I've built early hot rods and full-bodied customs, and each time I tackle one I think it's easier to do the other! A fenderless roadster, for example, goes together almost like a large model kit. There's an awful lot of fabrication involved though, unless you buy all the components, whereas a custom involves major bodywork, especially when a chop is involved. So I seem to have ended up alternating between rods and customs when I build a car. All this means that when I meet someone who builds one type of car over and over, I am full of admiration, especially when they turn out a new car every couple of years or so.
Paul Harper is one such guy, who keeps churning out very nice full-bodied cars. In the mid-'90s he built a '49 Cadillac convertible for his wife, Barbara, with a chopped folding top, and while he loves the car, which Barbara still owns, it started the gears turning in his mind to build a '50s Caddy hardtop custom. He just needed to find the right car in the right condition at the right price! It wasn't as if he didn't have other projects on the go, so Paul had plenty of time to search out the perfect candidate. It was five years later that an ad in the Seattle Times offered up a 1951 Cadillac hardtop, and less than 10 miles from home! According to Paul, "I called, looked, dickered, and bought it. Also included was a '52 parts car and a 500ci motor and Turbo 400 trans, all for $2,100, which was a super deal even in 2000." The '51 had rusty floors, no front seat, and needed a total restoration, but it was exactly what he'd been searching for.
The Cadillac had to wait its turn while Paul finished up a '51 Merc woodie and a '41 Ford convertible, but Paul was mentally making plans for its transformation, until 2006, when its slot in the garage became vacant.
Stripped to bare metal, it transpired it needed rocker panels, door bottoms, and had a number of dents. "Rocker panels are available, and the parts car had good doors," Paul says. "So it was time to cut the top. My plan was to cut 3 inches out of the crown in the roof above the rear window, thus leaving the stock glass in place, and also making it easier to reuse the original stainless trim." This required the roof be lengthened about 5 inches, so he used the front half of the roof from the parts car, meaning there'd only be one seam to weld across the center of the roof, in addition to the seam above the window.
The early '50s Cadillacs had a very high roof crown, and this is a great way to chop them without altering the backlight, or even sinking it into the rear deck, which often interferes with the trunk hinges. Of course new side glass and the windshield needed cutting, but it's that rear glass that is so often the stumbling block. Paul actually cut and installed the laminated windshield himself and was pleased that he got it right the first time!
Having made mental plans for over 10 years, Paul wasted no time in locking himself in the shop, marking out the cut lines, then cutting, bracing, fitting, and tacking it all back together. He figured he may as well work through until it was done, as he wouldn't sleep anyway! Starting early in the morning, by 10 p.m. he was able to stand back, check his work, and get some rest. The following day he rolled the Cad outside to get a better look. Pleased with the result, he finish-welded everything and then removed the body from the frame to replace the rockers, fix the floors, fill the firewall, and tackle the chassis and drivetrain work, unencumbered by the body being in place.