Saturday, April 15, 2017

Let's build a Hot Rod!

photo source: jalopy

I always felt I was born twenty years too late!

photo source: jalopy
I grew up reading Hot Rod fiction by Henry Gregor Felsen at a young age. In those stories teen aged hot shoes bought those pre war Fords for a song and chopped them down and souped them up into hot rods. These cars were cheap and plentiful. They were worth so little they were pretty much disposable. By the time I was beginning to be aware of the cars around me in the early 60's I don't ever recall seeing an actual Hot Rod on the streets. I did see that Model T coupe in a used car lot on E.14th. St. near my house. This was probably in 1960 or 1961. If it was a later model, like a 1925, it was only 35 years old at the time! My '70 Mustang was 45 years old when I bought it in 2015.

This must have been way before my time! photo source: jalopy

I kept my eves open, but don't recall seeing a hot rod or even a stock pre war car on the street at all, during my grammar school years. (K thru grade 8). This would have been the period between 1959 and 1969. There was the occasional late forties car, but mostly early and mid Fifties Chevies and Fords. I have read in  car magazines from the early 70's that in the Fifties, old cars were looked down upon, and their owners, unless they were Dust Bowl Migrants,(or especially if they were Dust Bowl migrants) were considered "peculiar". In those days you only drove a really old car if you were just really, really poor.

There were so many many improvements and real advancements that took place in the twenty years spanning the late 20's to the late 50's. Cars really changed a lot. Resale for the prewar cars plummeted after the post WW2 auto shortage was alleviated by increased production.

This was more like what I saw in the 60's photo source

I entered high school in 1969. There certainly weren't any hot rods in the student parking lot. Most of the students cars were from the 60's. Although one of my more eccentric classmates drove a 1958 Cadillac limousine!

So when was this "Golden Age" of Hot Rods? Obviously quite before my time. Probably in the early 1950's as returning GI's and others bought up the supply of low priced cars and modified them to suite their own preferences. In some of the Felsen stories there were characters that by the end of the story had traded up to a late model car, like a 1949 Chevy or a shoebox Ford.

While I was in high school I was busy reading car magazines like, Hot Rod, and later Street Rodder, and Rod Action. I found  Hot Rod books in the library by Leroy "Tex" Smith and others. I probably could have bought some old car and fixed it up, but at the time I wasn't interested in some old pre war car. I wanted a '56 Cadillac! I was busy buying and fixing up Honda motorcycles. An authentic Hot Rod wasn't even on my radar.

Years pass, it's the Eighties, and the older Baby Boomers have re- embraced the classic Hot Rod. Now they are called Street Rods. They are evolving from the mostly stock appearing " Retro Rods" to the awful monochromatic smoothie-billet era. As legions of Rod owners discarded their original steel bodies and vintage running gear for repop frame rails, fiberglass bodies, and the ubiquitous 350 Chevy motor. Little did they suspect that these cast off parts would fuel the birth of the "Rat Rod" movement in the next decade. Change is never ending. The new era of the Muscle Car begins and the price escalation of cars and parts begins in earnest.  The birth of the Cable TV car shows sparks a wider interest in Hot Rods and muscle cars. This does nothing to improve affordability.

Where was I at this point? Oh. I think I was messing around with my Harley Davidsons and my '56 Caddie and my Rivieras. The price of Early Iron had definitely been on the upswing and as usual I was finding myself priced out of the picture. I was a reader of a magazine called "Custom Rodder" and there had been some noise about creating high boy style cars from 50's and later cars by narrowing the bodies until the wheels stuck out like an old fender less high boy. It sounds like a pretty ghastly idea although a few cars were actually built. I even saw one at a GoodGuys show a few years back. Well somehow Custom Rodder staff got wind of a builder in Texas named Joe Pinkston. Pinkston was a fabricator and had been involved in making some streetable Nascar racers. I read the article and was engrossed. Joe was quoted as saying that if we keep basing our builds on pre war cars, which are limited in supply, that the movement would eventually come to a halt. He said that we have to accept other types of cars as open wheel hot rods. He touted his idea as a new low buck alternative. I visited the web site where I found an article from Popular Hotrodding that reported Joe's tour of the South and the car's debut at a Hot Rod happening. I was quite excited by this new thinking outside the box and ordered the two VHS build tapes.

The project starts with a 1970 thru 1981 Chevy Camaro. Cut off the top, remove the doors and remove an approx. 2 ft. section of the floorboard. Insert some reinforcements within a body channel and slide the rear part of the body forward. Rectangular tubing is used to bridge the shortened door opening. Weld all this up and cover the door openings with the salvaged door skins. Now the operator sits in what used to be the back seat. In order to enhance the proportions it is necessary to push the front wheels forward. The second video deals with this activity. Camaros have a bolt on sub frame. This frame is extended which will move the wheels up by the radiator. The hood is a fiberglass molding that is supplied with the kit. It tilts forward to allow access to the motor. The side panels of the hood come much fuller and it is up to the customer to trim them to their specifications. You could also insert a louvered or screened panel. Joe opened up his car's hood sides to show off the motor and side pipes. Joe relates that one of his customers is a musician and he cut out a design of musical notes in the hood sides. Joe said he thought that was a good look! Okay... The Z Rod pictured below was Joe's personal car and was featured in the article. The car is equipped with a hi po 454 so performance was not an issue.

I found the concept of the car to be refreshing in that there was some new thinking directed at an old phenomenon. Why not do something different? Well it was about this time when these cars, old 70's Camaros, started to become more expensive. One of the attractions to this concept was that it was supposed to be a low buck alternative. I remember when you could pick up one of these cars for a few hundred bucks. They were for sale on every corner. What about the look? Is this a success from an aesthetic stand point? Opinions vary but probably not. It looks kind of ungainly but mostly like a chopped up Camaro. The biggest question is why? What's the point? During the late 70's to early 80's there were factory authorized convertibles available. The next generation of Camaro and Firebird also included factory convertibles. These have not been particularly expensive on the resale market. There is an even larger supply of Mustang convertibles available. The Mustangs were even better performers than the Camaros in the early Nineties.

I really became very excited about the prospects for the Z Rod. I thought that I might build one and then become an agent for the company. I could take my car to shows, display it, answer questions, sell the build videos and maybe even kits. First I needed someone that would build the basic body tub and extend the subframe for me. I looked around for a body or fabrication shop in San Jose. I felt a little silly describing the build to a couple of welding shops who promptly shut down my inquiry. Finally one guy told me that he wouldn't open himself up to the liability of building this thing, all  he needed was the customer to kill himself in this contraption and he would be facing a massive law suit. I couldn't do it myself, and I couldn't find anyone to do it for me. I even called up Joe in Texas. His advice was to find someone with a welding rig mounted on a truck. Make all the cuts, mock up the connections with clamps and call the guy to come on over and weld it up. I guess that things are different in Texas. Joe said that I could approach a limousine constructing business. They have the experience cutting apart and welding up cars. ( Do you remember those god awful stretched and shortened first gen Cadillac Sevilles?) I finally approached a custom builder I learned about in Clearlake. I spoke to him and he told me that he could do it and charge by the hour. He asked me to supply him with the build videos and he would give me his opinion. Any idea of a low buck build was rapidly disappearing!

I guess Joe wasn't the only one with the idea!

Needless to say, my excitement came to a screeching halt. So did any plans that I had for ever building this car.

While it is true that pre war cars are a vanishing breed, the reproduction industry has been working hard to provide the parts needed to build up a car from scratch. There has also been a lack of interest in using authentic vintage parts in modern build ups. It seems to apply mostly to the chassis and drive train.This has resulted in the increase in the availability of genuine old timey parts.

I decided that I needed to have a real old time hot rod, at least once. I found a penny saver type auto related classified newspaper at a swap meet. Perusing this very studiously I found a project available for sale in Madera Ca. This is what I found. A shortened 1922 Dodge touring car body mounted on a custom (homebuilt) rectangular frame. The front suspension consisted of a "suicide" mounted I beam Ford solid axle, with split wishbones. The frame had a rear kick up holding a 40 ish Ford "banjo" torque tube driven rear end. There was a small block Chevy motor mated to an early Ford tranny with one of those vintage bell housing adapters. There was even a radiator from an unknown source. Some of the parts were quite attractive. I had always liked the look of the I beam axle. The banjo rear end was also a cool vintage looking piece.

I moved the project along as much as I could. Being able to have access to welder would be really helpful on a project like this. I went to several old car swap meets looking for parts for the brakes and what not. Prices seemed kind of high to me, a natural cheapskate. To make the transmission connection work I needed a certain Mercury clutch assembly, which I found wasn't cheap either. I soon realized that this wasn't exactly going to be real low buck project and my more practical side turned an analyzing focus to it.

What was I going to do with this car?  Would I drive it to work or the store? It didn't have a top, or side curtains. If I couldn't keep it in the garage, how can you lock something like this up? I had thought about sinking a post and metal ring in the driveway and chaining the axle to it. Then the ultimate realization occurred to me. That a car like this is really a death trap! There is no kind of occupant protection. The occupant is "thrown clear" in a collision. Yeah, we all know how well that works. If you are a motorcycle rider you can usually come to terms with this. I didn't want to make that decision for my kids.

So I sold it. The buyer a couple of years later sent me some pictures.

The buyer actually finished it! It looks pretty much as it did when I had it. I had included those queen bee headlights and roadster pipes, though he installed a Jag rear end and disc brakes. He also switched to mag wheels. I will give him a lot of credit for finishing it. Many projects will move from owner to owner, who move the build along a bit before selling it again.  Funny thing is that he asked me if I was interested in buying it, as it was up for sale.

It is a classic look.

Hey, it's areal Hot Rod!
I told the seller no thanks.

A few years later, really just a couple of days ago, I found this on Craig's List. It's a complete Model A chassis, complete with motor and tranny.  It has the steering system and control pedals intact. I'll bet that this car was purchased for the body and the owner placed it upon a modern repop chassis.

I can see a Hot Rod, Can You?

Sure it's rusty, but it is pretty complete. It would be easy (?) to go through the chassis and motor, refurbish it then find and build some type of speedster body. It might not be that cheap to build, but at 400.00 it is cheap to buy. Oh, I was tempted.

Plenty of opportunity to learn by doing.
I think that this would be a good way to learn about antique cars. I would want to go through the chassis and check critical components like the steering knuckles, springs ,brakes, and drivetrain if I were going to "recommission"  it for road use.

I have this "crazy idea" about taking a Model T or other antique car on a road trip up the West Coast, from Mexico to Canada. Sort of my own "Three Flags Run." I've started speaking to wife about it, laying out the groundwork. You have to plant the seed first.

Needless to say, she was not exactly enthused by the idea. But to her credit she didn't shut down the idea immediately. "How about taking a 1954 Jaguar sedan on a trip like that?" You've gotta keep your foot in the door!

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