Wednesday, March 19, 2008

1936 Ford Coupe - The One

For Some Guys, It Just Takes The Right Car To Bring Out The Inner Hot Rodder

When you see "your" car for the first time, you just know it. There's a moment of connection when you identify with it followed quickly by the annoying feeling that someone else owns it. That inspirational moment is even more significant when you realize you're neither looking for a project nor are you even aware you're a hot rodder.

That's pretty much how it happened to Ray Dunham, as he strolled through the Donut Derelicts car gathering in Huntington Beach, California, early one Saturday morning about three years ago. Ray had a real appreciation for vintage style, particularly '50s-era cruisers, but it had been a while since he'd built anything. Vintage, two-toned VW Beetles had been his thing in high school until he made the pragmatic choice after graduation to fumigate the Bugs and get a reliable and user-friendly late-model daily driver. But Ray was never satisfied without something to tinker on and eventually picked up a '57 Harley-Davidson. The Panhead satisfied his urges for a while until a friend and fellow biker met an untimely end while riding. Ray's girlfriend was understandably shaken and persuaded him to sell the Harley, and he was once again left without a project.

But that Saturday morning, as Ray was walking among some of the sharpest hot rods in the area, his eyes landed on a beater '36 Ford three-window coupe, and he was awestruck. Ray had no background in vintage cars outside of his VW experience and had to ask someone what it was, but he knew he'd found "his" car. It was initially not for sale, but persistence pays, and eventually, a deal was struck and the '36 was his.

As tends to happen when purchases are made with the heart rather than the head, Ray paid too much for a car that needed a lot of work. The slammed '36 had no suspension travel and scraped the running boards on nearly every dip, rise, or turn. And everything rattled. On top of that, the car's driveability was marginal at best. The brakes were scary, and the tired, near-stock flathead could barely reach cruising speed, typically overheating when it did. It quickly became obvious that Ray had bought a project rather than a driver. He began replacing parts a few at a time, making a list of what was needed as he went, but the further he went and the longer the list got, the more he realized he was simply bandaging the problems. So eventually, he resolved to rebuild the car from scratch.

The most interesting part about this resolution was that Ray had no idea how to correctly build a '36 Ford, or any other hot rod, and he had never been involved with the culture; his slate was as blank as his car's. In retrospect, that was probably for the best. Rather than relying solely upon conventionally styled '30s rods to determine the look for his '36, Ray drew upon his VW past to create a retro but classy appearance that simply suited his style and taste.

Of course, what the eye notices most when it sees the car for the first time is the striking satin-black and gloss-red paint combo. Ray may not have been able to identify the car, but the moment he saw it, he knew it would be two-toned. A little time with a friend and a photo-editing program sealed the deal for the red/black theme. Why satin-finish black rather than gloss? Ray just felt it had more visual impact, plus it gave the '36 a little more traditional hot-rod attitude to balance the low and fender-skirted custom stance.

1935 Chevy Master - Robert Wood's '35 Chevy Street Modified

Bitchin'! This car represents the street-rod version of an idea that more people need to latch on to: use circle-track parts to create function and character. The supply of low-buck roundy-round parts is nearly limitless and can be applied liberally for endless twists on the theme. You can build your Camaro, Chevelle, or G-body into a Street Stocker with bolt-ons or go deeper with a fabricated-chassis car like Robert's '35 Chevy Master.

After having a number of predictable street rods, Robert realized he owed a nod to the local NASCAR heritage that abounds nearby his Boones Mill, Virginia, home. It would have been pretty tempting to go with a straight 'shine runner or even a retro jalopy, but instead, an old race-car steel body was dropped off at (dig this) Groundhog Compton's Garage in Martinsville, Virginia, and once the pop-riveted doors were freed up and hammered out, it was treated to a contemporary-style dirt Modified chassis that Groundhog calls his Featherweight. It includes all the standard circle-track parts, such as the fully adjustable, late-model-style control arms and Wilwood's tandem master cylinder and four-wheel disc brakes. The rearend is from an Olds Bravada, which is essentially an S-10 Blazer.

But of course the hook is the endless rubber dominating the chopped-down '35 sheetmetal. Those are Hoosier 29x18.50-15 Pro Street radials mimicking dirt-track rubber on every corner, each engulfing legit circle-track Basset 15x14 steel wheels. Tell us you've seen that before. The theme continues with stuff like the extended S&S headers and exhaust made from Corvette side pipes and the Afco aluminum radiator behind a '35ish grille fabbed by Groundhog. The unchopped roof reminds you of jalopies piling into turn one, and the stock taillights and Harley-Davidson motorcycle-fender lights as front turn signals are nice tchotchke. Guys in Bakersfield: good luck with this one.

Robert wanted a nice driver and must have gotten it, since he's stacked 5,000-plus miles on the car since last June. Contributing to the comfort are power rack-and-pinion steering with a Heidt's adjustable pressure valve and concealed Vintage Air climate control (the condenser is hidden under the trunk so as not to detract from the bare-bones appeal). He says, "My wife thinks it's too loud, but it's about the nicest-riding rod I've had. It's like a go-kart and just draws a big crowd. People always take your picture."