Some rod and custom projects are like loveable stray dogs-you don't find them, they find you. This usually happens when you're not even looking for another pet ... er, project. Once you take in a wayward stray, though, you often find yourself more attached to it than to a high-priced purebred.
Van Scalco wasn't looking to adopt a four-wheeled pet when he ventured out to a swap meet a few years ago. "I had just completed a two-year project, so I was not looking for another project of any kind," Van says. If that previous project, a '37 Terraplane street rod, is any indication, we can safely say Van is drawn to unconventional vehicles-dare we say loveable mutts?
While Van wasn't looking for a project, a cute little '63 Rambler American 440-H had its headlights set on him. "This unique-looking car kept getting in my eye throughout the day," Van says. "I do not recall ever seeing a two-door hardtop [Rambler] and stamped top that looks like convertible bows. It had great sheetmetal, with only minor dents and surface rust. It looked like a simple, fun project since the running gear had already been installed. Well, I should have known better-there is no simple project."
The Rambler's seller, Joe Patterson, had mounted a Ford 302 V-8 and C4 automatic between its fenders, and had set it up with a Mustang II front suspension. Like any rodder, though, Van couldn't leave well enough alone. He tore the car completely apart, refined the existing work, and rebuilt the car to his liking.
"I had never used a Ford [engine] in past builds," Van says. "The distributor did not look right up front, so I covered the carburetor and distributor with a handmade air cleaner." Other engine accessories were detailed with pewter paint, and Van built a smooth firewall and modified the inner fenders for better clearance. A Lincoln Versailles rearend with disc brakes was plugged in out back.
Van was so enamored with the compact coupe's factory design that he changed very little inside or out. Bodyman Eddie Tamez laid down a Ford Estate Green finish over the stock body panels, accenting it with a tan 'stripe inside the side trim. Inside, Action Seat Covers stitched the original seats in parchment-colored vinyl and covered the other soft parts to match. The console is original, and even the tilt column is a Rambler piece, albeit from a '65 model.
It's not easy crafting a cool rod from a car that few people took seriously in the first place, but Van seems to have succeeded. Sure, some may still call it "cute," but with V-8 power, four-wheel discs, and low gears, this little Rambler can definitely scoot. "It's a red-light car," Van says, "red light to red light." We're sure it gives modern sport compacts a good spanking in stoplight confrontations.
The funny thing about strays is that, once you take one in, others seem to find you. "I like this little car so much, I've started a second one," Van says. "I am trying to make [it] better. It'll have a black exterior and red interior. If my second Rambler gets half the attention as the first one did at the  Fort Worth Goodguys event, well, look out!
Rod & Custom Feature CarVan ScalcoLongview, Texas'63 Rambler American 440-H
ChassisWhen Van bought the car, previous owner Joe Patterson had already installed a modified Mustang II crossmember, tying it into the Rambler's original subframe and unibody structure. To this, Van added new shocks and power rack-and-pinion steering. A Lincoln Versailles rearend with 4.10:1 gears was mounted on modified original leaf springs, and a Corvette manual master cylinder was mounted on the firewall to power the four-wheel disc brakes.
DrivetrainA 1980 Mustang donated its 302 V-8 and C4 automatic to the project. "It's very, very tight quarters" in the engine compartment, Van says, but original exhaust manifolds helped the small-block mill nestle in snugly. Most of the Mustang's other engine accessories were retained as well, and dressed up with DuPont Pewter Gray paint. Van added Ford aluminum valve covers, as well as an Edelbrock carb. Van's friend Doug McGarvey helped him craft a custom cover to shroud the distributor, carb, and air cleaner, and Van discovered a 1980 Jeep radiator fit in the stock location. All Star Muffler in Longview built the aluminized exhaust system.
Wheels & TiresWhat better wheels for a Rambler American than a set of Americans? The modern five-spokes have a split-spoke design and measure 17x8 inches. They wear Yokohama 215/50R17 radials.
Body & PaintVan felt the Rambler hardtop design was distinctive enough in stock form, so he gave bodyman Eddie Tamez, of Hallsville, Texas, simple directions: Make it straight, and paint it Ford Estate Green. Eddie used PPG basecoat/clearcoat materials, and added a tan accent panel inside the body's full-length beltline cove. There is some custom metalwork under the hood, where Van built a smooth, recessed firewall and modified the inner fenders to better accommodate the Ford V-8. The Bama Boys, of Dallas, Texas, re-plated the chrome, and the new windshield came from Auto City Classics in Isanti, Minnesota. The original side trim clips were plastic, and Van couldn't locate replacements, so he made his own steel clips to mount the stainless trim, which was straightened and polished by Bill Fell in Big Sandy, Texas.
InteriorMuch like the body, the original interior had simple, pleasing design elements, so Van didn't change much. Action Seat Covers, in Longview, sewed up new seat covers using Ford Light Parchment vinyl, and covered the door and side panels in similar fashion. The dash and console were painted to match the exterior. Van even kept the original gauges. He did modify the dash slightly so Big Daddy Stereo could install a Pioneer sound system, and he added an underdash Vintage Air heat-and-cool unit. The tilt column is a factory piece from a '65 Rambler, and was topped with a Colorado Custom wheel.