If you’ve just read our piece on our May AHRF Hot Rod of the Month winner, then you know what you’re about to read is a little different from what we normally post here. Willie Ohnstad was never a supporting member of the AHRF and, sadly, passed away in the spring of 2021. That said, we have found his story, the ’32 Ford he built as a teenager, and how he inspired others to be great examples of what we think hot rodding has always been and continues to be.
Born Wiluam H. Ohnstad in 1932 in Fargo, North Dakota, “Willie”, as his friends knew him, was bit by the hot rod bug early on. Thanks to the skills that a lot of midwestern kids of the era were equipped with, Willie thought nothing of purchasing a stock ’32 Ford 3-window coupe out of the Pennysaver and digging right in to transform it into something like the hot rods he saw in his favorite car magazines. It is clear, however, that Willie was not just skilled but gifted. Armed only with the hand tools his father lent him, he would perform this transformation in the driveway or one-car garage ( depending on the North Dakota weather ) of his boyhood home. Willie went right to work chopping and filling the top, as well as uniquely bobbing and reshaping all four fenders. He finished all of this bodywork, as well as smoothing out some regular old signs of wear and tear, and then shot seven coats of dark green lacquer over the body. Next up was the upholstery, and Willie’s can-do attitude came into play again as he taught himself to work a commercial sewing machine and was soon installing a full, dark green and white tuck-and-roll Naugahyde interior. The dash would take a full compliment of Stewart Warner gauges while white painted running boards would work in harmony with wide-white-wall tires and full caps. The final touches were the stylish Nerf bars that Willie welded up for the front and rear of the car. This was a seriously well-finished hot rod by anyone’s standard and eventually earned itself a feature in the August 1958 issue of Rod Builder and Customizer magazine.
But in the two years leading up to the day when Willie Ohnstad would take his finished 3-window for its first drive, the building process of this hot rod would end up attracting several kids from the nearby houses on Willie’s street. These were mostly younger kids who would cruise up on their bicycles or walk over when they heard the unmistakable sound of driveway mechanic-ing. One of those kids was our Hot Rod of the Month winner, Ed Gilbertson. Another was a slightly older teenager by the name of Lee Stauffacher. Between the two of them, they would end up like mascots as their fascination turned to a cheering-on of what Willie was trying to accomplish. Eventually, they became full-time helpers when Willie needed some extra hands.
To say that the impact of this experience on these kids was profound would be an understatement. As Ed Gilbertson told us, ”That was really the thing that got me going. I may have been into cars already, but seeing that ’32 come together gave me the bug in a big way, and I never got over it.” As we reported earlier, this was all such inspiration to Ed that he named his current ’32 Roadster “Willie the Deuce” after his old friend. “Yeah, it just felt right. I’m now in my 80s, but the sound and attitude of Willie’s 3-window have stayed with me my whole life, and although my car is a roadster, I wanted my car to bring back those memories of seeing and hearing Willie’s car rumbling around our neighborhood. It just seemed right to name it after what had inspired it.” Ed went on,”In fact, when I set out to build a hot rod for myself, the first thing I wondered about was whether or not Willie’s coupe might be out there. I was still in touch with him and asked him what he remembered about selling it, and it turned out that it was Lee Stauffacher who ended up with it when Lee moved to California. But Willie said Lee didn’t have the car long and sold it to someone in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s in SoCal, and that was that. No one ever saw or heard of it again.” When our curiosity began to push Ed to answer some more questions about what he might remember about the sale of the car, we were surprised to learn that he and Lee never really knew one another. “It’s true,” said Ed. “I guess he was another kid who hung out at Willie’s garage but I don’t remember him, specifically. I just knew the name and that we must have known each other as kids, but he was closer to Willie’s age, and they were much closer friends. I was younger than they were, and I went to a different school than they did. Things like that can make a big difference when you’re kids.”
Well, now we couldn’t stop thinking about this. Where did this ’32 coupe vanish to, and is there a way to find it? In asking Ed about what direction we might even go in, he said, ”Well, sadly, Willie is gone, and I have no idea what ever happened to Lee. Like I say, I didn’t really know Lee but did stay in touch with Willie up until his passing. Lee was about his age, and he may or may not still be with us. All I know is that Willie’s coupe was special by any standards of the time. It had such a great chop. You should have seen it. A perfect chop. It was just right. It just had that perfect look and stance and so many cool features, like electric doors and trunk lid, those unique bobbed fenders. I mean, we’re talking about a very well done car, and I just refuse to believe it could just vanish. ”
And so we set off. Our secret weapon in sleuthing, Katie Steele ( wife of AHRF Director, David Steele ), was put on the job: find Lee Stauffacher so we might find the whereabouts of the Willie Ohnstad coupe. Well, within minutes Katie found record of a Lee Stauffacher who was the right age and was reportedly living in the SF Bay area. Could it be him? His occupation was listed as “Engineer for Ford Motor Company / retired.” That felt like a good sign! Upon further digging, we found an article in a Shelby Club of America publication written by a Lee Stauffacher regarding a Cobra that he’d purchased new and had a replacement engine installed because he “had some good connections with Ford since I worked for them as an engineer.” The moment we saw that their was a Cobra connection, we rang up our buddy, AHRF supporting Member and “Mr Cobra” himself, Lynn Park. We asked Lynn if he had any memory of a Lee Stauffacher and, to our delight, Lynn immediately exclaimed, ”Oh sure, I’ve known Lee for years. Real nice guy. I even brokered the sale of his Cobra when he was ready to sell it.” When we asked Lynn if he ever knew Lee to mention a dark green ’32 3-window that he may have had, Lynn replied, ”No. No, never heard him mention that. But I know he had some kind of Dodge touring car with an FE in it that was pretty neat. So I know he liked hot rods.” Another good sign. “But, you know?” added Lynn, ”I’m not sure I have a good number for him. It’s been probably 15 years since I’ve been in touch with him. I’ll ask around to see if any of the guys know how to reach him.” This was all very good stuff, but we still weren’t sure if we were even chasing the right Lee Stauffacher. With more calls to Cobra friends we got similar responses: “Oh yeah, I remember him. He had a great Cobra.” Etc., etc., but no phone number or connection to a ’32 Ford.
Of course, with each phone call the list of “you know who might know?”s grew longer and longer. We even phoned up two different specialty repair shops in the Bay area that we knew had worked on this Lee S’s Cobra when it was under his ownership. They remembered him but had nothing to add. Even the head of the Bay Area Cobra owners club ( of which this Lee S was a member ) no longer had contact information… but he remembered him and remembered his Cobra. Because Shelby Cobras are such special machines ( especially when equipped with a 427 ), it is actually fairly easy to find their ownership trail, and this got us on the phone with the current and previous owners of the car, but to no avail. None of these people had a working number for the Lee Stauffacher in question.
Finally, a break through! Katie Steele suddenly announced that she found an address, and it was in the Bay area. So, a brief letter was sent off explaining the situation and… we waited.
On the third day after our letter was sent, a VM was seen on our phone from an unfamiliar number. Upon playback we heard a very surprised and chipper voice say, ”Hey, this is Lee Stauffacher. I received your letter and I’m your guy. I had the old ’32 coupe you’re trying to locate and would be happy to talk to you about it.” Of course, we wasted no time in calling right back, and Mr Stauffacher wasted no time in answering. “Well, I have to say, I was quite taken with the letter I received. I know there can’t be many people around who know that I owned that car or would be old enough to even remember it. I just turned 89 this year,” said Lee. We told him about our friend and AHRF Member, Ed Gilbertson, how that coupe had inspired him and how he’d stayed in touch with Willie Ohnstad all through the years. Lee just couldn’t believe his ears. ”Gee whiz, that is really something. Me and this Ed Gilbertson must have been together in that little garage of Willie’s a million times if he knows the car that well. Everything he told you about it is true. It really was something. That’s why I was so determined to own it one day. I’d just never seen one chopped so perfectly. Mr Gilbertson is right to point that out. Willie really got that part right, along with a lot of other interesting features on the car.”
And with that, Lee Stauffacher began telling the story of his time with the Willie Ohnstad ’32.
Lee remembered, “Yeah, I moved to California from Fargo in 1956, but I stayed in touch with Willie. He was a good friend, and I enjoyed getting updates from him on the ’32. He was always talking about the next thing he was going to do to it, and that was exciting. He even talked about racing it at Bonneville someday. I was seeing all of these hot rods running around southern California, and I wanted one real bad, but I couldn’t get my mind off of that coupe of Willie’s. I just never saw one I liked as much or better.” As their correspondence continued, Willie’s interest in running the car at Bonneville softened, and he began hinting to Lee that he would consider selling it in order to build something else. “I jumped at that and asked what he wanted for it,” remembers Lee, ”and he said $700, and I said I’d take it. From there we had to figure out how to exchange the money for the car, and with all the talk of Bonneville, Willie suggested that we meet there. He would drive the car from Fargo, and I’d come up from LA and meet at the event. I had a buddy at the time in SoCal who had just bought a brand new ’57 T-Bird, and he thought the two of us driving it to Bonneville would be a great way to break it in. So we headed out to Utah from California in a brand new T-Bird, got a room at the Stateline Motel and met Willie out on the salt the morning after we got there. It was all like a dream, really. I’d never been to Bonneville and had only seen pictures of it. Now here I was standing on the salt as the sun is coming up with a shiny new ’57 T-Bird on one side of me and my dream hot rod glistening in the sun next to it. It was definitely one of my better days.”
Lee drove the prized ’32 back to southern California and fell right in with the hot rod scene in his area. “I had moved to San Bernardino soon after I got to SoCal and was just another young guy driving a hot rod and working odd jobs. There were a lot of us! But it was about as much fun as I can ever remember having. Willie had done such a great job with that coupe and I was a very proud owner. Not everybody had electric doors on their hot rod, and showing guys how the doors and decklid worked was always a fun trick. I felt close to it because I’d seen it get built and helped with some of it, but even I couldn’t leave it alone and eventually installed a ’50 Olds V8 in it after I’d had it for a while. Willie had talked about doing that, so I didn’t feel like I’d done something too out of line with it. It improved the car and made it a little more usable and, after all, it was the only car I had and it needed to get me around.”
As the end of the 1950s was drawing to a close, Lee Stauffacher began to consider his future, and the path was fairly clear. “I wanted to do something with cars,” he said. “I really had it in my blood at this point, but I knew I wasn’t the grease monkey type. I knew I needed to go back to school, and so I enrolled at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo for their engineering program. This was in 1960, and I had now had the coupe for about three years. I would have loved to have kept it but it just wasn’t practical, so I sold it. This was in San Bernardino in 1960, and I was a few months away from moving up to San Luis. All I remember is that I sold it for $900 to a nice Mexican kid who came to look at it with his whole family. Before I moved, I saw it one last time at a filling station in San Bernardino and that kid was with it and had it cleaned up real nice. Like I say, that was sometime in 1960, and that was the last time I ever saw it.”
To drive home how serious Lee Stauffacher was about his car obsession, we’ll share his words on what happened next. ”Well, I drove some boring stuff not worth mentioning when I was going to school and even when I started my job with Ford, but I think I made up for it as soon as I was settled in with my position. I’d been working for a while and there was an employee discount and such things, so I ordered my first new car. It was a ’66 Ford Fairlane R-code 427,” remembers Lee. “That engine was really something and I just couldn’t get over the power it made. Like there was no end to it. But no sooner was I driving my new Fairlane that I got the idea that, if this engine feels this good in a big sedan, what must this feel like in a two-seater sports car?”
And so Lee went back to the Ford dealer where he’d recently purchased his Fairlane and traded it in on a new 427 Shelby Cobra. “I guess this is the kind of thing you do when you’re young and getting your first real paycheck,” he said, “but when I went to pick it up, the salesman informed me that the 427 Cobra wasn’t actually a 427 anymore. They were now installing 428 engines in them. I was very unhappy to hear this but had already done the deal and traded in my Fairlane, so I started making some calls through my connections with Ford and was able to get the Holman and Moody shop to build me a great 427 for it. They delivered it to the dealership in a crate with the dyno sheet showing that it made a good bit over 500hp. They pulled the 428 out and installed the 427 and I went off and enjoyed that car until I sold it in 2004. I ended up owning a lot of different cars and even some hot rods through the years, but my Cobra was always number one to me. I enjoyed it, but I took good care of it. It was still 100% original when I sold it but could still sit proudly on a showfield.”
When we got off the phone with Lee, we immediately called Ed Gilbertson to tell him that, not only had we found our guy, but we had an additional surprise for him. “I can’t believe you just talked to Lee Stauffacher. That’s fantastic,” said Ed, “and he had information about the selling of the coupe?” We told him that he did, but the trail runs cold in San Bernardino in 1960. That didn’t seem to shut down Ed’s desire to find the car, though. As he said, ”Well, that’s something. Maybe some of the old timers in that area will remember it, because I sure do.” And with that we shared a fun extra detail about his old neighbor Lee. “Ed, you’re not going to believe where he lives,” we said. “He lives about 20 miles down the road from you.” And Ed shot back, ”You gotta be kidding. That’s just amazing. I can’t wait to say hello to him and reminisce about our days as kids hanging out in that garage.”
If only we could eavesdrop on that lunch!
Ed continued, ”When I think back to that time and realize the impact it had on me, I am fairly overwhelmed by it all. I mean, I have done cars my entire life thanks to the trajectory that that experience set me on. Almost all of my friendships are in the car world, and so are all of my greatest experiences and memories. They all revolve around the car world. In fact, I’ve traveled the world because of my relationship with cars and the other people who love them like I do. I’ve owned so many cars that I’ve loved and driven that have brought me so much joy. I have no idea what my life would look like if I hadn’t chosen this path. Actually, the path chose me. Those days in Fargo being around those other kids and smelling the grease and solvents and chemicals being used when Willie was building that car… I keep saying it, but that’s what did it. That did it for me and boy oh boy am I thankful.”
Lee Stauffacher had a similar sentiment when saying, ”I wouldn’t change a thing about the way things went. Not from the time I was a kid until now. I was a car crazy kid and I guess I never got over it, but it sure made things fun. I had a good career that I enjoyed, and I got to work on car projects every day. It supplied me with great friends and great experiences, and it’s all because I was around hot rodding during my formative years. Yeah, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
We’re gonna have to agree with Lee on that one.
As we outlined, Lee Stauffacher had a great career with one of the largest automotive companies in the world, working alongside his many, fellow, creative engineers. His work helped to shape and provide machines that were beautiful as well as reliable and efficient. All of this while commuting and attending car events in the 427 Cobra that he bought new. Lee is a hot rodder.
Meanwhile, our man Ed Gilbertson has been active in the car hobby for over 40 years. He is the Chief Judge Emeritus for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and continues to serve as a senior member of the Pebble Beach Selection Committee. He is also the Chief Judge Emeritus for the Palm Beach Cavallino Classic and the Ferrari Club of America. In addition, he was Chief Judge for the Legend of the Motorcycle International Concours as well as multiple shows across the country. Ed is also responsible for assembling the International Chief Judge Advisory Group that exists to promote proper preservation, correct restoration, and ensure an accurate automotive history for the benefit of future generations. Ed is also a hot rodder.
But, on behalf of Lee Stauffacher and Ed Gilbertson, there is one hot rodder that we would like to thank for letting such curious teenagers come around his garage and learn a thing or two while helping with his hot rod project. That person would be Willie Ohnstad. We believe it is safe to say that our hobby might not be the same, and even some of our favorite production cars might not be the same, if it were not for one older kid’s gracious attitude toward the younger set. This is what it is all about and the positives that come from such meaningful, hands-on experiences are the kinds of things that need to continue to be supported and nurtured. After all, this was just another one car garage in just another American neighborhood — but look what it produced.
It’s hot rodding, and Willie Ohnstad understood that… and we thank him for it.