Fortunately, a few stories just write themselves in the world of rods and customs, and thankfully this is one of those historic pieces that I was able to be a part of. When it comes to the two cars and the people in this story, much is known and very well-documented in historic writings in magazines through the last six decades, as well as the most recent documentation in the pages of The Rodder's Journal (numbers 38 & 40).
This compilation of facts did not allow this writer much ground for traditional tale telling, as it may have come across mostly as rehashing the known facts already told in a variety of published writings. That was until I had an epiphany during the initial interviewing phase. As I prepared to make contact with the key players with these cars, I figured I'd let them tell much of the story themselves. An interesting side note is that while a more famous or beloved rod and custom pair would be hard to find, these two cars have previously never been on the cover or featured inside the pages of Rod & Custom (or photographed together), so it's a truly historic moment for us all! If you want a more detailed account of the parts and hardware that went into these two cars, you can find it on our website, www.rodandcustommagazine.com.
So, without further adieu, let us present some behind-the-scenes questions about a pair that needs no introduction: The Sam Barris Merc and the Ala Kart.
Player 1: Roy Brizio. Born into a hot rod family, Roy developed a place in history for himself building high-quality hot rods from a very early age, and building up one of the most successful street rod businesses in the country.
R&C: You've become one of the go-to guys for accurate restorations of historic rods and customs-previously the McMullen '32 roadster, Edelbrock Sr.'s '32 roadster, and the Jack Calori '36 Ford coupe. Is the process more of a challenge, a curse, or both?
RB: Actually, it's an honor to be asked and have someone trust you to be responsible for such an important job, because you only have one shot to get it right. You don't want to be the guy who screwed up a historic car.
R&C: You built the Ala Kart model kit many times as a kid for a special reason. Explain.
RB: Every year, Al Slonaker would throw a big party for the Grand National Roadster Show participants, and show manager Mel Fernandez would have a big cake for the dinner. When I was about 12 years old, Mel asked me to build a model to put on the cake, and it happened to be the Ala Kart. I continued making the models for the cake for a few years. A few decades later, Don Tognotti asked me to build a King T kit for the cake for the 50th anniversary party. It was funny making a model kit at home at night after working on real cars all day.
R&C: Were you surprised how well both Barris cars were preserved?
RB: Yes! We were lucky. Tommy Lee buying Sam's Merc was the best thing that could have ever happened to it, because he took such good care of it for 50 years. The same thing with the Ala Kart; a guy in Arizona had it for years and never messed with it. At one point, Boyd was supposed to buy it and planned to redo it with a modern chassis. Thank God that didn't happen! Greg Sharp is the one responsible for me getting a shot at the car-he had the scoop and offered it to me first. I said, "Give me a week and I'll find a buyer." I called everyone I knew and at the time no one wanted to step up. Eventually, I talked (John) Mumford into it.
R&C: Do you intentionally try not to leave any evidence you worked on the cars opposed to the way the original builders unintentionally left evidence of their handiwork?
RB: No. The biggest goal is to not embarrass, yourself because these cars are so well known and beloved and will always be under the microscope. You have to draw the line on things you leave as they were built and other areas you make stronger to keep the cars from falling apart. These cars are fragile, and traveling with them is an issue.
R&C: Is "over restoration" a constant concern and problem when you are trying to preserve history?
RB: It's the process of making the correct decisions. You don't want to finish and have people saying, "I can't believe he did that," and we went to great lengths so they couldn't. Blackie and George say the Ala Kart is nicer than it ever was, but you don't want to go too far with that.
R&C: Any other restorations you would like to be part of?
RB: One car I always thought was really bitchin' was the Orange Krate. My whole young life revolved around the Oakland Roadster Show, and I remember so well seeing that car and building the model kit. I'd love a chance to work on the real thing.
Player 2: John Mumford. A serious collector of many different types of automobiles, his heart belongs to the early rods and customs that prowled the streets during his high school days.
R&C: Were you always a fan of the Sam Barris Merc and the Ala Kart?
JM: I was always a fan of the Merc after I saw the car in person while attending Santa Monica High. I hadn't originally been a fan of the Ala Kart-I was more of a "traditional" hot rodder. These cars weren't something I specifically pursued, but after I had the Ala Kart, I joked to a friend that I needed the Sam Barris Merc, not even knowing if it still existed. From that discussion, I was eventually connected to Tommy Lee, and we bonded once he knew what a fan I was of Sam and he eventually allowed me to obtain the car.
R&C: Restoring the Ala Kart was a very tough decision. I know at one time you had elected to keep it unrestored. What finally persuaded you to fully restore it?
JM: It was a tough decision because how many cars still have all their original parts untouched for decades? Bruce Meyer and Pete Chapouris said to leave it alone. I'd go back and forth on the idea, because it's such a phenomenal piece of history. If anyone was going to restore it, Roy was the one guy who could do it. We talked about patinaing in the missing paint (stripped while Junior Conway started to restore the car), but that was not the perfect solution. A full restoration became the only decision, and (laughs) I held it over Roy that he would get a crack at it if he finished a couple of my other cars.
R&C: What's your own personal best story about the cars you haven't seen published already?
JM: I'd have to say when it all started to sink in how important the cars are when Roy had the shop open one day and a bunch of guys on a Goodguys tour stopped by and all at once spotted the Ala Kart. They immediately started crawling on the floor to get a closer look and calling their buddies on their cell phones to say, "I'm right here looking at the real Ala Kart!" It was surreal, like they were meeting an old movie star.
Player 3: Bill Ganahl. Another example of a multi-talented hot rodder and custom enthusiast born into the hobby.
R&C: You've worked on a pretty impressive list of restorations of famous hot rods and customs (Calori's '36 Ford, McMullen's '32, and Edelbrock's '32); how did the Ala Kart and the Sam Barris Merc differ?
BG: To me, these cars are much more prominent. The Ala Kart is more iconic than all the rest. It's a caricature of a hot rod. The cars differed for me personally since I respected the Ala Kart, but was not a personal fan. As I restored the Ala Kart, it became apparent why it was so important. But, working on the historic customs like the Calori '36 and Sam's Merc have made my career. Sam's '49 is arguably the first one ever chopped, and to me nothing could be more important.
R&C: Which of these two cars was more difficult to restore?
BG: The Ala Kart was, by far, better documented, making it much easier to correctly put it back exactly as it was. Very few pictures of Sam's Merc exist, and absolutely no pictures or details exist on the interior. Underneath the Merc, we restored it back to absolutely stock with the minimal modifications that were made originally.
R&C: These cars have "fingerprints" from workers in the past, and you work hard to preserve that. What are your fingerprints?
BG: I tried not to leave any. That's the problem you face with over restoration. I tried to keep as much of the old stuff as possible. There's a spinner hubcap mounted over the rearend in Sam's Merc that has been there forever-we left it there. My fingerprint is in the preservation that I did, and I hope that is appreciated.
R&C: Is it a challenge or a curse to try and keep a car 100 percent correct?
BG: Both. I take it as a challenge and enjoy the process wholeheartedly. I have to thank Roy for affording me the time to do it right. Research is key, and I was lucky we had the time to fully research the cars as much as humanly possible. I'd wake up at 3 a.m., worrying about finding the correct parts.
R&C: Any other famous car you'd like a crack at?
BG: Bring 'em all on! In particular, if I had a choice I'd say the Quesnel Merc because the chop is perfect. It's my favorite of all the chopped Mercs.
Player 4: Darryl Hollenbeck. One of the new "heroes," this talented painter has laid the beautiful paint on some of the finest recent restorations of iconic rods and customs.
R&C: Were you impressed with the original build quality of these cars?
DH: Especially with the Merc; underneath it, all the original custom metal work was really nice. It was very impressive! The stripped Merc is indicative to all Sam's work. The fadeaways were formed from one piece of sheetmetal, and the way they were leaded into the doors made them very heavy. I would bow down every morning in respect when working on these two cars.
R&C: These two cars are very well known for their paint; did that make these jobs any different?
DH: Luckily, while Junior (Conway) was restoring the Ala Kart, he traced patterns of all the scallops before stripping the paint. Also, the colors on the Ala Kart changed before and after it was repainted when it burned during an engine fire in the '60s. To get the right colors, I talked it over extensively with Junior. To match the color on the Merc, we rubbed out the original dash that still wore the original green Sam had sprayed on it.
R&C: Do the new paints make it hard to replicate the finishes from the past?
DH: No. The main difference with the old lacquers was that they were too transparent. The new finishes are better because they are much more consistent and far more advanced.