The Li'l Coffin '32 Ford Show Car
The Museum of American Speed is full of important, historical race cars. But next to the Indy cars, dragsters, and sprint cars of the past, you will find quite a few show cars. This may seem like a stretch, given that race cars are made to go as fast as possible with absolutely no frills while show cars are often all fluff and no go. But there are more similarities between the two than you might think. Let us explain.
In the past, we have marveled at the fact that any of those race cars still exist. They’re run hard, crashed, fixed, and updated until they’re outdated and deemed worthless. Then they get parted out, parked in the field, and forgotten about. Same goes for show cars. They may not be bouncing off the walls on Friday night or sliding upside down through the timing lights, but they’re still subject to the newer better thing putting them out to pasture. They’re often updated and changed until they’re not recognizable, then hidden away when the public has moved on. The recent unearthing of the Grabowski T and Golden Sahara are excellent case studies.
This is the Li'l Coffin. You’ve probably seen it before. It’s kind of a big deal. And it’s a near miracle that it’s still here, looking almost exactly as it did when it was immortalized as the Monogram model that many of us built when we were kids. But that hasn’t always been the case. It’s been a bumpy road involving many total transformations, ownership changes, and actual fires. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s start at the beginning. The year is 1954, and a young Dave Stuckey has just drug home a clean ’32 Ford Sedan from a used car lot in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas. That very night he stripped it down and hauled it to the welding shop where he was working. He then proceeded to channel the heck out of it and put it back together as a flathead powered hot rod.
You may have heard Wichita referred to as the “Kustom City”. Arguably, one man is singlehandedly responsible for that reputation; Darryl Starbird. His Star Kustom shop cranked out the customs, many of which grabbed national headlines and show trophies and gave the West Coast guys a run for their money. But that’s another story for another time. What’s important to the story of the Li'l Coffin is that sometime around 1955, the inevitable happened. The hot rod kid blasting around Wichita in his channeled Deuce Tudor landed a job working for Starbird after school. Not only did this give him a chance to finely hone his car building chops, it also meant big things were in store for his hot rod.
The first version of the Li'l Coffin was “finished” around 1956, but with the help of Starbird and others at the shop, the car was updated significantly over the next few years. Features in the “little page” magazines started showing up in 1959, but the world got an eyeful of Stuckey’s creation on the cover of the (now full-size) Car Craft in November of 1960. In a particularly epic “coupes and sedans” issue, the not yet named Coffin appeared along with Chili Catallo’s Little Deuce Coupe in it’s pre-Barris, pre-Beach Boys configuration (then called the Silver Sapphire), the Jackman Bros. Sport Coupe, and Andy Kassa’s channeled East Coast 3-window. By this time, Stuckey’s sedan had the molded fenders and Studebaker rear pan added along with a ’40 dash, ’54 DeSoto hemi in front of the ’39 box, and quad headlights from a ’59 Harley. Interestingly, in all but one of the exterior shots of the car, it features a ’32 grille. But in the lead photo of the feature article, it sports a handmade Edsel-esque grille, an insert loaded with show-car requisite bullets, and scallops. The article credits Starbird as the photographer, and the Kansas plates are from ’59, so it’s likely that the shot of the grilled and scalloped version came in just in time for the presses.
With a few magazine articles and the Car Craft cover to his credit, one might think Stuckey would have been content to rest on his laurels. But remember the part about old show cars being updated constantly? Well, we’re just getting started with this one. In 1960, Stuckey left Starbird’s to start his own shop. Around this same time, he sold the Li'l Coffin to his friend Larry Farber. This is where the Coffin would transition into its most famous iteration.
The more traditional upright grill shell was replaced with the horizontal version, still using the Harley headlights. The body was sectioned 4 inches and the doors were modified to open suicide-style. The engine was given a six-carb intake and moved back in the chassis, causing a major rework of the cowl that would include the turbine-looking scoop and bullet features on the sides. That is a pretty radical list of modifications to an already radical car, but perhaps the most far-out update was the chopped and cantilevered top.
This version of the car got a lot of attention, including several magazine features. In a foreshadowing of things to come, the newly reworked Li'l Coffin appeared on the cover of the November ’62 Rod & Custom. Around this time, several of the magazines were pushing model car content to hot rod crazy kids who lacked the space, money, or driver’s license to build the real thing. Rod & Custom was no exception. The Coffin shared the cover with a bunch of model cars, there were several model car “how to” articles inside, and the Revell “Outlaw” kit was advertised on the back cover.
This is the part of the story where the Li'l Coffin is immortalized in styrene. In 1962, Monogram contracted Darryl Starbird as their “model car consultant.” He showed up in their ads and even encouraged “customization” in the instructions that came with your Big T kit. In this role, he encouraged Monogram to buy the Li'l Coffin from Farber in order to create their own kit.
Fast forward to 1967. Monogram toured the car around for several years, sold a bunch of models, and were all done with it. A lot of stories would end there. But not this one. Darryl Starbird bought the car from Monogram, stored it for a few years, then decided it was time to bring it back into the limelight. He restyled it into a sedan delivery and called it the “Monkey Ward Delivery”. It hit the show circuit around 1970, and photos show it with a blower, psychedelic paint, and fat tires, but the bones of the Li'l Coffin were still there.
Are we done yet? Not even close. The “Monkey Ward Delivery” did the rounds for several years, then was put back into storage. Then, around 1980, the creative bug bit Starbird again and it was updated to again represent what was happening on the street rod scene at the time. The bodywork was modified yet again and converted into a dual cowl phaeton with a removable, Carson-style top. The chassis was updated with a Jag IFS, Corvette IRS, and Tru-Spokes. Starbird called it the “Fabulous Phaeton” and debuted it at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals in 1981, then hit the show circuit that had become very familiar to the little ’32.
Here’s where things get even more interesting. While Starbird was pulling the car into the trailer, a leaky fuel line caught it on fire. Starbird himself barely made it out before the whole interior went up in flames. The fire department showed up in time to put the fire out before it moved forward of the cowl, but the damage had been done. It burned all the lead out of the body and cooked the interior and the padded top.
Back into storage it went, and there it sat for another decade or so. But by now you’re figuring out that Daryl Starbird is not easily discouraged. The charred remains were once again pulled into the shop around 1990 and the Li'l Coffin was again modified to reflect the contemporary trend. In the early 90’s, that meant billet wheels, a V’d windshield (yes, the Li'l Coffin once again had a-pillars for the first time in 30 years), and sleek bodywork with billet grilles front and rear. It hit the shows (again) then sat on display in Starbird’s museum in Oklahoma.
We’re going to press fast forward once more, this time to 2007. The ’32 Ford was turning 75 years old, and some folks in the automotive industry decided to throw it a party. A panel of experts were assembled to select the 75 most influential ’32 Ford hot rods of all time. After much consideration and poring over the long and colorful hot rod history of the Deuce, the final selections were made and the Li'l Coffin made the cut. The cars that still existed (several had been lost to time) were assembled at the Grand National Roadster Show. But where was the Li'l Coffin?
Instead of shining under the lights in California, it was under the knife in Oklahoma. But this time, it wasn’t being updated. Instead, it was being backdated to the version that earned it the illustrious title of one of the 75. Seeing the renewed interest in nostalgic hot rods and customs, Starbird tore into the Li'l Coffin for the last time to return it to the early 60’s configuration that we all remember from the model kit and magazine covers.
So, the next time you think show cars have it easy, remember the epic saga of the Li'l Coffin. This humble ’32 Ford sedan from that Wichita used car lot has had some serious adventures and quite a bit of fame, and we’re thrilled that it lived to tell the tale.
Contemporary photography by Jason Lubken