By the time La Jolla resident Bill Roper was a toddler back home in Mississippi, he was the family car authority. A self-proclaimed car nut, he fondly retells a story from his youth in which his expertise was tested.
“My dad and granddad would take me into town and I would just name every car on the road. I’ll never forget, one time I was driving with my mom and dad and I spotted and identified a parked Buick. My mom said, ‘No, that’s an Oldsmobile.’ I said, ‘No, it’s a Buick,’ and told my dad to turn around. I insisted he turn around and he finally did. We pulled up, and sure enough, it was a Buick. From then on, I was the car expert of the family,” he said. “I just love cars. It’s just one of those things that sticks with you.”
Now, as an adult, Roper takes pride in owning classic cars and is currently in possession of a 1941 Ford Woody super deluxe station wagon, a 1955 Chevy Nomad and a 1960s Shelby Cobra. He purchased the cars fully restored and maintains extensive notebooks on their ownership and the work that was done on them.
“I like looking at the history behind the cars. Who took someone on a first date in this car? Who raised their family in this car? Who went joyriding in it? Where did they go? What family trips did they take in it?” he said.
In researching his Ford Woody, he learned that the 1941 version he owns was the last model made with an entire body fashioned from wood (later models had a metal frame and topped with wood or wood-looking material). He said at the time, the car was expensive, so the owner was typically wealthy, and would own the car only until it started to need work. “They would own it for a year or year-and-a-half, and then sell it because the roof would leak or the wood would rot. The second owner would drive it more (because it was already had some dings and cracks),” he explained. “By the time it got to the third owner, the car wasn’t worth much money, so it was often bought by surfers. That’s why these have the association of being a surf car. The first thing the surfers would do was remove the third row of seats so they could fit their surfboards.”
However, Roper’s car had three owners, but everything (including the back row) was intact.
“Kids love them, old people love them, girls love them. It’s just a great car. I always wanted one and when we moved here (from Texas in 1990) I set out to find one,” he said.
The 1955 Chevy Nomad, considered a sporty station-wagon, is one of only a few thousand made that year. Around that time, the Chevy Nomad station wagon had four doors, were of a boxy, utilitarian body style, and were considered a family car. Roper’s ’55 model however, was styled like a coupe with two doors, a new body style and a more powerful engine.
“It was the first time Chevy had a V8 engine. Plus, no one had ever seen anything like the two-door. They only sold a few thousand of them. Chevy sold a million cars total in that one year, this was a few thousand total,” he said.
A reliable and comfortable driver, Roper said he drives it around town occasionally, and tends to get raised eyebrows when he does. “Anybody my age appreciates it, but younger people don’t see it as flashy and wouldn’t know what that is. You take a Baby Boomer, and they know what it is, how rare it is, and they appreciate it,” he said.
His third car, which he calls a very special car, is the 1960s Shelby Cobra. “It’s all engine,” he said. “They are impractical for just about anything except racing, showing, enjoying and getting into trouble.”
When it came to car manufacturing, mid-1960s were considered the “horsepower years,” the “pony car years” and the “muscle car years” because American manufacturers put big engines in small cars. As such, cars like Roper’s Cobra are lightweight, fast and powerful.
“I can drive around town, but if you drive it for more than a few hours, you’d be worn out. I don’t drive it to draw attention, but it does draw attention. Because it’s red and loud, people always look. It stops traffic everywhere and it will set off car alarms in parked cars,” he said.
Although he admits he doesn’t drive the cars “as much as I should,” he does start them up occasionally to keep the parts lubricated, and sometimes shows them in shows such as the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance. And for Roper, that is enough.
“A lot of people enjoy buying them and/or restoring them. Some people just like driving them. Some people like showing them. But I just like owning them,” he said. “I don’t want my material possessions to be something that’s important to me, because you can’t take them with you and a fire or flood or financial troubles could take them away. So don’t get hung up on them, but that being said … while I’m in a position that I can have them, I enjoy them.”
Editor’s Note: In response to an invitation to classic car owners to share their vehicle love stories, more than a dozen car buffs contacted La Jolla Light to be interviewed about their prize possessions. In this series, we present their delightful roadster experiences.