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.
It took another year to finish all the additional body mods, wire the car, install air conditioning, paint, upholster, and fit it all back together, but in July 2009 it was ready for its debut. Paul drove it 250 miles to Canada with no problems. The furthest it's been is a 2,200-mile roundtrip to the West Coast Kustoms Cruisin' Nationals this year-the first 14 hours from Washington in continuous rain! It seems all Paul's cars are drivers, and with another fine addition to his stable, we look forward to seeing what he lays his hands on next.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1951 Cadillac Hardtop
Though the body was removed from the frame during the build, it still sits on the original chassis. The stock independent front suspension is retained, though it now uses '55 Caddy coilsprings with 1 1/2 inches of the coils removed, and dropped spindles by Buffalo Enterprises in Arlington, WA. These combine to provide a 2 1/2-inch total drop. Monroe tube-style shocks are used, and there's now a '60s Cadillac Saginaw power steering box in place of the sloppy original. Jamco provided 4-inch dropped rear springs to get the rearend down, and even the original gas tank was reused, though the gas filler now lives in the trunk.
The '68 500ci Cadillac motor that came in the purchase deal was rebuilt stock and installed in the '51, with the addition of a 600-cfm Edelbrock Performer carburetor on a same-make inlet, Speedway Motors air cleaner and valve covers, and ACCEL ignition. The stock exhaust manifolds are connected to a system incorporating Cherry Bomb mufflers, while "Weird Harold" in Yakima, WA, made up a custom brass and copper radiator 6 inches wider than stock. Paul rebuilt a TH400 trans, using a Speedway cable to connect to the column shifter. The stock 3.35:1 ratio rearend is still providing sterling service, along with the original drum brakes.
Wheels & Tires
Diamondback wide whitewall radials, 225/75R15 all around, were fitted to the original 15-inch Cadillac rims, along with their hubcaps. Just switching from the bias-plies that were originally used lowers the car by a couple of inches!
Body & Paint
In addition to the top chop, Paul filled the hood, removed the parking lights, deep-sixed the grille extensions and body emblems, frenched the headlights, shaved the handles, and welded the rear fenders and splash aprons to the body. The '49 Cad taillights were frenched into the little tailfins and the license plate frenched into the rear panel. The bumpers now comprise a '50 front and '52 rear, both filled, smoothed, and re-chromed, with the exhausts exiting through the rear. Paul painted the Cad himself in PPG Cyber Green metallic.
The dash was smoothed, the Vintage Air controls now living top center above the speaker grille. The stock instrument cluster was retained, though Paul added Stewart-Warner oil and volt gauges, replacing the idiot lights. Jamie's Upholstery in Yakima stitched the off-white with 1 1/2-inch green tuck 'n' roll insert upholstery over the stock seats and interior panels, and Paul installed the EZ Wiring harness. The seat belts came from Juliano's.