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.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
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1931 Ford Model A Coupe
The Brookville frame, which replaces the 1931 version, is reinforced with boxed 'rails, a tubular center X-member, and square-tube rear crossmember. The 4-inch drop Chassis Engineering I-beam axle with Speedway spindles and disc brakes is suspended on a tranverse monoleaf spring and Speedway tubular shocks. A Vega box handles the steering chores. The front and rear radius rods are SO-CAL parts. Other rear chassis components include a Panhard bar built by Bill Kriwko and a '59 Ford 9-inch with 3.89:1 gears and rebuild stock drums riding on Aldan coilovers.
The '59 Pontiac 389 went to Gordy Cushman at Ultra Stamping and Assembly in Rockford, Illinois, where the block was magnafluxed, bored 0.030-over, balanced and blueprinted, and reassembled using stock internals. The Pontiac valve covers run Oldsmobile-style wire looms. Drew Didio at Suicide Axle built the custom air cleaners for the very rare Saaty Meteor 100 fuel injectors. They were cast with a 2-bolt base, so adapter plates were fabricated for use with the polished aluminum Offenhauser 3x2 intake manifold. The stock distributor houses a Pertronix ignition. Drew bent up a pair of headers, nickel-plated and feeding a custom exhaust system by Justin at Lovell's in DeKalb, Illinois, with glass packs providing the right resonance. Dave Lamb at Midtown Transmission in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, prepped a 700-R4, one of the few modern components in the car, and Bill Kriwko provided a custom driveshaft.
Wheels & Tires
The perfect rake is finished by the right rolling stock. Filling the rear fender radius are 8.20x15 Radir whitewall piecrust cheater slicks on 15x7 Wheel Vintiques chrome steelies. The front bias-plies are 5.60x15 Firestones on 15x5 rims. The custom hubcaps were made by mating '56 Olds dog dishes to '49 Ford rings.
Body & Paint
Brookville reproduction fenders take the place of the worn out originals. The rears were bobbed five inches; Drew welded eyebrow scallops on the front fender tips and fabbed a front splash apron. In between, the running boards are padded, Sixties style. Drew added '53 Buick ventiports with vintage Warshawsky Company louvered chrome inserts. The visor was filled and molded. Sheetmetal from the donor '59 Pontiac's hood was relocated to the unchopped top of the A, providing an entirely unique look. Dave Adkins donated the filled Deuce grille shell (decorated with a Pontiac arrow crest) and louvered Model A hood top.
The decklid (including inner gutters) was also replaced and custom taillight housings were frenched in and completed with narrowed '52 Comet taillight assemblies. Drew fashioned the Sixties-style Nerf bars, chromed by Sir Chrome-A-Lot in Skokie, Illinois.
Mike wanted the finish to match his '66 Riv's Midnight Blue Firemist, and says this stock PPG dark blue metallic, shot by Drew and Jerry Didio, is a close match. The contrasting white pearl on the firewall, scallops, axles, and underneath the fenders is from House of Kolor. The graphics are from Drew's brush. Blue glow lights were installed in the firewall recess and wheel wells.
Dave Martinez covered the interior (and trunk) in old-time tuck 'n' roll vinyl-a combination of metallic blue and white pearl. The light blue sparkle carpet is vintage GM material. The '59 Pontiac contributions are all over the insides, from the narrowed dash filled with stock gauges, to the steering wheel and modified column, and on down to the spoon throttle pedal. The Gennie shifter is topped with an old-fashioned glass doorknob. Dave hid the iPod stereo system underneath the seat, and installed the JVC amplifier and speakers. In the trunk-more of Dave's handiwork, plus a beautiful custom stainless steel gas tank, built by Kerry Hopperstad at Hopperstad Hot Rods in Belvidere, Illinois. The filler cap is a Jaguar piece.