I was at a swap meet with a buddy five years ago and saw a running two-door Chrysler hardtop with a Hemi for $4,500. I thought it was so cool and couldn't understand why it was so cheap. Unfortunately, I was deep in another project at the time and didn't have the time for that car, but I couldn't get the idea of a Chrysler project out of my head. I had been seeing the new 300s on the road and could really see how the 300 of the 1950s had evolved into the new production model. But, there was no predecessor for the Magnum because Chrysler had never made a sport wagon back then. I started thinking about what it would have looked like 50 years ago.
Over the next couple of years, we wandered through many old boneyards, gathering all the parts to build the car, but I didn't have the body to start with. Then one day at a show, I was approached by a gentleman who had a four-door wagon who asked me what I could do with it. The more I talked to him, the more excited I became about the potential to get the ideas out of my head and into the shop. We talked back and forth over the next couple of months; I sent him artist renderings of how I envisioned the project, but it soon became obvious I wouldn't be able to have artistic license. If I wanted to build the car I had in my head, I'd have to go it alone.
I was in Southern California a short time later, talking with a friend about how I was ready to start another project-hopefully the Chrysler wagon. I couldn't find a Chrysler I could afford, so I figured I'd have to start with a DeSoto. It had to be a '55, since even the door handles had style. The next day, while picking up a fiberglass body for another friend, there sitting in the backyard was a '55 two-door hardtop DeSoto! A deal was struck and the car was brought home.
In the meantime, I had found an early wagon in another wrecking yard and cut off the tail section and roof and dragged it home. A friend from Boise gathered up the front end pieces we had found in previous years and brought them up for me. I now had most of the sheetmetal and knew I could really get started on giving the car its unique shape.
I spent two weeks of relatively uninterrupted work shortening the car 8 inches and chopping it 2 inches. I changed the quarter-panels so they'd accept the tailgate and finally created the roof profile. At this point, the car was just an outer shell with no floors or structure, so the next step was trying to figure out how I was going to build the floors and the wheel openings to accommodate the huge wheels and tires I had planned. I decided to weld the frame to the floor of the car, making it a unibody, specifically to allow for an exceptionally smooth bottom. The car really started to take shape once that decision was made.
Then one afternoon, I found out my good friend and mentor, Chip Foose, was sending me a new crate 5.7L Hemi that had been used to configure the engine compartment on the Hemisphere. He would be running the 6.4L Hemi in his car and knew I still didn't have an engine lined up for the wagon. With the engine in hand, I could build the engine and tranny mounts and the exhaust system.
The car was placed on the rotisserie, and I was able to get into the metalwork on the underside. I wanted to be sure the lines all had shape and flowed together. I also didn't want any of the mounting hardware to be visible under the car, so pieces like the exhaust hangers had to be built into both the structure of the floor and the exhaust; the fuel-cell mounting was also hidden by incorporating it into the framework.
Halfway through this build, we made the decision to purchase a building that would better-suit our professional goals but also would move our work closer to home. I could work nights at the shop and still be able to go home and have supper with my kids (who are 6 and 8). I also decided this car had to showcase everything our shop was capable of doing for our customers. After re-mortgaging our house to build and tour the last car, a full-custom '51 Kaiser-dubbed Kontageous-I knew this would be my last personal build for a while. It could potentially be like starting all over again if I waited another year to debut the Chrysler-like the Kaiser never happened-and I didn't want to take that chance. It's hard enough being a young builder today (I debuted the Kaiser when I was 30); add the fact that we're based in Canada, and there's another set of challenges. I had to pick my deadline and get this car out there. We decided the Detroit Autorama would be our goal after we looked at the calendar and started making lists of the key tasks that had to happen to complete the car.
With a clear deadline, I had a lot of work to do to complete the build. I was working with Mike Curtis of Curtis Speed Equipment on the design of the grille pieces, taillights, and steering wheel. The first time Mike and I talked about the grille pieces, he sketched out an idea on a napkin (as many great ideas are born). Throughout the process, that one design was the one we kept coming back to. The first step in building the taillights was for me to build a model of the light in the shape and size that fit the car's design. I shipped the model down to Mike so he could start the fabrication process by using a laser-scanning arm to accurately design the pieces so they would fit the existing body modifications. With all the pieces Curtis Speed Equipment was working on for me, there was a constant stream of e-mailed photos and CAD images, followed by phone calls from Canada to California. By the end of the build, I had Mike bringing the finished taillights and steering wheel to Detroit with him in his carry-on baggage!
Once the metalwork was completed on the bottom of the car, we flipped it over and started the final metalwork on the body modifications and the interior. I felt the car needed more in the dash area, and like everything else on the car, I wanted the dash to be exaggerated. The leading edges are still the originals, but I stretched the surface by 8 inches and added some shape. As with the rest of the car, they were fabricated in steel.
Because I was building a wagon, I wanted to incorporate a little "woodie" into it, and the original idea was to have a wood headliner. As we toyed with the idea, it became strips of maple, recessed in the headliner with the body color peeking through from behind. There are more than 480 countersunk and clocked fasteners that hold the strips to the base-clear surface. A second roofskin had to be welded inside the car to accommodate this feature.
My new shop was less than a city block away from the body shop I worked in when I was apprenticing to become an automotive painter. My old employer still owned the place and was happy to help me out when I asked if I could use his booth to spray the car. What a sight we must have been the first time we pushed the car over to the shop. The body was securely bolted to its table, but we had to push it across two roads to get there. On one of the journeys, we had a dump truck volunteer to run interference for us so we could make the first crossing without worry.
The hood was also double-skinned to give it a smooth and seamless appearance. I didn't want any wires and hoses visable under the hood. All the unnecessary holes have been filled, and all the lines and wires are placed behind what appears to be purely aesthetic features. Some of the elements are there for looks and some for function, but you can't tell which are which because I wanted them to complement each other and the overall look of the car. Even the valve covers and wires are there to enhance the look and to keep with the idea of the old leading to the new and then back to what was. I built an adapter plate so the traditional Hemi covers could be used on the modern heads, to keep the compartment clean and refined while also keeping the injectors out of sight.
The wheels arrived at the shop four days before we were to leave for Detroit. The car had been on either the rotisserie or its table for the past year, so no one had seen it at ride height since the very early mock-up stages. I remember that night very clearly. I don't think I had more than four hours of sleep on any given night during the prior weeks. It felt like we were running two shifts; the guys who work for me full time would just head home for the night and the guys who just had to be part of the project would show up. Everyone was there that night.
We mounted the tires to the wheels by hand, bolted them on, and lowered the car. The whole shop went quiet. Everyone just stood back and looked at it. Once we all regained our composure, it was back to work. During the next two days, the shop looked like a disturbed anthill. My interior guy was busy installing seats and making the finishing touches, there was someone polishing the grille, and someone else was under the hood working on the engine; there were bodies working under the car and in the car.
The night before we were to leave for Detroit was the longest night of my life. A couple months earlier, when we moved into the new shop, I decided I wanted to make a run for the Great 8. I felt the car had the look and the right details, even though it didn't have the financial backing many of the other competitors were sure to have. I pushed my staff, my friends, and myself to the limits to perfect every possible component. It's amazing my kids didn't forget what I looked like, and I'm sure the only reason my wife was so understanding about the late nights was because we work together all day-she'd probably had enough of me by that point.
That last night, as people started to fade from the shop, and there were only four of us left by 3 a.m.-one friend, one of my staff members, my father-in-law, and myself-we were still fighting with the fitment of the hood, and parts had to be modified and repainted. While they were drying, we fought with the engine, which wasn't firing. As the possible solutions became exhausted, so did the crew. At 4 a.m., when my wife showed up, we were all sitting quietly, just staring at the car. There was still work to be done, so we carried on. As the boys started to arrive that morning, they were all put on different jobs to help prepare us for the show.
We hoped to make the nonstop trip across the country in two days, so we'd have a day at Adam Genei's shop, Mobsteel, near Detroit, to button up anything that may have been forgotten, or repair any damage that experience taught us was possible on a long haul like that. We wanted to be on the road by 7 a.m. After the plugs were changed, the car fired right up and we loaded it into the trailer. We were on the road by noon. I was done. The only thing I could do for the next two days was drive occasionally, sleep, and worry about what was happening in the trailer.
We made it to Detroit relatively unscathed. Mike Curtis met us at Mobsteel with the taillights and steering wheel in hand, so he was put to work installing them right away. With the promoters calling us to make sure we were still coming, we pulled into Cobo Hall shortly after 10 p.m. on Thursday night. We had one night to set up the car, and then we'd have to walk away.
The car had never moved under its own power, and we still had to meet the officials to run through their requirements-start up, move forward, move back, turn, and stop-to be eligible to compete for the Great 8. There were a lot of people gathered around who wanted to hear the car, and all I could think was, "This is it." I started it up and put it in gear. It must have taken 20 seconds for the valvebody in the tranny to fill and engage the forward gear, and it was a very long 20 seconds, but then it leapt forward and we were qualified.
We still had to set up the display and clean, clean, clean. It filled us all with a new sense of urgency, and pride, once we were able to see some of the cars we would be competing against. The craftsmanship that was on display in that building goes unparalleled, and it was an honor just to show with those cars. We soon realized only eight of the almost 30 competitors would be chosen, and we wanted to be in that eight. At one point, there were five sets of legs poking out from under the car as we went over every inch of the underside. When we were finally convinced there was nothing more we could do without rebuilding the car, we packed up and headed to our respective hotels. Our hard work eventually paid off, as the wagon was awarded a Great 8 pick.
The second show we took it to was the Goodguys All American Get-Together in Pleasanton, where I was honored to receive the award for West Coast Custom of the Year. We then took the wagon down to Goodguys Del Mar the following weekend and were able to relax and enjoy the finished product, and that is just what we did.