Hot rods are a matter of expression that can range anywhere from bare-bones rusty rods to pro-built "1-800-Rods." Our tastes land somewhere in the middle, so it reconfirmed our faith in the hobby when we ran across this homebuilt rod assembled by a father and his son in a barn on the Kansas prairie.
Gene, the father in this tale, has been collecting parts and building traditional hot rods for 50 years. When Gene's son, Dean, decided to follow in his father's footsteps by building an early '50s-style hot rod, he just had to convince his dad to let him use some of the parts that had been accumulated over the years.
Starting with an idea and a few parts, Dean began looking for a chassis. His brother, D.J., just happened to have a grain cart (to feed livestock on his ranch) that was mounted on a '32 Chevy frame he was willing to donate to the cause. The long curved front framehorns with the straight 5-inch-deep 'rails and 6-inch kickup over the rear axle were just right for a highboy hot rod. Dean located a '40 Ford X-member and a Model A frame willing to give up its front and rear crossmembers.
Gene had a dropped axle, which he had modified 25 years earlier, hanging on the barn wall that would work to get the rake they wanted. The dropped axle started as a '34 axle with the ends cut off next to the spring-perch mounts; 1940 axle ends were then bridged to the '34 center by using the cutoff '34 end pieces. The five pieces were carefully welded together in four places. Finally, the webs at the ends were ground smooth to resemble a heated and stretched dropped axle. Lightening holes were also drilled in the center web. The completed axle is approximately 5 1/4 inches lower than a stock Model A.
A '36 Ford wishbone was split with '35-48 tie-rod tube threaded sections welded into the ends and then attached with tie-rod ends to fabricated brackets that bolt to the inside of the frame. An F-1 steering box was mounted to the top of the 'rail because, as Gene puts it, "A traditional hot rod must have a draglink-type steering such as those used in '28-34 Fords." The F-1 box was chosen because it uses the same worm gear and sector as the '37-48 car, but it has the same draglink-type steering as the '28-34. This makes driving a lot more enjoyable than the original while retaining the hot rod look.
When it came to stopping this little hot rod, Gene just so happened to have a set of Franklin aluminum drums left over from an old Sprint Car that were put to use with a set of '39 brake shoes and drilled backing plates. A '39 Ford pedal assembly activates the combo.
The body was the one thing the Johnsons didn't have when the project was started, so the search began once the chassis was finished and the multi-carbed small-block was ready to fire. The plan was to find a body good enough for a hot rod, but after several months of looking at some really rough bodies, Dean decided to call Gary Cooper of McPherson, Kansas, who had given him a lead on a complete '29 coupe. Gary had started to restore it for a customer 20 years earlier, but the customer lost interest, took it home, and put it in a barn.
The body appeared to be in remarkable condition, as did the rest of the coupe. The Johnsons bought the complete car and sold everything but the body to a man wanting to build a speedster-a win-win for everyone. The body was so clean and straight-even the original wood was in good shape-that Dean and Gene couldn't bring themselves to chop it. After doing a little bodywork, Gene sprayed the body in blue in their barn.
The front turn signals are another cool component on the coupe. Not wanting to detour from the '50s theme they had followed all along, but needing the safety of turn signals, the Johnsons modified the headlight high-beams to flash as turn indicators. As Gene put it, how many times do you have your high-beams on when you're turning? Cool idea.
The coupe turned out better than expected. The '32 Chevy 'rails with the dropped axle, split wishbone, banjo rear axle, and Firestones mounted on wide-fives with stainless Spyders keep the coupe traditional and totally cool. The way the Johnsons see it, maybe there is some truth in the saying, "The total vehicle is greater than the sum of its individual parts."
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1929 Ford coupe
Gene and Dean started with a set of '32 Chevy 'rails and shortened them to 106 inches by removing 4 inches just in front of the rear kickup. A recessed boxing plate was welded inside of each 'rail for reinforcement. Model A front (flattened 1 1/4-inch) and rear crossmembers were added, along with a '40 Ford X-member fitted with a 3/16-inch plate to provide a transmission mount. A '39 Ford pedal assembly was mounted on the X-member with the pedal arms tweaked to fit the narrowed frame. Curved pieces of 1/8-inch strap iron were welded over the ends of the framehorns to look similar to a Model A frame. Split wishbones and a shortened '34 spring with reversed eyes locate a homebuilt dropped axle; Pete & Jake's tube shocks are mounted to a pair of F-1 shock mounts. Moving to the rear, the Johnsons wanted an open-drive axle mounted with the traditional Model A de-arched buggy spring. Although it is usually not recommended, they used a "mismatched" ring-and-pinion combination. A '35 Ford 4.11:1 ring gear and a '42-47 pickup 4.11:1 pinion gear were fitted by carefully selecting axlehousing shim gaskets. It's still running quietly after 2,500 miles. The '35-36 axles and housings were used for the spring perch and radius-rod mounts. Ladder bars were made from a combination of '35 Ford radius rods and aluminum aircraft bomb bay struts.
Gene and Dean felt a hot rod should look, sound, and perform in a way that grabs your attention-multiple carburetors and a wicked idle generally fill these needs. The Johnsons got just what they wanted with a '57 Chevy small-block punched out to 301 ci and filled with Jahns pistons. A Lunati cam (Duntov replica) was installed along with an Edelbrock 3x2 intake topped with a trio of Stromberg 48s and 1961 vintage Honest Charley chrome oval air cleaners. A finned coil cover, a pair of vintage Cal Custom valve covers, a generator, and a remote oil filter complete the retro look. A Camaro T5 five-speed gives the little coupe both performance and economy but is concealed with a modified '35 shift lever topped with a '37 knob.
Wheels & Tires
When it came to wheels, Dean chose 16x4 '36-39 wide-fives covered in Vermillion Red acrylic enamel and accented with stainless '36 Spyder hubcaps. The wheels were then fitted with 4.50x16 and 6.50x16 Firestone Champion Deluxe bias-ply blackwalls.
Body & Paint
The only modifications made to the body were moving the gas tank to the trunk, notching the rear fenderwells to clear the axles, and punching 45 louvers in the visor, which was done by Larry Wharton. Gene sprayed the body in their barn with an Albert Blue topcoat.
The interior was turned over to Steve Stegman of Great Bend, Kansas, who covered the stock seat and door panels with red vinyl rolls 'n' pleats. A '38 column with a deluxe banjo wheel and the Stewart Warner Wings gauges keep with the '50s look. No air conditioning or stereo here-the only addition to the cabin was a 1940s Alvis hot-water heater with a '33 Ford grille logo.