The call came at 5 p.m. on Thursday, January 24: "Troy Ladd, this is John Buck ... where are you?!"
Troy Ladd is the owner of Hollywood Hot Rods in Burbank, California. John Buck is the producer of the Grand National Roadster Show, where Troy's '32 roadster, Respect Tradition, was entered as one of 12 finalists for the America's Most Beautiful Roadster award. The car was supposed to be inside Building 4 at the Pomona Fairplex by 4 p.m. Instead, it was 40 miles away-still at the shop in Burbank-with no radiator, no grille shell, no hoses, no seats, and no wheels.
Respect Tradition isn't the first car Hollywood Hot Rods has entered in the GNRS. The Big Sister and Little Sister sibling '32s drew a lot of attention for the shop when they were entered in years past, but they were never in contention for the AMBR award.
"The roadsters that I had entered before weren't specifically built for the show," Troy says. "They were nice cars, built for driving, that I wanted to display. This roadster was geared to be a show car, although it wasn't intended to be an AMBR competitor at the beginning. I'd been working on the car for two years, and as the design evolved and became more complex, we started to toy with the idea.
"The cars that compete for AMBR are typically swoopy, two-tone, big-billet-wheel kind of cars. I wanted to try to stir up the status quo a little bit. It's a redesigned, handformed, high-end car, but with the look of a traditional car. There have been other over-the-top, traditionally influenced cars before, such as the Pinkee's roadster pickup and Troy Trepanier's '32 roadster from a few years back. Neither of those cars won AMBR, but they both made a huge impact, which is exactly what I wanted to do. John Buck was very encouraging when I told him what we were building. I sent him photos and got his approval.
"Another motivation was the fact that there aren't many owner/builders in the competition. We're younger, the shop is relatively new, and I didn't have a million dollars to sink into the car.
"Being an owner/builder put me at a huge disadvantage because I didn't have the budget some people do. My time was free, but it's time somebody would ordinarily be paying me for.
"For most of the three-year buildup, I worked on the car by myself. During the last year, I dedicated Mondays or Saturdays to the car, with guys from the shop putting time into it. In the final three months, it got crazy, and by the last month, we pretty much shut down the whole shop and everybody worked on it all the time. As the guy paying the bills, I freaked out because it was taking so much time and there was no money coming in; but once you commit, you've got to come through, and I had committed to a lot of people-John Buck; the companies that contributed parts; Butch Lynch, who did the bodywork and paint; and Mark Lopez, who did the interior within one week. All these guys were part of it.
"The great part was that the guys at my shop, Troy Morris and Garret Wilson, got excited about the car, and took so much pride in their work on the car. Everybody has their ideas and their handiwork in the car. At the end, when we thought we wouldn't finish it, everybody was freaking out because of how much they'd contributed to it."
Going For AMBR
The guys at Hollywood Hot Rods knew going in that building an AMBR contender goes far beyond an ordinary build. If any one person helped Troy take the roadster from excellent to truly AMBR-worthy, it was painter and metal beater Butch Lynch.
Troy knew Butch had been involved with previous AMBR contenders and had a good reputation in the hobby. After they met through mutual friends, Butch became not only an important contributor to the project, but one of the biggest cheerleaders toward taking the roadster to the competitive level.
"In fact, he was driving me nuts," Troy says, "but in a good way. He'd call me regularly and tell me, 'We need to clean up this or that. You need to come down here with your metal tools and your welder and we'll change the metal here ... make a panel ... move this.' Because he'd done AMBR cars, he was very detail-oriented and knew to do things that I never would have thought of. He spent weeks reworking the floor to make it smooth and beautiful and perfect. I would've thought we could prep it and paint it nice and shiny. We moved dimensions and moved panels. Everything under the car is completely symmetrical. The brake pedal assembly is up under the dash, because otherwise that would've been on one side and broken up the symmetry. Same with the plumbing; there are three polished stainless steel lines on each side of the car, exactly the same distance from the framerails. We shaped and welded the rocker panels so the gap between the 'rail and the subrail would be even. We actually pinstriped under the floor, such as on the transmission pan.
"Originally, I wanted painted steel wheels on the car; that changed to modified '34 Dodge wheels. I would've been happy with bomber seats; instead, we hand-shaped our own seats and had them upholstered. Those are the kind of things you have to do. There can't be anything out of a catalog. Everything has to be creative and custom designed and handbuilt. Every panel on this body is hand-worked, reshaped, and redesigned. Our taillights are machined to match the speedometer, which in turn matches the color on the steering column. My guys never want to clock another bolt in their lifetime. You wouldn't believe how ticked off they were, but that's what you have to do. That's what this is about-crazy stuff that, on a regular car, nobody would ever see.
"On the other hand, you can't just stick stuff on for the sake of details. We worked very hard not to add brackets or doohickeys that serve no purpose. As one of my customers said, 'You have to be careful not to put too many sequins on the dress.'
"Building an AMBR car is about pushing the boundaries, even to the point where some people may not get it. This interior has been a little controversial. Some people tell me they're not sure about it. That makes me think I took it to the right place. You can build a 'safe' car, but if you're going for AMBR, you have to push it a little bit.
"People complain about the money it takes to build a car that can compete for AMBR. I think it's true that the average hot rodder can't compete, but that's not necessarily wrong. There are many great shows where everybody can compete and win. As long as it's not just about throwing money at a car, but about being creative, why not have no-holds-barred competitions where you do whatever you can to build the best car you possibly can?"
The Clock Ticking
The final month before the GNRS, when all attention at Hollywood Hot Rods was devoted to Respect Tradition, was a frantic time. At Christmas, the car had not been painted. On New Year's Day, the engine was in pieces. One week before the show, it had no upholstery.
"People see those TV shows where a bunch of guys build a car in seven days," Troy says. "I didn't have those guys."
With three days to go, the roadster was still disassembled and Troy was starting to panic. "I almost gave up. I started to come up with exit strategies on how to tell John Buck that we wouldn't be coming. It's giving me a stomachache even thinking about it."
On setup day, Troy and his crew still hadn't finished the car, and didn't know if they would. "That day was pretty rough," he remembers. "The guy we'd scheduled to color-sand and polish the grille shell and other parts that had just been painted never showed up. There was no radiator, no radiator hoses, no inserts, and no emblems. The wheels had to be painted and mounted. The headlights had to be mounted to the grille shell and we couldn't assemble the headlight buckets until they were. I was freaking out."
Whatever happened during the last frantic hours is part miracle and part force of will, and at 7:30 p.m., the roadster rolled off the open trailer onto the pavement in Pomona.
"I didn't even see what the other cars were," Troy says. "We were late. I hadn't slept. All I could do was concentrate on our car.
"When I came back the next morning, I was afraid to go into the building, knowing that I had to walk past Barry White and Pete Chapouris, and all the other AMBR cars. I couldn't go in there and hear people say, 'It's a nice car, but it shouldn't be an AMBR car.' After all we'd been through, I couldn't live with that. But when I finally walked through the door and saw my car, I thought, 'We so belong here.' I stood up straight, walked past all the other roadsters, and said to myself, 'We did it. That's an AMBR car.'"