Clark Gable was a HOT RODDER

What if I tell you that Clark Gable was a Hot Rodder? Would you believe me that in 1933, he street-raced against a hopped-up Model T and lost? Well, if you don’t, go and read further.

It was about 10:00 P.M. at night when twenty year old Bob Estes was about ready to close the Union gas station where he worked, the station being in the northeast corner of Pico and Sepulveda in western Los Angeles. Just shortly before closing time, a black Packard Convertible drove up to the gas pump. Behind the wheel sat no one else than Clark Gable, already then one of the top movie idols and soon to become the greatest box office success of his era.

Clark Gable with his fashionable Packard Convertible in which he raced against Bob Estes.

While Bob filled the fuel tank of the Packard, Gable noticed a shiny black 1925 Ford Model T roadster parked beside the station’s office and said to Bob “I see we both like black cars.” The hot rodded Model T was Bob’s pride and joy and – typical of any car nut – he kept the car spotless and in perfect running order.

Estes then replied to Gable: “Yes, but it’s too bad your Packard won’t go like that T.” Gable was amazed, and asked Bob if he could go look at the car. After checking it out he asked Bob if he would start it up for him. “Sure, I’m about to close the station, and I always start it before I close to get the oil warmed up before I take it on the road.”

After Bob and Gable talked a bit about the car, Gable finally asked him if Bob would really think that his Model T would go faster than the Packard to which Bob replied: “Well, put it out on the street and we’ll run between here and Santa Monica Boulevard and we’ll find out. We have to bet a little money, like five bucks, so just wait while I turn off the station lights.”

Bob “cleaned his clock in a hurry”, and after they got to Santa Monica Boulevard he suggested – for another five bucks – that they go the other direction too. And he beat him again.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard

A few days later actress Carole Lombard came into the station and said that she wanted to buy Bob’s T to give Gable for his birthday, explaining, „Clark has talked about nothing but that car for two days.“ Bob had owned the T for about four years at that point, and it was finally fixed up and running to suit him, and he was in no mood to sell it. When Miss Lombard was informed of this she raised the offer, and after still being rebuffed asked if she could copy it. Bob said, „Sure, why not, but you can’t take it away from the station.“ A few days later two men came to the station to measure the car and take photos.

A duplicate was made, but Estes remembers it as being a disaster; not at all like his personal Hot Rod. Estes’ Model T Ford was equipped with a Frontenac SR rocker-arm OHV cylinder head, single Winfield downdraft carburetor, and a crankshaft from a 1922 Wills Sainte Claire V8 adapted to fit the Model T block. This not only provided a tremendous increase in crankshaft strength and stiffness but allowed for full oil pressure to the main and rods. A Rocky Mountain three-speed transmission was fitted behind the stock T two-speed transmission, and a Ruckstell two-speed rear axle had been installed.

Bob’s Hot Rod, stripped of fenders, bumbers, running boards and top had been run a few years earlier at Muroc Dry Lake at more than 100 mph so Bob knew what he was doing when he had challenged Gable’s Packard.

With being into street racing and doing this probably on a rather regular basis, Bob was on the “wrong” side of the law much of the time because of his driving habits, that is, go as fast as you can whenever you can. The hopped up Model T, in addition to providing daily transportation, was the ideal tool to practive this race-whenever-you-can philosophy.