Pete Henderson’s Roadster: The Ford Hot Rod that Beat the Racehorse

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There are few cars more significant in the world of American Hot Rods than Pete Henderson’s 1932 Ford Roadster. Restored recently to its period appearance in 1944, the car will always be known as, “the Hot Rod that beat the racehorse.” Its well-documented history began in 1944 with a Saturday morning race on Highway 39 outside La Habra, California – a moment that many consider to be the birth of the quarter-mile drag race. Offered at RM Sotheby’s annual Hershey auction, this is a spectacular opportunity to own a true piece of American history. Click ahead to discover the Henderson Roadster’s full story, including its legendary race against a horse. –Jake Auerbach

RM Sotheby’s: Hershey
5–6 October | Hershey

Pete Henderson’s Roadster: The Ford Hot Rod that Beat the Racehorse

  • 1932 Ford “Pete Henderson” Roadster. Estimate $160,000–180,000. To be offered on 5 October.
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    In early 1944, So-Cal hot rod-pioneer and famed car collector, Ak Miller was approached by a stranger who wagered that his horse could beat Miller's roadster in a race on the highway from one telephone pole to another, a distance of sixty yards. Miller considered the proposal but knew that Seabiscuit, the fastest horse of the day, could run sixty yards from a standing start in 4.2 seconds.

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    Miller and his friends raced each other from pole to pole, and no one could cover the distance in 4.2 seconds. But they’d heard of a young man in Pasadena, Pete Henderson, who had a 1932 roadster powered by a flathead Mercury V-8, which could accelerate to sixty yards in four seconds flat.

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    The year prior, Henderson had bought the ‘Deuce’ roadster for $400. He took the motor to a local engine builder, who stroked it 1/8 inch, bored it more than 3/8 inch and installed a number of rare speed parts. 

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    Henderson worked in the Lockheed plant during WWII and was paying down a loan from a family member to buy the Deuce. Like any young man with a hot car, he was intrigued by Miller’s invitation. A week and a half later he arrived early Saturday morning on Highway 39 outside of La Habra, California, where Miller and the horse’s owner had agreed to meet for the race.

  • Henderson edges out the undefeated quarter horse at the famous race in La Habra, California, 1944. Photo by Ernie McAfee.
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    The plan was for the roadster to run on the pavement, while the horse and rider would be in the dirt alongside. The race was set to begin when the starter dropped his hat, but when the starter lifted his hat from his head, the horse took off. Henderson, caught off-guard, immediately punched the accelerator. His roadster caught the horse and passed it just before reaching the second telephone pole.

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    On the dash, a Russetta Timing Association timing tag attests to a 120.9-mph run at Harper Dry Lake in 1944.

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    Featured in Rodder’s Journal, issue number 32, as well as on the cover of issue number 47, Henderson’s roadster was named one of the top 75 1932 Fords of all time. It was also honoured at the Grand National Roadster show in 2007.

  • 1932 Ford “Pete Henderson” Roadster. Estimate $160,000–180,000. To be offered on 5 October.
    Henderson sold the car in 1946 to L. K. Chappelow of Monrovia, California, who owned it for a year before selling it to Manny Ayulo. Surviving photos show the ex-Henderson roadster competing at many L.A.-area circle tracks, driven by the soon-to-be Indy 500 star Ayulo and later by racing stalwart Jack McGrath. With a panoply of famous owners and a sparkling and accurate restoration, the “Pete Henderson” roadster is ready for an appreciative new owner – and its next quarter-mile challenger!

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