My favorite cars have always been traditional-style rods, in particular, the early "show coupe" style of the late Fifties/early Sixties-cars like the Catallo Deuce and the Tognotti and the Andy Kassa coupes, which managed to combine the best of features of hot rods and customs. After owning a few hot rods and customs, when the chance finally came to build one from the ground up, I wanted one that evoked that era.
In May of 2005, I located a candidate, a '31 Model A coupe. This barn find had sat idle for 40 years. It was pretty rough, but mostly complete, and came with a colorful history. It had once been an ice fishing car, which spurred some unusual homemade modifications: the exhaust pipe was rerouted through the cowl into a tractor-style stack (to prevent ice from melting) and the deck had been ripped out and replaced with a makeshift wooden stake bed to hold the catch. The rear wheels had "hillbilly lugnuts" (wheels welded to the studs) and the whole thing was covered with a generous coating of rust.
Despite the condition, I couldn't pass on it, although I knew that converting it into a show coupe would take more than my meager skills could provide. Fortunately, my buddy Drew Didio at Suicide Axle Hot Rods in Sycamore, Illinois, was up to the task. Drew has built quite a few traditional "patina" rods over the years, in addition to many with amazing fit and finish.
The two of us started planning this project by poring through stacks of magazines and little books from the '57-67 era: R&C, Car Craft, Rodding & Restyling, and others. Our biggest inspiration was the Alexander Brothers' Grasshopper Model A shop truck, but our final product incorporates bits and pieces of other full-fendered show rods from the era.
The first order of business was creating the right stance. After disassembling the coupe (with help from my 10-year-old son Chet), we discovered that the original frame was unusable, so we got a Brookville frame set up for rear coilovers. The plan was to get it as low as the fenders would allow, with an aggressive nose-down rake. Drew put together the chassis with help from Mike Clark and Bill Kriwko.
The drivetrain had to be reliable and streetable, but off the small-block Chevy path. I've been partial to Pontiacs since high school, when I was driving a '67 421 Super Duty, so we filleted the 389 out of a junkyard '59 Star Chief.
The fuel delivery system is one of the most unusual features of the car, consisting of three Saaty Meteor 100 fuel injectors. These rare parts were sold briefly in 1957 and '58, and, with the exception of an article in the May 1957 issue of Custom Rodder, I could find no published information about them. At $90 apiece, they were extremely expensive in 1957, and I suspect very few were ever sold, which is probably why Saaty closed the doors in 1958. Nobody I know has ever seen one used, but I thought the "wow" factor would be worth the challenge. Gordy Cushman, helped by Nick Taylor, managed to dial them in. They run surprisingly strong, with a neat whistle when you hit the throttle.
While Gordy worked on the engine, Drew dug into the bodywork, adding patch panels to the cowl, doors, and inner fender wells, and installing a new metal floor. The firewall was tunneled 5 inches for the big Poncho. The original fenders were rough, and were replaced with Brookville repros. We thought about running thinner, curvier '28-29 fenders like the A Brothers did with the Grasshopper, but the amount of worked required to adapt them was daunting. To lighten the look and enhance the rake, the rear fenders were bobbed.
The initial plan was to chop the top, but that changed after we mocked up the body on the frame with new fenders and splash aprons in place; even a modest chop seemed to hurt the proportions.
The '59 Pontiac that donated the engine provided some sheetmetal too, including the dash and roof insert. Drew cut out the center section of the Pontiac's "V" waterfall hood and grafted it to the roof as a literal "crowning touch," with accent beads running the length of the roof and decklid.
After an incredible amount of grinding, sanding, and finishing, the body was ready for paint. Drew shot the paint, assisted by his father, Jerry Didio, a veteran custom metalflake paint man. The driveshaft was painted as a white pearl and metalflake red barber pole-a weird little touch.
After assembly, the coupe went back to Gordy for wiring, then to Dave Martinez
in Indianapolis [Burbank now] for upholstery. Dave has a keen eye for Sixties-style stitching, and designed the entire interior and trunk with vintage white pearl and metallic vinyl, incorporating "V" accents to fit the Pontiac theme.
The coupe debuted at the 2007 Detroit Autorama (downstairs in the Autorama Extreme show), where it picked up a couple of honors, including awards from Chip Foose and Jimmy Shine. The biggest treat, however, was meeting Mike and Larry Alexander and getting to thank them in person for the inspiration they provided for this project.
Since that event, I have added a lot of problem-free miles to the car. Despite it being a "show car," I haven't displayed it at too many shows-it's just too much fun to drive.