The scope and sophistication of modern street rodding has evolved well beyond what even the most forward-thinking observers could have imagined just 20 years ago. It's pretty amazing when you think about it. Where once just a few builders could eek out full-time livings building frame-up hot rods, today there are dozens of automotive artisans shaping classic steel-and enough clients keep them busy. The best of these craftsmen can be compared to the coachbuilders of the 1920s and '30s. They craft hand-shaped automobiles for the most fortunate enthusiasts among us, much the same way high-end Duesenbergs or sleek Coachcraft roadsters were custom built in the prewar era. For these builders, street rodding is more than merely "fixing up" old cars-it's quite literally an art.
Alan Johnson is an artisan whose name is always listed among the top tier of modern car crafters. Though still relatively young, Alan has been quietly influencing the hobby for nearly two decades. His hot rods are often deceptively simple-with clean, uncomplicated appearances that belly their true complexity. And while most of Alan's creations are contemporary in their construction, they use enough classic elements and good taste to defy the term "high tech."
Alan's latest masterpiece is perhaps his most ambitious-and may be the most celebrated. Its debut at the 2009 Detroit Autorama earned Alan and car owner Doug Cooper the most prestigious honor in rodding-the Don Ridler Memorial Award. They then went on to nab the Goodguys Street Rod of the Year title. Dubbed the "Deucenberg," the car exemplifies the idea of an elegant, coachbuilt street rod.
To answer the question many ask first: No, this car did not start life as one of the 900-or-so '32 Ford B400 convertible sedans. "I like to tell the purists that we didn't cut up an original B400-but we did sacrifice a sedan," Doug says.
In reality, the Deucenberg is less a B400 clone than an amalgamation of Ford styling elements from the early '30s. The shortened roof line is obviously borrowed from the B400, though the lift-off, cloth-covered aluminum top is more streamlined than an original B400 folding soft top. And the hand-formed Victoria-like rear bustle is as much a defining element as the lid. "We actually used more Vicky proportions than B400," Alan says. This includes a slight arch across the top of the barely chopped windshield frame (which, incidentally, was whittled from a single chunk of aluminum).
The more you study, the more you discover. The lengthened doors are shaped similar to a three-window coupe and, like a coupe, are hinged at the rear. When combined with a '33-style cowl, stretched hood, and thinner grille shell, they make the car appear longer and leaner.
The list of additional body modifications could fill this magazine. It includes leaned-back A-pillars; forward-leaning B-pillars; one-piece front fenders, splash aprons and running boards (with flush-fit rubber inserts); bobbed and reshaped rear fenders; and stock-style hood louvers that gradually change angle so the front louver is parallel to the vertical grille shell and the rear louver matches the rear hood line's incline. The entire body was even widened slightly from the B-pillars forward. Why? Alan explains that the flow from the '33-style cowl to the sedan quarters was originally too "choppy." Widening the body gave it more shape and better flow. "I don't believe there's as much as two license plates' worth of original sheetmetal left in the body," Doug jokes.
It's not just the body. One-off custom elements are everywhere-from the shallower-than-original '34-style commercial headlight buckets to the more contoured handmade gas tank. Even the bumpers are scratch-built with custom hardware and brackets. The chassis has more of the same, with billet-carved radius rods and a billet front axle that's narrower than normal so the car can sit as low as possible. Even the Currie rear axle housing was modified to accept a trim piece to match the valve covers and air cleaner.
Doug says he prefers hot rods that "rumble the ground," and the Deucenberg delivers in sophisticated style with a Kinsler-fed LS6 Corvette mill tied to a 4L60E transmission. And just to quell any doubt this is a hot rod, the car sits on an aggressive, ready-to-pounce rake created by Michelin tires wrapped around classic 16x7 and 18x10 Dayton knock-off wires.
Finished in a deep cranberry Glasurit finish, the Deucenberg could almost be mistaken for a resto rod, if it were only based on an original-model car. That's the beauty of Alan's understated style and his obsession with making every individual element adhere to the overall design. "There's a shape and a theme that runs throughout," Doug says. "The modifications are subtle. If you aren't super familiar with the car, you'll know there's something different, but won't know exactly what it is."
Alan is a little more modest in his assessment. "We left everything there, essentially, that Henry had on the car," he says. "We just cleaned it up and made it flow better."
Like any good coachbuilder, Alan knows when to involve his client. The two worked out many of the car's design elements together, like when Alan sent Doug out to study books on watches to generate ideas for the custom-designed Classic Instruments gauges. Those gauges highlight an elegant interior featuring custom seats, graceful aluminum and wood accents, and rich leather upholstery artfully stitched by Paul Atkins.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the Deucenberg is that it was never intended to be quite this nice. Doug's original goal was to simply have a street rod that would carry more than one passenger to shows and rod runs. "None of us [Doug, Alan, or mutual friend Bob Johnson] are really big indoor show guys," Doug says. "We like to drive 'em." But things snowballed, as they often do. When plans fell through to debut the car in bare metal in Michelin's 2008 SEMA Show booth (which would have disqualified it for Ridler contention), Doug and Alan saw it as a sign to step up and vie for the Ridler.
Yet despite the awards and accolades, Doug is adamant that the Deucenberg won't forever be a pampered trailer queen. "I'm going to use the damn thing," he says. "I'm going to drive it and enjoy it. I don't collect art-I collect hot rods!"
Of course, when you collect Alan Johnson hot rods, it's really one and the same.