the cover of "Honk !" and the story about you inside, you changed my life. You brought me into the "World Of Rods & Customs".
Well, we talked for almost an hour that day. Don told me his History: He was born & raised in SoCal. He was in the United States Navy from November, 1944, to July, 1946. That's where he learned to weld. After the service he also became a Pilot (flying his own airplanes); a Race Car Driver (driving his own cars); a Hot Rod Builder; Custom Car Builder; Boat Builder; Competion Water Skier; and, having worked for Gaylord Upholstery, became an accomplished Upholsterer.
He was a Fireman for 28 years with the City of Los Angeles. Worked on the Fire Boat Crew for 14 years. Was also on the Diver's Squad & Ski Patrol, and, a long-time member of the National Ski Patrol, going snow sking as often as possible. Don was also a Championship Body Builder as you'll probably surmise from looking at his pics.
Don was married in 1956 and he, and his wife Patty, had four children, Darcy (who passed away as a young adult), Darren, Deanne, and, Dean. And, in addition to all of his other accomplishments, Don has also been a successful real estate developer & investor. So, to put it mildly, there isn't almost ANYTHIING that Don Ferrara can't do !
Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by ACTUALLY - at that time 54 YEARS later - being able to talk to a man who had been one of the most important elements in my life...but, until that day, June 28th, 2007, had never known it. Don said that he had called his kids to tell them of the letter & info I had sent him, and they too were excited about our connection.
DON FERRARA WAS ONE OF THE TRUE PIONEERS OF THE ROD & CUSTOM INDUSTRY, beginning in the 1940's when Hot Rods & Customs were in their formative years. And, I reiterate: DON BUILT HIS OWN CARS, HIS OWN BOATS, if he drove it or raced it, Don's creativity & craftsmanship were always present every time he was behind the wheel. His contributions should never be forgotten.
DON FERRARA TODAY:
Don and I have kept in touch since we made contact back in 2007. Every month or two I'll give him a call, or vice-versa. He's become a good friend, and I am so grateful for that, and I pray for his safety and good health. Don turned 83 in November of 2009.
Don currently owns a Red Fireman's Edition Harley, a 50th Anniversary 'Vette, a heavy-duty, well-equipped Chevy truck, a couple of RV's, a plane, and, as I was putting the final touches on this Tribute to him, called me and we talked about his 2009 Silver Chevy HHR. The HHR is turbocharged, 260hp, leather, ground-effects package, 18" Wheels, and Don says it handles almost as well as his 'Vette...and he may add a chip to the engine that could give it another 60-80 hp. Don has always loved to go faster !
Don still attends car shows and cruises in and around the L.A. area, and in the Fall of 2009 attended Gene Winfield & Larry Watson's show in the Mojave seeing Winfield, Barris, and some other old pals. He also still owns property & buildings throughout L.A., and currently is building a bigger garage/buildiing to house some of his vehicles. (One of his buildings was leased to a branch of the SoCal Speed Shop a few years ago.)
Don's been treated for lymphoma and still undergoes regular chemo treatments. In 2008, a couple of months before I had my own accident, Don was on a motorcyle trip from California on his way to Florida with some friends, hit a bad patch with his Harley, landed in the Hospital with some broken bones, contusions, et al, for a month, and ended up recovering at home. He said if he wasn't wearing his helmet he probably wouldn't be here today. He was 81 at the time ! The man never slows down !!
ABOUT HIS CARS:
THE '29 MODEL A ROADSTER
DON FERRARA'S '29 Model A Roadster is one of the best remembered of all-time ! Famed for its chromed hood louvers & large chromed sidepipes, the car was a 1st Place Show Winner, and was exhibited at the 1st L.A. National Guard Armory Hot Rod Show at Exposition Park in 1948, and again in 1949, 1950, and, 1951. But, it was also a "screamin' demon" at El Mirage and other venues. As you can see, Don's '29 was also a Feature Car & Cover Car, in both Hot Rod & Hop Up. BUT, the main story here is...Don Ferrara BUILT his cars ! He was a MasterCraftsman who could do it all: body, engine, interior, paint, wiring, upholstery...Don was meticulous about everything he did.
Don related to me the story behind the August, 1951, HOT ROD COVER CAR shoot. Here's how it went:
Hot Rod contacted Don about photographing the car, and set the location of the photo shoot at the Date Festival in Indio, California. WALLY PARKS , Don's friend and the first Editor of Hot Rod Magazine, drove with Don to Indio. Since the Date Festival was in progress, they got the Queen Scherazade, Miss Sally Pringle, to pose next to Don, and her maids were featured on the side. TOM MEDLEY shot the photos, and drove back to L.A. with Don.
That cover is still one of Hot Rod's Classic Best !
NOTE: A few years ago, Don sold the '29 to Richard Barron in Tucson, Arizona. Barron was going to restore it...but Don hasn't heard from him in years, can't get in touch with him, and we don't know where the car is today. Don & I have talked about the possibility of his buying the car back and working on a restoration. If you have any Information about the car's whereabouts, please drop me an eMail and I'll forward the info to Don.
ABOUT THE TIME WE FIRST TALKED, Don's '29 was again in the news. This time, it was featured in a 2-page spread on the "Contents" page of Issue #36 of The Rodder's Journal (2007).
(Above left: A classic shot of Don in his self--built, legendary, '29 A Roadster)
Don's '29 is also included in "How To Build A Traditional Ford Hot Rod", by Mike Bishop & Vern Tardel. Motorbooks, Pub.
THE '49 FORD CLUB COUPE CUSTOM:
NOW WE COME TO THAT INFAMOUS OCTOBER, 1953, issue of "HONK !" that changed the life of yours truly ! This scan of the Cover is from my Original well-traveled Issue. As you look at the pic, Don is standing next to the car with his back to the camera, wearing blue swim trunks, and preparing his boat for launch. This was when the '49 had its' original Cadillac Pastoral Blue Paint job. It was also featured in Hop Up in 1953.
(Above: Here's the 4-Page spread given to Don's '49 Ford in "Honk !"...again, these scans are from my original copy.)
(Above left: Don's '49 & matching -colored boat shown at the 1953 Motorama at the Pan Pacific Auditorium; Above right: Don's '49 re-painted Golden Rod Yellow to match his custom-made boat. These 2 photos which Don signed & sent to me, are from his personal collection. Thanks, Don !!)
NOTE: Shortly after showing the '49 a number of times, Don had taken it up to Big Bear in California to do some skiing. There was snow and ice on the road as he was traveling back to L.A., the car slid, was in an accident, and Don ended up parting it out rather than re-building it. How I'd love to have it to restore today !!
(Above: Don's talents were again called for when he did the upholstery for his brother-in-law, Bob Nordskog, on Bob's Award-Winning, Barris-Built, '63 Corvette "The Asteroid". It was a BRAND NEW '63 when it was taken to Barris' ! )
(Above: A very tan & buff Don, on the left, having been presented his Award by the Queen of the 1955 Catalina Water Ski Race.)
(Above left: Don launching the beautifully crafted sailboat that he built ! Above right: Don "powerboating" at Lake Arrowhead...the man loved S-P-E-E-D ! )
(Above : Don on his Fireman's Edition Harley...at the age of 80 ! He never stops !!
Many thanks for your kindness, your friendship, and, for being one of the guiding forces in my life since 1953 ! God bless you and yours, my friend. I wish you good health, and safe travels.
Your friend, Jonnie King
My thanks to Don for his personal memories, information, and, photos which helped in putting together this well-deserved Tribute. And, my gratitude to his Nordskog, Ferrara, and, other family members for usage of many of the photos, and some of the information used on this page.
Read more about Don on his family's 80th Birthday Tribute to him on the Nordskog Publishing WebSite: