by Ken Gross & Robert Genat
“Little Deuce Coupe, you don’t know, you don’t know what I got.” Even if you weren’t a hot rodder in the 1960s, you’d recognize this snazzy, scalloped ‘32 coupe. It first appeared on the July 1961 cover of Hot Rod. Not long afterward, Eric Rickman’s lead photo in that story, sans the car owner’s head and shoulders, became a best-selling Beach Boys’ record album cover. Little matter that the “actual” ‘32 in the catchy tune boasted “…a flathead mill and four on the floor,” and the album cover car was powered by a blown Olds – this radical three-window was, and always will be, the quintessential, “Little Deuce Coupe.”
Clarence Catallo, of Dearborn, Michigan, purchased this car for just $75 in 1956 when he was just 15 years old. It was sitting in a gas station across from his parents’ small grocery store in Allen Park, a working-class suburb of Detroit. A friend had to drive it home for him because young Catallo didn’t yet have his drivers’ license. But that technicality didn’t stop him from getting right to work on a car that was to become one of the most famous deuce coupes of all time.
He started by channeling the car a full six inches, then he painted it dark blue and dropped in a carbureted OHV Olds V-8. By the time Catallo was licensed to drive, he had built quite a ride. Early photos of this car show it out at Detroit Dragway in 1958. A McCulloch supercharger hunkers on top of the Olds engine, making the power plant and accessories look as though they were forced into the abbreviated engine compartment with a whip and a chair. Flex-pipe headers and chromed, reversed wheels, with slicks on the rear, showed this coupe meant business. Catallo apparently drag-raced the wheels off this car, continuously perfecting the bored-out, 344-ci Olds, originally built by Bill Wanderer. The coupe ran sub-13-second quarter miles, turning a best trap speed of 112 mph.
The grille in those early days was a full-sized, filled ‘32 item. The front frame horns were bobbed, there was no front spreader bar, and a pair of tiny headlights was perched atop accessory aluminum brackets. Catallo’s car epitomized a minimalist look that soon appeared all across the country, especially from the East Coast to the Midwest. Although it was a complex modification, channeling was often the first thing done to make a deuce a hot rod, particularly back East. But Catallo went even further. He modified the coupe’s rear fender wells to closely follow the outline of its big rear 8.20 x 15-inch Inglewood slicks, accenting the car’s lowness and making it look even racier.
Clarence Catallo sold the car for either $5,200 or $5,500, we’re not sure, not long after its Beach Boys album cover appearance, reportedly because he had done everything he wanted to do to it. Owned at first by the Washington Timing Association, a Pennsylvania car club, the coupe appeared in several major shows, notably the 1962 ICAS Grand Finale at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., and then it was sold again briefly to a buyer from Montreal, Canada. But another phase of its life was about to begin. Ray Woloszak, from Long Island, New York, was the car’s next owner, around 1965. He converted the show car into a street rod and replaced the GMC blower and three-carb setup with a single four-barrel carburetor. Woloszak also removed the distinctive side strakes and installed exhaust headers that ran over the frame and along the sides.
In the late 1990s, Curt Catallo, Clarence’s son, persuaded his father to find and purchase his old coupe. “As a kid,“ Curt says, “I knew the trophies before I knew the car. Many of them were my height. And it seemed like we had acres of them stored in an attic. Finally, most of them were thrown away, but we kept a few, probably because I had them in a tree house.”
“I thought it was great that my dad had a cool car that won a lot of trophies. He sold it before he met my mother. A few years ago, I really got under my dad’s skin about it. I thought of the coupe like a family heirloom that should be preserved. Fortunately, Bob Larivee, Jr. helped us find it. Without him, we never would have gotten it back.”
Bob Larivee, Jr. actually bought the Catallo coupe from Ray Woloszak in 1999, for about $40,000, and he initially planned to continue to use it, as a feature attraction, in his family’s car shows. His dad, Bob Larivee, Sr., recalls, “Clarence was the nicest guy. I knew him when he first built the car. He eventually became a top-ranked executive with E. F. Hutton, but he had no pretensions whatsoever. Back when he initially owned the car, we rented it for our shows. Clarence was always a terrific person to deal with.”
Shortly after they purchased the coupe, the Larivees’ decided the car had been exposed sufficiently for the time being. They elected to sell it back to Clarence Catallo, who immediately started collecting the correct parts to restore it to its earlier Hot Rod cover car guise. “When my dad got the car back, and saw there was a Chrysler engine in it, he got fired up to do it right. We were in touch with the Alexander Brothers and George Barris. Dad wanted to preserve what they had done. Fortunately for us, Ray Woloszak had saved a lot of the parts he took off the car. That meant the world to me.”
“I underestimated the effect this car had,” Curt Catallo says today. “The right guys touched this car and it touched a lot of people. Guys would come up to me and say they’d seen it back in the day, or that they’d built the Aurora model of it. It was great that it won the People’s Choice award, because the people are the ones my dad built it for.”
Back in the family again, the Little Deuce Coupe rests proudly in the carriage house behind their converted church home. Somewhere, I’d like to think that Clarence “Chili” Catallo is smiling.
Taken from Ken Gross & Rober Genat's Hot Rod Milestones: America's Coolest Coupes, Roadsters, & Racers (published 2005)