To those on the ground, the overhead drone of American aircraft engines meant either imminent defeat or imminent freedom, depending upon what side they were on. To the guys in the air, the nose art on their combat planes provided a personality for the plane as well as a reminder of what was waiting for them stateside-a faithful sweetheart from the hometown and, maybe, a hopped-up car in the garage or barn.
A lot of recently built rods reflect the influence of vintage World War II fighters. This '31 coupe-owned by Tom Carroll, and built by Kevin Tully at Hot Rod Chassis & Cycle-is an excellent example. The homage goes further than copying a style for both the owner and the builder.
When Kevin and Tom first talked about building the coupe, Tom explained he wanted a driver that leaned toward the traditional, but something like nobody had seen before. After several weeks, Kevin called him up. He'd come up with a motor that was definitely out of the ordinary, a front end that was complete, and a concept perfectly suited for the Model A.
The coupe had come from the Southwest, where the previous owner had purchased it in 1962. Five years later, the owner's wife (who had never liked the car) passed away. "He drove the car to the funeral," Tom told us, "and on the way back to his farm, the car died right in front of his property. He felt his wife was paying him back for showing up at her funeral in the car she hated. He didn't want to drive the car and he didn't want to sell it, so he hauled it to town and stuck it in the back of a building that used to be the jail, where it sat from 1967 until I bought it in 2005."
Kevin had been in the service as an aircraft fabricator and his father had fought in WWII, so he was familiar with the style and mechanics of military planes. Tom's father had flown on a B-25 during the war, so when Kevin suggested the idea of building the coupe as a salute to the famous '40s fighter planes, Tom agreed. After that, a big part of the buildup consisted of searching for authentic parts-not for dress-up, but as functional controls and components. And what about those rivets? "We were about halfway through the project, finding all these airplane parts," Tom explained. "Kevin said, 'You know what's missing? We should rivet it. We'll paint it silver like aluminum and rivet it like aircraft.' I didn't think it could be done, but he proved me wrong."
Of course the tribute rod wouldn't have been complete without some nose art. The image is based on a popular "Vargas girl" pinup from the era. Tom gave her a name, which she shares with his fighter-inspired '31 coupe: Back Seat Betty.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
Wood Dale, Illinois
'31 Ford Model A Coupe
The frame is modified FoMoCo Model A, double boxed with a chromoly round tube inner structure to handle the Super Red Ram mill, and kicked up 14 inches, with custom rear 'rails to lower the body. It's dropped in the front with POSIES Super Slide front leaf springs and a 4-inch dropped and drilled Magnum I-beam axle, located with 36-inch Curtis hairpins and riding on Monroe Sensa-Trak shocks. The '58-64 Buick finned aluminum drum brakes feature Wilson Welding 45-fin backing plates and '46-48 front hubs. At the rear, it's a Hot Rod Chassis & Cycle (HRCC) triangulated four-link and Strange coilovers. The aluminum fuel cell contains dual wing tanks: an 11-gallon primary tank and a 4-gallon reserve, with separate sending units for the B-25 wing tank gauges in the dash.
The heart of Back Seat Betty is the 325ci '56 Dodge Super Red Ram polyspherical double-rocker engine. Ted at Opel Engineering in Streamwood, Illinois, did the machine work. The cylinders were bored 0.040 over and loaded with 9.6:1 JE pistons. This numbers-correct specimen originally came with the four-barrel power package, but now runs an Offy 3x2 manifold with triple Rochester 2GCs, tuned by Dickster. HRCC built a set of equal-length exhaust headers to custom specs. The stout Dodge high-block was balanced, blueprinted, and dyno-tested at 310 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque. Wilcap (805-481-7639) provided a flywheel and transmission adapter to tie the big Dodge to a race-prepped Tremec TKO-500 five-speed from TTC. The transmission is equipped with a Centerforce clutch with a McCloud hydraulic throwout bearing, and operated by a Hurst shifter. The narrowed '58 Ford 9-inch houses an Auburn limited-slip differential with 3.73:1 gears equipped with Moser street/strip axles and 11x2 Ford Racing drum brakes.
Wheels & Tires
A pair of Coker Tire 8.20x15 Firestone cheaters rise up above the wheelwells and is mounted on a set of 15x8 painted '40 Ford steelies with chromed center caps. The front piecrust bias-plies are 4.50-4.75x16 Firestones on 16x4 rims.
Body & Paint
The military aircraft inspiration is obvious, but goes beyond what you can see here. All wood was removed from the steel '31 coupe shell and replaced with aluminum aircraft-style spars. The top was chopped 6 inches and scaled-down, tinted B-17 cockpit windows were worked into the 6061 aluminum roof. Fender mascots from a '48 Buick were modified to resemble wing markers (red for port, green for starboard) and added to the cowl sides as turn signals. HRCC built the custom aluminum radiator and fuel cell. The '38 Plymouth grille shell is modified with aluminum filler panels and a '48 Studebaker hood ornament. The headlights are '38 Plymouth, refitted with a '30s-era PlyDo sealed beam conversion kit, pulled out of the original box. Taillights are from a '48 Hudson. Kevin drove 2,300 authentic B-25 Mitchell bomber rivets using a 4x rivet gun and buck, and added 1,100 additional POP rivets. Vince Thornbery, owner of the Paint Spot in Addison, Illinois, covered the frame with PPG gloss black and the body with silver to resemble aluminum. The Back Seat Betty nose art was inspired by an Alberto Vargas pinup and painted at the Paint Spot.
The entire cockpit interior was paneled in aluminum at HRCC, and equipped with components from vintage aircraft, including a P-47 Thunderbolt throttle control quadrant that locates the choke, ignition kill, and start circuits using control cables in the style of the old planes. An aircraft light switchbox runs the headlights, running lights, and instrument panel. The fabricated dash houses a '36 Plymouth speedometer and twin wing fuel tank gauges from the B-25 Mitchell flown by Tom's father (the gauges were rebuilt by United Speedometer Service). The wheel is from a Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport plane. Custom-built fighter seats were shot olive drab and padded with canvas seat cushions by Riggs Brothers in Downers Grove, Illinois (there are no back seats in Back Seat Betty). Juliano's provided the belts. Even the dome light is a cockpit light from an RAF plane, and a genuine N.O.S. data plate from Lockheed is stamped with the car's date of completion, Tom's birthday, and his dad's birthday, all in military date format.